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4 Eco-Friendly Interior Paints

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If choosing paint colors doesn’t give you a headache, the fumes probably will—unless you pick from the growing array formulated to be easy on the body, the planet, and not least the eyes.

Paint expert Clayton Hubbard
San Francisco–based contractor Clayton Hubbard brushes up on eco-friendly interior house paints and gives us the stroke-by-stroke on flow and coat coverage in various shades of green.

Even if you’ve saved every J. Crew catalog since the dawn of time, it’s unlikely you have as many quirky color names under your bed as the nearest home-improvement store has in its paint aisle. Given the overwhelming process of selecting palettes for interior walls–—how to decide between Kiss of Spring or Frappe Mint—–we’ve often thought it would be faster (and more fun) to weave names into oddball narratives, then see how the corresponding colors match up.

For instance:
A Cool Dude walked into the Corner Cafe and paid for his Bananas Foster with a Shiny Nickel.  The Log Jam near the Hunting Lodge couldn’t keep Intrepid Isabella from arriving at High Noon. Westie White’s Regal Attitude concealed her Secret Dreams of Cocoa Crunch. Heather Glen, a Red Headed Beauty, dreamed of spending an Evening in Venice, but could not Escape the Everyday grind of her Industrial Steel town.

Of course, this could prove dangerous unless you’re willing to have your living room resemble the interior of a circus tent. Fortunately, there are both expert color consultants and an increasing number of online tools to help you pick hues. We asked painter Clayton Hubbard for his opinion on a selection of eco-friendly interior paints and learned in the process that the real pros forgo name games altogether and order paint by number.

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Loved this article! One question my wife and I have had about these paints is: If our house has already been painted with regular VOC rampant paint that is leeching who-knows-what into the air we breathe, do these zero-VOC paints effectively seal in the toxins/chemicals from the existing paint? If not, is there some primer that claims it can do so? Thanks!

I have been using the low-VOC and VOC-free paint line from Sherwin-Williams since they have a store in my neighborhood. I had hoped this article would include that line so I could get a second opinion. I have only been satisfied with the results, but not ecstatic. Two coats does the job, finishes nicely, with little to no smell. One thing, is not all colors are available in VOC-free. I would like to see their line compared to the other lines which are readily available. Thanks.

Thanks for the comments, Alex and Neal. I do not know the answer to the question of whether the low- or zero-VOC paints seal in the off-gassing effects of a higher-VOC paint. That might be something to ask at the new Sierra Club Green Home site, which we posted about a few days ago. They have an "ask an expert" section where sustainability director Jennifer Schwab can answer your questions.

Neal, we didn't try the Sherwin-Williams paints so I can't opine on them with experience. Benjamin Moore and Mythic both have a lot of colors available, which definitely adds to their appeal given that some of the environmentally-sensitive brands are limited in their palettes.

I love Dwell but get annoyed when they don't show all the options. Home Depot actually has a line by Glidden called Fresh Aire that is 100% no VOC and it's available in 65 colors. It's actually lower priced than any of these options and from what I hear, customers are thrilled with it. It's definitely worth checking out, especially when in these economic times, companies are pulling their eco-friendly products if they have a less expensive product to promote.

Thanks Sarah, I would be happy to take Alex's question. Great article by the way, I like that you tested quality. One key thing to remember is if quality is exceptional, less product is required which will help defray costs. There are always three concerns when transitioning into low/no VOC paints: is my color available, how much will it cost me, and finally, how is the quality? Your testing effectively touches on quality and color availability.

Thanks for your insights.

Jennifer Schwab
Sierra Club Green Home
Director of Sustainability

Hi Alex,
Good question regarding painting over a VOC-laden wall with a healthier, low or no VOC option. The answer is simple, sealing and repainting can effectively seal in the toxins/chemicals from the existing paint. First prime the surface with a transitional primer that's designed to seal VOC's from the previous layer then follow up with two coasts of your chosen no-VOC color. It is definitely worth the time and money to repaint your walls with a low/no-VOC option. It gives your walls a new life in terms of vibrance and health! If you'd like additional information on Paints, Adhesivs, Sealants, and Finishes
Jennifer Schwab, Sierra Club Green Home

We loved your article about eco friendly paints! When setting up our green office and warehouse last year we devoted a significant portion of our budget to paint and felt it was truly worth the added expense. We used Fresh-Aire Choice from Home Depot and had excellent results but did need to use two coats to cover medium and dark grey paint.

Thanks for the great article! We hope you'll have a similar article on carpet to refer to for our next green update!

Green Paper Company

Much like this article didn't include the more inexpensive Glidden brand from Home Depot. There is is also a no-VOC brand at Lowe's called Olympic and one at Osh from Dutch Boy that I have had very good luck with. Both have a good selection of colors and are very well priced, much better than Mythic & Sherwin-Williams. Does DWELL have something against less expensive "green" paint?

There is a paint company called ROMA who is taking paint to another level. Not only is their paint low voc (the washable matte on my walls has a voc content of .87 g/Lt) but contains zero asthmagens, zero formaldehyde, and no solvents. Take a look at their video on their website, They are taking into consideration indoor as well as outdoor air quality. I am very pleased with my product.