Story at a glance:

  • VOCs from interior paints continue to off-gas for months or even years after the fresh paint smell disappears.
  • Nontoxic paints are technically those that contain VOCs in a concentration of less than 50 grams per liter.
  • Clare is one nontoxic paint brand the offers bright and lasting color that is safe for interior spaces.

When looking for ways to bring life and personality to interior spaces, paint is an easy and automatic consideration. You go to the hardware store, pick the perfect color, order it in bulk, and start painting, mesmerized as it transforms the space.

After the fumes settle, you’re left with a beautiful, safe living or working space, right? Not necessarily. Although the chemical, fresh paint smell is a telltale sign of VOCs in your paint, even when the smell dissipates, many paints continue to offgas toxins.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have all been spending a lot—a lot—of time indoors, making indoor air quality an increasing concern. Poor indoor air quality caused by VOCs can lead to eye, nose and throat irritation, headaches, loss of coordination and nausea, and damage to liver, kidney and central nervous system, according to the EPA. Some organic compounds are even suspected or known to cause cancer in humans and other animals.

To create healthier indoor environments, it is important to look at more than just the pretty paint samples when picking out a paint. Although the labeling for nontoxic paint can be confusing, we’ve put together a guide for finding the least toxic, healthiest paints for any space.

What is nontoxic paint?

VOCs typically are incorporated as solvent in paints. In latex or water-based paints, water is the primary solvent, making this a good place to start when looking for nontoxic paint options.

Still, many paints are made with toxins including formaldehyde, lead, benzene, and many, many more. While the nontoxic and low-VOC paint market has grown substantially over the past few years, these and other VOCs are still used in many paints as stabilizers, driers, thickeners, and preservatives.

Nontoxic paint is also called Low VOC, VOC-Free, No-VOC, and odor-free, odorless, organic, and natural paint. Each title means something slightly different, and none are completely, 100% not toxic. According to Time Magazine, many nontoxic paints substitute semi-volatile organic compounds (SVOCs) for VOCs.

Compared to traditional paint, VOC levels are reduced in all varieties of nontoxic paints. The federal government has capped VOCs levels to 250 grams per liter for the flat finish paints and 380 grams per liter for glossy and other finishes. Low-VOC paints, on the other hand, comply with California’s South Coast Air Quality Management District’s limit of 50 grams per liter for all finishes, and perform well according to Consumer Reports.

How to tell if a paint is nontoxic

Nontoxic paints typically are affixed with an ecolabel showing off its nontoxic or low-VOC status. The EPA has a list of ecolabels to rely upon, including the Cradle to Cradle Certified Product Standard, GreenSeal 11 Standard for Paints, Coatings, Stains, and Sealers, GreenSeal 43 Standard for Recycled Content Latex Paints, and Master Painters Institute (MPI®) Extreme Green.

Another important label to look out for is the GREENGUARD and GREENGUARD Gold Certification, which reduce acceptable emissions for paints and comply with requirements of the state of California’s Department of Public Health (CDPH) “Standard Method for the Testing and Evaluation of Volatile Organic Chemical Emissions from Indoor Sources Using Environmental Chambers, Version 1.2 (2017)” (also known as California Section 01350).

10 nontoxic paint options

1. ECOS Paints

ECOS formulates its nontoxic paints with entirely organic, sustainable ingredients. Photo courtesy of ECOS Paints

ECOS Paints works to provide healthier spaces with their organic, nontoxic paints. ECOS Paints are handcrafted in an unlimited array of colors using a formula of organic sustainable materials that is free of VOCs, pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides. For the sake of transparency and consumer confidence, each product by ECOS Paints comes with VOC test data and a complete list of ingredients. $69.95 per gallon

2. The Real Milk Paint Co.

Founded in 1995, Real Milk Paint is a fantastic option for nontoxic paint, ideal for refinishing furniture or painting walls or ceilings. With no VOCs, this 100% organic, nontoxic paint requires a bit more preparation than something you might pick up at a big-box store. Real Milk Paint comes as a powder, which must then be mixed with water before painting. Its 56 color options remain shelf stable for two weeks and are safe for kids and pets. $59.99 per gallon

3. Clare Paint

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Clare paints comes straight to your door when you’re ready to revive a space with a fresh coat of paint. Photo courtesy of Clare Paints

Clare Paint not only offers nontoxic, zero-VOC paint, but it also delivers it straight to your door. With beautiful colors and a nearly odorless formula, Clare meets the strictest VOC regulations to achieve the GREENGUARD Gold label. Founded by interior designer Nicole Gibbons, Clare’s mission is to provide an easy and convenient way to shop for paint. With designer-curated colors, mess-free paint swatches, and the highest-quality paint and supplies, all delivered, Clare makes the painting process easy, inspiring, and eco-friendly. $54 per gallon

4. BioShield

The BioShield clay paints, stains, thinners, and waxes is made primarily from naturally derived raw materials, including citrus peel extracts, essential oils, seed oils, tree resins, inert mineral fillers, tree and bee waxes, lead-free dryers, and natural pigments. Founded in 1982, BioShield’s parent company began to supply environmentally friendly options for common home products.

The BioShield collection features 50 nature-inspired pigments. A mild fragrance is apparent upon use, and chemically sensitive individuals may want to test products for personal compatibility. $60 per gallon

5. Valspar Signature

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Valspar’s Signature paint is one of this brand’s low/no VOC offerings. Photo courtesy of Valspar

Valspar Signature is a 100% acrylic latex formula that holds its own against scuffs and stains. With rich and lasting color, this paint’s GREENGUARD Gold label means it emits few VOCs from its fade and mildew-resistant finish. $36.98 per gallon

6. Benjamin Moore Natura

Natura Waterborne Interior Paint is Benjamin Moore’s most sustainable paint. With zero VOCs and zero emissions, this option is certified asthma and allergy friendly. Benjamin Moore’s Natura also is nearly odorless and meets the GreenSeal 11 Standard for Paints, Coatings, Stains, and Sealers, an EPA-recognized ecolabel. Benjamin Moore’s Aura is another, high performance, low-VOC offering by the brand. $56.99 per gallon

7. AFM Safecoat

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AFM Safecoat was made with chemically sensitive individuals in mind. Photo courtesy of AFM Safecoat (Copyright 2020 American Formulating and Manufacturing)

AFM Safecoat’s mission is to eliminate toxic emissions in their paints and finishes to improve air quality in all sorts of indoor environments. Formulated with chemically sensitive individuals in mind, Safecoat products control surface emissions to reduce the symptoms involved in sick building syndrome. The formula consists of raw materials specifically chosen to create the “cleanest” products, in terms of chemical toxicity. $57 to $62 per gallon

8. Sherwin-Williams Harmony Interior

This Acrylic Latex Paint by Sherwin-Wiilliams has a zero-VOC formula and Formaldehyde Reducing Technology to reduce airborne concentrations of formaldehyde and other VOCs from the indoor space by up to 45%. Plus, Harmony reduces organic odors in the home and contains antimicrobial agents that inhibit the growth of mold and mildew to make for fresh, clean interiors.

Harmony is tinted with ColorCast Ecotoner® colorants that do not add VOCs to the tinted paint, and has achieved GREENGUARD® GOLD certification by adhering to the strictest VOC regulations. The paint is available in all sheens including flat, eg-shel and semi-gloss. $60.49 per gallon

9. Behr Premium Plus

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Behr’s Premium Plus paints are GREENGUARD Gold–certified. Photo courtesy of Behr

Behr Premium Plus is durable and lasting, and its finish resists mildew and stains. With an unobtrusive odor, the Premium Plus paint meets LEED and GREENGUARD Gold requirements to offer a low-VOC option for high quality interior paint. $24.98 per gallon

10. Farrow & Ball

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Farrow & Ball’s reformulated Modern Emulsion finish is extra durable and still water-based and low-VOC. Photo courtesy of Farrow & Ball

Farrow & Ball’s entirely water-based range of paints exceed the standard to be classified as minimal or low-VOC. The low-odor paints are designed to hold up in terms of both quality and environmental friendliness. The pigments are responsibly sourced and the tin is recycled and recyclable. $110 per four liters.