Paint products are the No. 2 contributor of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the air we breathe, next to the exhaust emissions from vehicles. But with tightening EPA standards, this may not be the case for long. Driven by the federal Clean Air Act revisions of 1996, paint manufacturers were faced with reducing the emissions released by their products. By the mid-1990s, the first eco-friendly paint hit the market.
According to the EPA, VOCs cause eye, nose, and throat irritation; headaches, loss of coordination, and nausea; and damage to the liver, kidney, and central nervous system. The VOCs in paint refer to the harmful emissions that are emitted into the air when it is in the drying process—and in some cases, long after. VOCs can be released from nearly all of the various components of traditional paint.
Though low-VOC paints are a major improvement to their predecessors, there is still the question of overall toxicity. For some very sensitive individuals, a low-VOC rating may not be enough. What they require is nontoxic paint; and if that is the case, there are brands like Mythic and Eco-Pure that are totally nontoxic.
The new generation of green paints all clean up with water. Though the development of low-VOC paint was initially spurred by tightened EPA regulations on VOC-emitting content, competition between manufacturers of eco-friendly paint has been a big factor in the rapid development of these products.
Since the trend of producing eco-friendly paint started in the 1990s, there has been continual and significant developments in the performance, quality, and health effects of eco-friendly paints—with some even outperforming their toxic predecessors.
What are Non-VOC Paints?
Non- or low-VOC paints refer to water-based paints that contain very little harmful emissions. Once these products hit the market and consumers found that they could apply them even while living in the house, the demand for them grew dramatically. Since they were first introduced to the market in the late 1990s, paint companies have been continually improving their formulas—to the point that now some low-VOC paints outperform their traditional predecessors.
When selecting paint for your home, the first considerations are color and sheen. Beyond that, there is durability, ease of application, price, and of course the health consequences of using it in your home, as well as the health of the planet.
What some find surprising is that the traditional latex paints used for house painting continued to emit VOCs and remained toxic for many years after they were applied. Though some low-VOC brands cost as much as $60 per gallon, they cover much better than traditional paint, emit no toxins into the air, and are just as rugged as their toxic counterparts.
Studies have associated traditional paints with a host of health problems, from respiratory problems to cancer—so if you take into account the money saved in medical expenses, as well as the long-term quality of life, eco-friendly paint makes perfect sense.
Selecting a Finish
Since it has already been proven that great paint can be produced with no VOC-emitting content, it is now more of a matter of finding a paint that fits your specific needs in overall performance and price.
There are four basic finishes available for house paint—flat, eggshell, semi-gloss, and high-gloss. Flat paint looks great, but is relatively soft and prone to fingerprints and smudges, so it is best used in places where it is less likely to get touched, such as the ceiling. Eggshell is a good all-purpose finish, and semi-gloss is great in the bathroom and anywhere moisture is present. Low-VOC brands have all of these finishes, just like traditional paints do.
Though the major brands like Benjamin Moore, Behr, Sherwin Williams, and the like dominate the market, there are many less-known brands producing “green” paint that perform just as well as the big guys—and often at a lower price. Some companies, such as Mythic, will ship their paint to you for free.
Most eco-friendly paints handle as well or better than their older cousins of the toxic variety. In most cases, even if you have never painted before, you can achieve good or even great results using most of the brands.
However, there are some brands of low-VOC paint that dry very fast, and this can lead to flash marks in the paint. One way to avoid this is to cut in as you go. Instead of cutting in around all your trim, inside corners, and against the ceiling, do so as you move along. This will leave behind a wall that has been cut in and coated all at one time, rather than waiting until the cut-in areas dry.
The goal with this method is to finish as you go and not to work too far ahead of yourself. It is generally referred to as ‘keeping a wet edge.’ This is an advanced-level painting technique that is best performed with two people painting simultaneously; one with a brush and the other with a roller.
Generally, it is best to paint with a partner if you have one available. One person can focus on keeping the person with the roller moving, without having to stop to take care of all the little things that crop up, such as moving something, adding some masking tape, refilling the roller tray, etc.
Paint with a flat sheen is the most sensitive when it comes to cleaning, so you will need to be very cautious when attempting to clean it. There are some brands that claim their flat finish to be so tough that you can clean it, which is a big improvement over the traditional toxic formulas.
Recoating low-VOC paint is no different that recoating traditional formula paint. There is no need to sand the old surface, unless it is rough and you want it to be smoother. Unless there is a lot of grease or wax present, just clean the surface with a damp cloth and recoat it with the same type of paint. If you are changing brands, color, or finish, you may need to reprime before you paint the finish coat. Some brands say you don’t need use a primer for their paints, which saves not only a lot of time but it saves paint as well.
Gordon Elliot has over 30 years of experience in working on homes and is on a mission to arm people with the skills and confidence to do home projects they would not have otherwise attempted.
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