Which Paints Are Truly Safe?
There is a myriad of paints claiming to be green, natural, or zero-VOC (zero volatile organic compounds), but most don’t list their ingredients, others list the main components, while some only list what has to be legally disclosed on a safety data sheet (SDS).
This article investigates past the marketing jargon to compare all of the options that claim to be zero-VOC or natural.
This post covers interior wall paints for drywall, plasterboard, plaster, and wood.
I break the paints into categories based on their formulas:
- 1) Latex Paint which includes acrylic paint and VAE (vinyl acetate ethylene) paint
- 2) Natural Paint which includes mineral paint, clay paint, and milk paint
- 3) Linseed-Based Oil Paint
We know that zero-VOC is a legal term and does not always mean it really has no VOCs (chemically).
Keep in mind there are products that are higher in VOCs that will “flash off” and cure quickly, while other low-VOC, or even zero-VOC, formulations can take longer to cure.
Exempt VOCs, meaning those that are not counted in that term legally, include ammonia and acetone.
Other Chemicals of Concern: APEs
Apart from VOCs, alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEs), which are surfactants used in acrylic paints, can disrupt the hormone system. Latex paints that are free of APEs include: Benjamin Moore (AURA, Regal Select, ben, Eco Spec and Ultra Spec) Sherwin-Williams (Emerald, SuperPaint), ECOS Paints, AFM Safecoat, Mythic Paint, all Home Depot’s interior latex paints, Farrow and Ball, Auro, Graphenstone, Kiem, and more.
Preservatives & Mildewcide
Just about all paints except powdered milk paint have preservatives. A few brands in the post disclose which ones they use. With others, we can only guess based on the list of commonly used preservatives/mildewcides. While preservatives are such a minor concern, paints marked as mold-resistant or kitchen and bath formulas can contain much greater amounts of mildewcides/fungicides.
Those who are chemically sensitive should test multiple brands for tolerance after looking through the ingredients and reviewing what works best for the most severely sensitive folks.
In my view, a truly eco-friendly paint is zero VOC at two weeks’ time but is also ideally low VOC and low odor when wet.
This article contains affiliate links. Upon purchase, I earn a small commission at no extra cost to you.
There are three main categories of safe healthy paint:
1. Latex Paint
This is the most common type of paint used in homes. The majority of “latex paints” are made with 100% acrylic binder. Some paints are non-acrylic “latex” which are made with a PVA (polyvinyl alcohol) or VAE (vinyl acetate ethylene) binder. They are all water-based.
Acrylic paint is widely used due to its ease of application and durability against water and stains. I list my top picks in the latex paint category first.
2. Mineral Paint
This category includes paints that have a more natural base. Though technically “mineral paint” means paint made with a silicate binder that does not polymerize, in reality, this term is used much more broadly. The term mineral paint can include silicate paints, clay-based paints, lime paint or limewash, chalk paint, and milk paint.
3. Natural Oil-Based Paint
Most of us think of oil-based paint as not very healthy and high in VOCs due to the solvents. However, there is oil-based paint made with bio-based ingredients and no solvents. As long as you are not sensitive to natural oils like linseed, you might really like this option.
This is a conversational guide to non-toxic paint, like how I would talk to a client.
The brands are the same as those listed in this post, but if you would like to hear more of my opinion, you can grab this printable article on Etsy for $5.
Top Picks for Interior Latex Paint
What is “latex paint”? Paint used to contain styrene-butadiene rubber (synthetic latex). Standard latex paints do not contain this ingredient anymore. Today “latex paints” are made with either an acrylic binder, polyvinyl acetate (PVA), or vinyl acetate-ethylene (VAE) as the binder. Some are a mix.
1. ECOS Paints
ECOS primers and paints are zero-VOC and this brand is certainly the most popular acrylic paint for the chemically sensitive.
They are zero-VOC officially at 11 days (per the CDPH 01350 test methodology), that is when the zero-VOC measurement was taken.
This paint is highly tolerable and is my go-to pick for both healthy and chemically sensitive folks in 99% of cases. It’s also the only paint brand with a full range of 0-VOC primers.
They list their ingredients down to 0.01%.
It’s rare to find someone who doesn’t do well with ECOS, though the extremely sensitive need to air it out longer.
The paint performs well, has good pigments (good ability to color match), and good coverage. I have used this paint and I did find it to be as low odor as an acrylic paint can get and it’s fast to cure. I can see why it’s the most popular of the zero-VOC acrylics.
Would you like to see a firsthand review of ECOS Paints from a sensitive person? See the non-sponsored review here!
Air Purifying Paint: ECOS also makes an Air Purifying Paint which has zeolite added as an absorbent (to absorb VOCs). I do find that the odor of this paint while wet is lower than their standard paint since some of those VOCs are captured by the zeolite. If I was doing the painting myself, and could spend an extra $20/gallon, I would go with this option.
Free of mildewcide: They use 1-hydroxy-2-pyridinethione as a preservative which is a non-red list chemical.
Free of alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEs). Free of natural latex, it has been safely used by folks with a latex allergy.
Note: Lullaby Paints is also an ECOS brand paint. In the UK ECOS Paints is called Lakeland Paints.
Where to Buy:
You can buy ECOS Paints online from their website. They sell samples, 3 for $10, including shipping.
They ship to everywhere in the US as well as Canada and Mexico.
PS In the UK look for Lakeland Paints.
2. AFM Safecoat Zero-VOC Paint
Tintable to thousands of colors. Safecoat is a zero-VOC acrylic paint with no-VOC colorants. (Though the primer is low-VOC).
This is a well-known brand that has been around for longer than most others.
They make it a focus to have no hazardous air pollutants (HAPS) – since “zero VOC” means it can still contain some hazardous substances.
In a survey I took of chemically sensitive folks, this was the second most popular choice after ECOS, but it also gets its fair share of complaints (in my experience working with sensitive folks).
It does not have as good coverage as ECOS.
Though you may want to use AFM Transitional Primer and their paint to seal in offgassing since it does a better job at sealing in offgassing than other brands. And this is my top pick for a bathroom paint.
The preservative is an isothiazolinone (BIT). It’s free of APEs.
Free of natural latex, it has been safely used by folks with a latex allergy.
Where to Buy:
3. Mythic Paint
Mythic paint was the fan-favorite acrylic paint before ECOS came along. I used Mythic Paint in my tiny house when I was extremely sensitive and really liked it.
This paint disappeared for many years (we all assumed it was out of business) before coming back to Pigment Paint Supply. It is the same formula as before they say.
It’s also available in the UK with some use in Asia.
Other similar brands to Mythic include:
- A commenter believes American Pride (by the same parent company as Mythic) may be similar, though the company was not responsive to attempts to contact them.
- ECOS, the new fan favorite, is tolerated as well as Mythic was. I have heard from multiple industry sources that the same scientist was involved in both brands, but there is sufficient evidence that they are not the same formula. I believe, based on my use of both, that ECOS is the closest match.
- Much Smarter Paint claims to have Mythic matched, but that appears to be a marketing statement, it is not a statement about the formula. I don’t know that this company has any basis to say that they matched the formula.
Where to Buy:
Buy Mythic from Pigment Paint Supply.
You can buy American Pride in select stores in the southern United States.
Much Smarter Paints you can buy online.
I’m not convinced they have ECOS beat. You can buy ECOS paint online.
4. Bio-Based Acrylic
Bio-based paint is another subset of acrylic paint. Bio-based acrylic uses acrylic acid made from soybean oil (or other oils), glycerol, corn-derived lactic acid, lignocellulose, or tree sap instead of sourcing the acrylic acid from petrochemicals. Soybean oil is commonly used because it is low-cost and highly available says the North Dakota State University Research Foundation in their patent on bio-based acrylic.
DuraSoy by EcoSafetyProducts claims it’s a partial bio-based acrylic made from waste soy oils and/or waste tree saps. They say it’s around 10% bio-based content.
Green Planet Paints lists the polymers in their AgriPaint as bio acrylic (based on waste soy ester oil and waste tree saps) and an acrylic polymer made from post-consumer recycled acrylic. They claim it has 40% biobased content.
Odor-wise and VOC-wise AgriPaint doesn’t seem any different than a regular zero-VOC paint. The reasons to go with one of these brands would be to limit petrochemicals or to add more recycled materials. If your main motivation is the environmental impact of paint this is certainly an option to consider.
Bio-acrylic paints are not always compatible over an existing synthetic paint. Be sure to ask the companies first. AgriPaint used to not be compatible over some existing coatings, but they have reformulated so as to not have that problem.
Where to Buy:
Through their respective websites online.
The most common preservatives in paint include isothiazolinones (MIT or BIT) and/or pyrithione zinc. MIT and BIT are red-list chemicals, although the main problem is with skin contact (source 1, 2). Pyrithione zinc, the active ingredient in Head and Shoulders, also comes with health concerns, and is being banned in Europe (source). ECOS uses Pyrithione (without the zinc).
In more detail, in-can preservatives include: Bis(3-aminopropyl)(dodecyl)amine (BDA); benzisothiazolinone (BIT); bronopol (BNPD); methylchloroisothiazolinone (CIT); methylchloroisothiazolinone (CIT) / methylisothiazolinone (MIT) 3:1; dibromdicyanobutane (DBDCB); (ethylendioxy)-dimethanol (EDDM); 3-iodine-2-propinyl-butylcarbamate (IPBC); methylisothiazolinone (MIT); sodium pyrithion; silver chloride; tetramethyl olacetylendi urea (TMAD); zinc pyrithione.
5. Benjamin Moore
Benjamin Moore makes a number of zero-VOC acrylic paints. One of the original non-toxic paint lines was their Natura (which was phased out in March 2021).
They provide a Declare label for their Ultra Spec line, which lists all ingredients down to 0.01% (they are one of only two brands that do this).
Ben Moore paints do contain a mildewcide (isothiazolinone). They are free of alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEs).
They have many more zero-VOC lines now like ben. And Aura is so very close to zero VOC that the difference is not significant.
If you want a super tough bathroom paint with added mildewcide, Aura Bath and Spa is one of the only zero-VOC formulas that meets these performance specs.
The company reps claim that their Eco Spec is the closest paint to Natura, however, it’s not as good quality.
If you want something you can go out and buy from a store right now or on Amazon, Ben Moore might be your best option. I really liked Natura and was sad to see it go but I would have no problem going with Aura now.
Where to Buy:
Benjamin Moore stores can be found all over the US and Canada. You can buy samples online – samples only ship to the US.
Sherwin-Williams Harmony was a paint line that some chemically sensitive folks liked. It has been discontinued at the end of 2021. The replacement for Harmony is another one of their zero-VOC acrylic paints, SuperPaint with Air Purifying Technology.
What is Air Purifying Paint?
They claim that SuperPaint with Air Purifying Technology can reduce VOCs in the home.
Based on a patent by this company, it could be that their air-purifying paints contain sodium bicarbonate, zeolite, activated carbon, and/or cyclodextrin as odor-absorbing agents. (Remember ECOS Paint also has an air purifying paint which we know has zeolite as the active ingredient).
The patent also describes possible odor-neutralizing agents like undecylenic acid, undecylenate silicone esters, chloramine-T, and zinc ricinoleate.
They mention that the paint can contain nano-titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, or anatase titanium dioxide, which are capable of degrading odors in the presence of UV light. (Note that the white pigment in all paint is titanium dioxide). This process works in theory with some indirect sunlight or light through a window, but this photocatalytic process of breaking down VOCs works best when the sun hits titanium dioxide directly, unobstructed, says Dr. Steven S.C. Chuang who holds a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering.
They also list a possible fragrance added.
It does have a mildewcide/preservative which is not disclosed.
Other Lines of Sherwin-Williams
The Emerald line is their highest quality zero-VOC option along with Duration. EcoSelect has been discontinued. For a full comparison of all zero and low-VOC Sherwin-Williams interior paint lines, see this comparison article.
Most Sherwin-Williams lines are confirmed free of alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEs).
In terms of a more durable enamel paint, ProClassic Waterborne Interior Acrylic Enamel has been reported by moderately sensitive folks to offgas relatively quickly.
Where to Buy:
You can buy this at Sherwin-Williams paint stores. There are quart-sized “color to go” samples, this paint is to see the color not to test out individual paint lines. The color sample paint itself is lower quality than SuperPaint, but better than Promar 200.
Some SW lines have quart sizes.
Looking for a paint & primer that can hold up in a bathroom and prevent moisture from infiltrating the walls and causing water damage? The article on bathroom paints lists them out.
1. Farrow & Ball
Despite being just slightly over the threshold for what is considered zero VOC, Farrow & Ball in my opinion is the most tolerable latex paint when wet.
It is much lower in odor when wet than any acrylic paint.
This is a good reminder that VOC levels don’t always correspond to how tolerable for the chemically sensitive a product is in reality.
The main binder in this paint is a vinyl acetate/ethylene copolymer (VAE). The following finishes are acrylic-free (non-acrylic latex): Estate Emulsion, Estate Eggshell, Full Gloss, Limewash, Casein Distemper, Soft Distemper, and Dead Flat.
The finishes Modern Emulsion, Modern Eggshell, and exterior finishes do use acrylic polymer binders.
It does contain isothiazolinones as the preservative like most other paints on the list. It is free of APEs (which are banned in the EU).
It seems similar to BioShield paint, which is marketed as a “clay paint” but in my experience, Farrow and Ball is much easier to apply.
Downsides: The matte and lower sheen finishes are not very durable to touch, wiping, wet hands, etc. You also need to use the F&B primer with their paint as many other primers are not compatible.
Where to Buy:
This UK-based company has stockists around the world. You can order online with paint shipping out from the US, UK, France, and Germany to most countries around the world. Many countries like the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and many more, have stores where you can buy this brand.
It’s pricey at $110 a gallon. A sample pot is $8.
Honorable mention: as of 2023 almost all big brands have a zero, or close to zero-VOC, paint. Delux brand, available all around the world has a close to zero-VOC formula; Behr Premium Plus is a 0-VOC formula; Clare is an online brand with a “no-VOC” paint (2 g/l VOC paint) that sells peel and stick color swatches; Dunn Edwards is a small American chain that makes Spartazero and other zero-VOC lines that come with health product declarations (HPD); Valspar, is one of the most affordable paints. Valspar Pristine and Valspar Simplicity are both discontinued, but all of their interior latex paints like Reserve and Signature start at 0-VOC, and if the store carries 0-VOC pigments then they can be 0-VOC in the end. (Otherwise, the pigments add VOCs).
Natural Mineral Paints for Interior Walls
- I’m using the term mineral paint loosely here to refer to paints that are high in minerals and low in (or free of) synthetic chemicals. (Technically the term mineral paint only refers to silicate paints).
- If you’re looking for paints that are 100% natural this post covers those.
1. Mineral Paint
Romabio contains other binders like EVA and it was to my nose a little higher in initial odor than ECOS; Kiem was far lower in odor, and contains just a little bit of acrylic polymer. It also contains no preservatives.
Kiem is actually my favorite paint of all the options here, it’s practically odorless and is so much safer for the person doing the painting. It’s breathable, self-priming, and is both matte and wipable.
I tested these mineral paints, and my post on natural mineral paints compares these brands in more detail.
BioShield is also in this “more natural” category. The binder in this paint is listed as an alcohol ester (which might be PVA or PVOH). It has a high percentage of natural ingredients and is low odor.
The extremely sensitive usually do well with this brand. All ingredients are disclosed (sort of, using general terms). Farrow and Ball appears to me to be similar. (It’s just as tolerable, easier to access, easier to apply, and in my experience).
The post on clay paint goes into more detail.
Buy BioShield through their website, and Farrow and Ball in-store or through their website.
3. Annie Sloan Chalk Paint
Chalk Paint was also surprisingly low odor. I really liked this paint and it seemed very non-toxic to me. It has great coverage and does not need a primer on most surfaces (including radiators).
I tested chalk paint here.
Buy Annie Sloan through their website or stockists.
4. Milk Paint
Milk paint is another paint that should be in this category. True milk paint is 100% natural, with no synthetic ingredients at all and no preservatives. It’s fully biodegradable.
Pure Milk Paint comes in a powder and is made of casein, lime, clay, and pigments. For durability, it needs a topcoat, which would be a natural oil, wax, or varnish.
If you want to see my testing of milk paint on drywall, I have a post just on that.
Ana Sova is also a milk paint but in liquid form. They say it’s made with casein (milk protein) as the binder, titanium dioxide, cellulose, emulsifiers, fungicide, bactericide, mildew retardant, and preservatives. They claim that is it 96% “food ingredients”, though they do not declare the full list of ingredients.
I ordered a sample of Ana Sova in early 2022 but it did not show up. When I emailed them about it, they said “we are moving our paint mixing to a new facility”. They said they would send out a sample to me in the beginning of 2022 but I have not received one.
I would stick to powdered milk paint, for the true pure product. The Real Milk Paint Company is a top brand.
Avoiding acrylic paint due to its contribution to microplastic waste? If so, focus on these options:
- Milk Paint (Old Fashioned Milk Paint or The Real Milk Paint brands)
- Clay, lime, or gypsum plaster
- True silicate-based mineral paint with no acrylic or undisclosed polymers (only the ones you mix yourself are pure silicate paints)
- Linseed Oil Paint like Allback
- (source on acrylic paint becoming a microplastic)
Natural Oil-Based Paint
1. AFM Naturals
AFM Naturals Paint is an oil-based interior paint made with bio-based ingredients. The oils are soybean oil, flaxseed oil (linseed), and thistle oil.
Like most paint, they add organic mineral fillers like titanium dioxide, calcium carbonate, nepheline syenite, and kaolin clay.
They do add metallic driers, but it is free of lead and cobalt.
The main synthetic component is a polysiloxane polymer.
All sheens dry to a hard, durable finish.
Buy AFM Naturals through the Green Design Center.
2. Allbäck Linseed Paint
Allbäck linseed oil paint is made without solvents. The main ingredients are boiled linseed and pigments made from titanium oxide, iron oxides, chromium oxide green, and ultramarine blue. The drying agent is manganese.
Other brands include Viking, Earth+Flax.
Linseed paint is a penetrating paint on porous surfaces, so it doesn’t crack or peel. It’s also a breathable paint, that won’t trap moisture.
It bonds to virtually any surface that is clean and dry other than silicone. You can use it on wood, concrete, sheet metal, iron, plastic, wallpaper, and more.
This is an interior and exterior paint. No primer is needed except on very dry wood a prime cost of pure linseed helps.
For maintenance, you can apply pure linseed oil or linseed oil with wax.
You can use this on drywall (with the right application), or you can use their Linus Wall Paint formula which is made from linseed oil, water, cellulose, shellac, beeswax, and natural pigments.
It’s not impossible to paint over this in the future, you can go over it with a transitional primer or oil-based paint.
Buy Allback or Viking paint via their website.
Paint by area:
- Non-toxic wall primer
- Non-toxic exterior paint
- Non-toxic cabinet paint
- Non-toxic floor paint
- Non-toxic bathroom paint (and primer)
Paint by material:
- Non-toxic paints for wood (toys, furniture)
- Non-toxic concrete paint
- Non-toxic radiator paint
- Non-toxic metal paint and primer
Paint by type:
- Natural mineral paint testing
- Non-toxic chalk paint testing
- Non-toxic clay paint testing
- Non-toxic milk paint testing
- Non-Toxic spray paint
Paint by characteristic:
- Non-toxic paint thinner
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