Paint is made up of three components. The pigment represents the color; a binding agent ensures that the pigment sticks to the wall; and a solvent keeps it all liquid until exposed to air. The solvent evaporates on application, leaving the pigment behind on the wall. Solvents are the main source of VOCs in paint.
Most conventional paints contain high levels of VOCs, which emit a breathable gas when applied. VOCs are known to diminish air quality and may be a health hazard. Fumes can cause eye and throat irritation, as well as headaches, nausea and dizziness. Some people with asthma find that paint fumes can trigger attacks. Long-term exposure to VOCs has been linked to kidney disease, liver damage and cancer. Homeowners who paint once every couple of years may not be too concerned about VOCs, provided the rooms being painted have good ventilation. However, there are several alternatives if you are affected by paint fumes, if sensitive people live in your home or if you just don't relish breathing VOCs.
It's now easy to find low-VOC, low-odor paints from major manufacturers. Here's a guide to some terminology:
Be aware that because of EPA paint labeling regulations, some toxic ingredients found in conventional, low-VOC and no-VOC paint might not be listed on the paint container. A Materials Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) should be consulted for a complete list of all the paint ingredients. Manufacturers usually post these sheets on their websites. VOC levels are listed for the base paint only; some tints can add VOCs.
"When zero-V.O.C. paints started gaining in popularity about five years ago, their quality was still unreliable -- they often went on unevenly -- and the selection of colors was limited to pastels and a few chalky earth tones," writes Stephen Treffinger of The New York Times. "Since then, manufacturers claim to have made vast improvements. V.O.C.-free paints are now on par with regular paints in terms of quality, they say, and can be tinted almost any color."
Benjamin Moore Natura (*Est. $50 per gallon) can be tinted more than 3,000 colors and still remain VOC-free, according to Benjamin Moore. Like other Benjamin Moore paints, Natura is available at independent retailers and some Ace Hardware stores. It's the zero-VOC paint that expert testers and professional house painters recommend most highly. Natura comes in flat, eggshell and semi-gloss sheens -- none of which shows any major weaknesses in expert tests, except that the semigloss Natura tends to fade more than some other semigloss paints. Testers find Natura exceptionally stain- and mildew-resistant and durable when scrubbed.
In Treffinger's test of 10 low- or no-VOC paints, Natura easily covers red and black permanent marker writing on a primed board. Newspaper-stained fingerprints are easier to wipe off of a wall painted with Natura flat than with more expensive paints in the test, "although the fingerprints never completely disappeared." Treffinger says Natura also applied more smoothly than any other paint in the test, with a mild, fruity odor that -- as with all of the paints Treffinger tested -- disappeared in about an hour.
At PaintTalk.com, Benjamin Moore Natura is one of the no-VOC paints that professional painters recommend. One says Natura has "virtually no odor" (as Benjamin Moore advertises) but another disagrees. "I've used Natura on three jobs now and like it a lot but it's definitely not no odor," the reviewer says.
Other good performers in The New York Times' zero-VOC test include Mythic (*Est. $50 per gallon), Safecoat (*Est. $45 per gallon) and Yolo Colorhouse (*Est. $40 per gallon) paints. None of these gets many reviews on Internet forums, and only Mythic is also tested at ConsumerReports.org and Popular Mechanics. Testers find Mythic flat paint easy to apply and easy to clean, with a very mild smell -- The New York Times likens the odor to wet stone, and Popular Mechanics testers say they couldn't smell anything until they got within 6 inches of a freshly painted wall. However, it doesn't cover permanent marker stains as well as some of the other paints in The New York Times' test, and when Popular Mechanics attacks it with sandpaper, Mythic proves less durable than low-VOC Benjamin Moore Aura. In another test, Mythic paints show a tendency to fade; the satin finish also dries stickily, and the semigloss finish shows roller marks and loses its gloss when scrubbed. Mythic paint is available in flat, eggshell, semigloss and high-gloss sheens from independent retailers. The company says it comes in 1,232 colors and can be custom-mixed to match any tint without adding VOCs.
Sherwin-Williams Harmony (*Est. $35 per gallon) is Sherwin-Williams' zero-VOC paint. It does not perform as well in independent tests at Benjamin Moore Natura does. Harmony flat tends to fade, and Harmony eggshell doesn't hide other colors or withstand scrubbing as well as Natura. Professionals who post on PaintTalk.com and PainterForum.com mention Harmony as a good no-VOC choice, but posters don't give specifics about its performance. Adding tint to a Harmony base may add VOCs, according to Sherwin-Williams. You can buy Harmony at Sherwin-Williams stores in flat, eggshell and semigloss finishes.
The Freshaire Choice (*Est. $30 per gallon) is sold at the Home Depot and costs less than many other zero-VOC paints, but it also performs worse in some tests. Its parent company, ICI Paints, says The Freshaire Choice has zero VOCs even after tinting. As for odor, testers at Popular Mechanics couldn't smell a thing until they got within 2 inches of a wall freshly painted with The Freshaire Choice. Unfortunately, testers also had to roll over the same area four times to get full coverage, and they say the paint is sticky and makes the roller slide around. In Popular Mechanics' sandpaper test, a coat of The Freshaire Choice disappeared after only six strokes, versus 12 for Mythic and 20 for Benjamin Moore Aura. In another test, The Freshaire Choice has difficulty hiding the color beneath, as well as a tendency to fade. The semigloss sheen dries with roller marks, and the flat finish picks up stains easily in the same test. The Freshaire Choice also comes in eggshell finish, but only 66 colors -- a drawback in the eyes of some professional painters on PaintTalk.com and PainterForum.com. Lowe's zero-VOC paint, Olympic Premium (*Est. $20 per gallon), is not a top pick in reviews, either; it is discussed in our section on Budget Interior Paint.
If price is no object, reviews say you might consider Farrow & Ball Estate Emulsion (*Est. $80 per gallon), sold at Farrow-Ball.com. Several homeowners at GardenWeb.com swear by this imported British luxury paint. "The surface quality of the paint is amazing," one poster says. "The walls are like velvet … My painter also commented on how easy it went on -- he had not used it before." Others on the same forum praise Farrow & Ball's "beautiful, rich color" and "exquisite finish." It covers permanent marker stains better than the other paints in The New York Times' zero-VOC paint test, "but only incrementally." Times tester Stephen Treffinger appreciates Farrow & Ball's smooth, brush-stroke-free finish and "sophisticated colors." However, he says, "Dirty fingerprints didn't go away when I wiped them with the soft side of a scrubber sponge;" although the rough side took them away, Treffinger concludes that this paint "would be best for low-traffic areas." He says its mild odor smells "vaguely of wet cement."