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Traditional paint high VOC modern paint low VOC – debunked

Listed under Blog, Little Greene, Marketing, paint Posted Feb 06 2012

In 2012, I find the easiest way to classify or differentiate between traditional paints and modern paints is by “look” – not by Traditional paint high VOC modern paint low VOC, or chemical content…

If you read a comment below, I get lambasted for apparently not knowing what a traditional paint is, and that I have no appreciation of what horrors go into a modern paint or went into an arsenic laden paint potion of yore. Just to repeat, the whole point of this article is trying to clarify for my clients and enquirers, the difference between what is marketed as traditional paint in 2012 and what I think most people would agree is marketed as modern, all-singing, super tough never fades easy to apply new paint products from the Duluxes and Crowns of this world.


Traditional, boutique, designer, posh paints, call them what you will, tend to be formulated with matt flat, chalky low sheen finishes in line with the general finishes you would find in older properties. Modern paints from Dulux and Crown and co tend to be more plastic, higher sheen, shiny.

What I see increasingly, is customers who request traditional paint, low VOC paint, or low odour paint and home in on certain products and dismiss others, quote some facts but omit others. I wonder if this is a case of a little knowledge is worse than none? When choosing paint at your local decorator merchant, I suggest that you think of the look / finish first, then work backwards. ie Pick the paints with the sheen level you prefer, with proven good coverage. Then decide on colours, then VOC or odour levels you can put up with, then water-based or oil-based for ease of clean up and drying times…

That is my stance to cut through the mind-befuddling marketing and technical mountains that I talk about below – but I am open to suggestions for a different approach to paint product differentiation.

Traditional paint is poisonous high VOC, whereas modern paint is healthy

I was told the difference between traditional and modern paint hinges on petro-chemical content.

I was also reading an article positing the idea that high VOC = traditional (bad), low VOC = modern (good).

I was accused of being ill-informed and talking twaddle with my “look” premise / definition.

OK, standing in the store reading labels, does the petrochemical content help us choose whether we want Farrow and Ball emulsion or Crown vinyl matt emulsion ? Nah!

What about VOC numbers? Let’s try and work through this fixation on VOC’s to see if it helps us find the right traditional or modern paint for the job.

What is VOC?

VOCs are Volatile Organic Compounds.

Organic isn’t healthy and fresh in this context.

In layman’s terms, VOC’s are the damaging, polluting gases that can seep (or flood) out of a material over the course of its life.

In definition speak :

A VOC is any organic compound having an initial boiling point less than or equal to 250 °C measured at a standard atmospheric pressure of 101.3 kPa and can do damage to visual or audible senses.

VOCs include both man-made and naturally occurring chemical compounds. In fact most VOCs in the environment are produced by plants. VOCs in paint tend to be man-made.

According to the definitions, there is no distinction between the nastiness of natural and man-made VOCs. Neither are good for you.

Equally important, there is no correlation between VOC content in a product and VOC emissions from that product into indoor air. So high VOC content doesn’t necessarily mean the dangerous gases will seep out of paint and kill you slowly. Conversely, just because there is zero VOC in ethanol, doesn’t mean it is good for your lungs. Limewash has no VOC but I wouldn’t want to be splashing that stuff around without due care and attention.

Can you see the flaws in defining and more importantly, selecting a paint, traditional or modern, based solely on VOC content?

VOC levels get worse as a yardstick

There are (at least) 3 ways of calculating VOC content

5.1 The VOC content of the sample expressed in grams VOC per liter of coating is calculated by using the equation: VOC, g/L (of coating)

5.2 The VOC content of the sample expressed in grams per liter of material is calculated by using the formula:
VOC, g/L (of material)

5.3 The VOC content of the sample expressed in weight percent is calculated by using the formula:
VOC, % (w/w)

Which VOC numbers are quoted on a paint tin?

To make an educated decision you need like-for-like comparisons. Generally manufacturers in Europe quote VOC % w/w (weight percent). Personally, I would like to know how much VOC is in the can by weight, ie grams per litre, which is the US measure of VOC.

VOC content of paint for woodwork

Here are some VOC numbers »

Dulux oil based Satinwood (2010 formula) 30% VOC content by weight

Dulux oil based eggshell (pre-1980’s formula?) 30-50% VOC content by weight

Little Greene oil eggshell paint (reformulated in 2010) has 27-29% VOC content by weight

Colourman buttermilk paint (18th century formula) has zero VOC content by weight

Farrow and Ball Estate eggshell (2010 water-borne alkyd) 4.9g /l VOC (actual content) or 0.37% VOC (content as a % of weight)

Farrow and Ball gloss (2010 water-borne alkyd) 23g/l VOC (actual content) or 1.8% VOC (content as a % of weight)

Sherwin Williams Pro Classic (water-borne alkyd) 50g / l VOC (actual content)

F&B estate emulsion 0.4 g /l VOC (actual content) .03% VOC (% content by weight)

F&B Modern emulsion 7g /l VOC (actual content) 0.53% VOC (% content by weight)

F&B casein distemper 15.6g /l VOC (actual content) 5% VOC (% content by weight)

limewash zero VOCs
soft distemper 0.5g / l VOC (actual content) 0.03% VOC (% content by weight)

Little Greene acrylic matt 0.3% VOC (% content by weight)

Voila a simple way to narrow down whether you need a modern or traditional paint????!!!!! I don;t think. Don’t be too smitten by numbers.

Lies, damn lies and statistics

A low VOC product can contain a lot of nasty chemicals that just happen to not be VOCs.

Manufacturers sometimes sell 2-pack paints labelling them as zero VOC, but they neglect to mention that the catalyst has enough VOC to melt lungs.

Because of the magnifying effect of VOC calculation methods, a spread in VOC content ranges can be deceiving.

In a low-solids coating, the difference between a 10 g/L and 50 g/L is an actual VOC content difference of less than 1% by weight. The difference between 10 g/L and zero is less than 0.5% by weight.

The math gets fuzzy as formulators juggle solids content and the subtraction of water and exempt solvents.

– A theoretical 40% water-carried silane evolves around 0.5 pounds of ethanol per gallon of product with a regulatory VOC content of 330 g/L.

– A theoretical 90% solids industrial maintenance coating evolves around 0.6 pounds of toluene or xylene per gallon of product with a regulatory VOC content of less than 100 g/L.

The lowest regulatory VOC number isn’t always indicative of the lowest impact to the environment or indoor air quality. (Know VOC.pdf by Dwayne Fuhlhage )

Is this VOC fixation really a valid way of picking paint for the job in hand?

When you open a tin of oil based eggshell and apply the paint to walls and woodwork, VOCs are emitted. I understand that 70% of the emissable gassy VOCs will flood out into the atmosphere immediately, and the rest will “off-gas” (seep into the room) over the course of the life of the painted coating.

To put this in perspective, however, there is more VOC coming out the back of your car than emitted from a can of paint.

This quote from my former district council back in Stroud, Gloucestershire, sums up where our focus should be when choosing paint.

Generally industrial and domestic pollutant sources, together with their impact on air quality, tend to be steady state or improving with time. However, traffic pollution problems are worsening world-wide.

If you drive to your paint store, you are doing more damage to the environment than you could ever do with a pot of oil-based “high VOC” paint.

VOCs outside & in. Outdoors, VOCs, primarily from vehicles, contribute to smog. Indoors, VOCs in household products cause even worse pollution. Items reponsible, besides paint, include paint thinners, wood preservatives, aerosol sprays, cleansers, moth repellents, air fresheners, hobby supplies and dry-cleaned clothing. Cut down on their use or switch to green versions to improve air quality at home. NRDC

VOC emissions refer solely to chemicals released when using the paint and don’t represent the true ‘footprint’ or lifecycle of paint as a product – from the sourcing of raw materials, manufacture and transportation, to its application and subsequent new life in your home. (Little Greene representative)

Info from Wikipedia Determination of VOCs and trade data product sheets

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3 comments to “Traditional paint high VOC modern paint low VOC – debunked”

  1. Autumn


  2. Harriet Anderson

    You are missing an important point here. There are serious concerns that inhaling VOCs in early pregnancy can increase the risk of miscarriage and birth defects. At a critical time, families can avoid aerosols, heavy traffic pollution, and may wish to prioritise a pregnancy over wider environmental concerns. Many people already minimise compressed wood products and try to air their houses. There *are* some manufacturers online who specialise in genuinely very low VOC products and this is sincerely more important than sheen or colour for some people starting a family, so they are not trapped in a home environment that may damage a pregnancy. The RCOG did publish on this a while ago.

  3. Andy Crichton

    Thanks for your input. It is wise to reduce localised exposure to drying paint as much as possible and seek out low VOC alternatives.

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