Paint and the environment

Ryan Hall

Community Service Leadership Seminar

Habitat for Humanity and LEED Standards

Environmentally Friendly Paint Options


In the past, environmentally friendly products were often deemed ineffective, unreasonably pricy, or aesthetically unpleasing. These same concerns and fears are especially relevant when considering what type of paint to apply to the interior or exterior of a house. The common-held thought is that by choosing a paint labeled as “environmentally friendly” you may be sacrificing the quality or voiding more affordable options. Recently, an increased demand for quality, economic, and environmentally friendly options have led to a higher focus on research and increased paint options.


Before we can begin to evaluate what type of paint is most effective, while still being environmentally friendly, we need to understand the type of qualities that a consumer values in house paint. Additionally, the considerations we make vary depending on whether we are focusing on exterior paints or interior paints. For exterior paints, some factors to consider include the type of surface to be painted, regional environment (weather), and UV exposure. For example, in high-UV exposure locations certain types of paints will degrade faster than others. For interior paint, similar considerations should be made. The humidity, sheen, abrasion resistance, and obviously color might influence what type of paint to use. When working with LEED standards we also need to be concerned about the impact to the environment. LEED takes into consideration both the paint’s impact on local air quality and total environmental impact. In all situations, paint is an investment so putting careful thought into paint options is a must in every situation.


Outdoor house paint comes in two common basic options, alkyd and latex. Alkyd is simply a fancy way of saying oil-based point. There are different types of oil-based paints, but all types share some common advantages and disadvantages. Alkyd paints are often considered durable, washable, and easy to apply. However, Alkyd paints usually also have a strong odor, yellow over time and a solvent is needed for clean-up. Latex paint is another outdoor paint option. Rather than being oil based, the primary liquid in latex paint is water. It is quick-to-dry and especially resistant to moisture. It also resists peeling better than oil pants and can be cleaned with soap and water. However, it has drawbacks as well. Latex paint does not stick to chalky surfaces well, is susceptible to shrinkage, and can be stained easily. Additionally, latex paints do not fare well when applied during frigid conditions. There are other types of specialty house paints that may are less-used and expensive.


Most exterior paints have traditionally contained VOC’s, or Volatile Organic Compounds. VOC’s are emitted in to the air as the paint dries. VOC’s are not only found in paints, they are also found in adhesives, cleaning supplies, home furnishings and elsewhere. Human contact to VOC’s can cause dizziness or headaches, and the long term effects of VOC exposure is largely unknown. The list of carcinogens and neurotoxins commonly found in paint include benzene, formaldehyde, kerosene, ammonia, toluene, and xylene. The Vice President of the American Lung Association, Janice Nolen, says that studies show High VOC exposure in homes leads to increase in respiratory problems. LEED standards are in place to help limit the environmental footprint left behind. Paints with high VOC content should be avoided to encourage a natural and sustainable environment. Recently, manufactures have developed paint that claim to have 0 VOC’s, but many consumers remain skeptical about product reliability and durability. The off-gasing (distribution of VOC’s into the air) continues long after the paint is dry. There is currently national legislation in the pipeline that will continue to set strict standards with VOC levels in paint. In studying the town of Normal, the Children’s Discovery Museum boasted the use of low-VOC paints in their LEED approved building.

For exterior paint the more environmentally friendly route would be to stick with water based Latex paint. Oil based generally has a higher VOC content and emits negative materials in to the environment at a higher frequency than latex paint. Despite the label of low or even zero VOC content, most if not all paints will still emit hazardous chemicals that have a negative environment on the environment or ourselves. Certain paints are marketed as meeting LEED standards. Many Low VOC content paints fall under the LEED standard category.  In July of 2009 stricter regulations were set in place for Illinois and the VOC content contained in paint. The Green Seal is an independent non-profit that has evaluated paints that meet strict standards of being environmentally friendly. A list of Green Seal approved paints can be found here. In order to meet the Green Seal standard there are certain hazardous chemicals that cannot be in the paint.


The only true type of environmentally friendly paint would be natural or non-toxic paints. Even paints labeled as having a zero VOC content are legally allowed to have a small amount of VOC’s. The raw ingredients of completely natural and non-toxic paints could include water, plant oils, plant dyes, natural minerals such as clay, milk protein, bees’ wax, or other natural elements. Some natural paint manufacturers include Bioshield, Livos, Auro, or Milk paint. These paints in the long run may not preserve as well as traditional and more frequently used paints so the sustainable value of these paints is questionable.

In order to be qualified as Low-VOC or Zero-Voc there are national guidelines in place. Low Odor or Low VOC Paint is a term used that means the paint meets the minimum 250 g/L for latex paints or 380 g/L for oil based paint. A paint may be labeled Low VOC and be significantly BETTER than these standards. For example, if you buy a Green Seal certified paint, the maximum VOC content will be 50 g/L for flat paint or 150 g/L for other paint, not 250 g/L as per the EPA standard.


How can you ensure that you are being environmentally friendly while choosing an effective product? The easy answer is to purchase Green Seal certified paints. The Green Seal sets strict guidelines and helps identify environmentally friendly paint. Depending on the surface there are different LEED guidelines for the content of VOC’s. Rather than listing the minimum requirement for each surface you should shop for the Green Seal GS-11 standard. For those that are interested in specific requirements there is a table below that indicates specific VOC g/L guidelines. For more details on The Green Seal and LEED Requirements visit the following link: