Paint that smells versus paint that doesn’t
What makes paint smell?
Love it or hate it, the familiar aroma of paint comes from many sources, but chemicals and gases are the prime culprits. Many of these are potentially harmful VOCs (volatile organic compounds), and there are now regulations restricting their levels in paint.
Paint without smell - too good to be true?
Some eco paint brands now claim to be manufacturing “odourless paint” or “virtually odourless paint” for walls, with low or zero VOCs to boot.
This has to be splendid news for your nose and for the environment, right?
In fact, the absence of odour in paint may actually be more dangerous! Humans have a sense of smell for a reason - either to warn us about approaching predators or to alert us to things that may be harmful to ingest.
The last time I checked, tubs of paint weren’t charging around eating humans, but we all know paint is harmful to ingest - which means we’re meant to be able to smell it. The only non-synthetic compound that doesn’t have its own smell is clean, untainted water.
All of which begs the question, “Is odourless paint safe?”
Something I learned from my dog
My dog appears to love the smell of paint - or maybe he hates it; I’m not too sure. Whenever I open a tub of paint, he becomes very inquisitive, and after I’ve painted something he likes to cock his leg against it for about a week. But he does not do this where the paint has already dried and cured.
This got me thinking, so I conducted a (not very scientific) experiment. I tested his reaction to a variety of paints and I was surprised to find that only the low VOC water-based paints caused him to react. It would appear that it’s not the VOCs he’s interested in - it’s something else.
What’s in odourless paint?
So, what makes low VOC paint seem odourless to us, but makes my dog take appropriate action to make it smell better to him?
Let’s look at just a couple of examples of “virtually odourless” chemicals used to make low VOC odourless paint and see if the issue is there.
Chemistry allows us to eliminate smells (as with odourless paint) or change nasty smells into something more pleasant (as with plastic-based paint). While this may sound good, many synthesised chemicals which are odourless can, in fact, have negative health effects.
Alkylphenol ethoxylate nonylphenols
These scary-sounding compounds act as emulsifiers in water-borne acrylic paints. They are xenobiotics - chemicals you wouldn’t expect to be produced by, or found in an organism. Nonylphenols help paint to achieve its “virtually odourless” status at the expense of potentially destabilising and disrupting the hormones controlled by your endocrine system.
There are concerns that low-level exposure to nonylphenols may cause further negative health effects for humans, as studies have shown adverse effects on animals. The European Union is phasing out and intends to ban them because of their alleged toxicity potential, and their tendency to bioaccumulate.
A major paint manufacturer recently removed one of these chemicals from their “eco-friendly” paint to get ahead of the ban. The result was that their paint smelled of cat urine, and they have since had to reinstate the chemical.
Ethylene glycol derivatives
These equally scary-sounding, slow-evaporating chemicals promote film formation in water-borne paints, yet they are well-known for causing negative health effects. Symptoms of overexposure to glycol can include anaemia, mild intoxication, and irritation of the skin, eyes, nose, and throat.
Some glycol ethers are even hazardous to the male and female reproductive systems, yet regulators do not consider them to be VOCs because they evaporate so slowly.
These slow evaporation chemicals are SVOCs (semi-volatile organic compounds). While legislation now requires that manufacturers state VOC levels on their paint product labels, SVOCs do not need to be disclosed and the public are mostly unaware of them.
Just because something is odourless doesn’t mean there are no harmful chemicals.
By replacing the faster-evaporating ethylene glycol derivatives (which are VOCs) with very slow evaporating ones, manufacturers can label their paint VOC-free and/or “virtually odourless.”
But this just replaces one “nasty” with another. It will harm you in a more discreet way, but it’s a “nasty” nonetheless.
Personally, I would prefer to smell where danger is coming from. Wouldn’t you?
Other harmful and odourless chemicals added to low or zero VOC paints:
Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs)
How Radical Plastic Free Paint is different
Radical Plastic Free Paint contains none of these chemicals. It smells like paint ought to smell, but its low VOC level means the odour is not overpowering like many oil paints.
We have neither replaced VOCs with synthetic VOCs, nor added chemical odour suppressors. We could have done, and it was certainly a tempting option - after all, you probably wouldn’t know if we hadn’t told you.
When using Radical Plastic Free Paint, we recommend you open all of your windows and ventilate the area well. Use your nose as a guide - when the smell disappears, any harm disappears with it. This usually occurs within 1-5 days.
Compare this to most odourless low VOC plastic paints. They take 30 days to cure, and during this time you are sitting in your freshly painted odourless room, breathing in all of those nasties.
Yes, this does mean that Radical Plastic Free Paint is not 100% benign - but no paint is. Anyone who tells you otherwise isn’t being straight with you. However, our paint contains less than 22g/L of VOCs, with no added chemicals to make it appear what it is not - we don’t even use biocides. Nor do we add VOCs in our tinting process, making it even more eco friendly. It’s as safe and natural as we can possibly make it without compromising durability and quality.
Our mission is to improve paint in a more sustainable, positive way - and that’s just what we have achieved with Radical Plastic Free Paint.