Non-Toxic, Natural, Low-VOC Paint:
Which is the best?
We recently reached out to a long list of low-VOC paint companies to request samples to try. Our motivation? To determine which ones actually work, while still being green or sustainable.
There is one thing you should know about us Free Spirited Flower Power Children of the Earth. We tend to like beautiful things. I mean, that's kinda a big part of why we're all "Rah-rah Save the Planet". But it's also why we like to make our homes the beautiful, houseplant-covered Boho style so popular on Pinterest. We're also a little DIY, and tend to be on a budget, so slapping on a fresh coat of paint is often our idea of a good weekend. Until we see the VOC content on that bucket, and start to feel torn between our inner artist and our inner protestor. The struggle is real, ya'll.
So, we decided to do a little testing of our own. We were not compensated in any way by any of the companies for their products or our review, except with product to try (and maybe sore backs from all the painting we did).
One of the most common things to avoid in conventional paint options is the prevalence of VOCs (volatile organic compounds). Generally speaking, the lower the VOC content the less odor you'll notice. VOCs contribute to indoor air quality problems, respiratory issues, liver and kidney issues, nervous system problems, and cancer, as well as much more. In addition, a paint may include solvents, biocides, and much more. And truthfully, the list of potential ingredients is so long and many so under-tested that it's hard to know what to trust.
In our low-VOC paint trials we were primarily looking at sustainability and toxicity to the user, but also the performance of the paint, because nothing can be considered sustainable if it doesn't really work. We looked for the following in each brand:
- How eco-friendly is it?
- How was the coverage?
- Does it have an odor?
- Does it perform as expected?
- How does it look?
Of the no-VOC or low-VOC paint companies who chose to take part in our review, we broke them down into two categories: milk-based paint (Homestead House, Old Fashioned Milk Paint, and Real Milk Paint), and low-VOC paint (Dunn-Edwards, Portola, ECOS, and Earth Safe Finishes).
Note: Unfortunately due to lighting and despite our best efforts, we could not get decent up-close photos of each low-VOC paint without major variations in the color.
Comparing Milk Paint
The first type of no-VOC or low-VOC paint we tried was "milk paint". Milk paint is derived from a milk protein, lime, and a pigment. It's been around for ages, but is mostly known for its unique "antique" like finish. However, several milk paint companies offer milk paint for eco-friendly indoor painting of walls now, as well.
Homestead House offers their milk paint as a stain or a paint (depending on the amount of water you mix with it). They are shown in the far right in the photo above.
According to their MSDS (not found online, but available through request), their milk paint was very similar to other brands, consistently primarily of the milk protein (casein), pigments, clays, and lime. They also listed something called Aerosol OT-B (sodium dioctyl sulfosuccinate) in small amounts (.5%). The health risks are considered small, probably about the same as the lime used in the product - with caution it shouldn't pose a risk. However, there is a toxicity risk for marine and freshwater species.
We ran into the same struggle with Homestead's milk paint as the other brands: inconsistent coverage, in part due to the challenge in mixing the right amount of water. We wasted a lot of paint just in experimenting, and even when erring on the extreme conservative side, we still found it to be thin and streaky. There was also a low odor, but nothing that bothered us.
Old Fashioned Milk Paint
From Old Fashioned Milk Paint, we tested their SafePaint formula for walls. They are shown in the second sample from the right in the image above.
According to their MSDS, SafePaint is made up of the common milk proteins, pigments, and other harmless ingredients such as salt, clay, and chalk. It also states there are "non-hazardous ingredients that are trade secrets" not disclosed. The precautions are the same common sense practices (like not eating it) that go along with anything, even if it's safe and non-toxic.
Like the other milk paint brands, I really wanted to like SafePaint, but although I think it's wonderful on furniture or something like a wood fence, I just couldn't get down with it on my walls. The chalky finish is a real pain to clean, and if you don't add enough Extra Bond (water-based polymer) it cracks on the wall...which we found out the hard way. As with the other milk paints, mixing the right amount of water took so much trial and error (we didn't find the guidelines to be accurate) that we wasted as much paint as we used.
Note: We heard from OFMP about the cracking we experienced, as they've assured us this is not the norm with their paint. They offered this in regards to the possible reason: "[The finished product] can definitely depend what's underneath, for instance a lot of primers fail underneath our paint (they have poorer adhesion, and with our paint's greater adhesion sometimes there can be lifting - that's why we say do not prime) but otherwise if stain blocking paints/primers are used, our paint doe not like the chemicals they contain, and you can get some cracking/checking. It can be hard to figure if you don't know what's underneath, but in general our SafePaint covers just about any clean, sound surface, other than shiny plastic."
Real Milk Paint Company
Real Milk Paint is also considered organic, non-toxic, and eco-friendly. It can be seen on the far left in the image above.
According to their MSDS, Real Milk Paint is made up of casein (milk protein), lime, and pigments, as well as a "plant-derived filler". Like all milk paints, it comes with common sense precautions, such as avoiding inhalation of the dust particles and not eating it. It's certainly considered non-toxic and non-hazardous.
We were really surprised by the obnoxious odor of of the Real Milk Paint. Neither of the other milks paints, nor the low-VOC paints had much of (if any) odor, but with this brand it was very obvious. Like the others, it was a challenge to find the right consistency, and it had more of a matte finish as well, making it harder to keep clean. It also splattered like we ave never seen a paint splatter.
Note: We heard from Real Milk Paint after the fact who offered this to get better coverage on their paint: "When painting over previously painted walls or raw drywall, we recommend adding Ultra Bond to the first coat. This helps stop the paint from wicking into the raw dry wall and also stick to a modern unknown paint. If you are painting plaster then Ultra Bond is not necessary. Use a high quality wide sponge brush to paint and cut in the corners first then do the body of the wall. A sponge brush will provide the most uniform application of the paint. You can also use a 1/4 inch sponge roller for quicker application."
All in all, we just weren't pleased with how any of the milk paints performed on indoor walls. However, for their more popular purpose of furniture or wood stain, we did a little testing and found them to be really wonderful! My recommendation would be to keep the milk paint to the very porous surfaces and choose a no- or low-VOC paint for interior walls.
Comparing No-VOC or Low-VOC Paint
The second category of paints we received to test were the no-VOC or low-VOC paint.
Dunn-Edwards sent us samples of their Everest line. They can be seen second from the left in the image above.
According to the MSDS, there is nothing to cause alarm, other than the usual precautions that should come along with any paint. However the actual MSDS doesn't list any actual ingredients either. It's a zero-VOC formula and self-priming, meaning it creates less household waste, and it's LEED-certified.
Everest had great coverage and really performed like any conventional brand of paint, without the VOCs. We found it went on consistently, had less dripping and splattering than most other brands we tested, and very low odor.
Portola Paints sent us their Ultra Flat, a premium, zero-VOC, ceramic based paint. (The website accidentally lists low-VOC but you can request their MSDS to see that it is actually zero.) You can see it third from the left in the image above.
The MSDS is not listed on their website, but can be requested via email. It assures NO "chemicals listed in P65 (CA), known to the State of CA to cause cancer or birth defects" like other paint brands contained, but does list titanium dioxide, a common ingredient even in eco-friendly paints, which is a concern for some as it's be found to be a possible carcinogen.
Portola was a surprise to apply. We weren't expecting such great coverage (barely needed a second coat), it had no detectible odor, the overall look and feel once dried was wonderful. It really stood out to us. The only drawback is their limited availability.
ECOS sent us their eggshell paint, an organic, no-VOC, and no odor paint. They are pictured in the center in the image above.
According to the MSDS, ECOS is a water-based paint with a long list of ingredients, some of them somewhat vague, but few posing any real health or environmental risk. It does list titanium dioxide, however, which is a possible carcinogen (link above). It also had zero odor.
We really found ECOS was another non-toxic paint that we really liked. It had great coverage, no odor, and a great finish when completed.
Earth Safe Finishes
Earth Safe Finishes sent us a zero-VOC paint called "Chalk It Up", which we weren't able to find on their website. They are shown third from the right in the image above.
We could not find the MSDS on this product, nor any info listed on the website, but Earth Safe did provide an MSDS upon request. It doesn't list a full ingredients list, but does mention titanium dioxide, again a possible carcinogen (link above). It's difficult to tell the amounts or risks with the paint itself.
Although we enjoyed some of Earth Safe's other products, we didn't enjoy this one at all. If you're looking for a paint that performs on interior walls like you want a paint to, I wouldn't recommend it. The chalky coverage was poor and streaky, we found it difficult to even spread with a roller, and the matte-like finish makes it hard to clean up. (At first we thought it was chalk board paint. We're honestly not sure what it is.)
Edited to add: Nancy, from EarthSafe, reached out to let us know the Chalk It Up paint we received was definitely a mistake and not intended for interior walls! She also added, "Titanium Dioxide as a powder may be referred to as a carcinogen, but mixed into a liquid there is no danger at all. I have 2 of the best chemists in the business and they have assured me over and over that this is not a carcinogen. As a matter of fact we are ingesting titanium dioxide on a daily basis. Food companies are putting this powder into different products in what is referred to as nanotechnology in order to whiten the whites. We at Earth Safe Finishes are truly invested in making the best and safest products in the world."
Our Final Verdict
We realize the image of the low-VOC paint make it difficult to compare the differences we ourselves could see in our comparisons, but below are our final thoughts on all the no-VOC or low-VOC paint brands we tried.
As much as we enjoyed the milk paint for its unique look on furniture, as well as its sustainability, we won't ever again use it on walls. Mixing it ourselves made it nearly impossible to get consistent coverage, the matte-er finish is not very appealing, and on the places we didn't have enough bonding agent, it cracked on the wall. Not fun. Even though it was by far a greener paint alternative to conventional paints, it just wasn't practical for what we were using it for.
Of the no-VOC or low-VOC paint samples, Dunn-Edwards certainly performed exactly as you would want a paint to perform and was probably our runner up. But the paint that we really loved was Portola. The coverage was just what you would want it to be, there was zero odor, and the finish was perfect for indoor use. It may not be the most "sustainable" of options, but it was certainly among the greenest, and we found it to be the most practical alternative to conventional brands.
Do you have a favorite low-VOC paint brand? Share in the comments below!
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