How to Paint Your Home the Eco-Friendly Way

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Written by Leigh Matthews, BA Hons, H.Dip. NT


Leigh Matthews, BA Hons, H.Dip. NT

Sustainability Expert

Leigh Matthews is a sustainability expert and long time vegan. Her work on solar policy has been published in Canada's National Observer.


Whether you’re painting the entire interior of your home or giving a single wall a fresh paint job, there are plenty of ways to make interior decorating more eco-friendly.

Table of Contents
  1. Problems with paint
  2. How to choose eco-friendly & non-toxic paint
  3. Make your paint job even more eco-friendly
  4. Other ways to eco-proof your paint job

In this post, I focus on eco-friendly paint by offering an overview of what to watch out for when choosing interior paint, whatever your theme, style, and budget, and some tips on making your paint job even more climate friendly.

Problems with paint

Giving a room a fresh coat of paint can help brighten things up, personalize the space, or entirely change the aesthetic. But before you rush to choose your color scheme, it’s good to know how to avoid some painting pitfalls. After all, that fresh paint smell is far from healthy, for you, your family, or the environment.

Many paints comprise a long list of potentially toxic chemicals, not that you’ll find these on the side of the can. Paint ingredients can include volatile organic compounds such as formaldehyde, toluene, benzene, styrene, and xylene. VOCs are often present in paint, glue, lacquer, engineered wood, and also in mattresses, other furniture, and textiles such as carpets, upholstery, and drapes. They are also found in stuffed toys, nursery decals, mobiles, and other decorations.

Unfortunately, VOC levels are often much higher in a nursery than elsewhere in the home because of freshly painted walls and new furniture and furnishings all off-gassing VOCs at the same time. Some of these chemicals are known carcinogens, while other chemicals in paint include petroleum-derived polyurethane and hormone-disrupting phthalates, as well as animal-derived ingredients like casein (from milk), beeswax, and shellac, which aren’t necessarily toxic but take their own environmental toll.

Quick-drying paints are most likely to contain higher levels of VOCs and animal-derived products, but if paint manufacturers aren’t forced to list the full ingredients on the can, how can you tell if paint is problematic?

How to choose eco-friendly & non-toxic paint

In general, if a tin of paint has an EPA, OHSA, or DOT registration number, this means it contains at least one chemical known to be toxic and that has to be monitored. Similarly, a warning that a product must be disposed of as hazardous waste strongly suggests there are toxic chemicals in the paint.

You can also ask a company for the safety data sheets (SDS) and environmental data sheets (EDS) for their products. Some of the more reputable companies already offer these on their websites, though it can take a bit of digging to track them down. Be sure you’re looking at the correct data sheets for the product you’re considering purchasing; some sheets cover multiple products but only for the base paint without tint, and the color/tint is where a lot of the nasties tend to creep in, such as the VOCs.

While you’re checking the data sheets, it might help to search the document for mentions of ‘aquatic toxicity,’ ‘carcinogen,’ and ‘respiratory irritant.’ A quick scan for these key words can help you find potentially troublesome ingredients quickly, without needing to read through the whole document.

In general, though, your best bet is to choose paint that contains no VOCs, even when tinted. This means less risk of health hazards for you and your family and less risk to the environment overall. If you can’t find a truly zero-VOC paint, your next best option is a low-VOC paint that is Greenguard Gold certified. If you’re using anything other than a zero-VOC paint, make sure the room is well ventilated as you paint, don’t paint while pregnant or with an infant, small children, or pets in the room, and be sure to air out the room for several days before it is used.

Make your paint job even more eco-friendly

Once you’ve picked your zero-VOC paint, there are other ways to make the whole painting adventure even more eco-friendly. One way is to measure the room. Seriously. If you calculate the area you actually need to paint, you can make sure not to overbuy, saving you money and saving a lot of paint going to waste. If you’re only painting one small wall, you might find that a sample tin can cover everything!

See Also: The 21 Best Eco-Friendly & Non-Toxic Art Supplies for Kids

To figure out how much paint you need for a wall, multiple the wall’s height by its width. If you’re painting multiple walls, do this for each wall and add up the resulting numbers for a total area. One gallon covers about 400 square feet. So, take your area total and divide it by 400 to get a rough estimate of how many gallons of paint you’ll need.

Primers conserve paint

Next, consider using a primer. This thicker, more opaque paint can help reduce how much paint you need overall as it can quickly cover a darker color. Otherwise, you may find that the original color still shows through after three coats of flat or eggshell paint. If you are using primer, be sure to check the data sheets to make sure this is also zero-VOC as primer contains more of the neutral pigment than eggshell or flat.

If you’re not sure what you’ll need, call your local paint store. The staff at these stores are often your best option for advice as they have very likely used the paint you’re considering and have had customers tell them the pros and cons of different brands over the years. As with any project, planning ahead and doing your research can help keep your costs, both financial and environmental, to a minimum.

Other ways to eco-proof your paint job

Eco-friendly paint clean-up

When you are done with your project and need to wash your brushes and rollers, don’t forget that you can keep things eco-friendly by reusing turpentine and paint thinner. If you’re using a zero-VOC water-based paint, you don’t really need paint thinner or turps to wash up. But, if you are using these chemicals, save what you use and store it in a closed, labeled container. Then, just wait until the sediment settles, pour off the clear thinner and save for use next time. And, yes, turpentine is actually pretty eco-friendly as it’s made from tree resin!

To take things up a notch, avoid cleaning your brushes and rollers unless and until you absolutely have to. I spent weeks painting wall after wall in my new house, doing a little bit here and there after work each day, but I probably washed out my roller and brushes just a couple of times because I was using the same color and type of paint for most walls.

The trick is to wrap up the rollers and brushes tightly in plastic, squeezing out any air, then seal, and store in a dark, cool place until you’re ready to roll again. I found that plastic food bags destined for the recycling were ideal for this job as I could slide in the roller and use a bread-bag tie to seal it up at the top. Just be sure to wash out any food bags first, so you don’t paint crumbs onto your walls! Use cling-wrap if you have to, but reuse plastic packaging if you have it lying around.

Once you’re definitely done with painting, though, use a bucket to wash out brushes, instead of just running water down the sink. Even non-toxic, water-based paints can damage the health of waterways. Decant the water from the bucket into a sealable vessel and take it with you to the recycling or garbage depot along with your empty cans of paint.

And speaking of cans, if you have paint left over, seal the cans well and store them upside down; this helps prevent air from getting in, which keeps paint fresh.

What to do with leftover paint

 If you’ve got a little bit of paint left and don’t think you’ll use it in the future (and it’s too paltry to give away), don’t pour the remnants down the sink or into a drain. Instead, put the paint somewhere warm and dry and remove the lid. The paint will dry up and you can then treat it as solid waste.

If you have a lot of paint left over and you’re not going to need it, look for organization in your community that take paint to recycle. Or, ask around friends, family, and colleagues to see if anyone needs paint for a smaller project where what you have will suffice. Some community projects take leftover paint and mix it together for use in covering graffiti.

Habitat for Humanity ReStore sometimes take paint. The organization PaintCare also manages local paint recycling programs in a handful of states, and you can take leftover paint to a drop-off site for safe disposal, recovery, or reuse.

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