Consumers now have more choices than ever when making a decision to buy paint, including many environmentally conscious paints and coatings. Driven by regulatory and market demand, the U.S. paint and coatings industry has responded by producing a broad range of offerings that deliver excellent quality while minimizing the environmental impact, for safe use by consumers.

Among the products considered to be more environmentally responsible paint, the term “Low-VOC” is often used.

But what’s a VOC, anyway?

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, are organic chemical compounds whose composition makes it possible for them to evaporate under normal indoor atmospheric conditions of temperature and pressure.” Broken down, “volatile” describes a liquid that evaporates at room temperature, and the word “organic” means it is a compound that contains carbon. Some VOCs react in the atmosphere with oxides of nitrogen in the presence of sunlight to form ozone, a precursor to smog.

It is important to realize that there are thousands of different VOCs found in the air — many emitted from natural sources including trees and vegetation, and some man-made sources such as motor vehicle exhaust, unburned gasoline, and solvents found in air fresheners, markers, furniture, carpets, printers, and paints.

In paints and coatings, VOCs are used as solvents or thinners that work with the resin — the part that binds together all the ingredients of the paint and sticks them onto the wall or surface — to achieve excellent performance and durability. These organic solvents facilitate the paint’s application, drying, and the formation of a regular paint film. If paints were just water and resins, they would streak down a wall when applied and create lapping.

Today’s consumer paints and coatings are formulated and manufactured with safety and the environment in mind, and they conform to strict regulations in order to make it to market. Regulatory environmental and occupational health constraints on the composition of paints and coatings have resulted in wholesale technology shifts, from typical “solvent-borne,” or “oil-based” paints to waterborne, coatings products. In fact, this is particularly notable in the architectural coatings market where some 83 percent of sales are for environmentally preferable water-based paint. At the same time, many of these alternate technologies still need to be formulated with some solvent or VOC content to ensure that they deliver quality and high performance. In addition, many regulatory agencies have acknowledged that certain VOCs do not contribute to ozone formation and the degradation of ambient air quality. Industry use of these “exempt solvents” has been allowed, but the nature and extent of use is being carefully monitored by regulatory agencies.

Environmentally friendly paints on the market are specifically important for use around sensitive populations — in nurseries and hospitals — and many are low-odor, too. Keep in mind that odor is not a barometer for safety — there are many chemicals that cannot be detected by smell, but are toxic, and some that have an odor that aren’t toxic.

All consumer paints on the market are safe to use, but as with anything, the best way to ensure a safe paint job is ALWAYS read the product label, which offers appropriate precautions and guidance on ways to protect yourself during use. Manufacturers are required to list certain ingredients and use warnings, so follow the label instructions, including the following:

  • Always ensure adequate ventilation of the painted space, both DURING and AFTER application—open windows and doors wherever possible.
  • Use appropriate personal protective equipment—this is particularly important if you are sanding or scraping a space before a paint job.
  • Buy only what you need to for your paint job to minimize waste and prevent unnecessary disposal.