Posted on: May 10, 2017 at 1:18 pm
Last updated: October 15, 2020 at 5:06 pm

We all know how toxic lead paint is—but do you ever stop to consider how toxic your regular paint is?


Although lead paint has been banned from use in homes in the United States since 1978, regular paint is still being used all over the world, right now. Compared to lead paint, of course, this paint seems safe to use. However, the opposite is often true.

The Problem with VOC Paint

Traditional paint that people use in nurseries, bedrooms, and throughout the entire interior of their house is filled with toxic chemicals. Many of these chemicals continue to emit fumes long after application.


Here’s what chemicals your paint is producing, how they affect your health, and what your options are for getting non-toxic color on your walls.

What Are Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)?

Let’s start off with VOCs. VOCs stands for volatile organic compounds. If you’re even vaguely familiar with painting, carpeting, dry cleaning, or gasoline, you probably know about VOCs.

VOCs are gasses produced from certain materials [1]. These are largely made up of chemicals that are toxic and have a wide arrange of health effects on the body. VOCs are used in everything from cleaning and cosmetic products to building materials and pesticides.

VOCs can be hugely damaging to human health as well as to the environment.


Health Effects of Exposure to VOCs

The short-term health effects of VOC exposure don’t look that intimidating. They include irritation of your eyes, nose, and throat. They might include headaches. At their worst, they could include nausea and vomiting.

However, the long-term effects of VOC exposure—of which low-level exposure occurs over a period of years—are much scarier and detrimental to your health. They include:

  • Cancer
  • Major organ damage such as to the liver and kidneys
  • Impairment of the central nervous system
  • Inflammation in the brain

These long-term effects are certainly intimidating and are a cause for concern [3]. The link to cancer, organ damage, and its effects on the brain are troubling.

For a more comprehensive list of specific VOCs and the health problems, they can cause, check out this list.

Toxic Ingredients in 3 Popular Paint Brands

So now that we know what VOCs are and what they can do to us, let’s turn our spotlight on the most popular paint brands and what toxic chemicals they contain.

In other words: we’re about to get seriously specific here. Buckle your seatbelts.

  • Behr Paint

I was shocked to look up a Safety Data Sheet (SDS) on Behr’s plain white paint to find all the precautions for the use they list there [4]. Among the many precautions, they include:

  • Wearing protective clothing including gloves, eye, and face protection
  • Don’t eat or drink when using this product
  • Remove contaminated clothing and wash before wearing again

Behr’s list of ingredients for this paint includes:

  • Titanium Dioxide. Recognized as a carcinogen in humans and should not be inhaled [5]. This constitutes the majority of this paint, up to 30% of its content.
  • Anhydrous Aluminum Silicate. Known to be a Category 1A Carcinogen, which means it has likely carcinogen potential for humans [6]. This constitutes up to 10% of the content.
  • Ethylene Glycol. Affects the central nervous system directly; you may have symptoms such as vomiting, drowsiness, coma, respiratory failure, convulsions, and renal damage [7]. This makes up to 5% of Behr’s paint.

Are you getting a little scared now? Don’t worry—there’s more!

  • Sherwin-Williams Paint

This list of ingredients is from Sherwin-Williams’ Duration Home Interior Latex paint, meant to be used both as a primer and a paint color [8].

  • Cristobalite. This is a known human carcinogen [9] that can also cause a lung disease called Silicosis which can cause death.
  • Ethylene Glycol and Titanium Dioxide. Which, we’ve already established, are toxic to humans.

Even the Sherwin-Williams Harmony Interior Acrylic Paint—which claims to have zero VOCs—still contains titanium dioxide as one of its main ingredients [10].

  • Benjamin Moore

Benjamin Moore’s Aura Grand Entrance paint actually contains 48 grams/liter of VOCs (which is low as we’ll soon see), but still, contains toxic ingredients like titanium dioxide [11].

If you’re going to choose a conventional paint, Benjamin Moore is one of the less toxic brands to use. But, I’m here to tell you why you should ditch all three of these brands in favor of eco-friendly colors you’ll soon adore.

Discerning the Label Claims

Low-odor paint does not mean low VOC. Even low VOC labels aren’t exactly what you want because they still contain VOCs: just less than 250 grams per liter [12].

You ideally want VOCs that are lower than 150 grams per liter. The following paint brands contain extremely low VOCs, some of them with negligible VOC content.

Don’t trust the term “Eco-Friendly” when it comes to labeling either. This term has no merit. Accept no substitute for the exact list of ingredients. If you can’t find it or you’re in doubt, contact the company with your questions.

5 Eco-Friendly No VOC Paint Brands to Consider

After you’ve seen the toxic ingredients in conventional paints, you begin to think that we haven’t come all that far from lead paint.

Fortunately, there are some brands of paint that are committed to using less VOCs, less toxic chemicals, and more environmentally-friendly, sustainable ingredients than ever before.

Here are five eco-friendly paint brands to consider when you’re painting your home!

  • Green Planet Paints

Green Planet Paints offer clay and plant-based paints that contain zero VOCs and their products are highly sustainable. They’re marketed as safe to use for pets and kids along with people who are sensitive to chemicals.

Their paints are actually rumored to improve air quality rather than diminish it. Their ingredients are extremely simple [13], although they still contain a form of titanium dioxide.

  • Bioshield Paint

Bioshield Paint produces zero VOC, healthier paint that, unfortunately, still contains titanium dioxide. The good news is that this brand also offers clay paints, which actually contain no titanium dioxide and blissfully simple ingredients to encourage a healthier home [14].

  • Anna Sova Home

Anna Sova creates paints that have up to 94% food ingredients, which is pretty insane! They even market their paints as smelling food-like, like a vanilla milkshake. Unfortunately, these paints are not vegan, as their ingredients contain lactose proteins [15].

  • Ecos Paints

Ecos Paints includes a variety of colors and brands. Although their ingredients include limestone and clay, titanium dioxide is still included in the ingredients.

  • YOLO Colorhouse

YOLO Colorhouse is a great option for people looking for paints that contain low VOCs. YOLO Colorhouse paints include simple ingredients and only include 3 grams of VOCs per liter [16]. Titanium dioxide is among the ingredients.

  • Earthborn

Based in the United Kingdom, Earthborn Paints contains minimalistic ingredients with some titanium dioxide. Not all of their paints are vegan either, as some contain milk proteins or beeswax.

What to Expect with Greener Paints

Paints that contain minimal, more sustainable ingredients don’t function quite the same way as that gallon of paint you bought at Lowe’s.

Your walls might take a little more time and skill to paint and may have more of a handcrafted appearance when done. This is especially true when you use clay-based paints.

You can also expect that these paints will be harder to find. Ordering online is probably your best option, as picking up these brands in the store isn’t likely depending on your location.

When you’re looking for paint, evaluate what’s important to you—do you want extremely natural ingredients such as clay paint? Do you want to avoid VOCs totally? Or is the color your primary concern because you want more options than anything else?

When you’re deciding on a paint brand, know that while bigger brands are containing less and less VOCs, they still contain carcinogenic ingredients.

However, any of the eco-friendly alternatives still contain toxic ingredients as well, such as titanium dioxide. Here’s what to do if you want to skip painting altogether!

Alternatives to Painting

If you don’t want to paint your house and completely avoid chemicals, you have the option of:

  1. Decorate your wall with pages from an old book. Recycling, anyone?
  2. Washi—Japanese masking tape that can easily decorate your walls in a variety of colors.
  3. Do a cork wall as a feature wall. This provides texture, style, and is eco-friendly.
  4. Construct a wall collage from photos and magazines.
  5. Do a fabric wall with a tapestry or a favorite fabric.
  6. Eco-friendly wallpaper provides an easy and tasteful alternative.
  7. Tile—do a mosaic or incorporate your favorite tones to complete the space.

It’s not all about paint when it comes to decorating—get creative and cultivate a space you really love that’s just as healthy as you are!

So avoiding toxic paint is a little trickier than you thought, huh? Don’t worry. You can navigate the world of less toxicity with a little help from this article. Are you concerned about your exposure to VOCs from other hazardous materials? Check out this extensive list of VOCs and how you can avoid them.

Jenn Ryan
Freelance Health & Wellness Writer
Jenn Ryan is a freelance writer and editor who's passionate about natural health, fitness, gluten-free, and animals. She loves running, reading, and playing with her four rescued rabbits.

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