I'm highly allergic to chemicals. Are there hidden toxins in low- or zero-VOC paints?

Asked by Diena Chen, Los Angeles, CA

I'm searching for safe paint to use in my house—and getting confused. I am highly allergic to chemicals, and I read that even low-VOC or zero-VOC paints can have hidden toxins. I found a company called YOLO that has zero-VOC paint, but it's 100-percent acrylic. Do you know if that is safe to use?


Nick Cope

Answered by Nick Cope

Brooklyn, NY

Green Painting

December 17, 2008

I understand your concern about hidden toxins in low- or zero-VOC paints. I recently researched this issue for a client who is allergic to almost all paints and finishes.

Acrylics—or, more precisely, water-based acrylics such as latex—are already a huge improvement over oil-based paint. Standard latex paints meet stringent guidelines for VOC content and are much safer than a decade ago.

Manufacturers of low-VOC or zero-VOC paints have drastically reduced or eliminated toxins such as formaldehyde; however, there may still lurk certain solvents that are harmful to those who are sensitive. In my experience, the following low- or zero-VOC paints perform exceptionally well and present very few or no health concerns. The first two brands that I will touch on, Mythic Paint and AFM Safecoat, contain no solvents other than water and are noted for being the best paints for those with allergies or chemical sensitivity.

Mythic Paint is perhaps the least toxic paint available today. It performs well and comes in a variety of colors. Unfortunately, distribution is not up to snuff at this point; most of us have to order it by mail, which is not the greenest option.

AFM Safecoat is the brand of zero-VOC paint I use most frequently. It is a pleasure to apply, with almost no odor. For what it's worth, most respondents to an informal poll of ten green building experts conducted by chose AFM Safecoat as the "best 'eco paint' available." However, it is a thin paint that sometimes requires an additional coat (depending on the color).

Benjamin Moore Aura is a low-odor, ultralow-VOC latex paint that leaves an incredibly rich finish, almost reminiscent of an alkyd enamel. It's self-priming and very durable.

YOLO Colorhouse is a Portland-based company that boasts a truly premium line of zero-VOC paints. Though custom color-blending is not possible at present, the color selection is very creative, highlighting elemental palettes like "stone" and "air."

For more information:

Greenguard Environmental Institute publishes a directory of paints that meet their low-emissions standard.

Visit the Green Seal website to consult a recently updated list of recommended paints.

Do you have a question about greening your home? GreenHomeGuide invites you to Ask A Pro. Let our network of experienced green building professionals – architects, designers, contractors, electricians, energy experts, landscapers, tile & stone specialists, and more – help you find the right solution.