Paint Savvy - How to Go Green, Even If You're Thinking Cream or Ecru

By Christina Ianzito
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, May 7, 2009

There was a time when choosing paint for a home mostly meant mulling over color swatches ("Sahara or Sandy Beach?"). Now, for many homeowners, there's also the pressing issue of being green: finding paint that not only looks good but is environmentally friendly or, at the very least, not toxic.

"You know that new-paint smell?" asks Vic Barnhill, customer service manager for an environmentally friendly brand called American Pride Paints. "Those are the harmful chemicals evaporating."

The major paint companies have been in a rush to present green products. Such paints generally have a low level of VOCs, the volatile organic compounds that have been associated with respiratory and nervous-system disorders, and that the EPA has determined contribute to smog when they hit the air. (A low level is usually considered to be below 50 grams per liter of VOCs.) Remember, however, that the VOC level printed on paint cans often masks the true amount of the chemicals because it applies only to the base paint and doesn't include what may be lurking in the colorant.

There are several rungs in the ladder of eco-friendly paints, including clay paints and some milk-based products so pure they're nearly edible. But they might not have the same opaque sheen some users of conventional paints have come to expect.

Here is the lowdown on painting green:

Mass-market paints. The big paint companies all have low- or zero-VOC acrylic-latex paints these days. Sherwin-Williams sells a zero-VOC interior paint called Harmony; it starts at $40 a gallon and is available as a top coat or primer.

The paint in Benjamin Moore's premium Aura line (about $60 a gallon) is durable and low-odor, rolls on thickly and dries quickly. And the company says its new Natura paint is VOC-free, with "practically no odor" ($50 a gallon). "It's the greenest paint we make," says communications director Eileen McComb.

Specialty brands. Some of these VOC-free paints are similar to a mass-market paint like Natura. They're not entirely natural, but they are several steps beyond your average paint in eco-friendliness. American Pride, which is also known as Mythic Paint, is latex-based (though the semigloss is acrylic), has zero VOCs and is almost odorless. It comes in more than 1,200 colors.

Jason Holstine, co-owner of Amicus Green Building Center in Kensington, says, "I painted my 4-year-old son's room with American Pride while he was sleeping, and he never knew it until he woke up and his room was blue." It costs $30 to $35 a gallon at only Amicus Green (4080A Howard Ave., Kensington, 301-571-8590).

In the same zero-VOC category and general price range is odor-free AFM Safecoat paint, which is trusted among schools and hospitals after decades in the healthy-living market. It's sold at Amicus Green and Eco-Green Living (6201 Blair Rd. NW, 202-234-7110).

Clay-based paints. BioShield and Green Planet Paints, both based in the Southwest, sell clay-based paints. BioShield paint creates a matte surface that can be sealed and glossed with a wax finish. Without the wax, it isn't ideal for handling the moisture of a bathroom or kitchen (it's clay, after all).

Green Planet's paints include soy resin and mineral pigments in a mix that allows for an eggshell-like finish, says Keith Ware, co-owner of Eco-Green Living, who used the brand to paint the back wall of his store a deep sky blue. Cherlyn H.T. Jones, a Washington area designer, has fallen hard for Green Planet despite its "limited color deck" of 48 shades that tend toward the muted. Even clients who aren't particularly environmentally conscious "are just over the moon" for the brand, Jones says. Eco-Green Living sells both brands for $43 a gallon.

Milk-based paints. Although the norm before the Civil War, these now seem exotic, in part because many of them come in powder form. BioShield has a milk paint that looks a bit like confectioners' sugar: Add water and mix. BioShield milk paint is about $12 for a bag that weighs just under a pound, and to make a gallon of paint you'd need four or five bags.

"A properly mixed milk paint acts just like a latex," Ware says, but "add a drop too much water and you've got a wash." Amicus Green offers a Quakertown, Pa.-based brand called Real Milk Paint, whose products consist of curdled milk, lime and earth pigment. Holstine suggests it for the more-forgiving wood surfaces of furniture and cabinets rather than walls because "it's pretty temperamental and tends to lump." (A $46 bag of powder makes one gallon.) For the super-adventurous, Martha Stewart's Web site ( offers a recipe for making milk paint from scratch (search for "milk paint").

Tools. One option is the EcoPro line by Purdy. It includes brushes with recycled nylon bristles; a biodegradable, disposable pulp tray; and recycled roller covers. EcoPro line products are available at area Sherwin-Williams and Duron Paints & Wallcoverings stores.

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