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Healthier Paints

By HHI Staff

In most cases, paints have quite complex formulas made up of many different compounds. As you probably already know, there are many types and brands of paint currently available. Healthier paints are generally less bothersome, or they have potentially less harmful ingredients, or they are designed to be nearly odorless when dry.


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Whenever you paint, be sure to follow the recommended application directions on the label exactly. This is especially important for chemically sensitive people because, for example, if not enough drying time is allowed between coats, it may take longer for the paint to become tolerable.


Oil-Based Vs. Water-Based Paint


Before choosing any paint, you may want to know more about the two basic types: oil- and water-based. Actually, both types have pigments (natural or synthetically derived colorants), binders (compounds that hold or bind all the ingredients together), and vehicles (the liquid base). Of course, there are usually a number of other minor ingredients in paints as well.


In fact, depending on the particular type and brand of paint, it could also contain antifreeze, anti-skinning agents (to prevent a film from forming on the paint’s surface in an unopened can), anti-settling agents (to keep the ingredients in suspension), biocides (to prevent the paint from going bad in the can), catalysts (compounds that hasten chemical reactions without being altered themselves), curing agents, defoamers, dispersing agents (compounds that cause the ingredients to disperse uniformly throughout the paint), dryers, emulsifying agents (compounds that permit minute droplets of one liquid to remain suspended in another), extenders (compounds that increase volume or bulk), fillers (compounds that simply add solid particles), fire retardants, fungicides, preservatives, surfactants (compounds that reduce surface tension), thickeners, thixotropic agents (compounds that permit a gel to adhere to a vertical surface without running), and many other possible ingredients.


However, it’s the vehicle that’s primarily responsible for the difference between oil- and water-based paints. (Note: Oil-based paints were once made using natural oils such as linseed oil and soybean oil. However, today conventional oil paints are generally made with synthetic alkyd resins, but the term “oil-based” is still popularly used for them.) Because the oils (or alkyd resins) are very thick, they’re combined with solvents to thin them down. Not surprisingly then, it’s this oil/solvent vehicle in oil-based paints (or the water vehicle in water-based paints) that greatly determines a paint’s odor, its flammability, the cleanup requirements, its scrubbabilty—and the paint’s potential negative health effects. Because significantly more solvents are used in oil-based paints, they release more dangerous volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air than water-based paints.


It’s also interesting to know that the oil/solvent (or alkyd-resin/solvent) vehicles in oil-based paints don’t dry through evaporation. Instead, they cure through a chemical oxidation reaction process. Once oil paints have cured, they’re very durable. On the other hand, paints using water as their vehicle dry primarily through evaporation. Unfortunately, water-based paints are often less durable (sometimes, quite a bit less) than their oil-based counterparts. However, the shinier the sheen, generally the more washable a paint is.


Taking into account all the pluses and minuses, it shouldn’t be surprising that water-based products (paints, as well clear finishes, stains, etc.) are often recommended by most, though not all, health-conscious people, over counterparts containing high levels of solvents. That’s why you’ll find that many of the alternative paints, clear finishes, and stains are water-based. (Important note: Even alternative water-based products still require some time after they’ve been applied to become tolerable for most chemically-sensitive individuals.)

Latex Paint Considerations

For several decades now, the most common type of indoor house paint used in America has probably been water-based latex. Latex is a natural or synthetic rubber product used as a paint binder. Most brands of latex paint can provide good coverage, but as a rule, they aren’t as scrubbable as, say, oil-based paints. Overall, latex-binder paints have been popular for their low cost, their ease of application, and their easy cleanup.


Despite their pluses, it appears that latex paints may be becoming a thing of the past. This may be because certain paint formulators feel that other binders produce better paints—or are simply less costly. Another impetus may be the dramatic increase and concern over latex allergies. Whatever the reason or reasons, formulations using natural latex binders are being replaced, in many cases, with thermoplastic acrylic-resin binders.


So, in reality, “true latex” paints are not all that common. Despite this, the term “latex paint” in modern usage has generically come to mean any water-based paint—whether it contains latex or not. So, if you’re allergic to latex rubber, there are probably far more “latex-paint” options available than you may have first suspected.

National-Brand Alternative Lines

Although most national-brand, water-based interior paints contain far smaller quantities of harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCs) than oil-based paints, there are still some VOCs in their formulas. Typical water-based paints also have ingredients such as preservatives and other additives that may be bothersome for certain sensitive individuals. However, some major paint manufacturers have developed their own alternative paint lines that many sensitive people are finding to be quite acceptable. While these paints still usually have preservatives, they now have only a very tiny quantity of VOCs—or none at all.


Using a major paint company’s low- or zero-VOC paint line has many advantages. The most obvious one is convenience, for you can often find them locally. Therefore, you don’t have to place an order for your paint, pay to have it shipped, or wait for its arrival. And, if you run short, you can simply go to local retailer and get more of what you need. Another consideration is cost. Because these companies have much higher production runs, the cost of their products can often be less than for specially made paints. Finally, if you hire someone to do the painting for you, he or she will likely be familiar with the brand of paint, if not the particular line, you’ve chosen. As a rule, contractors prefer working with materials and products they’ve used before. That way, they know what to expect of the paint (coverage, ease of application, etc.) and can better estimate a completion time, and their costs.

Alternative Synthetic-Formula Paints

While the alternative lines from major paint companies may meet the needs of most people very satisfactorily, they aren’t for everyone. Fortunately, there are a number of smaller companies that have chosen to make and market interior paints to meet the expectations of an even more discerning public.


Some of these manufacturers have developed synthetic-formula paints that were originally created for the chemically sensitive. While each company has its own unique formulations, it must be said that these paints are somewhat similar to the paints mentioned in the National-Brand Alternative Lines section above. Importantly, however, what they have done is gone one step further by creating paints that are even lower in odor.


Yet, you should understand that each of these small paint manufacturers has its own definition of “very low odor.” Therefore, some paints have formulations that generate minimal odors during application and drying, such as certain low- or zero-VOC paints. But other paints don’t achieve their “very low odor” status until they’ve become thoroughly dried. So, try to understand exactly what “very low odor” means for the particular paint brand you’re thinking about buying. If you need to contact the manufacturer for more information, do so. (Note: Virtually all wall paints will have at least some odor when wet, even very-low-odor brands.)


It should also be mentioned that many alternative synthetic paints have low- or zero-biocide formulas as well. This is a real departure from national brands that simply add biocides to all their paints. Keep in mind that paints without (or with minimal quantities of) ingredients designed to kill mold, bacteria, etc. should not be stored for a very long period of time. That’s because they can go bad in the can. In addition, they should probably not be used in damp areas such as bathrooms.

Alternative Natural-Formula Paints

Interestingly, various forms of milk paint and casein (a milk-protein derivative) paint have been used for hundreds of years. That’s because they’re fairly durable. Today, powered casein paints have become popular as natural-ingredient wall paints.


There are many persons who consider powdered casein paints to be the best ecological choice. However, there are drawbacks to consider. First, because most are in a powdered form, they require the extra step of adding water and thorough mixing. Because they generally contain no biocides to inhibit mold growth, they can’t be stored as a liquid for very long, or used in damp areas. In addition, casein paint might be intolerable for someone with milk allergies because walls painted with casein paints can have a faint milky odor for some time.


(This article is from the archives of the original Healthy House Institute, and the information was believed accurate at the time of writing.)

(Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The Healthy House Institute, LLC.)



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HHI is committed to accuracy of content and correcting information that is incomplete or inaccurate. With our broad scope of coverage of healthful indoor environments, and desire to rapidly publish info to benefit the community, mistakes are inevitable. HHI has established an error correction policy to welcome corrections or enhancements to our information. Please help us improve the quality of our content by contacting with corrections or suggestions for improvement. Each contact will receive a respectful reply.

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Healthier Paints:  Created on June 2nd, 2008.  Last Modified on February 27th, 2011


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