A Paint Primer: Eco-Friendly Paint

Color your world—and still make it green.

| July/August 2005

  • Fresh new color available from American Clay earth plaster is Cactus Green
    Photos by Addison Doty Right

  • Combinations of natural pigments create Sky wall finish from Tobias Stucco.
    Photos by Addison Doty Right

  • Fresh new color available from American Clay earth plaster is Tahoe blue.
    Photos by Addison Doty Right
  • Yolo offers a wide variety of all-natural paints.

So you want to add color to the living room walls? You’ve probably heard the bad news: Fresh-paint smell may be an odiferous bad omen. Common interior paint contains a host of suspect ingredients, including sometimes-smelly volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as benzene, formaldehyde, and petrochemicals. These VOCs and other paint chemicals are under scrutiny for causing everything from temporary respiratory irritations to chronic illnesses. Not a pretty picture.

Thanks to increasing customer demand, though, manufacturers are developing better paint that provides excellent durability and coverage. In addition, old-fashioned options can satisfy thoroughly modern environmental sensibilities.

All paint must have a Materials Safety Data Sheet (MSDS), which lists known hazards and precautions. You’ll have to ask for it or get it online, then decipher chemical names such as dimethyloldimethylhydantoin (that’s formaldehyde to you and me). Green Seal, an independent nonprofit, has established stringent standards for environmentally friendly paints, and those that meet the criteria can be certified as such. Look for the Green Seal logo or check with an eco-retailer, a green architect, or an eco-savvy contractor for reputed brands. To avoid chemical sensitivities, stay away from biocides, mildewcides, preservatives, additives, and other magical boosters.

Milk paint

You can’t drink it, but true milk paint (also called casein paint) is incredibly safe. Made from milk protein (casein), pigments, lime, clay, and water added on site by the homeowner, it’s practically VOC free; has a mild, nontoxic odor; doesn’t chip or peel; and is safe for use even on children’s toys. Plus, there’s ­little waste because you mix it as needed.

Milk-based paint is a terrific option if your walls are unfinished, porous, or made from plaster, wood, or earth. If the surface is nonporous, you may need to do some prep work—such as applying special bonding agents or sanding—to prepare your walls for milk paint; check with the manufacturer or retailer.

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