Paint is made up of three components. The pigment represents the color; a binding agent ensures 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 volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in paint.
VOC levels in interior paint are regulated by the federal government and are currently set at 250 grams per liter for flat paints and 380 grams per liter for other finishes. California's state-level limits are stricter: 100 grams per liter and 150 grams per liter, respectively. The experts' take on this is you should always use the lowest-VOC paint possible and the fewer VOCs there are, the better it is for you, the homeowner, and the environment in general.
Homeowners who paint once every couple of years, or are painting an area that isn't used very often, may not be too concerned about VOCs. However, if you're affected by paint fumes, if sensitive people live in your home or if you just want to avoid off-gassing in general, there are a lot of great choices in the "green" paint category.
Benjamin Moore Natura (Est. $50 per gallon) is the most recommended no-VOC paint by experts, professional painters and do-it-yourselfers. It 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. Natura comes in flat, eggshell and semi-gloss sheens -- none of which show any major weaknesses in expert tests, except that the semi-gloss Natura tends to fade more than some other semi-gloss paints. Testers find Natura exceptionally stain- and mildew-resistant and durable when scrubbed.
At PaintTalk.com, a lot of painters recommend Benjamin Moore Natura among no-VOC paints. However, reviews are mixed on how much odor it gives off. While most say it's practically odorless unless you're less than a foot away from it, there are a handful of users who use Natura regularly who say it's definitely not odor-free.
Mythic (Est. $50 per gallon) interior paint is another solid no-VOC paint. It's also nontoxic, and reviewers say it's one of the least odorous "green" paints available. Testers at PopularMechanics.com say they couldn't smell anything until they got within six inches of a freshly painted wall. It's a good performer in a New York Times' zero-VOC test performed by Stephen Treffinger. He says it has a very mild smell, likening it to wet stone, and is easy to apply. However, it doesn't cover permanent-marker stains as well as some of the other paints in Treffinger's test, and when Popular Mechanics attacks it with sandpaper, Mythic proves less durable than low-VOC Benjamin Moore Aura. Mythic paint is available in flat, eggshell, semi-gloss and high-gloss sheens from independent retailers. The company says the paint comes in 1,232 colors and can be customer-mixed to match any of these tints without adding VOCs.
Other contenders that fare well in the New York Times' test include Safecoat (Est. $45 per gallon) and Yolo Colorhouse (Est. $40 per gallon) interior paints. But neither of these have many reviews by experts or users posting on Internet forums.
Sherwin-Williams Harmony (Est. $51 per gallon) is that company's zero-VOC paint. It is suggested as a top choice for nursery paints by BabyGearLab.com, and professionals who post on PaintTalk.com mention Harmony as a good no-VOC choice. It comes in flat, eggshell and semi-gloss finishes.