Choose natural paints
Choosing natural paint costs more than conventional paint, but it contains only natural plant-, mineral- or even milk-based ingredients that will release fewer or no volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air when you paint, which contribute to ground-level ozone pollution and carry potential health risks.
Find it! Natural paint
Whether it's made with soy byproducts, milk, or clay, these natural wall color options are healthy for your home, your family, and the planet. Natural paints are generally more expensive than conventional paints and aren’t always widely available, but can be ordered online.
A pioneer in paint alternatives, American Clay now has a variety of wall plaster options. Some are smooth like paint, while others come in a range of textures and finishes, giving you loads of unique choices from which to choose in a surprising array of colors. They even carry mud glue and natural sealers.
AuroUSA boasts the highest environmental, toxicological, and technical performance among natural paint brands. The company claims to have created the highest quality paint while making the fewest ecological compromises.
Bioshield pledges to uphold the highest environmental and social standard of responsibility and accountability. They carry clay paints and plasters, solvent-free paint, color washes, kinder paints, and casein milk paints in a wide range of colors.
Green Planet Paints contain Mayan clay-based pigments developed over 1,000 years ago, as well as a soy-based resin and other natural ingredients. The paints contain no VOCs, rendering them especially safe for pregnant women, children and people with allergies or asthma.
LIVOS, a research development company based in Germany, has been committed to high environmental standards since its foundation. Products contain organically sourced materials and are never tested on animals.
Just add water! This nontoxic paint is made of completely natural ingredients and can be tossed in the garden without any threat of harm. Purchase their 1 pint package to try out the color before buying more (covers 35 square feet).
The Old-Fashioned Milk Paint Company produces a milk-based paint as close as possible to home-made paint created using skim milk or buttermilk, crushed limestone, and natural pigments.
Before you buy
Using natural paints can be more complicated than using conventional paints because their properties and consistencies may differ from mainstream paint. But the look, feel, and unique variations can produce an incredible effect!
Also note that though natural paints contain fewer VOCs than conventional options, they may still be made with ingredients that require some safety precautions. Some plant oils may be irritants, such as citrus and orange, and lime (the mineral not the citrus fruit), an ingredient in some of these paints, is caustic.
Choosing natural paint helps you go green because…
- Compared to conventional, synthetic paints, these paints contain only natural, raw, plant-, or mineral-based ingredients.
- These paints contain no petroleum-derived products.
- They have low- or no-VOCs, so fewer chemicals are released into the air that can hurt the environment as well as damage human and animal health.
In 2005, more than 850 million gallons of indoor and outdoor paint was sold for use on residential, commercial, institutional and industrial buildings. The main environmental issue with paint is that much of it contains volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These largely man-made chemicals found in many household products and in gasoline evaporate easily into the air. VOCs contribute significantly to ground-level ozone (smog) production and particular health problems. Ground-level ozone also harms ecosystems and vegetation, accounting for an estimated $500 million in reduced crop production each year in the United States.
Natural paints represent an alternative to conventional paints. Often, though not always, low- or zero-VOC, they are made from natural raw ingredients such as plant oils, natural latex, beeswax, plant dyes, milk protein, and natural minerals like clay and chalk. Natural wall finishes are probably the greenest paint choice in terms of being the safest for the environment and for human health.
Related health issues
People can be exposed to very high pollutant levels while they are using products with VOCs and high levels can remain in the air long after the activity has ceased. Studies of VOCs have found that levels of several chemicals average two to five times higher inside than outside. Levels may be 1,000 times background outdoor levels during, and for several hours after, paint stripping.
Health effects from VOCs vary greatly depending upon the amount of chemicals in the air, time exposed, a person’s susceptibility, and existing medical conditions. Immediate symptoms that people have experienced soon after exposure include eye, throat, or lung irritation, headaches, dizziness and vision problems. Some of these chemicals are known to cause cancer in animals and may be carcinogenic in humans. Young children, people with breathing problems and pregnant women should avoid paint vapors.
The ground-level ozone or smog that forms when VOCs react with nitrogen oxide (NOx) gases in the presence of sunlight and hot weather also create health effects. Breathing ozone can cause chest pain, throat irritation, coughing, and congestion as well as worsen asthma, bronchitis, and emphysema. Studies have also shown damage to lung tissue from ozone that may take several days after exposure for total recovery.
Additionally, lung tissue may be permanently scarred from repeated exposure. Children and adults who are active outside, people with unusual susceptibility to ozone as well as those with asthma or other respiratory diseases are at risk from ground-level ozone.
When considering air flow in a space to be painted, don’t count on your air conditioning or heating system to remove contaminants, as most systems only recirculate air. Bringing in fresh air and moving paint vapors out is particularly important for those who live in apartments or condominiums. Vapors can move across common walls, ceilings and floors, through electric outlets, and spaces around pipes. A few safety precautions, taken when using any kind of paint, will minimize exposure to VOCs:
- Plan your painting project for dry spells in the spring or fall when you can leave windows open while painting and for two to three days after as paint continues to off-gas.
- Take fresh air breaks often as you work.
- Use window-mounted box fans to vent vapors out the window or place a fan (set at moderate speed) in the doorway of the room being painted, blowing into the room.
- Never use exterior paints in inside spaces.
- Start painting near the window farthest from the fan with windows open and move toward the fan, finishing that area last.
- If you don’t have fans, make sure the area is cross ventilated to allow air to flow through.
- With oil-based paints, simple dust mask will not protect against solvent vapors; use a respirator labeled NIOSH/MSHA Approved for Organic Vapors.
- ground-level ozone: The main component of smog, ground-level ozone is formed when volatile organic compounds (VOCs) react chemically with nitrogen oxides (NOx) when it is sunny and hot outside. Many urban areas have high levels of this summertime pollutant but rural areas can have increased ozone levels too as wind can carry ground-level ozone hundreds of miles from where it originates.
- nitrogen oxide (NOx): A group of highly reactive colorless, odorless gases that form when fuel is burned at high temperatures. The most common man-made sources of NOx are motor vehicles, electric utilities, and other industrial, commercial and residential sources that burn fuels.
- volatile organic compounds (VOCs): Organic solvents that easily evaporate into the air. VOCs are emitted by thousands of products including paints, cleaning supplies, pesticides, building materials and furnishings and they may cause immediate and long-term health problems.
- Build It Green - Paint
- eartheasy - Non-Toxic Paints
- Greenexhibits.org - Non-Toxic Paints and Finishes
- The Green Guide - Product Report: Paint
- Green Home Guide - The Trouble with Latex: Why Common Paints Can Be Harmful, and What You Can Do About It<
- Montgomery County Maryland Department of Environmental Protection - Indoor Painting
- Rebuild America - Energy-Efficient Ventilation for Apartment Buildings
- Seattle.gov - Green Home Remodeling Guides: Painting
- Thurston County Public Health & Social Services Department - Healthy Indoor Painting
- US Environmental Protection Agency - Healthy Indoor Painting Practices
- National Paint & Coatings Association - Facts & Figures for Architectural Coatings
- US Environmental Protection Agency - Terminology Reference System for VOCs
- US Environmental Protection Agency - Indoor Air Quality: Organic Gases (Volatile Organic Compounds - VOCs)
- US Environmental Protection Agency - Ground-level Ozone: Basic Information