I am remodeling my home and recently found out that I am pregnant. Is it safe for me to paint if I use no-VOC paints?
Are these paints safe to use when pregnant?
Although it is very common for women to use zero-VOC paints while pregnant, zero-VOC paint manufacturers quietly caution that you should consult your doctor about using their products while pregnant.
- However, because none of the conventional paint manufacturers disclose all of the ingredients, it is impossible to have a meaningful discussion about the issue with your doctor.
- So the short answer is: maybe it's safe, maybe not.
Everyone else is doing it
Based on my review of internet discussions on the topic, painting during pregnancy with low and zero-VOC paints is very commonplace.
- I even found a number of people who suggested adding vanilla extract to a can of paint in order to make the smell more bearable for odor-sensitive expectant mothers.
- I would definitely not recommend doing this.
- (Paint smells bad because it is toxic. Always open the windows and keep fans running. Also, be sure to ask manufacturers if they add odor-masking chemicals.)
There is a common sentiment that a zero-VOC paint must be safe to use when pregnant or when painting a baby’s room because there are no warnings on the label to the contrary.
Paint manufacturers are curiously silent on the issue.
- I ran searches on Benjamin Moore, Sherwin-Williams, and Glidden using the terms “pregnant” and “pregnancy.”
- These searches turned up nothing that would indicate whether or not it is safe for pregnant women to use their zero-VOC paints.
- The most information I found on the topic was from Yolo Colorhouse, which recommends “consulting with your doctor about painting when you are pregnant.”
When I asked them directly, Benjamin Moore also recommended consulting a doctor before using its Natura paint while pregnant. I contacted a Benjamin Moore representative to get a complete list of ingredients. They referred me to their MSDS, and then ended the conversation by telling me that the complete ingredient list is “proprietary.”
The problem with relying on an MSDS
Reading a manufacturer’s MSDS is a good place to start when thinking about whether you feel comfortable using their products while pregnant.
However, an MSDS does not provide a complete ingredient list.
- Manufacturers are not required to list all ingredients in their MSDS, only known hazards, and even those can remain undisclosed due to a few loopholes.
- Any ingredients that make up less than 1% of the contents by weight, carcinogens that make up less than 0.1% by weight, and proprietary ingredients or mixtures in any amount do not need to be disclosed.
- Tthis is why you sometimes see the “confidential” designation.
This means that a manufacturer can avoid listing known hazards by using a lot of different hazardous chemicals in small quantities or by combining them in a way that it deems a trade secret.
By looking at the maximum percentage listings of the ingredients on the MSDS and adding up the figures, it is usually apparent that the company is not disclosing all of the ingredients in their product.
A “zero-VOC” label is only partial reassurance
The claim that a product is “zero-VOC” is not as broad or reassuring as you might reasonably expect it to be for a number of reasons:
- A paint that is called “zero-VOC” may still contain up to 5 grams of VOCs per liter.
- Many “zero-VOC” paints have even more VOCs added when you tint the white base. You can assume that unless the paint manufacturer specifically states that it uses a zero-VOC tinting system, using colorants will add VOCs.
- According to some sources, taking the VOCs out of conventional paints actually means that a wider variety of chemicals are added in to compensate.
- Certain VOCs can be emitted after the wall is painted even though they are not present in the can. For example, paints may react with other surfaces to emit formaldehyde from chemical biocides, even though the paint and the biocides do not contain formaldehyde.
- Not all hazardous chemicals are VOCs.
From a health standpoint, the EPA’s definition of VOCs, which is typically used by manufacturers to describe their paints’ VOC content, may not be particularly meaningful. The EPA has the authority to regulate the VOCs in paint because of their potential to contribute to outdoor air pollution (smog), not because of their potential health risks. This unique mandate has led to a rather unusual definition of VOCs.
- There are a number of organic compounds that are known to be hazardous to human health that are specifically exempt from the VOC definition because they do not contribute to smog formation.
- For example, ammonia and acetone -- two very toxic chemicals that are defined as VOCs in Europe -- are not considered VOCs under the EPA’s definition.
- This means that these ingredients may be present in a “zero-VOC” paint.
The conundrum you're left with
The lack of complete ingredient disclosure means that consumers are faced with the following conundrum:
- paint manufacturers tell you to consult with your doctor (apparently because they themselves do not know for sure whether it is safe), but
- manufacturers refuse to give you the information you would need to be able to do this.
In the end, whether to use conventional zero-VOC paints while pregnant is a decision you will have to make yourself, based on how comfortable you are with the amount of information that is available.
My recommendation would be to avoid painting with conventional petrochemical paints (even zero-VOC formulas) while pregnant, and to be cautious about their health risks even beyond then.
Natural paints are the safest choice for pregnant women and children
Natural paint companies stand above the crowd in terms of the safety of their products.
These companies offer paints made with fewer ingredients (such as clay, casein, and marble), which means that they are not only truly zero-VOC, but safer from a holistic perspective.
- The Old-Fashioned Milk Paint Company specifically states that its paints are safe for use by pregnant women.
- Bioshield offers a variety of natural paints.
- Unearthed Paints, a natural paint company that I co-founded, is committed to making full ingredient disclosure the norm and provides a full ingredient list on the front of every label.
- You can also make your own natural paints with household ingredients.
Natural paints are the safest choice for pregnant women and families with young children.
They are also the most ecologically sound paints because their production requires less processing and energy and does not result in the toxic waste products associated with petrochemical paint manufacturing.
Full disclosure: I co-own Unearthed Paints, the natural paint and wood finishes company I mentioned above.
For more information:
Read our backgrounder "Selecting Green Paint".