Choosing non-toxic paints and finishes

Sift through the product hype and understand what you're buying when it comes to safer paints

By Shelagh McNally


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You may be getting more than a splash of colour when you paint. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), our indoor air is often more polluted than outdoor air and one of the culprits is common household paint.

Dangerous fumes
Due to their complex chemicals, conventional paints and finishes off-gas Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) for months after being applied. Since these chemicals are neurotoxins, inhaling them over long periods can be a health hazard, particularly for younger children.

VOCs have been known to cause eye, nose and throat irritations as well as nausea, dizziness and headaches. That light-headed feeling you get after painting is actually a reaction to low-level toxins.

Fortunately, new regulations from the federal government, first introduced in 2005 along with increased consumer awareness have created a demand for low-VOC paints and finishes.

“In the past, like many industries, the paint industry really wasn’t fully aware of the impact of all those solvents in the air and how they contribute to problem VOCs,” says Ed Linton, manager of environmental and safety compliance at Cloverdale Paint. “Now that we realize what those impacts are, we’re making changes.”

Cloverdale is just one of the many companies developing greener and cleaner paints. Its Horizon line of interior paints and primers currently has the lowest VOC on the market (less than one gram/litre).

Reducing pollution
Low VOC paints have a number of environmental benefits. The easy cleanup with soap and water means less contamination of groundwater and less waste heading for the landfill. Since there are so little fumes, you can occupy the painted room sooner. Their performance is equal to most other paints in terms of coverage and cleaning.

Finding the right paint
But with even more choices out there, finding a low-toxicity paint can get a bit confusing. Prices are the same as most mid-range conventional paint, but there are different types of low-VOC paints and finishes.

1. Natural paints
Natural paints and finishes are the safest since they use natural raw ingredients. Popular elements include milk casein and natural latex, along with minerals, such as clay, chalk and talcum. Natural oils and beeswax are often used for finishes. These paints have no VOCs and very few people are allergic to them.


  • Old Fashioned Milk Products, available in 20 shades
  • Real Milk Paint, available in 28 shades
  • TimberSoy, natural wood stain made from soy, available in 12 colours

2. Low—VOC paints
Since low-VOC paints use water as a carrier, they often have low levels of heavy metals and other chemicals. They still off-gas, but it doesn’t stay around as long. Be careful with this label since there are currently no real guidelines in place yet. Environment Canada’s standard is 250 grams per litre, but reputable dealers will only advertise their paint as low VOC when it has 50 g/L or less.


3. Zero-VOC paints
Zero-VOC is a trickier label. Technically there is no such thing as zero-VOC paints since all paints have chemicals, colourants, biocides and fungicides–which all off-gas. Like Low-VOC paints, the off-gassing is shorter and less toxic. A paint is considered zero-VOC if it’s under five grams/litre. Check the label carefully on these products.


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