Paints & Sealers (VOC-Free)

Conventional paints, stains, sealers and epoxies are some of the greatest sources of indoor chemicals - they are filled with VOCs, including formaldehyde, toluene and more1.

Let's revisit some of the natural and effective finishes we have used for centuries as well as some of the new zero-VOC options.


1. Wood Finishes

Natural Oils and Waxes

Photo kohwoodflooring.com
Linseed Oil and Tung Oil, the later usually cut with a Citrus Solvent, are the traditional natural finishing oils for wood. The strong headachy smell of scented oils comes from their naturally occurring terpenes and or tannins, which are actually natural VOCs; for the chemically sensitive, these two strong scented oils will probably be intolerable (the smell does fade a bit with time). Definitely buy small amounts of each Here (US), and test for your own sensitivity If you are going to try these. For Canadians, get yours Here. Rubio Monocoat makes linseed finishes that are dearomatized and reportedly smell like honey. It contains a wax component as well. They claim zero-VOCs. You may still want to test that product before using it.







Milk paint pigments & hemp on floors,
hemp on window frame,
still unsealed cabinets
Hemp Oil is a better alternatives for wood finishing. It doe have a scent, which I would consider pleasant, but I would test for your own sensitivities (and allergies!) by buying samples from Vitacost. You get 10$ off with that link.

Linseed, tung, refined hemp and walnut oil are drying oils (although some claim Walnut is a semi-drying oil so I would not recommend it over the others - I have seen it turn floors rancid). They all penetrate, harden and preserve wood and provide a long-lasting finish that does not turn rancid. Coconut oil if refined is another option. Just don't use regular cooking coconut oil. I wouldn't recommend using olive or other (non-drying) oils that can go rancid on wood.

Another oil to check out is Penofin Verde which is Brazilian rosewood oil based with "other natural oils combined with select vegetable ester solvents and zero VOC pigments" It has 1g/l VOC.

I used Hemp Oil on all the interior wood in my chemical-free tiny home. I am really happy with it. The ladder to the loft does get grimy, though the dirt does wipe off. Use refined hemp oil (made for floors) as opposed to the edible oil from the grocery store.

Oils need to be reapplied every few years or more in high traffic areas.

Wood can then be finished with a beeswax polish for extra durability. I found that it was sticky for a while until it dried. I used beeswax on the window sills to provide a water-resistant finish and I'm really happy with it. This Beeswax/Carnauba Polish is great. Here's a how-to on finishing wood with natural oil and wax.

Wax needs to be re-applied every year.

Stains

Photo from homesteadhouse.ca
Each oil on its own will tint the wood to a varying degree, so you should test for the look you want to achieve - you might find that you don't need a stain at all.

Non-toxic milk paint pigments can be used as a stain applied to the raw wood before finishing with oil and wax. Here is my how-to for these pigments as they are very tricky to work with! I used them on my floors, my bathroom cabinets and my two stairs. I was not very happy with these stains.

I would recommend either ECOS Paints stains or AFM Safecoat Stains. Both are water-based.
There are other natural oil-based stains such as Rubio Monocoat and Penofin Verde.



Wood Sealers

Warning on ECOS varnishes which I previously recommended. There are problems with their varnishes with two people now reporting that water leaves very bad stains on the wood. This is a major problem that would cost a lot of money to fix. I used ECOS sealer on the wood in my kitchen and am very happy with it. I have not had these problems so I do not know what accounts for it, but for now I am suggesting that ECOs should not be used. Though other polyurethane finishes can also have this problem.

AFM wood varnishes are reported to be good. AFM Lock in New Wood Sealer finished with AFM Hardseal or Polyureseal. Polyureseal is highly recommended by The Green Design Center which has a tonne of experience with sensitive customers. These have to be tested against your sensitivities.

2. VOC-Free Paint

There is a myriad of paints claiming to be green or zero-VOC but it's not easy to find out exactly what is in them, and some ingredients like biocides might not be listed.  For example, conventional manufacturer - Benjamin Moore makes a zero-VOC paint called Natura that is high-quality, and comes in great colours but contains a mildewcide (something you should avoid). It was intolerable for me while wet. If you want something that is easy to source at a hardware store this is your best bet - just make sure they are using their zero-VOC pigments with it. (Note: other hardware store brands like Behr make a zero-VOC base but do not carry zero-VOC pigments).

Colourhouse and ECOS are other zero-VOC paints that contain a mildewcide.

Here are my top three latex paints:

Mythic Paint - The paints and primers are zero-VOC. This is now only available in the UK. They have sold the formula to a new company so I will update as this unfolds (2016).

AFM Safecoat Zero-VOC Paint - Tintable to thousands of colors. It is zero-VOC with zero-VOC colorants. Recommended by many EIs as well. (Though the primer is low-VOC.) No mildewcides.

ECOs - Their primer and paints are zero-VOC but do contain mildewcides.

Good Natural, Non-Acrylic, Options:

Romabio - The most popular mineral based paints. Clients seem to really like them.

BioShield - Becoming popular in 2016, Bioshield makes chalk and clay paints that people seem to like.

Milk Paint - I used Milk Paint in my chemical-free house to seal in the dust on the walls. On unfinished wood you need to add white glue to milk paint and I have not found a glue that I found 100% tolerable. Milk paint is also not great in a high moisture area like the bathroom because of the casein. (It could be prone to mould in a high moisture area). I would avoid it if I did things again.

Green Planet Paints - (Natural Source, Clay-Based Paint) available online, and in specialty paint stores in Canada and the US.

Auro Natural Paints - (Natural Source, Clay-Based Paint) available online, ships to US and Canada.

Primers

Try AFM Safecoat Low VOC Transitional Primer or their New Wallboard Primer for new drywall (both low-VOC, but they seal in toxins). ECOs is another brand that makes primers including a new wallboard primer (contains mildewcide). Sherwin Williams Promar 200 is a zero-VOC primer (no mildewcide).

Metal Primers

AFM makes MetalCoat Primer (zero-VOC), the Mythic Primer above can be used on metal (now out of business). For small applications, you could try non-toxic DecoArt No-Prep Metal Paint.

3. Plasters

Plaster is applied directly to earthen walls or pumice-crete.

There are clay-based plasters and lime-based plasters. I prefer lime because it is naturally mould resistant. Plasters can be tinted with natural pigments. Here is a detailed post on my experiences using clay plaster and limewash in my tiny house.

To learn more, get yourself a copy of The Natural Plaster Book.


4. Earthen Floor Finishes

If you don't have ox blood on hand, no problem, you can seal your earthen floor with any of the hardening oils we talked about under wood finishes (above).  I would use Hemp Oil. This blogger claims that Walnut Oil went rancid with time. Beeswax can also be used in the final coat for extra protection if desired.


5. Sealers

Sealing Toxic or Exterior Wood

My exterior
If you are buying new wood-framed windows, the wood will likely have been treated with fungicides. and should be sealed with AFM Safecoat Safe Seal,  AFM Safecoat Transitional Primer, or B-I-N Shellac Base Primer & Sealer (all low-VOC themselves).

Plywood and MDF should also be sealed with one of the above sealers if you must use it (it gives off formaldehyde).

For sealing in fragrance, smoke, terpenes or other VOCs please contact me for a consultation and we will find the best product for your application.

To protect exterior wood against the elements, you could use something a little stronger (as the VOCs will not be within the building envelope) like AFM Naturals Clear Penetrating Oil. This zero-VOC product Cedar-Seal would be ideal for cedar siding, the same company makes another sealer for other woods.

There are very few exterior paints that are zero-VOC but ECOs and AFM have some options there.

Sealing Tile, Concrete, Stone

My favourite
Sealers include: AFM Mexeseal (for marble, limestone, granite, sandstone, slate and concrete), Agristain for Concrete (for concrete, plaster and porous tiles), Lithofin (for stone and more), and my preference, for all-around best non-toxic sealer that is easy to track down online: AFM Safecoat Penetrating Water Stop (zero-VOC!) I am using it on my bathroom tiles and have used it on the clay plaster in my kitchen. Ships to Canada and the US.

For sealing grout use AFM Safecoat Grout Sealer or AFM Safecoat Safe Seal.

Sealing Joints 

I used Murco as a joint compound and found it totally tolerable but it is not compatible with MgO board. It has cracked at the joints which is something other builders have noted as well. This compound is compatible with MgO.

For regular drywall, drywall mud (spackle) that are zero-VOC are USG SHEETROCK® Brand Lightweight Setting-Type Joint Compounds – EASY SAND 20, EASY SAND 30, EASY SAND 45, EASY SAND 90, EASY SAND 210, EASY SAND 300.

Proform drywall mud is extremely low VOC (considered "zero").

There are so many 0 or extremely low VOC drywall muds available at regular outlets. The powder form is lower in VOCs than the pre-mixed. Even pre-mixed can be found in extremely low-VOC formulations.



1 biocides, ammonia, crystalline silica, ethylene glycol, phthalates, isocyanate, mineral spirits, benzene, propane sulfone, petroleum distillates, nitrobenzene, ammonia, naphtha, and phenol. Sources: 
North Carolina Cooperative ExtensionService, Grassroots Info, & Cleveland Clinic.

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72 comments:

  1. Have you tried coconut oil for a wood finish? And then doing a beeswax oil finish by handrubbing the final coat of beeswax.

    Jim
    www.tinygreencabins.com

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi Jim,

    I wouldn't use coconut oil on floors as it is not a drying oil. A drying oil is preferable for wood floors and is defined as: an oil with an iodine number greater than 130. A non-drying oil will not penetrate and harden like a drying oil and will likely smell rancid with time.

    Corinne

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  3. Interesting Blog!!! Keep up the good work. Stonera Systems Pvt .Ltd Products offer suitable solutions for every surface in your home including water based sealant for granite, Marble, stone, floors and many more...
    Water based sealant for marble

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  4. BioWorx.us is new to the "green" cleaning industry. None of their products contain VOC's (including the glass cleaner and fragrances)or other harsh chemicals. Plus they show on their web site lab studies how BioWorx compares to other cleaning products in soap scum and scale removal. They do quite well in each key cleaning category.

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  5. I am really enjoying your blog. My son and I both have MCS, and it is a challenge to find safe materials to renovate with. We are in the process of choosing flooring for our kitchen. We're considering solid wood, prefinished flooring--but are a little concerned about offgassing from the finishes. We're also considering on-site finishing, but I'm concerned about that too! Do high quality prefinished solid wood floors offgas much?

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    1. what are they finished with? you will have to test them. polyurathane i have found can offgass quickly as long as it's not in the same building as you when curing. tiles would be preferable in the kitchen I think, or polished concrete.

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    2. They also make a ceramic tile thst looks like also make a ceramic tile that looks like hand scraped wood! It's beautiful and really cheap.$ 1.99 sqft through Home Depot...I'm using it throughout my house.

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  6. Or you could try magnesium board with beeswax, carnauba wax and linseed to seal. Just had to sand low VOC poly off an entire house full of floor because of sensitive lungs.

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  7. Does anyone know if raw linseed oil is harmless to lungs ?, just finished re sealing floor with the beeswax , carnauba linseed mix a few days ago and after a few minutes in the house my nose feels stingy.

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    1. I describe the issues with linseed in the first paragraph.

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  8. Does linseed take long to off gas the terpenes? Not sure what to do now ? Researching using activated charcoal . Any ideas? Thank you for your blog :)

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    1. it does take a pretty long time. depends on your level of sensitivity to it.

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  9. Great Blog Corinne! So much information about ALL the Green options. Glad to see the public getting informed and using these products more and more! Feel free to connect with us on Google http://bit.ly/1rNvZi1

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  10. Your link for "Ecos" Sealer is not working. When redirected it says "Page not Found". Can you please help me find a safe indoor wood sealer. I'm having such a hard time.

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    1. hi, http://www.ecospaints.net/ecos-interior-satin-woodstain-varnish.html

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  11. Great read...

    Is there a recommended application for unfinished steel? I have used bees wax and oil. I'm looking for a commercial product....does anything exist?

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  12. Love this blog you have shared such nice information about services and products for sealing and pavers. Floor Sealing

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  13. I bought and used the ecos wood sealer on my brand new kitchen cabinets, three coats as recommended (we built them ourselves so it was fresh wood). The slightest water drop soaks right through and leaves a black stain in the wood. I paid a lot of money for something that doesn't work at all

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    Replies
    1. damn! that's terrible. I'm about to try it on my cabinets and will update the post accordingly

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    2. I am putting up a warning now about ECOs. It worked well for me but one other person has said the same thing and the indicates a big problem.

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  14. How do you recommend putting homemade oil / beeswax finish down on your floors? We are putting in hardwoods and wondering if we need to apply on our hands and knees with a rag or is there is another method. Thanks so much! We came across your blog after we thought about making our own floor finish since the commercial brands weren't non toxic enough for us. We are happy to find that other people have find it too! How has it been holding up?

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    Replies
    1. Hi, yes it is usually buffed in with a cloth. I used hemp oil on my floors and hemp/beeswax on the window sill. It's holding up well. The beeswax I used also contains carnauba.

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  15. Have tried a lot of paints that claim to be low voc and have not been happy. I am going with Roma paints which are beautiful mineral paints and truly no voc. for anyone who is mvs, I recommend you review their site.

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  16. I really appreciate your blog. Keep up the great work. Although I have not been diagnosed with extreme chemical sensitivities I want to make my home less non toxic for my family. Any recommendations for building materials for interior furniture? I want to make my own sectional couch with non toxic foam, fabric, paint, etc. I would appreciate any help with recommendations for which type of wood should be used for this project. I am intimidated by what is for sale at home improvement stores. Thank you for your help! 😀

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    Replies
    1. Check out this post. It is about how I built mine and about some really good ecos companies making sofas. http://www.mychemicalfreehouse.net/2015/07/building-non-toxic-sofa.html

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  17. In my home there is some painting there but painter told me they will use penetrating sealing before colour.
    My question is, is it safe for children's

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    Replies
    1. what is the surface and what is the sealer?

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  18. Hi there! I have had a bunch of drywall done in my house. Everyone I speak to says "oh the drywall isn't an issue for VOC's" but I know they're wrong. I am in Canada, and am looking at a product that is Greenguard certified, less than 45 g/l VOC and is a Drywall sealant/primer. Do you think this is OK for sealing in VOC's from drywall before I paint?
    I just can't find ANYTHING in Canada that is labelled for "sealing" drywall so it's all just primer/sealer, or just primer. Any advice would be so appreciated! Thank you so much!

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    Replies
    1. Depends on the drywall. Which kind did you use? 45g/l is not that low. But there is no drywall sealer that is zero VOC. Just primer will seal some VOCs though.

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    2. What about Ecos passivating primer?

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    3. It has a mildewcide and I have heard it doesn't seal in odours well.

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  19. Darn. We don't know..we have contractors coming in and doing it for us with the machines to clean the air and such. To be honest, I didn't realize there were different kinds of drywall...so that is my bad with everything going on in the house.
    45 is the lowest I could find! It was that or "<200 g/l" for drywall sealant/primer. Or a no VOC primer/sealer but it doesn't say specifically for drywall, so maybe that would be the best since it's no voc and it at least says sealer?

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    1. Which one is the zero VOC sealer? It does need to be drywall primer.

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  20. It is from Dulux paints, it's called Lifemaster Primer/Sealer. Okay good to know it has to be specifically for drywall. Is 45 g/l awful if that's the only one I can find? Also I just looked at different types of drywall (yay google..) and I believe it was just square edge standard drywall, in ceiling and walls, with putty over top.

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    Replies
    1. That is for drywall and it is zero-VOC. However the sealer label means it seals new drywall and is no more a VOC sealer than any other primer. As for drywall VOC levels, it depends on the brand. You can try and look it up by what brand you bought and then compare that to the 45g/l.

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  21. Okay so you mean that a "sealer" doesn't seal VOC's any more than a primer would seal in VOC's. So basically I want to find a super low VOC New Drywall Primer, and hope it helps..
    Drywall has specific amounts of VOC's depending on the brand...okay yes this makes sense, never thought of it. This whole chemical sensitivity thing is quite frustrating I have to say :(
    I'm sorry, I don't quite understand what you mean by comparing the drywall brand to the 45g/l drywall primer!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes exactly.
      I would see the VOC level of the drywall if you can find it and see if it's worth adding 45g/l in order to reduce the drywall offgassing.

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    2. Okay makes sense for the primer vs sealer. If i was in the states I would get either the ECOS or Afm safe coat and this would be easier.
      Okay great, will do! If I can find it, and it is low, would I be best to just use a zero VOC primer like the Lifemaster (i believe that was a drywall one), to reduce any VOC's leeching out?
      Also thank you SO MUCH for all of your help, I apologize for being such a newbie.

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  22. ECOS paint rep told me they did not contain mildewcide I used with with no outgassing and the smell only when it was applied....

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    Replies
    1. ECOS also told me that at first but when I got ahold of the ingredient lists there was a mildewcide in there. When I emailed about this they confirmed. They use it as a preservative in the paint.

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    2. is the mildewcide? They told me they had a "biostat" whatever that is and that is was sodium omadine? Is this the preservative or mildewcide in question? Is the mildewcide a no-no for the mold sensitive? I have a daughter who is not so much MCS as mold impaired

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  23. What would you use as the most non-toxic option to fill gaps around piping to prevent roaches from nesting in the walls. I can't use a plate, because my vanity is already set in place. I was considering using a simple non-toxic air drying clay, as an alternative to spray foam, putty, or caulking. Thoughts?

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    Replies
    1. Backer rod and caulking or canned spray foam if you can tolerate. Links in post on windows.

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  24. i purchased a large wooden stool/kitchen tower for my toddler from a DIY neighbor. You can see an example, if you google "toddler kitchen tower". It has been painted white with what I think is a mix of spray paint and regular paint. what can I put over it that will seal in toxins/VOCs, and be okay for my toddler to handle prior to handling food? Horribly disappointed now that we own this.

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    Replies
    1. You can try some of the sealers listed above or shellac

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  25. great blog. thank you very much for sharing.
    I bought an antique table and wanna take no chance concerning possible moulds: if ever there were moulds in between 2 wood planks, would a wax (applied on top of floor hemp oil) be sufficient to seal any possible neurotoxin/spore/mould in? thx much in advance.

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    Replies
    1. Mould in between 2 planks? That would be an unusual place for mould to grow. Are you talking about the subfloor and the wood flooring? A beeswax no, would not block spores. Sounds like you want your wood to breath. The only kind of wax that I know of that is relatively impermeable is shellac. This is not used on floors though.

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    2. Hi Corinne,
      thank you very much for answering.
      It's for an antique wood table top: 2 planks had a gap and were not sealed and the table was used in an orphanage for many years. So i worry that some liquid might have spilled repeatedly in the past in between these 2 planks and that maybe molds could have developed there. As it could ruin the table top if I took these 2 planks apart, I would like to properly seal the complete table top and if ever there would be spores in there, be positive that they could not escape from the sealed table top into the air. Do you think carnauba wax (maybe mixed with candelilla wax) could be enough to accomplish that?
      thank you very much for sharing your knowledge and experience.

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    3. Those are breathable, they would not seal in mycotoxins.

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  26. I did something that I thought I would never do. I just bought a large mdf cubby cabinet to separate my office space from our main living space. It's not new. I looked for a year for something that would fit here that I could fit in my van and this is the first thing that worked. It was covered with a laminate that was cracked and peeling so we removed the laminate and now need to finish it. What do you recommend? Everything else in my world is bamboo or other natural fibers and walls are painted with colorhouse paint (from before it was colorhouse.) Thanks

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    Replies
    1. If you just removed the melamine the MDF may still offgas. I would seal it with http://amzn.to/2ef46PQ

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    2. Thank you Corinne. Can I paint over the sealer? Do I seal, prime and paint?

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    3. Yes you can paint over it.

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  27. Great blog post! So helpful!

    I have a basement that takes in water during very rainy springs. Would AFM Safecoat Penetrating Water Stop be a good choice to seal the basement concrete?

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    Replies
    1. Others have recommended DryLock, but it seems to be quite toxic.

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    2. Consult a building science expert on this. Normally you do not seal this on the inside. The source of the water getting in needs to be fixed.

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  28. I happened upon your site while looking for a low VOC sealant to use on our vinyl kitchen flooring. It is about 21 years old and we don't want to replace it till we sell our home next year. I cleaned it with baking soda and it really did a great job, but my husband says we need to seal it. Do you have any suggestions please? Thank you for any advice you can provide. I am so happy I found your site.

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    Replies
    1. For vinyl tile use AFM Hardseal. If you are not sure what type of vinyl it is contact AFM or Building for Health and they will get you the right AFM slealer.

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    2. Thank you so very much and Happy New Year!!!

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  29. Do you know of any brands for sealing concrete without the toxic fumes?

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    1. Hi, Yes there are quite a few concrete sealers. I mentioned a few in this post. It depends on what the application is.

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  30. Hi, the governement house/department of housing house (in Australia) that we live in has just been painted. As a result, we don't know what type of paint was used yet suspect it was a very cheap one. It seems as though the new paint is making me very sick and I'm wondering if you can please recommend a product that can be purchased in or shipped to Australia (maybe some type of sealant or something else), that could be painted over the new paint to seal in the VOC's/off-gasing from the new paint? Do you think this method will be sufficient to seal in all or enough of the VOC's in order to prevent me from feeling ill? Thank you, emma

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    Replies
    1. Hi Emma, sealing in new paint is tricky. There are a few options you can try to help reduce the offgassing. I would need to look into what is available in Australia. This would be done as a consult. Please check out my page on consulting. It is 25 USD per half hour. This will take an hour of research and email. Thanks, Corinne corinnesegura@gmail.com

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  31. Hi, Thank you for sharing all this great info! I'm helping renovate a friends house, and she is very chemically sensitive, so your advice and product listings has been great.
    In one area there has been rats under the tub, and the subfloor is still smelly from them living there, despite bleach cleaning etc. What waterproof sealant would you recommend to both protect from water splashing in the future, and to seal in smell? Conventional solutions would be RedGuard or Bituthene. Do you know of a low VOC, more natural alternative? We're in a mold-prone area on the west coast. Thank you!

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    Replies
    1. Oh my gosh, sounds terrible. I would remove all this subfloor and any area water damaged and smelly. Correct problem of where rats are coming in as well. Do not use bleach on mold or around a sensitive person.

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  32. We were cleaning our very dirty oak kitchen cabinets and now they have some very light spots in areas. Is there something similar to restor-a-finish that's non-toxic? Thanks

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  33. Is there a zero VOC product to apply to walls and ceiling to block a perfume smell? This is for a child with extreme chemical sensitive. Thank you!

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