What are Zero-VOC Paints?
VOC is an acronym that stands for volatile organic compounds. The Environmental Protection Agency describes them as “organic chemical compounds whose composition makes it possible for them to evaporate under normal indoor atmospheric conditions.” Essentially, this means that VOCs are the invisible chemicals we smell when bringing paint products, building supplies, and even new furniture into our homes. The evaporation process is referred to as "off-gassing," and it can last well after the new paint smell is gone—potentially several years.
What are these chemicals exactly? Formaldehyde, d-Limonene, toluene, acetone, and ethanol (and more) fall within this category. Consumers have experienced short and long-term health effects, including headaches, respiratory and skin irritation, central nervous system issues, and even certain forms of cancer. According to the EPA, VOCs can be up to two to five times higher indoors. However, there are steps you can take to reduce the levels in your homes.
What is the difference between low-VOC and zero-VOC paint?
Laws and regulations around VOCs change often. Complicating things further, VOC regulations can also differ from state to state. While low-VOC paint lines are widely available and used, they still contain the chemicals mentioned above and off-gas harmful fumes, though less than traditional paint products historically. The main differentiator is that brands offering zero-VOC paint do not add VOC chemicals to their mixtures, resulting in a product that might only have trace amounts if any.
So, now that you know what VOCs are, what can you do about them? As you select colors, look for paint companies that meet zero-VOC emissions standards (containing 5g/L or less of VOCs), and are willing to disclose their test results to consumers. It is also important that a zero-VOC paint brand does not include VOCs in their tinting process either. VOCs can be present in the colorants even if they are not present in a base paint mixture.