Style stories

Everything you need to know about eco-friendly paint and why it is better for you too

Do you remember the days when the smell of ‘fresh paint’ in your home signalled a freshening up of your decór? None of us really had any idea that this smell was actually toxic fumes, doing us no good whatsoever!

I’ve blogged before about sustainability in interior design ( read here) being part of a larger cultural shift towards a more environmentally conscious way of living. Fortunately, sustainable choices are becoming easier to make everywhere we look, and one area that affects my design world is the rise of eco-friendly paint.

I know what you’re thinking: paint is a manmade product, so how can it ever be truly eco-friendly? Well, while you’re correct to a certain extent, there are paint companies out there producing paint that has a minimal impact on the environment. Traditional paint is high in toxins, plastics or chemicals, so, what exactly makes a paint eco-friendly and what do we need to look for?

As yet, there is no clear definition of what constitutes ‘eco’ or ‘natural’ paint or any accreditation for the paint industry, like they have in timber, for example. This means that paint companies can use the word ‘organic’ purely because there are some plant-based ingredients, so it’s important to drill down deeper and look at the small print, particularly in terms of how it is made and what exactly is in it.

The manufacturers

There are many companies large and small who are now offering a healthier, more sustainable alternative to the chemical paints we’ve been used to. Here are a few of my favourites- each one has written about their credentials, which I have linked to under each image

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The ingredients

You should be able to read this on the paint tin itself but expect to see plant-based oils like linseed; waxes; clays; and chalks or limestone. You might also spot casein, a milk protein, taking the place of other petrochemicals. It’s a bit of a minefield that is crying out for regulation because some of the products involved in regular paint manufacturing that can cause health problems are from natural sources and therefore could be considered organic. Not everything that is naturally occurring is healthy of course – turpentine comes from a plant product and is carcinogenic. Be wary too of the phrase "water based"– some manufacturers are able to use this when it really only means "watered down". 

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC)

Paint, as well as brush cleaners, primers and spray paints are the second largest contributor of VOC emissions after the motor industry. VOCs can be harmful and trigger allergic reactions and asthma. They also stick around for years after paint is dry. The government did change the rules on VOC levels in retail paint some time ago, so it’s no longer enough for a company to claim a paint is eco-friendly just because of a low VOC, given all paints are low now. VOCs are another grey area sadly, where natural paint suppliers will go as low as they possibly can, and other manufacturers contend that no paint can be truly VOC-free. And even if it did achieve zero VOC’s, it still doesn’t mean it’s eco-friendly if the other ingredients are wrong.

If the trend for sustainable practices and demand for natural paint grows, then industry wide standards will surely follow. In the meantime, for those us trying to live as eco-consciously as we can, it’s good to know that there are benefits to be had from spending some time choosing eco paint. Those with the lowest VOCs will least impact our health, and for homeowners with old properties, natural paint offers excellent breathability for our walls and is a natural mould repellent.

Lastly, bear in mind your own waste generation on your next DIY project – most unused paint has to be incinerated or ends up in landfill sites, so try to estimate your litres and coverage as best you can – or ask your friendly interior designer to help!

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