Low VOC Paint and Other Safe Alternatives

Low VOC Paint and Other Safe Alternatives

We’re no strangers to the saying ‘nothing a fresh coat of paint won’t fix’, but it’s important to consider the health and environmental impacts. Low VOC paint and other safe alternatives are essential for schools, aged care and childcare centres, as well as for those with chemical sensitivities or allergies, young children and pregnant women. So, what are VOCs, and how is low VOC paint better for your health and the environment?

What are VOCs and are they harmful?

VOC stands for ‘Volatile Organic Compound’. VOCs are chemical solvents that evaporate at room temperature. They’re found in paint, as well as many household products and materials.

When paint containing VOCs is applied to a surface, the VOCs in the paint transform into gases. Not only do these gases harm the environment, but they also pollute the air inside your home. VOC emissions are most harmful as paint dries and ‘cures’ in the first few days following application. This is why ventilation is so important – it makes paint dry faster and reduces your exposure.

When you smell fresh new paint, you’re actually inhaling VOCs – chemicals that could include fungicides, formaldehyde, ethylene glycol and benzene. Paint that is high in VOCs can aggravate asthma and allergies and, in some people, cause dizziness, watery eyes, headaches, throat irritation and breathing difficulties. Long term exposure may contribute to kidney damage and cancer, not to mention depleting the ozone layer. Pretty nasty stuff!

However, zero or low VOC paints, combined with proper application, ventilation and paint disposal, can avoid or at least minimise these problems. Here’s a rundown of paint types and their VOC content to help you choose paints for your project with the lowest VOC rating possible.

Oil vs Water-based Paints

Oil-based paints (AKA solvent paint)  40 years ago, nearly all paints were oil-based which meant high levels of VOC emissions and toxic fumes. VOCs were added to prevent mildew, help make paint easier to spread and make it more durable. Some people still prefer oil-based paint for woodwork and furniture due to its hard-wearing, traditional and glossy finish. However, oil-based coatings contain 30-70% VOCs, compared to typical water-based coatings which contain around 6% VOCs. A big difference! On top of this, a high-VOC solvent (turps) is required for clean-up.

Water-based low VOC paints  Today, water-based paints make up the majority of paint sold. Water-based paints usually emit less odour, offer faster drying times and have non-yellowing properties. They also provide good coverage and a durable finish, unlike the earlier versions. The Australian Paint Approval Scheme (APAS) considers a ‘low environmental impact’ paint to be one that has a VOC level of 5g/litre in untinted wet paint. Dulux Wash&Wear is >16g/litre and Dulux Enivro2 >1g/litre, but beware not all water-based paints are this low in VOCs, so read the label carefully. Tint and gloss additives increase the amount of VOCs in paint, so using light-coloured, low sheen paint also helps keep VOCs to a minimum.

Zero-VOC Paints

Some Australian paint manufacturers offer zero-VOC options which are considered safer to use and generally don’t cause issues from off-gassing (the release of harmful chemicals). Manufacturers claim that zero-VOC paints perform as well as low VOC paints, but there are typically differences. You can only clean zero-VOC paint with mild soap and water, coverage may be thinner and subject to mould, and zero-VOC paints are also more expensive. Rockcote Eco Style, at .4g/litre paints, is almost VOC-free, adheres well and has good scrub resistance, making it a good choice for education, health care and government buildings. Ecolour is another reputable 100% VOC-free paint suitable for interior, exterior and timber finishes.

VOC free Paint

Ecolour VOC free paint was used in this Reno Rumble Grand Final house

Natural Paints

Zero-VOC paints are still petrochemicals, so if you’re really concerned about your health, you may prefer natural paints. As the name suggests, natural paints use natural ingredients, like linseed oil, earth pigments, beeswax and lime. Natural paint has a more velvety, softer look, and allows walls to breathe which helps prohibit the growth of mould in moist areas such as bathrooms and on rendered walls. Although it’s fairly durable, it’s not suitable for exteriors or scrubbing with chemical cleaners, and it takes longer to dry when applied.

Natural Paint

A stunning natural look achieved with BioPaint natural paint


Minimising the impact of VOC paint

At Signature Painters, we try to use the lowest VOC paint possible on every job to minimise the health risks and avoid the lingering smell. VOCs aren’t the only issue. The benefits of choosing a low VOC paint can be easily offset by the improper use of paint during application and disposal. We paint a lot of schools and childcare centres, so we’re very conscious of other ‘green painting’ principles, like ventilation, timing to avoid occupants’ exposure, proper clean-up and waste disposal. We also specialise in lead paint removal.

Have any questions about low VOC paint or other safe alternatives? Contact Signature Painters before you decide on a paint type to discuss your project now.

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