Which is better: oil or water-based paints?

Matthew Grocoff

August 11, 2016

By: Matthew Grocoff, Green Renovation Expert

In: Green LivingPainting

My good friend Eric Corey Freed, an architect, is one of the foremost thinkers in sustainable building and named one of the "Top Ten Most Influential Green Architects." He says that after years of talking about "green building" he grew tired of asking clients permission to do the right thing. He said it was becoming ridiculous to ask "is it okay if I don't put any cancer-causing paints in your home?" Once he realized there were plenty of healthy alternatives he decided he would simply force the non-toxic choice on all of his clients equally.

When it comes to paint, many people still ask the wrong question: oil or water-based? The better questions to ask are:

  1. Is the paint durable?
  2. Is the paint healthy for me to be around?
  3. Is it an easy product to use?

While oil based solvents were once the only choice for durable paints, there are many paint brands that offer high-quality paints that out-perform older oil-based products. Older paints are now widely considered to be less healthy and in many cases toxic.

A simple test for choosing healthy paints

Read the warning labels. Check for words like:

  • Harmful if swallowed
  • Fatal if swallowed
  • Use in well ventilated area
  • Flammable
  • Do not smoke when using
  • Call poison control if ingested
  • Vapors can ignite explosively
  • If eye contact occurs, seek medical care
  • Etc.

Compare this to the more benign label of Ecos Paints, one of the many zero-VOC (Volatile Organic Chemical) brands of paints: "Health & Safety: Avoid contact with skin and eyes - wash off splashes with water. Keep out of reach of children." Much less scary, isn't it?

Eco-friendly, non-toxic, non-VOC paints

  • Ecos Paint: Ecos is the first paint brand to achieve the highest health and safety standards of the Declare Label. Considered the 'nutrition label' for the industry, the Declare label offers unprecedented transparency into the ingredients, sourcing, and manufacturing of labeled products. It is certified to be free of any dangerous chemicals on the Red List. (Read: 14 toxic home improvement materials to avoid: the Red List)
  • AFM Safecoat Paints: AFM has been making healthier paints for over 30 years. They led the way for zero-VOC paints. Because health was a primary concern for the company, it became the early choice for hospitals concerned with patient health and safety.
  • Yolo Colorhouse: Colorhouse paints contain no VOCs, no reproductive toxins, no chemical solvents, and no toxic fumes/HAPs-free. They have a wonderful color palette that is popular with interior decorators.
  • Benjamin Moore Natura: Natura is virtually odorless, has no VOCs, and no harsh fumes.
  • The Real Milk Paint Company: Real Milk Paint is the closest you will come to old-school non-toxic paints familiar to the original owners of many historic homes. It is one of the few all natural and bio-degradable paints on the market.

Why would you ever want the toxic stuff in your house or anywhere near people you love? VOCs can remain years after paint dries. The good news is that the industry is becoming much more transparent and giving consumers more knowledge about what is in their products. The better news is that they are removing the most hazardous chemicals from their products while not only maintaining, but improving paint quality and durability.

Water-based paints are fast drying and easy to clean up. They have been reformulated for ultra-durability and often outperform older, more toxic paints. They don't smell like toxic paints, so you can eat dinner in a freshly painted dining room or sleep in bedroom shortly after its painted. Best of all, there are plenty of great options from both large national brands as well as smaller companies.


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