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 endocrine disrupting chemicals. The good news is that alternate chemicals 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.
- 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 
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 and Evaluation of VOC Emissions (formerly called California 01350) which sets limits on some specific high concern chemical emissions.
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 and Evaluation of VOC Emissions (formerly called California 01350) which sets limits on some specific high concern chemical 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.
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.
- Dry-Erase paints can contain isocyanates, which are potent asthmagens, as well as harsh solvents, and PBT catalysts.
- Magnetic paint can contain harsh solvents.
 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.
 Nonylphenol ethoxylates and their degradation products, nonylphenols, are on the EU Candidate List of Substances of Very High Concern due to endocrine disrupting properties. https://echa.europa.eu/candidate-list-table. Nonylphenol ethoxylates and octylphenol ethoxylates and their degradation products, nonylphenols and octylphenols, are on the ChemSec SIN List for endocrine disruption (https://sinlist.chemsec.org/) and on The Endocrine Disruption Exchange for potential endocrine disruption (https://endocrinedisruption.org/interactive-tools/tedx-list-of-potential-endocrine-disruptors/search-the-tedx-list).
 Per GS-11 edition 3.2: Green Seal Inc. “GS-11 Green Seal Standard for Paints, Coatings, Stains and Sealers, Edition 3.2.” October 26, 2015. http://www.greenseal.org/Portals/0/Documents/Standards/GS-11/GS-11_Ed3-2_Paints_Coatings_Stains_and_Sealers.pdf.
Last updated: April 13, 2018