Healthy Paint: Buy It or Make Your Own?

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paint cans group

Painting is a fast and inexpensive way to change your surroundings. With a fresh splash of color, it feels like you’re in a new house. Painting has always been one of my favorite things to do, but a few years ago, I started having health problems every time I painted. I’ve been exploring the options to buy non-toxic paint, but being the creative person I am, I’d love to figure out how to make my own!


What makes people sick? Conventional paints are made with VOCs (volatile organic compounds), chemical solvents that release toxic gas as paint dries. They are not just in paint, though. You can find them in household cleaning products, cosmetics, furniture, fuels, and pesticides, to name a few products. But I digress.

VOCs can off-gas for years after painting a room. They are the main cause of indoor air pollution, which can be 10 times worse than outdoor air pollution. Health effects range from eye and throat irritation to liver and kidney damage to cancer. Did you ever notice how you don’t feel quite right once the doors and windows are closed for winter? It might be from the paint, carpeting or furniture or dozens of other products in your house.

Buying no- or low-VOC paint

Be aware that no-VOC paint may not be no-VOC. There is a tiny threshold that is allowed by the EPA, so the labeling is not entirely accurate. Low-VOC paint has a higher threshold, so the labeling says, ‘Yes, you will be exposed to VOCs from this paint.’ At least you know what you’re getting with low-VOC paint.

When I went to the hardware store to find paint I could use, I discovered more misleading packaging. The labeling on the base paint of no- and low-VOC paint was accurate, but the colorant was the VOC culprit. I was glad I discovered that before having a non-refundable gallon mixed for me! Read labels to make sure you are getting the healthiest option!

When I bought my house, I painted the interior with non-toxic paint from Bioshield. It’s made from chalk and water, and it smells like it. Here is a comprehensive list of other non-toxic paint companies.

Making your own

So if paint can be made from chalk, can you make your own? Yes! But chalk is not the only way to go.

Paint has a few main ingredients, all of them simple, natural, and easy to find.

You need a pigment, of course. Natural powdered pigment can be picked up at an art supply store. If you’re adventurous and creative, try making your own from natural materials, such as coffee grounds, plant material, and soil.

Fillers add texture and bulk. This is where you can use chalk, but other choices are limestone, marble, and flour.

Binders act to glue the various ingredients together and also to help the paint stick to the surface you are painting. Egg, oil, clay, and linseed oil are in this category. Casein, a milk protein and the main ingredient in milk paint, is also a tried and true binder. You can make it yourself from milk, or order a powdered version from a natural paint supplier.

Some paint recipes use a thinner. That can be as simple as water, or you may need a natural turpentine or citrus thinner. It depends on your other ingredients.

Experimenting and having fun!

If this sounds like something you’re interested in pursuing, do some research to see which paint is best for your project. It sounds to me like this is trial-and-error learning – lots of experimenting and testing.

I definitely want to try this, but I doubt I will paint a room right away. I do have some small pieces of furniture that could use makeovers, and some window trim needs a pick-me-up. I’ll really be excited to be back freshening up my house with paint safely, either way!

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Nan Fischer

Nan Fischer has been living and building green for over 35 years. Nan’s emphasis on the BuildDirect blog is about how to make your dollar stretch further, while also moving toward a more sustainable lifestyle, as well as upcoming and existing technology to help us live in an ecologically-friendly way. Nan also authors posts on the website of her seed business, sweetly seeds.