Explaining Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) and Why It’s Important to Find Paints Without Them

Why do you need to understand the importance of VOCs in everyday products like paint? It is crucial because VOCs can have significant health and environmental impacts. Prolonged exposure to VOCs can cause respiratory issues, headaches, and other health problems. They also contribute to indoor air pollution and can react with other substances to form harmful pollutants.

In this article, you’ll learn about the sources of VOCs in everyday products, their potential health effects, and methods to reduce exposure. You’ll also learn about regulatory measures and guidelines for safe levels of VOCs in consumer products. This article emphasizes the importance of choosing low-VOC or VOC-free products to minimize health risks and environmental impact.

What are Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)?

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are a group of organic chemicals that evaporate easily at room temperature. In addition to paint, VOCs are found in other household cleaning products, building materials, and even makeup products. 

In paints, VOCs are released into the air through an off-gassing process. Here’s how it happens:

  1. Application: When paint is applied to a surface, it begins to dry and cure. During this process, the liquid components in the paint start to evaporate.
  2. Evaporation: The VOCs in the paint, which are part of the solvent or carrier medium, evaporate into the air. This evaporation starts immediately after the paint is applied and can continue for some time as the paint fully dries and cures.
  3. Curing: As the paint cures, more VOCs are released. This phase can take several days to weeks, depending on the type of paint and environmental conditions, such as temperature and humidity.
  4. Long-term off-gassing: Some paints may continue to release small amounts of VOCs for months or even years after application. It is more common in oil-based paints than water-based or latex paints, which typically have lower VOC levels.

Here are the factors affecting the VOC release:

  • Paint type: Oil-based paints generally have higher VOC content than water-based paints.
  • Temperature and humidity: Higher temperatures and humidity levels can increase the rate of VOC evaporation.
  • Ventilation: Good ventilation can help disperse VOCs more quickly, reducing their concentration in the indoor air.
  • Paint age and storage: Older paints or those stored improperly can have higher VOC emissions when finally used.

Health and Environmental Impact of VOCs

  • Short-term health effects: Exposure to VOCs can cause headaches, dizziness, and respiratory issues, such as throat and eye irritation. Sensitive individuals may experience exacerbated asthma symptoms.
  • Long-term health effects: Prolonged exposure to VOCs is linked to more severe health problems, including liver and kidney damage and an increased risk of cancer.
  • Environmental impact: VOCs contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone and smog, negatively impacting outdoor air quality. Indoors, they can degrade air quality, leading to poor health outcomes for occupants.

VOCs in Paints

Why do paints often contain VOCs?

Paints often contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs) because these compounds help in the application process. VOCs act as solvents that make the paint easier to spread, improve adhesion, and accelerate drying times. They also enhance the paint’s durability and performance.

Types of VOCs commonly found in paints

Common types of VOCs found in paints include:

  • Formaldehyde
  • Toluene
  • Xylene
  • Ethylbenzene
  • Acetone
  • Benzene

How VOC levels in paints are measured

VOC levels in paints are typically measured in grams per liter (g/L). This measurement indicates the mass of VOCs emitted per liter of paint under specific conditions. The lower the g/L value, the fewer VOCs the paint emits, which is often better for health and the environment.

Benefits of Using Low or Zero-VOC Paints

Green label with a leaf motif for VOC Free products, representing no volatile organic compounds used

Health benefits for occupants

  • Reduced exposure to harmful chemicals: VOCs can cause headaches, dizziness, and long-term health issues such as respiratory problems and liver damage. Low or zero-VOC paints minimize these risks.
  • Improved respiratory health: Lower VOC emissions lead to fewer respiratory issues, especially for people with asthma or allergies.
  • Reduced cancer risk: Some VOCs are known carcinogens; reducing exposure can lower cancer risks.

Environmental benefits

  • Reduced air pollution: VOCs contribute to smog and ground-level ozone formation. Using low or zero-VOC paints helps decrease these pollutants.
  • Lower environmental impact: These paints generally have a smaller carbon footprint and fewer hazardous waste concerns.
  • Sustainable production: Low or zero-VOC paints are usually made with sustainable materials and practices, promoting environmental stewardship.

Improved indoor air quality

  • Fewer odors: Low or zero-VOC paints emit fewer odors, making spaces more comfortable, especially immediately after painting.
  • Safer for sensitive groups: Improved air quality is crucial for children, the elderly, and those with health conditions.
  • Long-term air quality: Reduced VOC emissions contribute to better indoor air quality for a long time, creating a healthier living environment.

Identifying Low or Zero VOC Paints

To identify low or zero-VOC (Volatile Organic Compound) paints, here are some key points:

Key labels and certifications

  • Green Seal indicates that the paint meets rigorous health and environmental criteria.
  • GREENGUARD ensures the product has low chemical emissions, improving indoor air quality.
  • LEED certification points towards a paint’s compliance with the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards.

Understanding VOC content labels

  • VOC Content: Check the label for the amount of VOCs, usually listed in grams per liter (g/L). Low-VOC paints typically have less than 50 g/L, while zero-VOC paints have 5 g/L or less.
  • Regulatory compliance: Ensure the paint meets local or national VOC regulations.

Tips for selecting low or zero-VOC paints

  • Research: Look for brands that specialize in low or zero-VOC products.
  • Read reviews: Check customer reviews and professional recommendations.
  • Check the smell: Low or zero-VOC paints should have a minimal odor.
  • Test first: Consider using a sample for performance and air quality before committing to a large purchase.

Practical Tips for Reducing VOC Exposure when Painting

  • Choose low-VOC or zero-VOC paints: Many manufacturers now offer low-VOC or zero-VOC paint options.
  • Have proper ventilation: Ensure good ventilation during and after painting by opening windows and using fans.
  • Follow instructions: Adhere to the manufacturer’s guidelines for drying and curing times.
  • Wear protective gear: Use protective gear like masks and gloves to minimize direct exposure during painting.


Making informed choices in your home improvement projects, particularly when selecting low-VOC or VOC-free paints and glazes, can significantly enhance your health and the environment. As the demand for sustainable and safe products grows, the future of VOC-free options looks promising, with ongoing innovations likely to offer even better performance and affordability. 

Don’t hesitate to contact Custom Painting, Inc.’s skilled team for expert advice and high-quality results in your next project. Call us at 925-866-9610 or message us via our contact form for a free consultation and estimate!