What are VOCs and what are they doing in my paint?

VOCs (volatile organic compounds) are the solvents that are released into the air as paint dries. Exposure to VOCs in paint can cause symptoms such as headaches, nausea, fatigue, and dizziness, and the Environmental Protection Agency suspects some VOCs may be carcinogens. Long-term exposure to VOCs can lead to serious health problems such as liver and kidney damage. So why then are VOCs in paint? Solvents are required to spread the protective and decorative properties of paint and protective coatings. And paints that contain VOCs have the qualities we want in a protective coating, such as colorfastness and durability.

A typical can of flat interior latex paint contains about 150 grams of VOCs per liter compared to 50 grams per liter or less for a flat, low-VOC paint. When colorant is added at the point of sale, the VOCs from the pigment can add up to 100 grams per liter. Regulation of the acceptable amount of VOCs in paint varies at all levels: ┬áthe federal government caps VOC content to 250 grams per liter for flat paint, while the South Coast Air Quality Management District in Orange County, CA has set its standard at 50 grams per liter. Other states and regions in the country have established their standards somewhere in between. There is no industry wide definition of what “green” paints are and there isn’t national agreement as to a standard maximum VOC content.

What does this mean for the homeowner?

  • Carefully check the paint can label – the VOC content should be on the label. If not, check the manufacturer’s website for product specifications and other pertinent information.
  • Remember, adding colorant will add to the VOC content.
  • Paint labeled “No Odor” does not mean no VOCs – again, check the product specifications for VOC content.
  • When painting in a confined interior area, keep windows open and use an exhaust fan to keep fresh air circulating throughout.
  • Wear the personal protective equipment (PPE) recommended by the manufacturer on the Material Safety Data Sheet.
  • Ventilate the freshly painted area for two to three days.
  • VOC exposure is not as big a concern when painting outdoors because paint vapors dissipate quickly when painting in an open air environment.


Taking proactive steps to keep your exposure to paint fumes to a minimum goes a long way towards averting potential short and long-term health problems.


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