Interior Paint Product Guidance

Use the red-to-green product guidance below to select safer product types by avoiding those in red and preferring yellow and green, which are safer for occupants, fenceline communities, and workers.

When choosing an interior paint:

  • Prefer mineral-based paints like lime or mineral silicate.
  • For acrylic, latex, or alkyd paints:
    • Look for alkylphenol ethoxylate (APE)- and PFAS-free base paints and colorants.
    • Prefer water-based paints with both low VOC content and low VOC emissions, and colorants that do not increase the VOC content of the base paint when tinted.
  • Avoid paints making antimicrobial-related health claims, such as protection from specific disease-causing organisms like bacteria or viruses. These paints are often registered as pesticides with the EPA.
  • Use caution when specifying specialty paints such as chalkboard, whiteboard, and magnetic paint, which may introduce additional hazards not covered here.

Interior paints are most often classified by binder type, which informs their function and performance. Types covered in this guidance include lime, mineral silicate, acrylic/latex, and alkyd. While not all paint types are suitable for all applications, moving away from red-ranked products is a step forward in reducing the health impacts of paints. 

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are the most well-known health hazard issue related to paint. In addition, many other substances can be hazardous to the health of painters, building occupants, and the environment. 

For example, polymers used in standard paints are plastics, derived from oil or natural gas. Oil and gas extraction and processing release hazardous pollution that can have significant impacts on the health of people in surrounding communities, and these polluting facilities are disproportionately sited in BIPOC and low-wealth communities contributing to environmental injustice.[1] Furthermore, the plastic in paint generates significant microplastic pollution. A recent report estimated that paints are the single largest source of microplastic leakage into oceans and waterways.[2] As a result, paints with mineral-based binders, such as lime and mineral silicate, are preferred to paints with polymer-based binders, such as acrylic or latex. Not only are the contents of mineral paint less hazardous for building occupants, but they also have less hazardous chemical impacts throughout their life.

Additional chemicals of concern in paints include alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEs) and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Encourage manufacturers to fully disclose the content of paint bases and colorants, including any APEs and PFAS through the industry’s collaborative, user-designed open standard, Health Product Declarations (HPD). Use this template to ask for this public disclosure. 

Here is some additional guidance to help you choose an interior paint:

  • Prefer mineral-based paints like lime or mineral silicate. Mineral paints have less hazardous content than standard paints and typically use much less and sometimes entirely avoid plastic, reducing hazardous chemical impacts in their production.
  • For acrylic, latex, or alkyd paints:
    • Look for alkylphenol ethoxylate (APE)- and PFAS-free base paints and colorants.[3]
      • APEs are a chemical group of concern and a high priority to avoid. These chemicals are commonly used as surfactants in paints. They contain and break down into endocrine-disrupting chemicals.[4] The good news is that alternate chemicals are available, and a transition is underway in the market. For more information, see the red-to-green ranking below.
      • New research indicates paints can contain per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), also known as forever chemicals.[5] It is still unclear what function(s) these chemicals may play, though PFAS-based surfactants are marketed for paints.[6] PFAS may be included below the reporting threshold and may not appear on disclosure documents such as HPDs and Declare labels. Confirm with manufacturers that paints and colorants do not contain per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). If you are a large purchaser or supplier, use your purchasing power to request PFAS-free paints from manufacturers to help shift the market towards chemicals that have been assessed and shown to be less hazardous.
    • Prefer water-based paints with both low VOC content and low VOC emissions, and colorants that do not increase the VOC content of the base paint when tinted.
      • VOC content labeling is often related to chemicals contributing to smog formation. While reducing VOCs that contribute to environmental degradation may result in health co-benefits, such labeling may also exempt chemicals that are hazardous to human health that do not contribute to smog formation.[7] Most standard acrylic and latex paints are now considered “low VOC” with less than 50 grams VOCs per liter (g/L). Improve your selection by choosing paints with very low (<10 g/L) or zero VOCs (<5 g/L).
      • Low VOC emissions testing and certifications complement low VOC content by ensuring low levels of releases of certain health-hazardous chemicals. Certified products have been tested to meet the requirements of the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) Standard Method for Testing and Evaluation of VOC Emissions. Low VOC content and emission certification information may be found on product labels and/or in product literature, such as Technical Data Sheets available from manufacturers.[8] Additionally, various indoor air quality certifications exist that require emissions testing, such as Greenguard. See our article on VOCs for more information and a list of indoor air quality certifications.
      • 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 making antimicrobial-related health claims, such as protection from specific disease-causing organisms like bacteria or viruses. These paints are often registered as pesticides with the EPA. All water-based paints contain preservatives that protect the product from spoiling in the can and many contain preservatives that protect the dry film from mold and mildew. These are currently unavoidable uses of antimicrobial additives. Paints that contain additional pesticides and may be advertised as “microbicidal”, “anti-viral”, “anti-bacterial”, or similar should be avoided. Such paints are required to be registered with the EPA. To date, no evidence suggests that the use of such products results in healthier populations, and the incorporated antimicrobials can negatively impact human health.[9]
  • Use caution when specifying specialty paints such as chalkboard, whiteboard, and magnetic paint, which may introduce additional hazards not covered here. Certain specialty paints, such as chalkboard and magnetic paint, may be available with no significant additional hazard beyond the base paint from which they are made.[10] As with all paints, prefer low VOC, water-based products that are APE- and PFAS-free. Other specialty paints should be avoided. For example, whiteboard or dry-erase paint is typically made from epoxy or two-part polyurethane, both of which introduce hazardous chemicals.[11] Recycled paints may contain large amounts of VOCs and it is difficult or impossible to know the content of the recycled material which could introduce hazards.[12] If your project requires 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. If you want residents to write on a wall, we recommend installing a slate chalkboard.

Lime paint is an ancient technology composed of lime, water, and pigments. Paints cure by absorbing carbon dioxide from the air to transform back to limestone. These paints are non-film-forming, breathable, and naturally mold- and mildew-resistant due inherent properties of lime. They are also typically zero VOC products. Primers may be required depending on the substrate. While many modern products exist that use this basic formulation, some products may contain small amounts of synthetic binders or additives. Lime paints may be sealed using wax, soap, or acrylic/latex-based sealers. 

Within this type prefer: Products with zero synthetic polymer binders. Keep products unsealed or prefer bio-based sealers such as wax and/or soap.

Within this type watch out for: Products that advertise use of acrylics or polymers in product literature and accessory products that may introduce additional hazards such as acrylic/latex-based sealers and primers.

Mineral silicate paints use potassium silicate as the mineral binding agent, though it is common that these paints may also contain a small amount of synthetic polymer binder. Polymer binders are usually present at less than 5% though some contain much higher amounts. As with lime paints, some products exist that contain no polymer binder and would be a preferred option. Mineral silicate paints are naturally mold- and mildew-resistant due inherent properties of potassium silicate with VOC content commonly near zero. 

Within this type watch out for: Products with high synthetic polymer content and accessory products that introduce additional hazards such as non-mineral-based primers and sealers. Check for Health Product Declarations or Declare Labels that disclose the amount of synthetic polymer or check with manufacturers.[13]

“Acrylic” is a broad term that describes several polymers, and acrylic paint formulations vary from 100% acrylic, to a mixture of acrylic, vinyl acrylic, and styrene polymers. Non-acrylic latex paints can use other polymeric binders such as those based on vinyl acetate. Note this is different from polyvinyl chloride (PVC).[14] As noted above, these polymers are plastics and have significant hazardous chemical impacts in their life cycle.

Historically, alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEs) have been used as surfactants in acrylic paints. The APE chemical group includes nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs) and octylphenol ethoxylates (OPEs). NPEs and OPEs break down into nonylphenols and octylphenols. Together, NPEs, OPEs, and their breakdown products have all been shown to have endocrine disrupting properties.[2] There has been a broad market shift away from these surfactants in recent years and many acrylic/latex paints are now available that are APE-free.

New research indicates paints can contain per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), also known as forever chemicals.[3] Chemicals in this class are persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic (PBT). It is still unclear what function(s) these chemicals may play in paints, though PFAS-based surfactants are marketed for paints as APE-Free, low-VOC alternatives.[4] PFAS may be included below the reporting threshold so may not show up on disclosure documents such as HPDs and Declare labels. There are few paint products marketed as PFAS-free, and most require confirmation from the manufacturer that paints do not contain PFAS.

Acrylic/latex paints in this color ranking are free of APEs and PFAS.

Waterborne alkyd paints use alkyd binders in a water carrier, as opposed to traditional solvent-based carriers. The waterborne formulation provides similar desirable properties of traditional solventborne alkyd coatings such as durability, hardness, and quick dry time, with considerably less VOC content (often <50 g/L). Though still low VOC, products tend to have slightly higher VOC content than acrylic/latex paints and may also include additional hazardous inputs.

As with acrylic/latex paints, waterborne alkyds are water-based and require surfactants which could be APE- or PFAS-based surfactants. These chemicals are endocrine disruptors and PBTs, respectively. Waterborne alkyd paints in this color ranking are APE- and PFAS-free.

“Acrylic” is a broad term that describes several polymers, and acrylic paint formulations vary from 100% acrylic, to a mixture of acrylic, vinyl acrylic, and styrene polymers. 

Historically, alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEs) have been used as surfactants in acrylic paints. The APE chemical group includes nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs) and octylphenol ethoxylates (OPEs). NPEs and OPEs break down into nonylphenols and octylphenols. Together, NPEs, OPEs, and their breakdown products have all been shown to have endocrine disrupting properties.[2] There has been a broad market shift away from these surfactants in recent years and many acrylic/latex paints are now available that are APE-free.

New research indicates paints can contain per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), also known as forever chemicals.[3] Chemicals in this class are persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic (PBT). It is still unclear what function(s) these chemicals may play, though PFAS-based surfactants are marketed for paints.[4] PFAS may be included below the reporting threshold so may not show up on disclosure documents such as HPDs and Declare labels. There are a few paint products marketed as PFAS-free, though most will require confirmation from the manufacturer that paints do not contain PFAS.

Acrylic/latex paints in this color ranking contain APEs and/or PFAS, or the presence of APEs or PFAS is unknown.

Waterborne alkyd paints use alkyd binders in a water carrier, as opposed to traditional solvent-based carriers. The waterborne formulation provides similar desirable properties of traditional solventborne alkyd coatings such as durability, hardness, and quick dry time, with considerably less VOC content (often <50 g/L). Though still low VOC, products tend to have slightly higher VOC content than acrylic/latex paints and may also require additional hazardous inputs.

As with acrylic/latex paints, waterborne alkyds are water-based and require surfactants which could  be APE- or PFAS-based surfactants. These chemicals are endocrine disruptors and PBTs, respectively. Waterborne alkyd paints in this category contain APEs and/or PFAS, or the presence of APEs or PFAS is unknown.

Solventborne alkyd paints rely on an alkyd binder, which imparts hardness and durability. Polymers may also be modified with, for example, urethanes, styrene, and acrylates to impart additional properties. Solventborne alkyd paints are used on a variety of interior and exterior surfaces such as woodwork, drywall, masonry, and some metals. As the name implies, the binder is dispersed in a solvent carrier and cures as the solvent evaporates. Hydrocarbon solvents are common and can be carcinogenic and mutagenic and contribute to high VOC content. Solventborne alkyds also require clean-up using solvent-based products, further exposing those working with paints to hazardous solvents.

Supporting Information

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.

Common Product Records Sourced

Endnotes

[1] “Environmental Impacts of Natural Gas,” Union of Concerned Scientists, June 19, 2014, https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/environmental-impacts-natural-gas.; Tim Donaghy and Charlie Jiang, “Fossil Fuel Racism: How Phasing Out Oil, Gas, and Coal Can Protect Communities,” April 13, 2021, https://www.greenpeace.org/usa/reports/fossil-fuel-racism/.; Garcia-Gonzales, Diane A., Seth B.C. Shonkoff, Jake Hays, and Michael Jerrett. “Hazardous Air Pollutants Associated with Upstream Oil and Natural Gas Development: A Critical Synthesis of Current Peer-Reviewed Literature.” Annual Review of Public Health 40, no. 1 (2019): 283–304. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-publhealth-040218-043715.; Gonzalez, David J. X., Anthony Nardone, Andrew V. Nguyen, Rachel Morello-Frosch, and Joan A. Casey. “Historic Redlining and the Siting of Oil and Gas Wells in the United States.” Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology, April 13, 2022, 1–8. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41370-022-00434-9.; Berberian, Alique G., Jenny Rempel, Nicholas Depsky, Komal Bangia, Sophia Wang, and Lara J. Cushing. “Race, Racism, and Drinking Water Contamination Risk From Oil and Gas Wells in Los Angeles County, 2020.” American Journal of Public Health 113, no. 11 (November 2023): 1191–1200. https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2023.307374.

[2] earth action. “Plastic Paints the Environment,” December 2021. https://www.e-a.earth/plastic-paints-the-environment/.

[3] Paints with Green Seal-11 (GS-11) certification are free of APEs. As of 2023, Green Seal is in the process of updating the GS-11 standard to restrict PFAS. GS-11 certification also ensures low VOC content and emissions. See site for details: https://greenseal.org/standards/gs-11-paints-coatings-stains-and-sealers/.

[4] 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).

[5] Healthy Building Network. “PFAS in Paints,” 2023. https://healthybuilding.net/reports/25-pfas-in-paints.

[6] Marketing for Chemours’ Capstone line of fluorosurfactants includes descriptions such as “products that help protect people as well as the environment”, “environmentally preferred”, and VOC-free while keeping their structures proprietary and not indicating that these chemicals are actually PFAS. "Capstone Fluorosurfactants," https://www.chemours.com/en/-/media/files/capstone/capstone-surfactants-brochure.pdf?rev=983b02234dd54159bd807f40b97aa762&hash=E0929BCDCF885450B70EC05679CC0B97. 

[7] Healthy Building Network. “Low VOC? Don’t Stop There,” March 2022. https://healthybuilding.net/blog/600-low-voc-dont-stop-there.

[8] The emission limits are set for measurements taken 14 days after paint application. Results of small scale testing are modeled to represent different real world scenarios. The most protective is the residential scenario, and this should be preferred if available. Most certifications now available are for the private office scenario. Note that emissions testing is done for untinted bases. Separate test results may be available for some colorants. Programs that certify the CDPH Standard Method for Testing VOC Emissions include: Master Painters Institute (MPI) X-Green, GreenWise Gold, GreenGuard Gold, SCS Indoor Advantage Gold, and Berkley Analytical ClearChem. See the full standard here: https://www.cdph.ca.gov/Programs/CCDPHP/DEODC/EHLB/IAQ/CDPH%20Document%20Library/CDPH-IAQ_StandardMethod_V1_2_2017_ADA.pdf.

[9] Healthy Building Network, and Perkins+Will. “Healthy Environments: Understanding Antimicrobial Ingredients in Building Materials,” March 2017. https://healthybuilding.net/reports/4-healthy-environments-understanding-antimicrobial-ingredients-in-building-materials.

[10] Bob Vila. "How to: Make Chalkboard Paint," December 2020. https://www.bobvila.com/articles/how-to-make-chalkboard-paint/. K&J Magnetics, Inc. "Magnetic Paint," https://www.kjmagnetics.com/blog.asp?p=magnetic-paint#:~:text=Magnetic%20paint%20or%20primer%20is,bits%20and%20pieces%20of%20iron.

[11] Health Product Declaration: Dry Erase by Monopole, Inc. December 2022. https://hpdrepository.hpd-collaborative.org/repository/HPDs/812_Dry_Erase.pdf. Create Clear by ICP Group. September 2021. https://hpdrepository.hpd-collaborative.org/repository/HPDs/559_CREATE_CLEAR.pdf.

[12] GreenSeal. "GS-43 Recycled Latex Paint," November 2023. https://greenseal.org/standards/gs-43-recycled-latex-paint/.

[13] For example, this disclosure document for Romabio Mineral Paints notes that “undisclosed chemical #1” is an “acrylic ester-styrene copolymer” present at 1.96-25.346% of the paint. This is a synthetic polymer, a plastic with hazardous chemical impacts in the life cycle. The upper end of this percentage range is similar to or more than the amount of synthetic polymer found in typical acrylic/latex paints.  https://hpdrepository.hpd-collaborative.org/repository/HPDs/publish_538_ROMABIO_Domus_Mineral_Paints_Interior_Exterior_1531500993.pdf.

[14] Note that these “vinyl” polymers are different from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) which is often referred to simply as vinyl. PVC is not typically used in paints but has been identified in a couple products, for example: Sherwin Williams. “SDS: PROMAR® 200 Zero VOC Interior Latex Flat Ultradeep Base,” September 14, 2023. https://www.sherwin-williams.com/document/SDS/en/035777004920/US/.

Last updated: December 12, 2023