Whether you choose wallpaper or a fresh coat of paint, the right wall treatment can make a huge impact in your home–often for little cost. Because they’re such large surfaces, walls are agents of change. And some of the hippest, healthiest alternatives to conventional wall finishes–such as clay plaster and milk paint–have been in use for centuries.
Conventional paints emit toxic fumes called VOCs (volatile organic compounds). Some VOCs contain carcinogens and neurotoxins such as benzene, formaldehyde, ammonia, toluene and xylene. These substances can cause nose, skin and eye irritation, nausea, respiratory problems, convulsions, nerve damage, and liver and kidney disease. Solvent- and oil-based paints contain a higher level of VOCs (between 32 and 42 percent) compared with latex (or water-based) paints, which contain about 2 to 5 percent, according to The Green Guide.
Natural paints: Paint for the planet
Natural paints are produced from elements found in nature: milk, clay, botanical ingredients, natural oils (such as linseed oil), beeswax, tree resin and mineral pigments. Either water- or oil-based, they’re generally nontoxic, but because they’re made with natural pigments, they usually don’t offer as wide a range of colors as synthetic paints.
“Natural paints require less energy to produce,” says Peter Colburn, a Seattle-based expert on green home products. “Because they’re plant sourced or contain low-impact, mined materials, they have either no or a very low content of petroleum-derived ingredients.”
Favored for porous or unfinished surfaces, VOC-free milk paint is made of casein (milk protein), clay, lime and natural pigments. Most milk paint comes powdered so you can mix it as needed, which reduces waste. (Some premixed varieties contain preservatives.) Whitewash, which only comes in white, is made of lime, water and salt, and it’s great for covering cement, plaster and stucco.
Clay paints–created primarily from water, clay and chalk–give the same aesthetic effect as clay plaster at less cost and can be applied with a brush or roller.
All-natural paints work best in dry areas of the house because of their lower resistance to moisture (avoid bathrooms, laundry rooms and basements). Applying them requires no more care or preparation than conventional products, but they do take longer to dry because they don’t contain petrochemicals that speed the process. As with all paints, you may need to apply additional coats to obtain the desired result.
Low-VOC paints: Like conventional, but better
If you prefer paint with the same appearance and texture as conventional, without the chemical fumes, check your paint store for low- or zero-VOC paint lines. Although made from synthetic ingredients, they pose fewer health risks and don’t exude a headache-inducing smell (caused by outgasing VOCs). These materials are generally water based rather than petrochemical based.
You’ll find a bountiful array of low-VOC paint colors–especially the lighter tones; deeper hues are harder to come by because darker pigments often contain solvents. When buying, ask that the low- or zero-VOC paint be free of formaldehyde, preservatives, fungicides and biocides.
Natural wallpaper: Fun, hip, sustainable
It used to be fashionable to decorate with vinyl wallpaper (vinyl is a health hazard and environmental pollutant) affixed with toxic glues that contain chemical mold and mildew inhibitors. But today, design trends are moving toward natural wall coverings. Made from rice paper, linen (flax), silk, paper-backed cork, grasses, jute or finely-split bamboo, many options are readily available, but check the material list before you buy. Many manufacturers offer natural fibers blended with vinyl (also called PVC or acrylic).
Print selection can be limited–a floral print may be hard to find–but unlike vinyl coverings, these products allow walls to breathe, making them naturally mold resistant.
Most wall coverings come prepasted, but you can request them without adhesives if you want to use nontoxic glue. Some starch-based glues can be applied to grass textile wall coverings, nonwoven coverings, fabrics and silks.
Avoid other chemical additives: stain repellants, biocides, fireproofings, pesticides, formaldehyde, solvents and vinyl. Natural wall coverings aren’t cheap: Expect to pay about $35 to $60 per linear yard.
Plaster: Gorgeous and affordable
Reasonably priced and richly beautiful, lime and clay plasters come in powder form; just mix with water and powdered pigment before troweling onto the wall. Lime plaster, made from mined limestone, is durable but less versatile; once it’s dry you can do little to change or cover up mistakes. Ask for natural mineral pigments.
For do-it-yourselfers, clay plaster–made of dehydrated clay or mud and pigment–is often the best bet; it’s more forgiving than lime plaster if you mess up. “Clay plaster has a tendency to bind to itself, but if you wet it sufficiently, it softens enough that you can rework it,” Colburn says.
The biggest issue surrounding paint is its content of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), chemical fumes that pollute indoor air. Outgasing is worst when paint is wet, but it can continue for weeks after it dries. Ventilate well during and after painting–even when using low-VOC products.
What exactly do safer paint labels mean?
• Low VOC: Latex paint labeled “low VOC” emits no more than 250 grams per liter (gm/l) of VOCs, according to EPA and California regulations. “Low-VOC” oil-based paints can emit no more than 380 gm/l. Many brands of low-VOC paints emit less than 50 gm/l.
• Zero VOC: Emits 5 gm/l or less of VOCs. Current testing methods can’t detect amounts below 5 gm/l, so “zero VOC” paints actually contain VOCs, though they’re immeasurable.
• Low odor: This label doesn’t guarantee much. It could indicate a low-VOC product–or it could just be one with less smell than a different type of paint.
From Sustainable Residential Interiors by Kari Foster, Annette Stelmack and Debbie Hindman (Wiley, 2006)
Paint by the Numbers
Milk Paints/Natural Paints
• Natural finishes in earthy colors
• Few or no synthetic or petroleum ingredients
• Longer drying times
• Less suitable for humid areas such as the bathroom
• High cost compared with conventional paint
• Wide color selection in flat or semi-glossy
• Emit fewer noxious fumes than conventional
• Available at many paint stores
• Solvent not required for latex cleanup
• Made with synthetics
• Deep colors often unavailable in low VOC
• Cost somewhat more than conventional
Natural Wall Coverings
• Made of natural fibers (linen, silk, grass, bamboo, paper)
• Can be applied with lower toxicity glues
• More expensive than conventional
• May come prepared with toxic adhesive
• Can be difficult to find
• Fewer pattern choices
Clay and Lime Plasters
• Low toxicity
• Rich, natural colors
• Hard, durable surface
• Lime plaster high in embodied energy
• Time-consuming application; somewhat difficult to apply