Adding a splash of color to your décor can make a world of difference for the mood and ambiance of a room, but it can also be hazardous to your health. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, paints and stains are second to automobiles in the amount of volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions produced.

VOCs are chemicals that readily evaporate and contribute to the formation of air pollution when released into the atmosphere. The EPA has found that they have been known to cause respiratory, skin and eye irritation, as well as headaches, nausea, muscle weakness and more serious ailments and diseases. They have also found that indoor concentrations of VOCs are regularly up to ten times as high as outdoor concentrations, and can climb up to a thousand times as high as outdoor concentrations when you are applying paint. But the good news is that more and more paints with low- and no-VOCs are being introduced to the marketplace and perform just as well as their high-VOC counterparts for most household applications.

The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) offers a great guide for differentiating between different kinds of paint (latex, natural, oil-based) in terms of VOC levels. Low- and no-VOC latex paints are a great alternative to oil-based paints, which typically emit higher levels of VOCs thanks to the petroleum-bases and compounds (formaldehyde, toluene, xylene, benzene) that make up its binders. What’s more, because oilbased paints take longer to dry, higher concentrations of VOCs are emitted for longer periods of time. And keep in mind that while oil-based paints are cheaper than latex paints, they are more difficult to dispose of, and cannot be recycled like latex paint.

Indoor concentrations of VOCs are regularly up to ten times as high as outdoor concentrations, and can climb up to a thousand times as high as outdoor concentrations when you are applying paint.

Contrary to popular belief, higher quality latex paints can actually be just as durable as their oil-based counterparts. And surprisingly, latex paint does not contain latex, which is good for those with latex allergies. Latex paint can be cleaned with just water, eliminating the need harsh VOC-emitting solvents. It can also be “recycled” by combining leftovers; although, recycled paint may not always be made of low-VOC paint, so it is best suited to well-ventilated areas.

While latex paint may seem like the sure winner in choosing the best environmentally-safe paint, a third contender has come about recently. Natural paints made with natural oil or casein binders are mostly made of renewable materials such as citrus oil, lime, clay, linseed oil, casein, and chalk. But not all natural paints are equal when it comes to VOC emissions. Natural oil paints made from citrus oils can actually emit odors and compounds that can be difficult to tolerate. According to the USGBC, milk-based paints are the simplest, least toxic and least environmentally damaging paint. They contain no VOCs, lead, formaldehyde, oils or biocides.

So what are the drawbacks to natural paints? They are more expensive, costing 20 to 80 percent more than oil and latex paints. They also take much longer to dry, and may not be compatible with other paint surfaces resulting in more painting reparations.

In the past, low- and no-VOC paints were used primarily in hospitals, but Luckett & Farley has been using low- and no-VOC paints for more than 10 years. We now use them for most of our projects. Aside from the environmental benefits, we’ve found  that our clients like the paint because there is no downtime or interruption to their business because of fumes.

As you can see, the options are endless when it comes to choosing the right paint for your project. The main thing is to do your research to ensure that you’ve made the right paint choice. But no matter which kind of paint you choose, always remember to dispose of it properly (this may vary depending on where you live, so be sure to check with your city’s requirements) and recycle whenever possible.

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