Maybe you’ve been inspired by a home makeover TV show. Maybe you haven’t painted for decades and your walls are faded and peeling. Maybe you’re decorating a room for a new arrival to the family. Maybe you’re a DIY enthusiast and regularly repaint your home to keep things fresh. Whatever your motivation, giving your walls a lick of paint is one of the easiest and most popular ways to give an interior a new lease of life. But your choices for this simple task are more complex than just picking a nice colour. Most paints contain nasty chemicals which are bad for your health and even worse for the environment. Luckily though, you can also purchase natural paints which are non-toxic and ecologically benign, while still being easy to apply just like any ordinary paint.

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Conventional paints are classed as 'hazardous waste'. Choose natural paints instead for a healthy home. Image by Pexels.

But What’s Wrong With ‘Normal’ Paint?

All paint is made up of pigment, binder, solvent and usually dryers and fillers as well. With conventional house paint, these roles are filled by petrochemical derivatives and other chemicals, many of which are harmful to human health and have very damaging impacts on the environment during their production and disposal.

Most paints contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs) - a broad umbrella group of carbon-based chemicals, many of which are toxic. These slowly ‘off-gas’ from your walls - even years after you’ve painted! VOCs are one of the most common causes of indoor air pollution and are linked to respiratory illnesses. Many paints also contain formaldehyde, a known carcinogen which can also cause acute symptoms like sore eyes and throat, coughing and nosebleeds. Heavy metals such as lead, cadmium and chromium are also commonly used as pigments. As early as 1987 the World Health Organisation classed occupational painting as ‘carcinogenic’ and said painters faced a 40% increased risk of getting cancer. Clearly a bit of DIY will not expose you to anywhere near this level of risk, but it shows the potential toxicity. What is also very enlightening, is that UK councils class leftover house paint as ‘hazardous waste’. You can dispose of almost-empty paint tins in the normal refuse as long as you’ve dried them out, but for half-full or full tins of paint you need to contact your local hazardous waste disposal service. The chemical composition doesn’t change the moment you decide you don’t want it any more. So, do you really want to cover the inside of your home with ‘hazardous waste’?

The other problem with ‘normal paints’ is their environmental impact. Many of the ingredients (which are not usually disclosed on the packaging, by the way) are derived from the petrochemical industry - i.e. the fossil fuel industry. Some VOCs themselves are also greenhouse gases.  Titanium dioxide, a common paint ingredient, is a rare finite resource and its mining causes habitat loss and water pollution in Madagascar. The production process of conventional paint is also extremely wasteful. For every tonne of paint produced, around 10 tonnes of waste is created - sometimes as high as 30 tonnes for more specialist paints. Much of this is toxic waste which pollutes water courses. On the other end, vast amounts of paint is wasted by consumers too. Out of the 300 million litres of paint sold in the UK each year (household and trade) it’s estimated that around 50 million litres is left unused in storage or just thrown away. If you have any loitering in your garage, the Community Repaint Project takes unwanted paint and redistributes it to low-income people and community centres.

What’s So Good About Natural Paints?

Natural paints are so much better for your health and the health of the planet, and also have a unique practical plus point. The main benefits are that they are:

  • Healthy. Natural paints are non-toxic. Either zero or minimal VOCs depending on the brand, and no other toxic nasties to worry about. They are made from natural benign ingredients such as mineral pigments, pine resin, water and chalk. This means your indoor air will be far purer, which is of particular benefit for asthmatics and children.
  • Ecological. Natural paints are made from ingredients which are renewable (such as linseed, citrus and pine) or naturally plentiful (such as chalk and ochre) and easily biodegradable. Some brands even boast that you can compost their leftover product. The companies also tend to use recyclable packaging and environmentally conscious business practices.
  • Microporous. Natural paints, lacking the plastics of conventional ones, are microporous which means they allow moisture to permeate while still being waterproof. This means they are less likely to blister and peel, and can better withstand damp and condensation. They also keep wood in good condition for longer.

Any Downsides to Natural Paints?

Unfortunately, yes. They are more expensive, although that is slowly changing as they grow in popularity. They take longer to dry - sometimes twice as long. This isn’t really a problem as long as you are aware and plan for it. Plus, when using natural paint containing linseed oil this has a benefit: the strong levelling property of linseed oil combined with the long drying time provides an extra smooth finish with no brush strokes. Also there are ‘degrees of eco’ and some brands only use earth and mineral pigments, resulting in a limited palette of pastel colours. While this is great for eco-purists, a more mainstream audience prefer a wide and vibrant colour range so some brands use benign non-toxic synthetic pigments. Another thing to look out for is if they are totally VOC-free or just low-VOC. Luckily natural paint companies publish their ingredients, unlike the others who are seemingly not so proud of their products’ contents.

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Zero-carbon home and office decorated with cool white Auro natural paints throughout.

Where To Buy

This old but informative article in the Guardian lists the top natural paint brands as Aglaia, Auro, Biofa, earthBorn and ECOs. Ethical Consumer mentions those five plus Green Paints, Livos and Nutshell. We have used an Auro ‘wipe-clean’ emulsion for our office with good results. It does wipe clean, although a tiny bit of paint seems to rub off along with the offending mark. And our client for English Cottages opted for Little Greene Paint Co. Your best bet is to browse the brands' websites, where you can either purchase directly or view lists of stockists. Some also offer a colour matching service - so you can find that perfect shade.

In Conclusion…

We believe the benefits far outweigh the costs, which is why we encourage the use of natural paints and specify them on all our projects. Whether clients decide to go with them or not normally comes down to the budget. If you’re conscious of health and sustainability, and can afford to invest slightly more for this superior quality, we say it’s the natural choice.

Have you used natural paints? Or are you planning to? Let us know with a tweet to @KoruArchitects.

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