Family room with low or no-VOC paint on ceiling and walls

About Low-VOC and Zero-VOC Paints

The words “zero-” or “low-VOC” on a paint can sound great, right? Like any claim, you’ll need to look deeper if you want to minimize your exposure to harmful chemicals.

This living room was painted exclusively with low-VOC and zero-VOC paints. Image: Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, CMHC

Choosing an eco-friendly paint can be tough because labels aren’t transparent. “You can’t necessarily judge what’s good or bad by reading a paint can,” says Jennifer Atlee of BuildingGreen, an independent company that reviews green building certifications.

Why do the claims come with caveats?

  • There’s no standard list of harmful VOCs used across the industry.
  • “No VOCs” doesn’t mean “no harmful chemicals.”
  • Usually, “low-VOC” applies only to the base paint, not the tint you add to get the color you want. And yes, the tint generally has VOCs in it — darker colors especially.
  • A cheap paint might be labeled low-VOC, but if you have to apply three coats to cover the surface, the result might not be low-VOC.

Government and third-party certifications can help you decide.

At a bare minimum, Atlee says, choose paints that satisfy SCAQMD 1113, an air-quality standard that originated in California but is now used industry-wide.

This widely accepted government standard will be the easiest to find — but it’s just a starting point. SCAQMD 1113 ensures that certain VOCs are limited in a product, but its list includes only those VOCs that affect outdoor smog levels, not all the ones that affect human health. SCAQMD started limiting VOCs in tints in 2011.

Even better than SCAQMD, look for paints certified by:

  • GreenSeal GS-11: Click Find Green Seal, then choose “Paints & Coatings.”
  • MPI X-Green

If you spot one of these four seals, you’re getting a paint that’s at least a notch above the rest.

Green Seal GS-11 and MPI X-Green are more rigorous third-party certifications.

Green Seal GS-11 limits VOCs in tints as well as base paints. It also prohibits a wide range of harmful chemicals, including any that cause cancer, deplete ozone, or interfere with human hormones. 

Note: Don’t confuse Green Seal with GreenWise, an industry association-sponsored label that certifies only its own members. GreenWise isn’t a third-party certification, so it’s not as strong a choice as the labels we’ve recommended here.

The Master Painters Institute (MPI) X-Green standard limits some VOCs and requires proof of emissions testing from an independent lab. But it also considers how well a paint performs, since repeat applications mean more exposure to chemicals. X-Green is primarily used for commercial paints.

“If you could combine the best of Green Seal and MPI X-Green you’d be getting close to a really fantastic standard,” Atlee says. Until that day comes, either is fine.

The final two seals are indoor air quality certifications.
The Greenguard Children & Schools and SCS Indoor Advantage Gold labels aren’t limited to paints. They’re general indoor air quality certifications that show a building product meets the standards of California Section 01350, a government guideline limiting chronic exposure to chemicals. But if a low-VOC paint bears either label, it’s an acceptable choice.