This post covers low and zero-VOC primers for interior walls. Most of these paints are acrylic primers but some are PVA primers.
In some cases, it makes sense to go with a zero-VOC primer but some PVA primers are lower in odor than the acrylics even though the legal VOC levels might be around 3 g/l and not zero (which is still negligible).
Some brands like ECOS add zeolite to reduce the odor, which does help a little bit.
With most brands, the primers are more potent in odor than the paint lines, so it’s important to carefully select a primer. This article covers the top non-toxic brands.
You may need a primer in the following circumstances:
- For new wallboard
- To cover a glossy paint
- To block stains or odors
- To transition from a dark color to a light color
- To transition from an oil-based paint to a water-based paint
My post on paint covers the best non-toxic paint brands.
This post contains affiliate links. Upon purchase, I earn a small commission at no extra cost to you.
1. AFM Safecoat Transitional Primer
This is the best non-toxic primer to block odors or transition from oil to water-based paint.
AFM is a well-liked brand amongst those sensitive to chemicals. Their Transitional Primer is higher in odor than their paint, but it is low-VOC and is known for being particularly good at sealing in toxins or odors.
It can also transition your walls from oil-based to water-based paint.
This does create a partial vapor barrier which is something to consider in hot humid climates where AC is used inside (a possible condensation point).
AFM New Wallboard Primer is for new drywall, it’s also low-VOC.
Buy Transitional Primer through Green Design Center.
This is my top pick for a zero-VOC wall primer, especially for new drywall.
ECOS makes great zero-VOC primers and ECOS is the favorite brand for those sensitive to chemicals (and my favourite too!)
Their general wall primer is used on new drywall.
I like their Air Purifying Primer (APP) which is low odor. The APP primer has a similar level of odor to their low luster paint, which is awesome because primers are usually higher in odor than paint. This primer contains zeolite which absorbs VOCs, and I believe this is bringing down the odor of the primer itself.
Their Stain Blocking Primer did seem higher odor than APP. This would be the primer to use to block stains like tannins.
Their Universal Primer is the one with the strongest bonding power. You can use this on more difficult to prime surfaces like some vinyl, and metal (even bare iron and steel), and to transition from oil-based paint to water-based wall paint (though you need to prep it first). It works to block stains like rust stains, tannin staining from woods, and water stains on walls and ceilings.
ECOS is my top brand here if you don’t mind ordering online.
Buy ECOS online through their website.
3. Conventional Brand Primers
Sherwin Williams Promar 200 and Promar 400, Sherwin Williams Drywall Primer, Sherwin Williams Multi-Purpose Interior/Exterior Latex Primer/Sealer are zero-VOC.
Benjamin Moore Natura Primer was zero-VOC but it is now phased out. The Ultra Spec 500 is a good zero-VOC primer that works on new drywall. Their other primers are not zero-VOC.
Farrow and Ball is a brand of paint that I really like because it’s very low odor when wet compared to other paints. I recently tried their primers and they are excellent as well.
BEHR Kitchen, Bath & Trim Interior Stain-Blocking Primer has only 1 g/l VOC.
Valspar Multi-Surface Primer is zero VOC.
Non-Toxic Paint Brands
Non-Toxic Metal Primers
Corinne Segura is a Building Biologist Practitioner with 8 years of experience helping others create healthy homes.
Violetta Sur says
Hi Corinne. You may have seen a lot of me lately as I’m going through extensive house renos. Quick question – your opinion. My contractor used a really nasty chemical ridden primer on my basement walls without telling me first. Needless to say I want to make sure I’m doing this right. I would like to block it, but I think I’m going to overspend on AFM Safecoat. It’s going to be very expensive and I’m trying to cut costs. I wanted to use Benjamin Moore’s Eco Spec primer to cover the old one. Will this do a good job at blocking out some of the chemicals and toxins from the previous primer, or is it simply not enough (when compared to AFM for ex)? I’ll also be putting two coats of paint afterwards, if that helps.
It depends on what the chemical primer was. Ideally don’t block it, let it offgas first or you could have a big mess that you can’t really go back from. Regular primers don’t block that much, just a little, they slow down the offgassing of the product underneath so you may still get the fumes but now you can’t get that first layer to fully offgas.
Pam R says
We tried the AFM Safecoat Transitional Primer on our window trim and yellowing began to show through (as our painter anticipated). He says that it will show through even after painting over from his experience with water based primers.
He said Zinsser BIN Shellac Primer is the only one he knows of that will do the job in one coat. Do you know if this continues to off gass toxic chemicals after drying?
You can use pure shellac as the purest option (with another transitional primer overtop like AFM) or you can use BIN Shellac, there are two BIN primers – use the alcohol based one not the water based one.
Aneta Libosvarova says
Hi, we bought Valspar Reserve for our house and also for our daughter’s room. Unfortunately I found out that it might contain fungicides to make it mildew resistant. Does Valspar Reserve contain any fungicides? Or any other harmful substances as lead or Teflon? Is it safe for kids considering that they will breathe it, touch it etc? Thank you.
all latex paint contains a preservative which is a type of fungicide. The main post on paint contains more info.
I love your site and reference it for each step of our home building process. I am wanting a safe environment for my family and low odor due to chronic migraines. Since you say primer is often more odorous than paint, I want to get this one right! Could you say which of the primers has the least odor after drying?
Thanks so much!
Thanks for the great resources. Are there any low or no VOC moisture vapor barrier primers out there? It does not appear to me that any of theses are vapor barriers. I am hoping to avoid a plastic barrier. If I have to use a product with VOC’s, do you have a suggestion for which of the fore mentioned products would work on top of that?
I don’t know of any situation where it would be a good idea to use a vapor retardant paint (or primer) so I don’t list them on the site. If you are in the arctic you probably need an actual vapor barrier behind the drywall. If you are anywhere else you most likely need a smart vapor retarder membrane, or none at all.
Regular acrylic paints are a semi vapor retarder and that is usually what is required by code. Those are just regular acrylic latex paints like ECOS that I list in the non-toxic paint post.
I believe all latex paints are categorized as class III vapor barriers. Ideally your walls would be designed so that’s all you need, so you don’t trap moisture in them with a higher class vapor barrier.
Class III is medium permeability – Acrylic latex paints are in this category but not VAE latex like Farrow and Ball.
Thank you for all your great info! Was wondering– why pick, say, the AFM primer which is low-VOC over the Benjamin Moore which is zero-VOC (and costs half as much)? Am I missing something? Are there other toxic chemicals that can off-gas that are not factored into the VOC count?
I wouldn’t personally pick AFM over the others but yeah technically there are chemicals like ammonia that are not counted as VOCs, also some low VOC products cure faster than some 0 VOC products.
Ali G says
Some people are sensitive to Zeolite and therefore need to know how they react before buying NO VOC paints or sealers.
Sensitive to a natural mineral that is practically odorless like zeolite would be extremely rare. I only know two brands that add that and it’s listed here.
Just wanted to say i really appreciate this website and the time you put into these article. We’ve used this site to find safe flooring, safe lead paint remover and safe paints. I’m so grateful to have found this site. Keep up the great work.
Thank you James