Are high VOC Paints Better than No-VOC Paints?

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  • By Andrew Mackie
Are high VOC Paints Better than No-VOC Paints?

‘Are high VOC paints better than No VOC paints?’


I was asked this question the other day.


Strange question? Maybe…


So I pushed for more details. Apparently they had read somewhere that the old, regular high-VOC paints off-gas their toxins quickly, and get it over with, while a no-VOC paint will give off chemicals slowly, and for an extended time.


(like eating all the halloween candy the first night, versus rationing it out until next halloween)


They couldn’t remember where they had read it, and I have never read this article, so I can’t comment on it exactly, but I have a few thoughts.



1. The new adhesives use this theory. The alternative to the old, formaldehyde-filled glues are often isocyanate adhesives. These off-gas very quickly, as the glues dry in the factory. Quite toxic, but not by the time they get to your home. It’s not a perfect solution, because the chemicals have to be going somewhere. But the off-gassing lab tests look pretty good.


I haven’t seen this theory applied to paints and finishes. Different VOC’s evaporate out of different things at different speeds. And not all of them are harmful. Orange oil, for example, is high in VOC’s, but not really an issue for you unless you’re allergic to oranges.


2. Lab testing is great, but people are my best indicator of safety. Most specifically people with serious chemical sensitivities. If a paint or stain or adhesive is good enough for the most sensitive among us, it’s good enough for me.


I’ve sold paint to people who haven’t been able been able to paint in 50 years with anything, including some of the new low-VOC paints, without having a serious reaction (lungs bleeding, vomiting, hospital, etc…) If it is clean enough for them, I’m pretty confident in it.



3. Nature still knows best. Natural, traditional paints and finishes are where it’s at. This means Clay paints, Clay and Lime plasters, Milk Paints, Tung oil, pure Linseed oil, and so on. They work. They have worked for centuries. Their ingredient lists are simple. No surprises.


The nice thing about a truly natural paint is that the VOC discussion becomes moot. (unless you have specific allergies or sensitivities) We don’t need to worry what the lab says, or what the studies say, because we have centuries of real, empirical evidence.


So…Is a No-VOC paint better?


Yes. It is. But this doesn’t mean you don’t have to be careful. Always do your research. Ask hard questions. Read labels closely. Because VOC’s are only part of the picture when you are trying to create your healthy home.


And don’t be scared to go natural.