Green for life: The best non-toxic paint

Spruce up your walls, without breathing in (or throwing away) the toxins.

The warm summer months are the best time to don your painter’s cap – with the windows wide open to air out the place – but there’s something else to consider before you get out your painting clothes.

What most paint stores won’t tell you is this: Paint can be full of benzene, formaldehyde, xylene, toluene, napthalene (should I stop now?) and a whack of other nasty (and sometimes carcinogenic) volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs contribute to ground-level ozone outdoors and air pollution inside your house. Studies show that breathing in vapours from these compounds can irritate your eyes, nose and skin, and trigger headaches and asthma – and the vapours can hang around in the air inside your house for months.

So what are we going to do about this toxic soup?

Go oil-free
First, repeat after me: I will never use oil-based paint again. It contains up to 10 times more VOCs than latex, which works just as well on any job.

Get milk
Milk paint is another good bet; it’s made from milk protein, called casein, with earth pigments added for colour. It comes in powdered form, which you simply mix with water and use in a dry area (not a bathroom). Be sure to buy only the amount you need, as preservative-free paints don’t store for more than a few weeks.

No VOCs for your DIY
If you can’t find natural paints and you just want a better option at your local paint store, be sure to ask for non-VOC latex paint. Low-VOC is available, but non-VOC is even better.

Share your leftovers
How many half-empty paint cans are sitting in your basement right now? Donating them to a recycled-paint supplier (if your province allows it) clears space, saves the waste of disposing of them and allows someone else to benefit from your fabulous taste in colour. You can always buy recycled paint, too. (Visit to see where recycled paints are available.) According to The Paint Recycling Company in Nova Scotia, using recycled paint keeps roughly half a million litres of paint from contaminating the waste stream every year.

Clean up the green way
For an ongoing painting project, don’t wash your brushes or rollers every day. Wrap them in a plastic bag, squeeze out any air pockets and store them in a dark place. They’ll last up to a week. When you do finally wash up for good, clean your brushes in a bucket with water, not in the sink. Pour the dirty water into a sealable container and take it to the hazardous-waste depot with your empty paint cans. Then sit back and delight in your glorious green walls.

Gillian Deacon is the author of Green For Life (Penguin).

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