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To paint or not to paint? Yes to Painting!

April 11, 2020

To paint or not to paint? Yes to Painting!

Painting is safe and easy. But it does have some risks

There is no easier and cost-effective way to update or change the look of the interior of you home than to start painting a wall or two or more. It’s relatively fast, can often be done in one day, is inexpensive, and requires few tools and materials. Plus as a home improvement project it does not require the uprooting of your family or days or weeks of mess and disruption. And it’s an easy way to help maintain your homes’ value. However, it does come with some risks worth considering . . . risks that are both real and avoidable at the same time.

The Risks of Painting 

The most important issue or risk with paint and painting is what are referred to as volatile organic compounds, VOCs for short. VOCs are those chemical ingredients (some of which are man-made and others naturally occurring), that are used in manufacturing paint to aid in any number of attributes such as shelf life, application, sheen, color, drying time, and durability—all important factors when it comes to paint.

Many others you don’t necessarily “see” the results of their purpose but one thing is for sure, you can often smell them—that new paint smell is the off-gassing of those VOCs. Are they harmful? Can the risk of VOCs be reduced? Can they be avoided altogether? The answers are yes, yes, and no.

Are VOCs harmful?

Yes they are. But not all of them are and not all to the same degree. Some are more harmful in small quantities while other are not. The same can be said about larger quantities. The fact of the matter is they can cause harm. In most cases the harm will be limited to irritated eyes, sore throat, breathing issues and, depending on the level of sensitivity, skin rashes. 

In worst case it can lead to severe headaches, nausea, and chronic, long-term respiratory issues, and even damage to internal organs and the central nervous system. The most vulnerable to VOCs are children and older adults or those with existing chronic respiratory illnesses. Not to mention the impact of those VOCs on the environment.

While such effects are not well understood, it’s accepted that paint in any form doesn’t belong in our waterways and should be taken to an approved disposal location. The good news is that most commercially available residential paints are low to no-VOC and therefore the harmful effects greatly reduced.

Can the risk of VOCs be reduced?

Yes they can. While it’s difficult if not impossible to entirely remove VOCs from paint, many manufacturers have advanced their products to the point where they are producing paints (bases and tints) that are very low to no-VOCs. Some have even managed to eliminate the smell of their paint to the point where it’s approved to be used in hospitals, schools and in “clean room” environments where VOCs are not tolerated (such as in semiconductor and aerospace manufacturing).


The first and best way to avoid VOCs in paint is to select a brand that not only offers a no-VOC paint (and tints) but makes available and easily accessible documentation such as Technical Bulletins (TB) and Safety Data Sheets (SDS) on their web sites or at retail locations. These documents list most ingredients, the VOC levels and other environmental and technical information.

Most of the info will make very little sense unless you are a materials scientist or chemist, but with some research you’ll be able to discern the information you want and need in little to no time.

Here are a few other tips for reducing your exposure to VOCs in paint:

  • Look for paints labeled ‘non-toxic’ or ‘natural’ – keeping in mind there still might be VOCs however they may be naturally-occurring vs man-made
  • Where possible paint with windows & doors open for cross-ventilation and use fans to keep air moving throughout the space in which you are painting. This isn’t always possible in colder regions so maybe consider painting in warmer months (spring, summer & fall) 
  • In relation to #2 above, avoid painting on really hot days (if you don’t have A/C) or in really hot rooms. The heat can cause the paint to off-gas more vigorously and therefore increase the level of VOCs in a short period of time than might normally occur over a longer period
  • Seal off the painted room with plastic sheeting to avoid air flow from that room to others
  • Don’t stay in the painted space for long periods of time. Stop painting at natural cut off points (corners) and head outside and get some fresh. Once finished painting and if possible, avoid the painted room for a period of time, one to two if possible 
  • Remove all painting materials from the living area of your home when not painting. Place them in your garage or other area where you are not frequenting in your home such a your basement away from your furnace and intake air vents

Can VOCs in paint be avoided altogether?

As mentioned briefly above, VOCs are both natural and man-made. Truth is they can’t be avoided altogether in paint regardless of manufacturer or brand promise. Notwithstanding the method of manufacture there will be traces of VOCs in paint that occur naturally in the varied ingredients.

Truth is VOCs exist in many forms in the environment and even in many natural foods. It’s in the carbon dioxide we breathe out, produced by the plants in our homes (and off-gases from the lumber in the walls of our homes), is in the furniture we sit on, in perfumes and deodorants, shampoos and lotions, we all use daily. VOCs are ubiquitous in almost all items we use, consume and live with. 

So should you or should you not paint is certainly easier to answer if you are concerned about the health risks associated with VOCs in paint. Today’s paint is by far more health-friendly than any other point in time. While they’re certainly not as safe as water and still should be disposed of safely and carefully (and not down the drain or in the garbage can), paint is a lot less harmful than it once was and is a great way to improve on your living environment and increase the value livability of any home.  

As an inspired healthy home advocate, Empire Custom Homes [link] is committed to creating healthier living environments for our employees and clients through a company-wide commitment to our RESIDE Healthy Standard, AVANT Cabinets (NRC tested low-VOC cabinetry), our new healthy home collection in Currie at Valour Park, and on-going research to help reduce the impact of VOCs and related construction materials and practices on our built and lived-in environment.

If you would like to learn more about the RESIDE Healthy Standard, AVANT Cabinets, or our Valour Park single family project, please contact us.