Healthy Paints and Varnishes

In this short article I give an overview of the key issues. It’s a huge subject and this is a brief summary. #healthyhousedesign There are two key aspects:

1. The toxins and VOCs emitted by some paints are bad for your health
2. The “sustainability” of the materials and their manufacture could form part of your decision.

Painted and varnished surfaces occupy a very large area of our buildings. Paints protect building materials from external elements such as UV light, rain, and external pollution.

1. VOCs and Toxins in Paints and Varnishes
Traditional house paints, varnishes, paint stripper, thinner, and adhesives, contain many toxins that are harmful to people and the environment.

VOC (Volatile Organic Compounds) are released into the air as the paint dries. These can cause headaches, asthma, allergic reactions and more. In fact the list of possible health effects is alarming.
All products that produce VOCs should be avoided. This is more important than the colour which is also important but nonetheless secondary for a #healthyhousedesign.

Lead paints (banned in the EU in 2003) are toxic and also not in common usage may be dangerous when they are being removed.

2. Sustainability of Materials More Generally including Paints
There is often a dilemma when choosing materials for an “environmentally friendly” home that is not just restricted to paints. Sometimes what looks like the most “environmentally friendly” material turns out not to be after a more careful study of the facts. As a general principal we should use materials that can be sourced locally (so there is less embodied carbon in the transport) and that are renewable and non-toxic and do not affect the environment during their manufacture.

So, locally sourced timber would be preferred to imported plastic.

The problem is that it can be the case that the environmentally friendly material may require more intensive maintenance or replacing more frequently than the non-environmentally friendly material to the extent that, when you calculate the carbon footprint / toxicity of each material in the long term, the conclusion is not what you expected.

3. What are My Choices Broadly Speaking for Paints and Varnishes
Paints can be made out of different kinds of materials with different advantages and disadvantages. Choose the paint according to the job to be done: inside / outside, walls, floors, roofs, metal or wood. However there are low or nontoxic options for each application.

Water based paints (also called latex paints), suitable for most applications and generally speaking emit fewer VOCs than say oil based paints.

Oil based paints are cheaper than water based paints and may be more durable. Here is a list of the pros and cons of oil based paints:

Natural Paints are those derived from natural sources such as chalk, marble clay and are devoid of synthetic and petrochemical ingredients. Perhaps not as durable as some of the others they are improving all the time. They made need to be applied more carefully to perform as well and they may be a bit more expensive but not much. You should be able to buy a natural paint for any surface. Perhaps use them selectively such as in the children’s bedroom and the most used rooms of the house like the living room and kitchen.

Limewash: we love limewash and often suggest it in bathrooms. It’s a natural product and has been used for thousands of years since the Roman times. It’s made from limestone that has been crushed and burnt and mixed with natural pigments. The surface can come out mottled with a suede like chalky texture. It looks great with natural stone wood and stucco.