Green every color

  • Posted on 28 February 2005
  • By Annelisa Stephan

Did you know that painting releases over 50 tons of smog-forming pollution each year in Southern California, five times as much as all our area's oil refineries? Paint is classified as toxic waste, and for good reason-the solvent in both oil- and water-based paint can trigger headaches and asthma attacks, weaken the immune system, damage the liver and kidneys, and poison groundwater.

But paint doesn't have to be bad for the environment. Today's green paints come in a huge range of colors, finishes, and materials. They're easy and fun to use and can accommodate most budgets.

What's in a can of paint?

The average can of paint is far less toxic today than it was 20 years ago. Pungent oil- or solvent-based paints have been largely replaced by water-based latex paints. 'Latex paints have gotten safer over the years because federal regulations have forced lower and lower levels of VOCs,' said Lauren Hackett of the Consumers Union, the nonprofit group that publishes Consumer Reports. VOCs (volatile organic compounds) are chemicals that lose gases, or outgas, harming health and contributing to smog.

Unfortunately, latex paints still contain poisonous resins, solvents, biocides, preservatives, and defoaming, wetting, and drying agents.

Honey, I don't have a headache

The good news is that green consumers are transforming the marketplace by demanding healthier paint. In a dramatic change from only a few years ago, all big American paint companies now offer low- or zero-VOC paint.

And they work. 'Five or ten years ago, the low- or zero-VOC paints didn't perform as well,' said Mark Petruzzi of Green Seal (, a nonprofit organization that tests and promotes environmentally friendly products, 'but there have been great leaps since then.' Several zero-VOC paints have passed Green Seal's tests for hiding power, washability, and scrubbability.

Petruzzi recently hired a painter to do his bathroom in zero-VOC paint. 'He was skeptical at first,' says Petruzzi, 'but by the end he was sold. 'Man, this stuff is great! It doesn't smell, and I don't have a headache!''

Before you buy, be aware that some zero-VOC latex paint lines use solvent-based pigments, so bright or dark colors can contain low levels of VOCs. Also, even zero-VOC paints may have toxins exempt from government reporting regulations, such as formaldehyde and acetone.

The National Association of Home Builders recommends choosing paints that have been independently certified as low- or zero-VOC. Benjamin Moore's EcoSpec line is certified both by Green Seal and the Greenguard Environmental Institute (, a nonprofit that tests and certifies low-emitting interior products.

Another excellent zero-VOC paint comes from San Diego-based AFM Safecoat. AFM's paint is formulated to reduce outgassing from toxic building materials, making it a good choice for painting particleboard or plywood. AFM is also the only company to offer a zero-VOC paint for exterior use.

Compost this!

To be a really green consumer, you'll also want to think about the life cycle of the paint you buy. Most paints-even low-VOC ones-start out as crude oil and end up in landfills or toxic waste dumps.

By contrast, natural paints based on milk, clay, and plant oils are made from renewable resources, take relatively little energy to produce, and create little or no waste. (Vegans won't want to use milk paint, which contains by-products of the dairy industry.) They're pleasant-smelling and wash up easily with soap and water. Milk paints and plasters keep almost forever as powder. Natural oil-based paints are so gentle you can compost them in your garden.

Natural paints are stylish, too. They give you an earthy, rich look that traditional latex paint can't duplicate. Milk paint, for example, has brilliant, bright, strong, deep colors. 'It's a look you just can't get out of a can,' said Anne Thibeaut, manager of the Old-Fashioned Milk Paint Company. 'It's chalky, uneven, almost streaky, which is what most people love about it.' Milk paint works best on porous surfaces, although you can mix in a low-VOC bonding agent to help the pigment stick to painted walls.

Clay paints and plasters

Clay plaster lets you transform your boring Sheetrock walls into an adobe masterpiece. American Clay, a mother-and-son company in Albuquerque, N.M., sells the plaster in 32 colors, including beautiful blues, greens, and golds. You can layer colors or texture your mixture with mica, straw, colored sand, or other natural materials. Plasters take a few days to fully set, giving you time to experiment with textures and patterns. One 50-pound bag covers about 100 square feet.

Clay paint, which consists of water, clay, chalk, and some alcohol ester as a binder, gives your walls the look of plaster with less mess and effort. It's a good choice for apartment residents who want to create the adobe look without making a significant investment. BioShield Paints in Santa Fe, N.M., sells them in seven earth hues.

Good enough to eat (but don't)

German company Auro Paints offers natural oil paints made from plant oils, earth pigments, and tree resins. Rosemary, eucalyptus, and orange oils act as preservatives and give the paint a wonderful scent. 'Everyone who opens a can of Auro paint falls in love with it,' said Greg Snowden of Green Fusion Design, an environmental building supply center in Marin County. 'Not only does it not smell bad, it smells delicious.' The paint has a creamy, luxurious consistency and provides good coverage.

Auro uses reclaimed rainwater, organically grown flax, and sustainably harvested resin. The paint costs more than you'll pay at Home Depot, but is worth the price.

Look before you leap

Whatever paint you decide to buy, be safe and read the product's MSDS (materials safety data sheet), which you can usually find on the manufacturer's website. Look for ingredients with CAS numbers, unique codes assigned by the American Chemical Society. You can then look up each chemical on the Environmental Defense's Scorecard website at or in the National Library of Medicine's TOXNET database at

Get started

For help choosing green building and painting products, consult the Green Building Resource Center in Santa Monica ( In L.A., Green Building Products ( and Livingreen ( offer natural products for interior and exterior use. Though further afield, Green Fusion Design Center in Marin County ( sells many different natural paint lines by mail.


Blog Category: 

Add new comment

Enter the characters shown in the image.