Most of us don’t think much about paint beyond its color, but there are chemicals in paint called volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that can be toxic. VOCs create the fumes responsible for that “fresh paint smell” and can irritate your eyes and sinuses. If used repeatedly, those VOCs may cause serious health symptoms.
VOCs are also found in paint stripper, paint primer, and household items like carpet, upholstery, and some furniture. VOCs are added to paint because they can prevent mold, mildew, and will help paint dry more quickly.
With advances in the paint industry, there are many new, nontoxic paints that give you great results with fewer toxins. These eco-friendly paints are called low-VOC paints, and they contain fewer volatile chemicals than regular paint. Low-VOC paints off-gas less, are safer, and less likely to have a strong smell. They provide durable coverage and can be tinted any color, just like regular paint.
The best low-VOC paint for you depends on the project you’re working on and the desired finish type. Here’s what to look for when shopping for low-VOC paint along with our recommendations for some top options.
- BEST OVERALL: Valspar Signature Semi-Gloss Tintable Interior Paint
- BEST BANG FOR THE BUCK: Behr Premium Plus Ultra Pure White Interior Paint
- KITCHEN & BATHROOM PICK: Glidden Premium 1 gal. Base 1 Flat Interior Paint
- BEST FOR FURNITURE: Rust-Oleum Ultra Matte Interior Chalked Paint 30 oz
- MOST ECO-FRIENDLY: Old Fashioned Milk Paint Non-VOC Powder Paint
- HONORABLE MENTION: KILZ TRIBUTE Interior Matte Paint and Primer in One
What to Consider When Choosing the Best Low-VOC Paint
The term low-VOC means the paint has a lower number of VOCs than some other brands. It doesn’t mean the paint has no harmful chemicals or solvents.
There are no government guidelines for certifying a paint as low-VOC. Some manufacturers have limited the amount of toxins in their low-VOC paints to less than 50 grams per liter (g/L) for flat finish paints and no more than 110 g/L for non-flat finish paints.
Manufacturers who follow that guideline can have their paint products certified as GS-11 by the nonprofit organization Green Seal. Their paint can also earn a GREENGUARD Indoor Air Quality Certification from UL, a nonprofit safety organization; this indicates it is tested annually and complies with voluntary low-VOC standards.
No-VOC or zero-VOC paint products contain minimal—if any—volatile organic compounds, but they may contain trace amounts, up to 5 g/L. The color you tint the paint may contain small amounts of VOCs, but these are still among the least toxic paints on the market. A handful of no-VOC paints are available from major manufacturers. You can also find natural paints, such as milk paint that will not off-gas any fumes.
Coverage and Drying Time
Some downsides to low-VOC paints are reduced coverage and longer dry times. However, there are newer varieties with primer included for better coverage that can also dry quickly. Paint manufacturers are improving these eco-friendly paints, but you may experience longer dry times with some brands (up to a few days for some types of milk paint) and may have to wait longer to apply a second coat.
If you’re covering a dark wall with a lighter color paint, you may need three coats of low-VOC paint for full coverage. Standard low-VOC paint coverage is 300 to 400 square feet per gallon of paint.
Paints with a harder, shinier finish, like glosses and enamels, contain higher VOC levels because those surfaces are created by toxic chemicals and solvents. You’ll find more low-VOC options in flat- and matte-based paints. A growing variety of satin and semi-gloss options in low-VOC paints are available as well.
Our Top Picks
Our picks for the best low-VOC paint generally contain fewer than 50 grams of volatile organic chemicals per liter, offer good coverage, can be applied with a brush or roller, and will clean up with just soap and water.
If you’re looking for a combination paint and primer product, look no further than Valspar Signature Semi-Gloss Tintable Interior Paint. This low-VOC paint bears the GREENGUARD certification for low chemical emission standards. It has a dry time of one hour for the initial coat and 4 hours for subsequent coats.
This Valspar Signature paint comes in a semi-gloss finish, making it durable and washable, and you can have it tinted in your choice of colors. One gallon covers up to 400 square feet.
You don’t have to spend a lot to get quality low-VOC paint. The Behr Premium Plus Ultra Pure White Interior Paint delivers a durable, semi-gloss finish that’s well-suited for cabinets, doors, trim, furniture, and more. This paint is GREENGUARD-certified and contains mold and mildew inhibitors, making it suitable for high humidity spaces like bathrooms and laundry rooms.
The Behr Premium Plus paint comes with primer mixed in so there’s no need to apply a separate base coat. This paint dries to the touch in one hour, and you can apply a second coat after 2 hours. It comes in bright white but can be tinted, and 1 gallon covers up to 400 square feet.
For a durable finish and protection against mildew, check out this Glidden Premium paint, suitable for use in high humidity areas like bathrooms, laundry rooms, and kitchens. This paint is zero-VOC, so it won’t off-gas. However, the tint you choose to color this paint may add a small amount of VOCs, especially if you opt for hues of red, yellow, or orange.
This Glidden Premium product is an interior paint and primer combo, and 1 gallon will cover up to 300 square feet.
If you’re looking for a chalk-type finish, consider Rust-Oleum Ultra Matte Interior Chalked Paint. This low-VOC paint dries to a soft, matte finish and is suitable for use on your favorite furniture and home decor projects. The paint features high adhesion for metal, ceramic, canvas, and pre-painted items, and it dries to the touch in just 30 minutes.
The Rust-Oleum Ultra Matte Interior Chalked Paint comes in a variety of pre-mixed colors in a 30-ounce can, which is about a quarter of a gallon. One can provides up to 150 square feet of coverage.
For a completely VOC-free painting experience, try Old Fashioned Milk Paint Non-VOC Powder Paint. This all natural, nontoxic paint comes as a powder you mix with water to use. It’s available in 32 colors, or choose a white base and add your own natural pigments, such as ground mica pigment powder (sold separately) for a custom look.
For the best results, apply Old Fashioned Milk Paint with a brush or foam applicator. This paint is also suitable for rag-type application to achieve a textured or distressed finish. Due to the variations in texture, this paint is not ideal for application with a spray gun. Coverage will depend on the thickness of the paint when mixed.
The KILZ TRIBUTE Interior Matte Paint and Primer in One is a low-VOC matte paint available in a range of hues that can be applied with brushes, rollers, or paint sprayers. A single coat should cover up to 400 square feet. This GREENGUARD-certified KILZ paint is suitable for use on drywall, plaster, unfinished wood, and masonry.
When fully cured, the paint is scrubbable and durable, making it well-suited for high-traffic areas. It also contains a mildewcide to reduce the risk of mildew growth in damp or humid areas of the home. An initial coat dries to the touch in one hour, and a second coat can be applied in two hours. The paint will not fully cure, however, for 4 weeks.
FAQs About Low-VOC Paints
Still have questions about low-VOC paint? Here are some answers to help you pick the best low-VOC paint for your project.
Q. What is considered low-VOC in paint?
The federal government does not set guidelines for low-VOC paint, but some paint manufacturers have voluntarily agreed to cap the amount of VOCs in their paint products to less than 50 grams per liter (g/l).
Q. Does low-VOC paint contain any chemicals?
It may contain chemicals and solvents not classified as volatile organic compounds. For the least toxic paints, look for all-natural ingredients listed on the label.
Q. Do low-VOC paints smell?
Low-VOC paints have much less odor than other paints, but they may still have a slight smell.
Q. How long does it take for low-VOC paint to dry?
Drying time depends on the brand. Some low-VOC paints dry to the touch in one hour and can be recoated in two hours, while others may require a day or more to dry completely.