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Recent developments mean safer products for indoor use

by Jodi DeLong

If you’ve ever dreaded painting the interior of your home—whether just one room or giving the whole place a fresh new look—chances are there are several factors that have led to unpleasant experiences in the past.

One of the biggest is the smell that lingered during and after the paint job. That smell was due in no small part to volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which are found in many building products, including paints, lacquers, strippers, building materials and even crafting materials like permanent markers. We’ve all noticed the odours given off by these products, and while to some they are mildly annoying, to others they can pose health risks including headaches and nausea, and even long-term issues.

The VOCs found in such paints—including the oil and melamine paints that used to be extremely popular—also can continue to be emitted from the painted walls and other items and linger inside a home for years. They also are considered harmful to the environment and contributing to greenhouse gas problems and thus, climate change. 

A green revolution

You can worry less about the effects of paint inside your home thanks to the response of paint manufacturers and sellers throughout North America. There are now many different types of less toxic paints available; some are labeled as low-VOC and some as no-VOC products.

Traditionally, many people considered oil paints to be superior to acrylic paints for indoor and exterior products, but this is no longer the case. Vince Scolaro works with a national company that producers low- and no-VOC paints, and says most of the current research in developing new products and improvements is in using latex paints.

“Formulations for latex and acrylic paints have vastly improved,” Vince says. “One hundred per cent acrylic, which is a latex paint, outperforms oil for exterior use.” The benefits include paints that are more colourfast, as oil fades faster than acrylic. Moisture will pass through acrylic paints whereas it does not through oil painted surfaces, resulting in peeling paint; as an added bonus, the paints are more resistant to mildew growth. “Latex paint also works on many substrates—vinyl and aluminum siding, brick and masonry, wood, fibreglass, concrete.”


With no- and low-odour paints, much of the stress is taken out of refreshing your décor with a new colour or two.

Pros and cons

As the name suggests, low- and no-VOC paints have little or no smell when you’re working with them. This is particularly important for those with chemical sensitivities or allergies. There’s no off-gassing once the paint has dried, so you don’t need to air the house out for hours or days before you can comfortably and safely enjoy your newly painted room or rooms.

Low- and no-VOC paints cover well, are easily washed, come in a huge array of colours and numerous finishes from gloss to eggshell to flat. It should be noted, however, that adding a colour tint to a paint may increase VOC levels slightly, but still not to the point of being noticeable. Happily, there are zero-VOC colourants available through some companies, so you can tint your paint without worrying about possible odour from the colour additives.

Low- and zero-VOC paints tend to dry quickly, and provide a durable, washable surface on walls, floors and ceilings. They cover far better than when they first came onto the market, and here’s where the manufacturers have worked hard to vastly improve the quality of their products.

Remember how you had to use solvents to clean rollers and brushes—and heaven forbid you spill oil paint on your floor? With acrylic and latex paints, you simply do cleanup with water. Some manufacturers recommend that you don’t even clean your brushes and rollers at the end of the day, if you’re going to be continuing the project; simply wrap your tools in plastic (a recycled bread bag with no crumbs in it, or a clean grocery bag), squeeze the plastic to make sure all air is out, and then store in a dark cupboard until you’re ready to return to the project. It’s also recommended that you wash your tools in a bucket rather than in the sink, pour out the water into a sealed container and take it to a waste depot that accepts paint and paint cans.

As with any product, price and quality for these paints can vary from company to company, and professional painters all have their favourite products that they swear by. A little research is always a good thing before making an investment in renovating, so ask around about preferred products used by professional painters, interior decorators, and contractors. There are various “green” certification programs out there that can also help you with making choices—including Green Seal, and Green Wise—and any company selling paints in Canada must meet all government regulations regarding VOCs.

Beyond latex and acrylic

If you’re working on furniture refinishing, or doing crafting that requires paint, there are numerous products on the market that provide excellent coverage and zero or low odour. These include milk paints, chalk paints, mineral paints, and other so-called “natural” paints. These may cover differently from the acrylic or latex paints you’re used to for painting surfaces, and they are more suited for smaller projects than walls, in no small part because of price points and the size of containers they come in. Once again, however, there are reputable retailers out there who can answer your questions, and help you find the perfect paint for your projects.


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