Paints by Type Hazard Spectrum
Here are some general rules of thumb to use when choosing an interior paint:
- Look for alkylphenol ethoxylate (APE) free paints. APEs are a particular chemical group of concern and are a high priority to avoid. These chemicals are commonly used as surfactants in paints. They contain and break down into persistent, bioaccumulative, toxicants and endocrine disruptors. The good news is that alternate chemicals of lower toxicity are available, and a transition is underway in the market. For more information, see the hazard spectrum below and our blog post on APEs.
- Predict the real-world VOC impact for your project. It is counter-intuitive, but some paint with more VOCs per gallon may actually result in fewer total VOCs for your project once you consider the number of coats of paint required and area covered per unit volume versus its VOC content. It’s possible that a paint with higher VOCs (by volume) is actually the healthier option for your project, if it requires fewer coats or covers a larger area per gallon than a lower VOC paint.
- Keep in mind that colorants can add VOCs and other hazardous content to paints. Look for and prefer paints with colorants that do not increase the VOC content of the base paint when tinted.
- Avoid paints marketed as “antimicrobial.” Latex paints contain preservatives that protect them from spoiling during storage. Preservatives can also help protect painted surfaces, once dry, from the growth of mold and mildew. However, these preservatives are standard in the paint industry and are not the same as the additives incorporated into paints that are marketed as “antimicrobial.” “Antimicrobial” paints can have pesticides added to them beyond what is needed for standard preservation, and their manufacturers may make claims that painted surfaces can kill bacteria or other germs that can make us sick. To date no evidence suggests that the use of such products results in healthier populations, and the incorporated antimicrobials can negatively impact human health.
The GreenSeal-11 standard (GS-11, edition 3.2) prohibits the use of specific substances, including:
- Preservatives that emit formaldehyde into the paint over time
- Heavy metals such as lead and mercury
- Any chemical or material which is considered a carcinogen, mutagen, reproductive toxicant, hazardous air pollutant, or ozone depleting substance
One group of chemicals prohibited by the standard is alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEs). Alkylphenol ethoxylates, including nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs) and octylphenol ethoxylates (OPEs), are chemicals of concern commonly used as surfactants. NPEs contain and break down into nonylphenols, which are persistent in the environment, bioaccumulate in the food chain, and are toxic. OPEs contain and break down into octylphenols. Both octylphenols and nonylphenols have been shown to have endocrine disrupting properties.
Green Seal’s online database lists products earning Green Seal-11 certification. Some manufacturers may formulate paints to meet this standard and choose not to pursue the certification. Contact the manufacturers of paints you’re considering for your project and ask whether any interior paints in their product lines meet the full criteria for this certification for 2010 or later versions.
While these chemical restrictions go a long way to help ensure healthier paints, the VOC requirements for GS-11 are not particularly stringent. That’s why for this top tier level of paints, we recommend additional VOC requirements: no more than 10 g/L of VOCs in the bases, and colorants that do not increase the VOC content of the base paint when tinted.
In addition, not all volatile chemicals that may be emitted from paints are included in VOC content testing. Some of these chemicals are captured by emissions testing, so this top tier paint also includes an emission testing requirement. Paints in this category meet the requirements of California Department of Public Health (CDPH) Standard Method for Testing VOC Emissions (formerly called California 01350) which sets limits on some specific high concern chemical emissions.
Alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEs) are commonly used surfactants in acrylic paints. The APE chemical group includes nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs) and octylphenol ethoxylates (OPEs). NPEs contain and break down into nonylphenols, which are persistent in the environment, bioaccumulate in the food chain, and are toxic. OPEs contain and break down into octylphenols. Both are also suspected endocrine disruptors, which tend to affect children the most, but can affect us all. They sometimes mimic hormones, causing issues to a growing fetus and proper childhood development. The good news is that alternate chemicals of lower toxicity are available, and a transition is underway in the market. For more information, read It’s Not Just About VOCs: Select APE-free Paint, Too.
Paints in this light green category are free of APEs. They also have low VOC content and emissions. Low VOC paints per South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) Rule 1113 (Feb. 2016) contain ≤ 50 g/L in bases of all sheens and use colorants that also contain ≤ 50 g/L. Keep in mind that the SCAQMD Rule allows up to 100 g/L VOCs in primers, so just like multiple coats of paint can increase the overall project’s VOCs, the use of a higher VOC primer can as well.
In addition, some volatile chemicals that may be emitted from paints are not captured in VOC content testing. Some of these chemicals are captured by emissions testing, so paints in this tier also meet an emission testing requirement - California Department of Public Health (CDPH) Standard Method for Testing VOC Emissions (formerly called California 01350) which sets limits on some specific high concern chemical emissions.
While “Low” VOC paints contain fewer substances that can cause smog, there is not a perfect overlap between low VOCs and a preferred paint from a health perspective. As the Green Seal-11 certification shows, much more can be done to limit content that could be harmful to the environment or to building residents.
Low VOC paints per South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) Rule 1113 (Feb. 2016) contain ≤ 50 g/L in bases of all sheens and use colorants that also contain ≤ 50 g/L. Keep in mind that the SCAQMD Rule allows up to 100 g/L VOCs in primers, so just like multiple coats of paint can increase the overall project’s VOCs, the use of a higher VOC primer can as well.
A standard paint, formulated without concern for VOCs or hazardous substances can contain many chemicals and materials which impact environmental and human health. The substances used as resins, dispersants, preservatives, additives to prevent foaming (defoamers), and additives to promote mixing (surfactants) carry hazards such as carcinogenicity, reproductive toxicity, and toxicity to the development of a fetus in the womb. Some also persist in the environment and build up in body tissues.
Colorants added to the paint can add to its hazardous and VOC content.
Whenever possible, prefer a paint that is at least low VOC (per SCAQMD Rule 1113 from 2016), if a GreenSeal-11 certification is not possible.
Recycled paints are made by blending acrylic latex paints recovered though household hazardous waste collection programs with virgin ingredients and other materials. VOC content can be high, and testing for heavy metals such as lead (which have multiple hazards) does not appear to be a standard practice.
Green Seal-43 is a standard for recycled latex paint. It restricts VOC content to levels about twice as high as those permitted under its Green Seal-11 standard. While the standard prohibits certain additives, it does not address all hazardous substances that may be present in paints being recycled.
These paints usually are less expensive than non-recycled paints, but are more appropriate for exterior projects like covering up graffiti than interior applications.
While not intended to coat large surfaces in a residence or commercial space, there are a growing number of specialty paint products on the market for use in places like community and other common area rooms. While some of these paints are advertised as “low” VOC, these specialty paints can introduce other hazards not typically associated with standard paints.
Magnetic paint can contain harsh solvents.
If there are areas in your project requiring a specialty effect on the walls, consider a solution that does not involve paint. For example, hanging a sheet of stainless steel on a wall will provide a magnetic surface that can be painted over in any color. And if you want residents to write on a wall, we recommend installing an actual slate chalkboard.
Antimicrobials are a kind of pesticide, and therefore by definition are toxic. The federal regulation governing the use of antimicrobial products such as paint are complicated and confusing for those who are looking to buy healthy products. A good rule of thumb is to avoid products marketed as antimicrobial whenever possible.
There is currently no evidence that the use of antimicrobial building products results in any health benefit to those living alongside them. Such products can be more expensive than their conventional counterparts, and can introduce pesticides to a building’s interior with no apparent benefit.
For more information, see New Report on Antimicrobial Building Products: Avoid Whenever Possible.
 Unless otherwise noted, product content and health hazard information is based on research done by Healthy Building Network for Common Product profiles, reports, and blogs. Links to the appropriate resources are provided and these resources contain the original source information.
Last updated: December 04, 2018