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Eco-friendly Paints and Stains
When renovating a room or a piece of furniture, choose less-toxic paints or stains and breathe clean indoor air while preserving the Earth.
Fresh, clean indoor air is the foremost priority for an ecologically sound home.
Of course, you might also want to enhance the aesthetic quality of your home or office by applying a fresh coat of cheerfully colored paint, or re-staining a battered piece of furniture to make it new again. Unfortunately, there are serious health hazards posed by this kind of project. A 2002 study by the National Cancer Institute found that men and women working in the painting trades had a “significantly increased” risk of cancer, a result that indicates that paints may be dangerous to your health, your family, and the environment. Since furniture stains contain many of the same chemicals in paint, you’ll fare no better with most stains.
Even if your furniture looks like it’s been through a tornado and the paint inside your home is covered with muddy handprints and errant smudges, it’s worth standing firm in your resolve to have clean air for your family. Attractive, simple-to-use nontoxic paints and stains are easier to find than ever before.
The Lowdown on Toxic Paints
The problem with most commonly available paints lies in their ingredient list, including:
VOCs: Many paints contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which refers to a class of chemicals that evaporate readily at room temperature. When these VOCs off-gas, a process that can last for weeks depending on the type of paint, they may cause a variety of health problems like nausea; dizziness; irritation of the eyes and respiratory tract; heart, lung, or kidney damage; and even cancer.
In addition to polluting our indoor air, they can make their way outside to contaminate outdoor air as well. More than two-thirds of the 176 million pounds of VOC emissions generated in California come from paints and coatings, according to the California Air Resources Board. Oil-based paints generally contain more VOCs than water-based paints, making up around 40 to 60 percent of the paint’s contents. VOCs are the main solvents in oil-based paints, meaning they are used to dissolve and disperse the other ingredients. Water-based paints use water as the main solvent, but they still often contain five to ten percent VOCs.
Fungicides and biocides: Paints also contain toxic fungicides to prevent mildew growth, and biocides, which are used as preservatives to extend the full shelf life. Toxic biocides can be detected in the air five years after the paint containing the chemicals is applied. Like VOCs, fungicides and biocides contaminate both indoor and outdoor air. If paint is not disposed of properly, they can also seep into groundwater.
Pigments: Some of the toxic chemicals in paints come from the substances used to color them. Instead of chemical pigments, look for paints made with all-natural pigments.
Paints: What to Look For
Ideally, you’ll want to use paints that meet all three better health requirements—low VOCs,
low biocides, and natural pigments. Keep in mind that many paints labeled “low-VOC” simply meet the Environmental Protection Agency’s minimum requirements—which call for no more than 250 grams per liter (gm/l) of VOCs in “low-VOC” latex paints and no more than 380 gm/l for “low-VOC” oil-based paints. There are paints available with even lower VOC levels (0-100 gm/l). To find the VOC level, check the paint can label, or call the company and ask for a material safety data sheet.
You’ll need to tailor your eco-requirements to whether you’re looking for an exterior or an interior paint as follows:
Exterior paints: All exterior paints have fungicides, and low-biocide paints are not available for exteriors. The best choice for an exterior paint is one that has zinc oxide as the fungicide. Next best choices are zero- to very low-VOC paints, acrylic or latex paints, and recycled water-based paint. Avoid oil-based paints because of their high VOC content, as well as paint from old cans that may contain mercury or lead.
Interior paints: Milk paint and natural paints are the first choice for commercially available interior paint. Natural paints are derived from substances such as citrus and balsam, as well as minerals. Although these paints are made with natural materials and are petroleum-free, they often contain terpenes, which are VOCs derived from plants. However, natural paints do not off-gas biocides and fungicides.
Milk paint, which is made with milk protein (called “casein”) and lime, was the interior paint of choice in Colonial America. Milk paint is excellent for interiors and also gives wood a rich, deep color, allowing the grain to show through.
Latex paint with very low biocide and VOC levels is another top-tier choice. Again, latex paint is safer for the environment than oil-based paint, but it needs to be used with great care due to the strong terpenes.
Acceptable paints, although they contain biocides, include latex, acrylic, and recycled latex paints, assuming they don’t contain mercury or lead. Avoid oil- and solvent-based paints.
No matter which kind of interior paint you use, it’s best to keep the room well-ventilated. Also, never use old paint that may contain lead. Lead-based paints are extremely toxic, especially to pets or children who may eat dry paint chips. If you suspect that your home contains lead-based paint, call a certified professional to inspect and, if needed, remove the paint.
Stains: What to Look For
Like paints, stains can also contain high levels of biocides, fungicides, and VOCs, which pose the same problems outlined in the paint sections above. Paint is preferable to stain due to the higher levels of pesticides in stain.
To avoid polluting your indoor air and outdoor environment, use water-based stains and sealants without biocides and added dryers, or those made with beeswax or carnauba wax. Acrylic urethanes manufactured without the addition of biocides are acceptable choices for those who aren’t chemically sensitive. So is shellac (the alcohol evaporates). Avoid epoxies and oil-based formulas with dryers.
Besides darkening wood, stains also protect wood from the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays. The more pigment, the more protection from UV light. Clear sealants without UV protection won’t last long when exposed to the sun. Clear stains are loaded with pesticides and wood preservatives. Darker stains and sealants tend to be less toxic.
The Best Brands to Try
To help you find the best paints and stains available, Real Green has developed the following list (be sure to check the National Green Pages™ as well):
American Formulating and Manufacturing (AFM) makes Safecoat paints, stains, cleaning products, and sealers without toxic chemicals. AFM products are pristine enough even for the chemically sensitive. They contain no formaldehyde, fungicide, or mildewcide, and meet strict VOC emissions standards. You must have the paints tinted at a local store.
Auro USA makes natural, low-VOC plant-based, interior and exterior paints and finishes that arefree from petrochemicals and solvents. You must tint your own paints using Auro natural pigments.
Earth Safe Finishes offers water-based, nontoxic wood finishes and sealers containing no VOCs and no heavy metals.
The Old-Fashioned Milk Paint Company is a family-run company in Groton, MA, that produces paints from milk protein. Available in 16 colors, Old-Fashioned Milk Paints contain no biocides, low VOCS, and natural pigments.
The Real Milk Paint Co. offers all-natural milk paints in 55 colors. No VOCs or petroleum products. Also offers Pure Tung Oil and Citrus Solvent for an all-natural finish on wood and porous surfaces.
Timber-Pro UV Wood & Masonry Finishes offers plant-oil-based, waterborne exterior wood finishes designed to stain, seal, and protect, all in one. The company also offers environmentally safe masonry and concrete sealers, as well as paver stains and sealers. Timber-Pro finishes are low in VOCs.
Weather-bos Stains & Finishes manufactures least-toxic, eco-friendly paints and finishes for interior and exterior surfaces. Made with natural ingredients, the finishes boast low VOCs and low biocides.
Making Paint, Disposing of Paint
You can also make your own paints and stains with natural ingredients and pigments. The most important reasons to make your own paints and stains are to avoid biocides, minimize your exposure to VOCs, and ensure the use of natural dyes and pigments. Author Annie Berthold-Bond offers paint and stain recipes, as well as recipes for natural pigments and dyes, in her book, Better Basics for the Home.
When it comes time to dispose of your unused paint, do so responsibly. Buy only the paint you need so you can use it all, and then recycle the steel cans. If you end up with a substantial amount of paint left, save it—store the can upside down to create a tight seal around the lid. Or, donate it to a local theater, neighbor, or community group. As a last resort, take it to a local hazardous waste collection program.
—Annie Berthold-Bond, with Tracy Fernandez Rysavy. Most of the information in this article comes from Better Basics for the Home (Three Rivers Press, 1999). Annie Berthold-Bond is editor of Care2.com's Heathly Living Channel.
Updated April 2015, originally featured in issue JULY/AUGUST 2003