Stroke of Brilliance: The Eco-Friendly Alternative to Conventional Paints

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Photography By Joe Coca
Natural mineral pigments from Bioshield are derived from clay; baking at high temperatures intensifies their colors. They provide a palette that can range from intense to subtle hues; they are shown here on plaster. The pigments have been mixed with a milk-base paint. Surprisingly small amounts are needed to create distinctive colors.

What you smell after freshening a room with conventional solvent-based interior wall paint might include as much as 60 percent volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as formaldehyde, benzene, and acetone, which can cause health problems ranging from temporary dizziness to respiratory distress to severe allergic reactions and worse.

In the United States alone, we use more than a billion gallons of paint each year. It’s estimated that the VOCs in paint contribute as much as 9 percent of the atmospheric pollution that is damaging the ozone layer. At the same time, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that indoor pollution–to which chemicals outgassing from paint contribute greatly–is responsible for more than 11,000 deaths from cancer, kidney failure, and respiratory collapse each year. Even though deadly lead and mercury have been banned from use in paint, and water-based latex increasingly replaces more toxic oil-based enamels, the threat to personal and environmental health posed by paint is not a trivial problem. Happily, there are options.

Better Chemistry

As we’ve come to understand the health risks of traditional paint products, government regulations have prompted the paint industry to develop safer alternatives. Public building projects such as schools and health care facilities have code requirements that limit toxic ingredients and VOCs for all interior finishes. Some mainstream paint manufacturers, notably Benjamin Moore and Glidden, have created consumer product lines that adhere to the same safety standards. They include water-based acrylic latex primers, paints, and enamels that are low-odor and low- or zero-VOC.

In a more specialized vein, American Formulating and Manufacturing (AFM) is a company devoted to creating environmentally healthy building and interior furnishing products of all sorts, including zero-VOC wall paints. And their sealer can be used over conventional paints to reduce or eliminate the release of harmful fumes into the environment.

The downsides? The chemical makeup of these products might not address the needs of those with severe allergies, more paint may be required to get full coverage, and the palette is limited to lighter colors.

Natural Alternatives

You have only to look at reconstructed walls from ancient Greece, Egypt, or Mexico to know that vivid color was available centuries before the birth of modern chemistry. Silica, natural waxes and oils, resins, and clays combined with mineral or plant pigments provide a full spectrum of surfaces that are lightfast and durable.

One company that provides a complete line of zero-VOC paints, wood finishes, thinners, cleaners, and adhesives based on natural ingredients is Bioshield, a German company whose products have been available in the United States for two decades. Its transparent and translucent wall glazes and washes can be used over existing paint or newly painted surfaces, and its zero-VOC emulsion and casein, or milk-based, paints provide a more conventional opaque treatment.

Milk might seem like an unlikely paint base until you consider that Elmer’s Glue is made of milk. The protein in milk is water soluble, yet it dries to a tough finish that can last for decades. Milk paint is sold as a powder, which generally includes casein from the milk, plus lime and clay. It can be mixed with more water for a wash effect, or less for solid coverage. The trick is to not mix more than you will use in a day or so, as the milk solids, if not allowed to dry quickly, can spoil and leave a persistent odor. The Old Fashioned Milk Paint Company is a domestic firm that has recreated an early American milk paint formula in colors ranging from barn red to federal blue.

The natural pigments that mix easily with any of these natural bases are gloriously varied in color and can be mixed for deep, vivid hues or pale, subtle tints. Most are minerals derived from earth or stone and are ground to fine powders for uniform mixing. Mixing your own paint from milk and minerals does not result in the perfectly uniform finish that we’ve come to expect from commercial latex or oil-based paints in which the chemical pigments are scientifically formulated and measured with great precision. Further, the natural paints, by definition, don’t contain the solvents that make conventional paints so smooth and uniform. Natural paints are destined to give walls a handcrafted, naturally weathered character.

Finding craftspeople to work with natural paints is not as easy as looking in your local Yellow Pages. They require a bit of experimentation and an adventurous spirit–which only add to their beauty. Whether you go for the originality of natural paints or the more practical low- or zero-VOC conventional options, the health benefits for yourself, your family, and the earth are beyond value.