If your head has ever ached right along with your arms after you’ve painted a room, I have good news for you: there are more fabulous zero-VOC and solvent-free paints out there than ever these days. If you’re unfamiliar with the shorthand, VOC stands for volatile organic compounds, chemicals which evaporate into the air at room temperature, creating the nostril-searing, headache-inducing smell that every DIY-er knows. Even if you find the smell of fresh paint a little nostalgic (I raise my hand as the child of itinerant home remodelers), no one wants to breathe in chemical particulates in their own space.
Here are some great alternative paint options that will help you create a beautiful, toxin-free home.
Colorhouse Paint, a US brand based in Portland, Oregon, was founded by two artist friends in 2005. They have a wide range of 128 colors, and their website is filled with Pinterest-worthy interior shots of the colors in action. Best of all, every paint is free of VOCs, reproductive toxins, chemical solvents, and HAPs (shorthand for hazardous air pollutants – toxins that are proven harmful though they aren’t as easily evaporated into the surrounding environment as VOCs). The paints also include an antimicrobial agent to prevent mold and mildew.
Colorhouse recommends their paints for interior walls, ceilings, and trim, depending on the finish. I skirted this guideline a bit and tested Air.01, a warm white, on a shelf I’d been wanting to rehab. The fluidity of the finish did require a few extra coats, but if your home décor style leans towards a more shabby chic vibe rather than highly-shellacked modern, you could probably get away with it, too. The familiar fresh paint odor was nearly absent, even during the painting process—at one point I installed my toddler into her bouncer nearby so I could keep painting.
Colorhouse paints are available in the US and UK through a variety of online retailers; you can find the full list here.
Quiet Home Paints takes the green pedigree a step further: all of their colours are organic, water-based, free of VOCs, and pesticide, herbicide, and solvent-free. Originally envisioned as a line of nursery paints, they have recently expanded their colour line. Founder Lisa Teague states that the company’s paint “has no… animal products, heavy metals, formaldehyde, vinyl chloride, phthalates, APEO or acrylic softeners.” Whew! (This also means they don’t include antimicrobial agents, so if you’re painting an area prone to mildew, you may want to choose Colorhouse instead.) They also use recycled and recyclable packaging (their unique-looking black cans are made from old car tires, for example), scoring them extra points in the eco-friendly stakes.
True to their roots as a children’s line, Quiet Home Paints offer a chalkboard finish, perfect if you want to try one of those DIY calendar walls or an ever-evolving mural. Their paints are currently only available in the USA.
When you’re looking for environmentally friendly products, you’re bound to eventually return to the classics. Milk paint has actually been around since the empire of ancient Egypt. You can even try making it yourself: all you need is to let skimmed milk and an acid medium (such as lemon juice) sit overnight, then mix in coloured pigment or artist’s acrylic until you have your desired shade. As you might imagine, the resulting concoction is totally free of any noxious chemicals, though you have to power through a bit of sour milk smell. (Don’t worry, though: it disappears as the paint dries.)
For larger projects, try one of the commercial milk paints available—these paints are mixed with lime for their acid medium, making for a more durable pigment. Once dried, they create an inky, stain-like finish, ideal for rehabbing antique pieces authentically, for creating a distressed, weathered look, or as a substitute for conventional paints.
You do have to pay more attention to the surface you’re painting when you use milk paint. Unless you’re painting raw wood or plaster, you’ll need to use a bonding agent to adhere the paint to the surface. And if you’re using milk paint on walls or heavily-used furniture such as built-in cabinets, you need to cover it with tung oil or an acrylic sealant to make the colour last.
If you want to refinish your grandmother’s Jacobean hope chest in authentic style, try The Old-Fashioned Milk Paint Company. Their twenty colours (such as Salem Red, Tavern Green, and Federal Blue) are all authentic to the eighteenth century. (You can find their list of retailers, which includes ones in the UK as well as the USA, here.)
Real Milk Paint also offers these historical colours, along with a more updated website with helpful tips and how-to videos. They even include their own proprietary recipe. (Want to make your own extra-durable milk paint at home? The secret ingredient is cottage cheese, apparently!) Their products are currently only available in the USA.
If you’re not yet sure whether the additional steps required for milk paint are worth it, take a look at Miss Mustard Seed’s Milk Paint. Designer Marian Parsons offers eighteen subtly gorgeous shades (with some especially luscious aquas and mints) and the pictures of the antique furniture refinished in her colours will make you want to start painting the very chair you’re seated in. Once you’ve stopped pinning everything, take a look at her useful how-to videos, as well. These paints are stocked in both the USA and the UK, and you can find out more about their retailers, here.
Choosing a green paint option doesn’t mean that you have to have a less colourful home – in fact, the opposite is true. So, here’s to all our future headache-free painting projects!
Author: Taylor Olsen