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 before the days of chemical finishes.


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 most widely used 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 but the smell does fade a bit with time. They are far too strong for me, however. 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.







milk paint pigments & hemp on floors,
hemp on window frame,
still unsealed cabinets
Hemp Oil and Walnut Oil are much better alternatives for wood finishing. They do 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! (They ship to Canada and US).

Linseed, Tung, 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). They all penetrate, harden and preserve wood and provide a long-lasting finish that does not turn rancid. (Note: other oils like coconut are not recommended because they are non-drying oils and will go rancid).

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 very grimy though the dirt does wipe off. Hemp should be reapplied every few years. Use refined hemp oil (made for floors) as opposed to the edible oil from the grocery store.

Wood can then be finished with a beeswax polish for extra durability. I don't know how long it takes to dry, but I found that it was sticky for a while and attracted dust and grime. I used beeswax on the window sills to provide a water-resistant finish and I'm really happy with it in the end. This Beeswax/Carnauba Polish is great. I wouldn't recommend using olive or other (non-drying) oils that can go rancid on wood. 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.




Wood Sealers

I have used ECOS sealer on the wood in the kitchen as it is a little more durable and waterproof than hemp. I also wanted something that did not darken the wood as much as hemp. I can't recommend this clear varnish enough (though the shipping was very expensive to Canada). It is truly zero-VOC from my own assessment, and to me is benign. A happy surprise after testing so many "0 VOC" paints and tile sealers that took me out. Though the company has been known to add mildewcides as preservatives.

AFM wood sealers are also reported to be good. AFM Lock in New Wood Sealer finished with AFM Hardseal or Polyureseal.

2. VOC-Free Paint?

There are 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 contains a mildewcide.

Here are my top three latex paints in no particular order:

Mythic Paint - The paints and primers are zero-VOC. It looks like they are going out of business though you still might find this in stores. They have sold the formula to a new company so I will update as this unfolds (2016).

ECOs is another top brand of mine. I have been impressed by their wood sealer though I have not tested their paints. Their primer and paints are zero-VOC but do contain mildewcides.

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.

Good Natural, Non-Acrylic, Options:

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 trusted 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). ECOs is the only brand I know of that makes a zero-VOC sealer (though the mechanism is absorption more than sealant).

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 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.

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.



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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42 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

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  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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    Replies
    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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    Replies
    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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    Replies
    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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  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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    Replies
    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!

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    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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