What To Know About Low-VOC vs. No-VOC Paint

Updated: Aug. 03, 2023

Wondering about the difference between Low-VOC and No-VOC paint? You're not alone! We break down the essentials and help you make an informed choice.

Stroll through the paint aisle in any home improvement store and you’re sure to see brightly colored labels claiming that a product is “Low-VOC” or “No-VOC”. That sounds good, but what exactly is a VOC and why do you want less of them? If you’ve wondered about either of those things, we’ve got a breakdown of everything you need to know.

VOC stands for Volatile Organic Compound. VOCs are found in all kinds of finishes, including residential paint. Once the paint is applied to a wall, these VOCs drift into your home’s air. You can remove VOCs from the air with good ventilation, but they can also continue to seep into your home long after the new paint smell is gone.

That’s a problem. VOCs can cause nausea and dizziness or aggravate existing conditions such as asthma.

What Is the Difference Between the Amount of VOCs in Low-VOC Paint vs. No-VOC Paint?

Most consumers assume there are clear guidelines for which products can call themselves Low-VOC or No-VOC. Unfortunately, the reality is much messier and more ambiguous. In fact, Sherwin-Williams lists at least nine different sets of laws and 19 industry groups and regulatory bodies that have weighed in on VOC paint levels.

But don’t worry! We’ve got a few hints for navigating this issue, and some rough rules of thumb to guide you when selecting a paint for your home.

Background

VOCs amounts are typically measured in grams per liter, (g/l). Some manufacturers list their VOCs in pounds per gallon, requiring a bit of quick math as you’re standing in the hardware store. For a quick conversion, multiply the pounds/gallon number by 120 to get the VOC in grams/liter.

The EPA caps the maximum level of VOCs in interior paint to 250 g/l for flat paint and 380 g/l for satin, semi-gloss, and gloss. So that’s the maximum amount you should ever see in an interior house paint. But the EPA offers no guidance on what is considered “Low-VOC” or “No-VOC”. They explain why in this article.

Rule of Thumb

Even with multiple industry organizations, here’s a good ballpark standard for what to expect in these reduced VOC items.

  • Low-VOC flat paint: less than 50 g/l VOCs (flat paint)
  • Low-VOC satin, semi-gloss, or gloss paint: less than 100 g/l VOCs
  • No-VOC: less than 5 g/l VOCs

Take time to research your Low-VOC paint. With no universal standards, a “Low-VOC” label simply means that specific paint has a lower VOC than other paint made by that same manufacturer. It might meet the standards listed above, but you can’t know for sure without reading the fine print.

Luckily, there’s an easier solution than squinting at that tiny type: check for a certification logo on the label.

Look for a certification

Greenguard Certification LogoCourtesy UL

Examine the paint label carefully. If the paint meets or exceeds one of the industry group’s requirements, it will sport the logo of that organization. The EPA lists a few suggested certifications to look for, such as Cradle to Cradle and Green Seal certifications.

Certifications are usually found on the front of the label. Nick O’Keefe, the Owner and Founder of Oak City Coatings, suggests looking for and using UL Greenguard Certified Zero VOC paint.

“UL Greenguard Certification means they’ve been rigorously tested and are proven to be free of these dangerous chemical emissions,” says O’Keefe.

Tips for Choosing Between Low or No-VOC Paint

Once you’ve found certified paints in colors you like, it’s time to choose whether you want a Low-VOC or No-VOC paint. For many DIYers, their circumstances make the decision is easy.

Phi Dang, founder and CEO of Newline Painting points out that “No-VOC paint has negligible VOCs, making it an excellent choice for people sensitive to chemicals or respiratory issues.”

But he gives the edge to Low-VOC when it comes to wear and tear.

“Low-VOC paint often have better durability and color retention, which are crucial factors for high-traffic areas in homes,” says Dang.

Oak City’s O’Keefe agrees, especially for homeowners who prefer “a healthier interior paint option or if babies, pregnant mothers, or people with health concerns such as lung or respiratory issues reside in the home.”

Low-VOC Paint Vs. No-VOC Paint: Advantages and Disadvantages

So, assuming that you’re finding a paint with a certification logo on it, what’s the better option: Low-VOC or No-VOC?

Low-VOC paint considerations

  • Color/Sheen. Low-VOC paints are available in a wider range of colors and sheens.
  • Durability. A mudroom or other area that sees high traffic can benefit from the durability of Low-VOC paint.
  • Cost. Low-VOC paints typically cost 20% less than comparable No-VOC options.
  • Effort. These require roughly the same amount of effort to apply as regular paint.
  • Health. They have a dramatic decrease in VOCs from standard paints.

No-VOC paint considerations

  • Color/Sheen. There are plenty of No-VOC paints with beautiful colors, but they’re typically not available in the same range of colors and sheens.
  • Durability. This varies by brand, especially with more vibrant colors. In high-traffic areas, you’ll want to select your paint carefully or plan on touching up frequently.
  • Cost. No-VOC paints typically cost 20% more than comparable Low-VOC options.
  • Effort. Depending on the formulation, some No-VOC paints require extra coats to look finished.
  • Health. No-VOC paints pose very little in the way of health hazards as long it’s certified by one or more organizations.