Everyone -- from Benjamin Moore's Aura to The Home Depot's Freshaire Choice -- is advertising their paints as low VOCs or no VOCs.
But buying green isn't that easy.
Advertising that appears to be eco-friendly can be deceptive. Although the can may say the paint is low in volatile organic compounds, some brands inject a hefty dose of these chemicals when the colorant is added at the store. And low or no VOC paints also can contain suspected carcinogenic ingredients.
The only way to know what you are getting is to read labels carefully, ask probing questions and check whether the product has certification from an organization such as Greenguard or Green Seal.
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"The important thing to know is there is no definition of low VOC, no definition for green and no definition for performance," said Rocky Prior, the creator of Mythic, paint that bills itself as the "first and only high-performance paint that has zero VOCs, zero toxins and is noncarginogenic." A chemist, he has been in the paint business for 20 years.
"The paint market is very confusing, and the big guys don't want you to be able to sort through all the clutter," he said.
One way to start sorting through the clutter is to learn the lingo.
Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are the solvents released into the air as the paint dries, producing that "new-paint smell." Health and environmental experts warn that this off-gassing harms the ozone layer and can cause watering eyes, headaches, dizziness and other symptoms. Young children, the elderly and those with asthma are particularly susceptible. The Environmental Protection Agency says some of these chemicals contain known or suspected carcinogens.
Consumer Reports test
Even the experts at Consumer Reports, the go-to folks for unbiased shopping advice, haven't done much work on the topic. The March issue was the first time the magazine tracked the VOC count, according to Dan DiClerico, senior editor.
Paints with high scores in the magazine's tests for low luster paints include Benjamin Moore Aura ($55 a gallon), True Value Easy Care ($23 a gallon) and Glidden Evermore ($20 a gallon). DiClerico pointed out that Freshaire Choice ($35-$38 a gallon), which has a powder colorant, and Mythic ($35-$42 a gallon) advertise zero VOCs, but they were not included in the tests.
"Most of the manufacturers we deal with have introduced or are in the process of introducing a low or no VOC line," DiClerico said. "But that's where a lot of the confusion rests. What qualifies as low VOC? There really isn't any standard."
DiClerico suggested looking on the label for a paint that is below 50 grams per liter. (Remember there are almost 4 liters in a gallon and a room can require up to 2 gallons to cover properly.)
"The VOC count listed is not necessarily the true VOC," he warned. "VOCs in the colorant are added at the point of purchase. That bumps up the count. We have seen it as high as 150. So you can have a 'low VOC' paint around 50 grams per liter that could actually be in the neighborhood of 200 grams."
Colorants added by retailers are not regulated by anyone, DiClerico said.
Eco-friendly paints have been on the market for a decade, but performance reviews were often bad. Colors were dull. Texture was inconsistent. And they didn't hold up to scuffs and stains. The sheen selection was often limited since it's easier to have lower VOCs in a low-gloss paint.
But some of the newer paints, such as Benjamin Moore Aura, reportedly are giving better results. Aura, used at this year's American Red Cross Designers' Show Houses in Fort Lauderdale and Singer Island, features ColorLock(CQ) technology partnered with a waterborne colorant system that does not add VOCs.
Scotty Rawley of RZ Design Group in Palm Beach created an eco-friendly master bathroom in the Singer Island show house using a recycled glass chandelier, bath products from Publix Greenwise Market and Aura paint.
"The painters loved painting with it," she said. "It covered well and you didn't need as much paint. We were quite satisfied with it. There is no reason not to use it. We try to use it in every job. It's a little bit more expensive, but I think it's worth it."
Don't be "greenwashed"
A paint that has low or no VOCs, may contain potential carcinogens. Check the label for warnings.
Paul Novak of the Green Depot in Newark, N.J., and greendepot.com has been selling green products since 1991. He's seen a lot of what the industry calls "greenwashing" or making a product appear eco-friendly that isn't.
"Look at the ingredients," he said. "What you don't want to see is polyvinyl acetate, mineral spirits, acetone and things like that. You don't want anything that is construed as a petrochemical or formaldehyde."
But that's not the whole story either. Even natural oils can be toxic to someone who is very chemically sensitive, he said.
Mythic, which has been advertising a lot lately in shelter magazines, has no warning label. It claims to be safe for people, pets and the earth.
"Our paint is different because we were a new paint company that started from ground zero building our formula without any VOCs," said Prior, the paint's creator. "We started with a blank piece of paper. Some people are masking the odor with odor masking agents."
Prior emphasized the importance of investigating the ingredients on the label.
"Some of these companies are so small that no one has caught up with the deception in the labeling," he said. "But they will -- eventually."