Low VOC Paint

With low voc paint, you take the chemical sting out of a painting job - better for both yourself and the planet. There are different kinds of low-voc paint available, both in eco-webstores and in the normal paint store. Eco-consciousness is becoming more and more mainstream.

Woman working with low-voc paint

Low voc paints

There are different types of low VOC paint: acrylics, or organic paints made of natural materials like linseed oil, soy oil or milk components. They're very different kinds of materials, each suited for specific kinds of surfaces. Normal acrylics already contain less voc than alkyd- or oil-based paints, but regular acrylics are known to keep emitting small amounts of gas, even when they're dry.

When judging the sustainability of a paint, it's good to look not only at the level of VOC, but also to the renewability of the source material (the binder and pigments), and the extent to which these material was chemically moderated. And of course, the sustainability of the paint itself - how long it will stay good. All in all, an oil based paint (of the right brand) can be organic and sustainable.

Choosing a low voc paint

The choice for either an acrylic or natural low-voc paint depends on:

  • The surface you're going to paint. Scroll down for a list.
  • Organic or acrylics - how chemical or 'green' do you like it?
  • Color matching: not all natural paints can be matched in any color.
  • Breathing capacity: milk and lime paints breathe, linseed and soy too in some extent, and acrylics don't.
  • Durability: acrylics are known to be less lasting (even though hard work has been done to make the paint perform better on that). Oil-based is still the most durable paint.
  • Overall sustainability: natural ingredients (soy, linseed oil, milk) are renewable resources, acrylics are not.

If you're used to regular factory paints, you need a certain mindshift to learn to appreciate some of the organic paints. But if you like sustainable (both to the planet and to your furniture), natural low voc paints are better.

green, sustainable paint

Natural versus acrylic low VOC paint

Natural low voc paints may have some odor, but it's a pleasant one: essential oils smelling like tree resin, instead of chemical fumes. Acrylics look more fancy, and are usually available in all colors. Milk paint and brands like Auro paint have standard color charts, with beautiful natural colors - but no color matching. Dura-soy however can be ordered in any color of any brand.

Natural paints have more character. At first glance, you'd say they're less 'perfect' than acrylics. But they're also more lively. The colors often are more lively too, as they're not made with petroleum-based and chemical pigments.

Heat reflective paint

Heat reflective paint is also a low-voc acrylic paint. It contains ceramic microspheres that reflect the heat back in the room (or, back outside - just what you need). It can save you about 20% on your energy bills, and also adds comfort to the house (the temperature will show less peaks). The ceramic microspheres are also available as a powder, that can be added to any house paint.

Suitable low-voc paint for your job

    Suitable surfaces, per brand:
  • Milk paint is good for untreated wood, plaster and drywall. It's matte and can be toughened with a transparant oil-based laquer or acrylic binder.
  • Auro oil based paint either needs its own primer, shellac or a previous coat of oil based paint
  • Dura-soy can be put over oil-based paint, and on any other material except metal, acrylics.
  • Acrylic paints go over acrylics, latex, or eventually an oil based primer. Untreated wood or other absorbent materials (also latex) can do with an acrylic primer, if a glossy finish is desired.
  • woman smelling a low voc paint

Suitable paints, per surface

  • For painting over acrylic paint layers, use acrylics or dura-soy (or take them off).
  • Oil-based paint can be painted over with dura-soy, but only with good preparations. It's best when the oil paint is old (5 or more years), then chemical traces are mostly gone. Sand it well too. Also good options: auro or livos oil-based paint.
  • If the surface is really difficult (stained, smelly etc), use a shellac primer/sealer and go on with oil-based paint (dura-soy, auro or livos)
  • On plaster, use milk paint or auro silicate emulsion.
  • For untreated wood, use either an oil-primer, dura-soy or milk paint. Milk paint is matte, to make it shine, finish with a binder.
  • For new drywall, use milk paint or dura-soy

Shellac does emit VOC during the job, but for the rest it's a very natural and safe material, which doesn't emit VOC's in its dry state. For working with Dura-soy, check out their website: they have soy-based polyurethane sealers as well.

Low voc oil based paint

Oil based paints can be put over shellac, in case you need to seal very bad surfaces (smells, stains). Oil based paints always were the best and most durable paints. Traditional oil paints are made with linseed oil, and recently soy oil came into the picture. Soy is the crude material of which alkyd resins are made. Alkyds are also added to oil based paint to make them dry faster.

One very promising brand of oil-based no VOC paint is Dura-soy. It's an emulsion, based on soy oil: you thin and clean it with water! Still, it's an oil-based paint that creates a very well hiding, tough and durable paint film. It levels out, and comes in an egg-sheen. It can be color -matched: available in any color of any brand.

Dura-soy paint is fluffy and thick, and high on solid substances (64% of solid particles). Dura-soy-pro is a lighter variety - less high on solids (58%). Dura-soy one hides the best: when you paint one thick layer, it's a primer and finish in one (which saves time AND money). But if you paint over with the same color, you can take Dura-soy pro.

The pro's of Dura-soy:

  • No need to prime
  • Strong paint that makes a good paint film
  • Great hiding capacity (primes and hides in one layer)
  • Oil-based, but water-born (thinning and cleaning with water!)
  • It's available in any color of any brand
  • Go here and search for DuraSoy One - 1 and 5 gallons

The downside: it's only available in eggsheen. If you want a semi- or highgloss, you need to paint it over with a transparant laquer - here you'll find a non-toxic glossy sealer - search for Eco-Tuff-High-Traffic-Clear-Coat.

Other brands of oil-based low voc paints are Auro and Livos. These are organic oil paints - let's say: oldfashioned oil paints without chemical additions. They dry slower, and need a good preparation (primer). But they last longer than a film of acrylic paint. They come in a limited amount of colors, and Auro needs to be put on its own brand of primer.

A cost comparison for low VOC paints

If you compare a brand like Auro or Durasoy with normal acrylic latex paint, it seems more expensive. But Dura-soy hides in one layer, where regular acrylics need two or three layers (a primer, and two top coats). In that light, dura-soy is cheaper then regular acrylics. But of course, the hiding power depends on the color you paint over - if you paint over with the same color, you need less hiding power.

Another factor is the life-span of the paint layer. A good oil-based paint layer can stay good for eight or more years, while a regular acrylic doesn't last any longer than five years (unless its features recently and drastically improved).

Environmentally safe paint strippers

Chemical paint strippers usually are the worst of hazardous substances. But now, there's an eco-safe product for that as well. Check here for several kinds of soy-based paint stripper - it's also for heavy-duty stuff like removing graffiti.


Related pages: