What are VOCs in paint?

Lullaby 01/14/2013

Have you noticed the term “low-VOC” or “no-VOCs” popping up on more product labels? It must mean something good if it’s a popular selling point, but what exactly are VOCs in paint?

Here’s a simple definition:

VOCs are volatile organic compounds, or, in simpler terms, gasses released from products and substances. You’ll find them in everything from cleaners and cosmetics to crafting supplies and carpeting. They aren’t all bad, but many VOCs commonly found in these products are linked to short-term health effects like headaches and nausea and long-term health effects like asthma, neuro-developmental impacts, congenital defects, and even cancer.

What VOCs are in paint?

In conventional paints, specifically, you’ll find toxic VOCs like:

  • Formaldehyde: A known human carcinogen that’s also associated with eye, nose, and throat irritation; wheezing and coughing; fatigue; skin rash; and severe allergic reactions. (Sources: National Cancer Institute, US Environmental Protection Agency [EPA])
  • Acrolein: Which is very irritating to the eyes, nose, throat, lungs, stomach, and skin, but in regards to potential health impacts like cancer, birth defects, or reproductive issues - we simply don’t know because there haven’t been enough studies. (Source: US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry [ATSDR])
  • Benzene: Another known human carcinogen. (Source: US EPA)

And that’s the short list.

How is it legal to have these types of toxic chemicals in products we use in our home? That’s a story for another day. For now, here are a couple more facts we thought you should be aware of:

  • VOC levels in the average home can be two to five times higher than outdoors. During activities like painting or stripping paint, they can reach up to 1,000 times higher! (Source: US EPA)
  • Although emissions from paints are highest during and immediately after application (that “new paint smell”), they can off-gas for the next three to five years! (Source: Green America)

Hopefully that helps you better understand VOCs in paint (and why Lullaby Paints would choose to avoid them in our products)! If not, leave your questions in the comments and we’ll do our best to respond.

Also, stay-tuned! We’ll be uncovering the truth about “low-VOC” and “zero-VOC” paints in an upcoming blog post!

Learn more about the chemicals in conventional paints. You might be surprised!


The information provided on this site is intended for your general knowledge only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice or recommendations. Please consult your healthcare provider with any questions or concerns you may have regarding the issues raised here.