Paints & Finishes: Balance Durability with Low Toxicity

Make sourcing paints and adhesives with no VOCs a top priority, but don’t forget about proper application and maintenance of these products.

Paints and adhesives in the United States have come a long way. They no longer contain lead or other heavy metals. Most contain only a fraction of the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) they did 10 years ago. Oil-based (alkyd) paints have largely been replaced by water-based latex products. 

But the conversion hasn’t always been smooth, and it’s far too early to declare “mission accomplished.”

Homeowners Handbook of Green Remodeling 2023-1

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Some of the first brands of ultra low-VOC products got a bad rap a few years ago. These new paints were not as stable, harder to apply and almost impossible to find. They set back the transition to “green” paint, especially among contractors. 

But those quality problems have been solved. Most of the latest generation of low-impact paints and adhesives perform almost as well as their solvent counterparts. But beware of exaggerated green claims. 

Some companies like to hint that their paint brands are eco-friendly, when they’re really just doing the bare minimum—meeting regulatory standards. The same consumer caution should apply to adhesives. Remind yourself that the color of a product’s container or labeling may have nothing to do with what’s inside. 

On the other hand, several manufacturers have developed zero-VOC colorants—a common source of added VOCs in paint—and can claim that their products are truly “zero VOC.”

As you consider low-VOC, no-VOC and other emissions claims, here are some points to consider.

VOCs: They’re Not the Only Villains

Just because a paint is low in volatile organic compounds doesn’t mean it’s safe to apply it in your home without wearing proper safety gear—or that it won’t release other dangerous pollutants. VOCs are just one category of paint ingredient. 

Even if a paint contains no VOCs at all, it may contain hazardous airborne pollutants (HAPs). These take the form of both gasses and tiny particles that have been shown to cause respiratory trouble, especially for people with asthma. 

Household cleaners and bath products often contain both VOCs and HAPs as well, so you can’t blame paint for all your indoor air quality issues, but when selecting a finish or an adhesive or caulk, make sure the manufacturer gives a full account of all potential pollutants, not just VOCs. 

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Sherwin-Williams Harmony Interior Acrylic Paint GREENGUARD Gold-certified Harmony is a zero-VOC formula tinted with ColorCast Ecotoner colorants, which do not add VOCs. The paint also includes technology that can potentially reduce odors and harmful VOCs such as  formaldehyde from carpets, furniture and finishes.

Homeowners Handbook of Green Building & Remodeling-63Adhesives: The Fine Print 

Like paints, adhesives are now marketed as low-VOC and eco-friendly. But as with paint, it’s important to get all of the facts—not simply to accept the branding pitch. 

For example, Gorilla brand recently released Gorilla PVC, an adhesive for use in PVC plumbing—a product it markets as “eco-friendly.” But if you read the fine print, the glue contains N-methylpyrrolidone (NMP), “a chemical known to the State of California to cause birth defects or other reproductive harm.” 

Caulking: Seal the Deal

Latex-based caulkings tend to release less toxins during application and initial drying than their solvent-based counterparts. But don’t substitute low cost for durability. While 100 percent silicone caulk produces strong initial offgassing (some of which is from vinegar in the mix) it’s also likely to perform better than an acrylic-latex based product, particularly in wet areas. 

Some brands claim to have special mold resistance, but that’s likely just the natural resistance of the silicone they’re bragging about; 100 percent leaves little room for additives. 


Q: Can you paint vinyl siding?

It’s generally not a good idea to paint vinyl,  because it has a high “coefficient of elasticity,” meaning it expands and shrinks dramatically with temperatures and sun exposure.

Q: How long does it take paint to dry?

Acrylic paints generally dry much faster than alkyd (sometimes called “oil” based) paints. Read the can carefully. Some products dry to the touch in a few minutes, but can take several days to fully cure. Will you walk on this paint? Generally, the worse the likely wear, the longer the drying period you need. 

Q: Can you paint tile? 

Yes, but with the caveat that if you’re painting tile floors, you want a specialty paint designed for that purpose. Keep in mind that when tiles are glazed in a kiln, the finish can last for centuries. Paint generally lasts for just a few years. You’re unlikely to ever match the rich, authentic color of a quality glazed ceramic tile.

Glossary of Terms: Know the Lingo

  • Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs): Toxic ingredients common in paints, adhesives and many household items that are released into the air.
  • Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAPs): These substances were listed in the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments. Here’s the EPA list online
  • Alkyd: Commonly referred to as “oil based,” this type of coating is typically higher in VOCs than waterborne paint, containing a petroleum-based solvent and a binder of synthetic resin.
  • Acrylic Latex: This widely used finish uses water as a solvent, and tends to be lower in VOC content than alkyd products, although it may offgas more slowly.
  • Breathe: How well a paint allows water vapor to pass through it without blistering or failing.
  • Back Priming: Coating the back or hidden face of siding or trim prior to installation as an added measure of protection from moisture.
  • Colorants: These add color to paints, and are a potential source of added VOCs in paint products.


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