1. Joint Compound / Drywall Mud
While there are many zero-VOC or extremely low VOC drywall muds available at regular outlets, the highly chemically sensitive will need to be selective here.
When you are only mudding the seams you just need a simple dry mix joint compound. Dry mixes are almost always lower odor, lower VOC, and healthier choices than premixed mud.
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Powdered Mix (aka Setting Type or Hot Mud)
Powdered drywall muds are zero-VOC, but they can still contain additives that could be bothersome for some.
All-Purpose type compound is used as the first step (and can be the only type used) in setting the tape in the seams. This type has the least amount of additives.
I used Murco All-Purpose as a joint compound and found it totally tolerable. This one is marketed towards the chemically sensitive. They claim no preservative/biocide, no vinyl, and only inert fillers.
I don’t have a problem with more conventional brands of all-purpose compound if they are dry mix.
For mudding the seams you can also use a setting type. This is the drywall mud referred to as hot mud.
I like USG Sheetrock Brand Lightweight Setting-Type Joint Compounds EASY SAND 20, as well as 30, 45, 90, 210, 300. Get a small amount on Amazon to test it out. You can also use Easy Sand as a spackle, to fix minor holes.
This is a conventional brand joint compound for the seams that you can easily find at hardware stores and even on Amazon.
Murco makes HA 100 which is also a setting type compound.
Setting type is used with fiberglass tapes.
Topping compound is used in finishing layers and it contains vinyl acetate. This is used for final coats, not for embedding the tape. It comes in dry mix and ready mix.
USG Topping compound is ready mix but it is only 2 g/l VOC, close to zero. If your contractor won’t use a dry mix, this is a good one.
Choosing a Brand
Dry mix joint compound does not usually contain biocides or fillers that would be declared as VOCs on the SDS.
I’m not convinced there is a difference between Murco and brands from the hardware store like USG, when it comes to All-Purpose and Setting Type compound. Though it can be difficult to find a conventional brand dry mix All-Purpose compound.
If you are chemically sensitive I would compare samples from different brands.
What are the Additives in Drywall Mud:
- The main mineral components of drywall mud are known as the fillers. These are limestone, mica, attapulgite, quartz, and talc.
- All-purpose compound usually contains clay.
- Topping compound usually contains vinyl acetate.
- Dry mix drywall mud traditionally contained casein or soy protein as the binder. New muds can contain polyvinyl acetate (PVA) and soluble polyvinyl alcohol.
- Polyoxyethylenearyl is a plasticizer for the polyvinyl acetate.
- Thickening agents include hydroxyethyl cellulose/starch, methylcellulose, natural gums such as gum arabic.
- Asbestos is no longer added to drywall mud and is not found as a contaminant either.
Pre-Mixed (aka Ready-Mix or Drying Type)
The powder form is always preferred to the pre-mixed for those avoiding toxins.
But even pre-mixed can be found in extremely low-VOC formulations. I have found it does offgas VOCs, and certainly more than the dry mix alternative.
This type typically contains polyvinyl acetate, ethylene-vinyl acetate, or acrylic vinyl acetate polymer (or a combination).
Lightweight compounds can contain glass microspheres or expanded perlite.
Reduced dust or low dust drywall mud can include a wax or oil and a surfactant.
Biocides should be expected in all pre-mixed formulations. Triazinetriethanol is common.
If the mix contains calcium sulfate hemihydrate (gypsum) or plaster then they also contain additional chemicals.
The most sensitive should use the powdered form. Contractors prefer pre-mixed, so be sure to specify dry mix.
Spackle is very similar to drywall mud, but this term indicates a premixed mud that is made to repair small holes. It contains binders and additives that make it dry faster with less shrinkage. The lightweight type will likely contain a vinyl, and the all-purpose an acrylic.
I personally found the odor to be rather strong when I was sensitive to chemicals. Though for very small repairs this might be inconsequential for many people.
You can use some powdered joint compounds like Easy Sand and Murco to make small repairs to walls. More info in the post on non-toxic spackle. (Note the opposite is not true: you can’t use premixed spackle as a joint compound.)
Paper-backed drywall can be taped with paper or fiberglass tape.
Paperless drywall can also usually be taped with either type.
Though the paper tape is fairly benign, you might want to check out a few brands if you are highly sensitive. It can contain a polymer and n-ODSA.
Regular paper tape does not contain an adhesive.
Fiberglass tape is self-adhering and is used with setting compound (the dry mix).
The extremely chemically sensitive should check out a few brands and choose the most tolerable one. But most people will not have to worry about the tapes at all.
2. Wall and Ceiling Texture
Just like with joint compound, when adding texture you want to use dry mix where possible as this contains fewer additives.
USG Sheetrock Spray Texture is a good one. This is a spray-on texture that can create spatter, spatter/knockdown, and orange peel designs.
The main ingredient is calcium carbonate. The binder is amylum and/or polyvinyl alcohol.
Though PVA and EVA are both generally well tolerated, they are not tolerated by all.
The fungicide is zinc dimethyldithiocarbamate. The VOCs are listed as 0 g/l.
If your contractor wants to do a roll-on (not spray-on) texture with a premixed mud that is watered down, I would suggest going with an option that uses a dry mix as a base.
Murco, a company that makes drywall mud aimed at the chemically sensitive, makes two main “hypoallergenic” products, M100 (all-purpose compound) and HA100 (a setting compound). They claim there is no vinyl in these products.
All-purpose compound is best for embedding the tape and filling nail and screw holes.
The basic M 100 can be used for most spray-on textures. But if the texture is thick or heavy, they recommend the HA 100.
If you can’t get the desired look with these two products, Murco has a line of dry mix texture products. These contain more additives.
The powdered texture products, like M 1400, have better “stand up” and better resistance to pinholes.
Always encourage your contractor to talk to the company if it’s a product they have not used before. And when adding any kind of texture avoid the premixed formulations if you can.
I would look for a contractor who is already familiar and skilled with working with dry mixed products to get the look you are after.
To smooth out an orange peel texture you can skim coat over it.
3. Skim Coating
Fiberglass-backed gypsum requires skim coating. Skim coating may also be a desired finish on paper-based drywall.
You might also want to have your contractor talk with the company first as well.
USG Durabond is a dry mix that can be used for skim coating. If the contractor is skilled at applying skim coating with dry mix this can be used for every layer. USG advises that you can achieve a level 5 finish with this.
Finding a Contractor who will Skim Coat with Dry Mix
Generally, this will be more labor-intensive than using ready-mix compounds. And you may find your contractor saying that it could crack.
But if you find someone with experience in this field you should be able to find someone that will give you realistic outcomes and guarantee their work.
You may have to touch up areas that crack.
There are four main types of plaster, clay-based, lime-based, gypsum-based, and concrete.
I have a post that goes over all the plaster types.
Here is a detailed post on my experiences using clay plaster and lime wash in my tiny house.
In the more conventional realm, Plaster of Paris which is gypsum-based, can be highly tolerable. The USG brand comes recommended by sensitive folks and can be found at hardware stores like Home Depot.
Cement is also used as a plaster finish on concrete or other masonry walls.
Corinne Segura is a Building Biologist Practitioner with 8 years of experience helping others create healthy homes.
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