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Guide to greener kitchens: paint 4/12
(This article is adapted from ConsumerReports.org.)

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We can all breathe easier now that paint manufacturers are reducing the amount of volatile organic compounds (VOCs)--the noxious chemicals that make paint smell like paint--in their products, as a result of stricter federal standards. VOCs can cause headaches and dizziness, and are linked to air pollution, smog, and respiratory problems.

More manufacturers now make low-VOC paints that comply with the even-tougher limits set by California's regional South Coast Air Quality Management District. Earlier low-VOC paints lacked the durability and sheen selection of higher-VOC finishes, but now some low-VOC paints top Consumer Reports ratings.

You'll find the VOC level listed on the can. Some paints even claim to contain zero VOCs, but take note—some of those low and zero-VOC products aren’t the highest scoring in the tests, so don’t always assume they are better. (See “Behind the green labels” below.)

How to choose

Many aspects of paint performance depend more on the quality of the base than on the color. The tint base largely determines the paint's toughness and resistance to dirt and stains, while the colorant determines how much the paint will fade. Here's how to pick the right interior paint for different rooms in the house. Watch video on paint tests.

Coverage. Lower grades--typically dubbed good, better, or contractor grade--haven't performed as well in the tests. If a top-of-the-line paint can cover all but the darkest colors in two coats, lower-quality paints might need three or four. The best now cover in just one coat. Some even claim to eliminate the initial, primer coat.

Don't buy strictly by brand. Manufacturers tend reformulate paints frequently to improve performance and comply with tougher regulations. That means the paint you loved last time may not do as well this time around.

Think carefully about color. A hue that looks great in the store could turn you off once it's on your walls. Use the store's color-sampling products and retailer and manufacturer computer programs. Most stores sell 2-ounce sample jars so you can test a paint before buying a large quantity. Manufacturers also offer large color chips, which are easier to use than the conventional small swatches.

Try out samples on different walls and at various times of the day. Fluorescent light enhances blues and greens, but it makes warm reds, oranges, and yellows appear dull. Incandescent light works well with warm colors, but it might not do much for cool ones. Even natural sunlight changes from day to day, room to room, and morning to evening. Color intensifies over large areas, so it's better to go too light than too dark in a given shade.

Green recommendations

Consumer Reports tests only premium lines from major brands, which tend to perform best over time. For the first time in the paint tests, decorator favorite Benjamin Moore Aura has made it to the top of the ratings, beating three-time winner Behr Premium Plus Ultra Satin. Both are low in VOCs and cover great, but Aura’s sheen did not dull when cleaned. Both the Aura Satin and new Regal Select Semi-Gloss from Moore also leave a smoother finish and stand up better to scrubbing.

But Aura is twice the price of Behr, which performed almost as well. So in terms of value, Behr remains a winner too.

Behind the green labels

Some paint brands promote their green credentials on their cans, highlighting certifications that are self-awarded or from independent groups. But those certifications don't guarantee top performance.

Generally, the best green labels are seals or logos indicating that an independent organization has verified that a product meets a set of meaningful and consistent standards for environmental protection and/or social justice.

Six different certifications are noted below: Asthma & Allergy Friendly ( Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America), Greenguard, GreenSure (Sherwin-Williams ), Green Promise (Benjamin Moore), Green Seal, and Green Wise.

Asthma & Allergy Friendly

This certification comes from the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. The foundation measures VOCs emitted during application and prohibits certain harmful chemicals. Companies pay $7,500 or more to have paints tested and use the logo. Among the tested paints, Valspar+ (Lowe’s) has it-- the satin and matte finish products were among the better products tested, though not top rated.


This certification by the Greenguard Environmental Institute requires manufacturers to measure off-gassing from drying paint and allows only trace levels of VOCs, including formaldehyde and styrene. Manufacturers measure emissions from drying paint and also pay Greenguard to have paint tested, along with at least $3,000 to use the Greenguard logo.


GreenSure certification was created by Sherwin-Williams, is self-regulated, and covers only the company's products. Paints with the GreenSure logo must have VOCs of 50 grams per liter or less, be free of certain other chemical substances, and meet durability requirements. Sherwin-Williams Duration line has the logo, but scored low in the tests.

Green Promise

Green Promise was created by Benjamin Moore, covers only its products, and requires VOCs of 50 grams per liter or less. It also requires paints to use zero-VOC colorant, according to the company. The high-scoring Aura, Natura, and Regal Select lines have it.

Green Seal

This independent group requires limits on VOCs , bars certain other hazardous substances, and assesses performance. Companies pay Green Seal $2,500 to $9,500 to have paints evaluated and to use the Green Seal logo.

Green Wise

The Green Wise certification limits VOCs and odors and prohibits certain chemicals. As part of their $20,000 membership fee, companies have products tested and can license the logo from the Coatings Research Group Inc. (CRGI), an industry organization. Royal Interiors paints by Ace, which were recommended in the tests, have this logo.

Lead hazards and paint

This common toxin is a concern if you sand or scrape off old paint in a house built before 1978 because older layers are likely to contain lead. A lead-test kit can reveal it by changing color, though some kits may be difficult to use.

In Consumer Reports 2007 and 2008 tests, the Abotex Lead Inspector Kit; the First Alert Premium Lead Test Kit LT1; the Homax Lead Check 5250; and SKC LeadCheck Instant 225-2404 Sampling Test Kit all were judged simple, fast, and relatively inexpensive to use. But the testers found that correctly reading the color levels takes some practice.

You should choose a lead kit based on the paint color being tested. If you’re color-blind, don’t use a kit that turns pink or red. Also note that lead test kits use one of two chemicals—sodium sulfide or rhodizonate—to detect lead by color change. Consider buying one kit of each type to test paint of all colors. Follow instructions exactly.

If an item tests positive, remove it from use. For exact lead levels, you should have it screened professionally, according to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requirements and guidelines.

Also remember that if your home was built before 1978, any remodeling pro you hire will have to comply with the EPA’s Lead Renovation, Repair, and Painting Rule. It requires workers to trap dust and debris, among other steps, and applies to any work that might disturb lead-based paint in a home.

Paint disposal and recycling tips

Check Earth911.com to find a paint recycling center in your area. If you can't recycle the paint, you can throw latex paints (but not oil based) into the trash if they're solidified. Ways to do that include drying it by leaving the lid off in a well-vented area and mixing in an absorbent material, such as kitty litter or sawdust, in a 1-to-2 ratio to paint.

Also consider donating your unused paint; Habitat for Humanity takes donated building materials and sells them in affiliated ReStore resale outlets. Listing unused paint on websites such as craigslist.com or freecycle.org is another option.

Related links

Consumer Reports Paint Buying Guide. 3/12
Copyright © 2003-2012 by Consumers Union of United States., Inc., 101 Truman Avenue, Yonkers, NY 10703, a nonprofit organization. No downloading, transmission, photocopying, or commercial use permitted. Visit www.GreenerChoices.org.