Quick renovation rule: If you detect that "fresh paint smell," don't inhale. A new coat of paint is a quick way to give your walls a clean, bright look, but some of its not-so-clean ingredients may leave you feeling dull and low. Neurotoxic, petrochemical volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that readily evaporate from many conventional paints can cause respiratory problems, headaches, dizziness, watery eyes and blurred vision. Some VOCs are also linked to cancer. Conventional paints can include benzene, formaldehyde, kerosene, toluene, xylene and fungicides. And, although latex, or water-based, paints are often assumed to be gentler than oil-based enamel paints, they are often fortified with pesticides (more  VOCs) in order to resist mildew and mold.

Because of the risk of developmental harm posed by such fumes,  pregnant women should not participate in painting, and should, along with babies and young children, stay out of rooms until paint has fully dried, says Philip Landrigan, M. D., director of the Mount Sinai  School of Medicine's Center for Children's Environmental Health.

As conventional paint fumes are also serious air pollutants, you can help the environment and breathe easier by choosing paints labeled no-VOC or low-VOC. And while your nose will thank you, your eyes won't know the difference, as eco-friendlier paints come in a wide range of palettes and textures, from mattes and glosses to mix-your-own milks and clays. All-plant-based paints, while most pricey, are free of petrochemical VOCs linked to nervous system damage and cancer.

Do note, however, that some people are allergic or sensitive to natural VOCs emanating from citrus and other stong plant essences.

Even if you use a no-VOC paint, be sure to keep windows open for thorough ventilation, both during application and for at least two weeks after, Dr. Landrigan advises. 

The following companies sell a variety of no-VOC paints. Some, like Yolo Colorhouse, have developed gently formulated paints especially for the nursery.

AFM Safecoat

Air-Care Coronado

Auro Paint 

Benjamin Moore EcoSpec 


Home Depot Freshaire

Kelly Moore Enviro-Coat

Old-Fashioned Milk Paint 

Yolo Colorhouse

This article originally appeared in Plenty in May 2008. The story was moved to MNN.com.

Copyright Environ Press 2008