So there you are, standing in the paint aisle, trying to figure out which brand to buy. The labels all spew the same stuff — low-VOC, no-VOC, long-lasting, durable, antibacterial, antimicrobial, quick-drying, eco-friendly, buy me!!
But before you make any quick decisions on which one you’ll bring home, be sure turn the can around and check the BACK of the label. What you’ll likely find is that even some of the “eco-friendly” paints still have chemicals. But why? With so many high-performing natural paints on the market these days, are chemical paints even necessary?
Just for context, we’ll quickly chat about why most oil and latex paints (even VOC-free) are not the healthiest option. And, of course, we’ll cover the natural alternatives made from plants, minerals, milk protein, and clay.
In this article
- Safe oil and wax finishes
- Latex paints (not my favorite option, even when VOC-free)
- Natural paints (from plants, minerals, milk protein, and clay)
Safe oil and wax finishes
Oil-based stains are a popular choice for finishing (or refinishing) wood furniture — and for good reason. They’re gorgeous, show the natural grains of the wood, and seal and protect the wood from water damage. The thing is, most woods stain are filled with toxic chemicals that emit harmful fumes and are dangerous to inhale.
Did you know that oil-based paints and stains are actually considered hazardous household waste? Yep! So if you do go this route, be sure to wear a mask to protect your lungs and goggles to protect your eyes. Also, please take care to dispose of any leftover paint or stain properly. Or use a natural oil or wax finish as an alternative.
Natural plant oils and waxes as a safer option — so long as the manufacturer didn’t add chemicals to the natural ingredients, which they often do. Always check the label or website and if they don’t list their ingredients. be wary and consider choosing another brand.
Pure tung oil, walnut oil, hemp oil, carnauba wax, and beeswax are examples of natural alternatives. These oils and waxes won’t exactly ‘stain’ your furniture in the way that the chemical-based stains do. However, they will add depth to the wood, while simultaneously nourishing and protecting it.
Water-based (latex) paint is safer than most store-bought oils. But even VOC-free versions are acrylic (which is a type of plastic) and often contain toxic chemicals.
And those attractive characteristics that brands tout on the label such as quick-drying, antibacterial, antimicrobial and mildew resistant characteristics? While these features look appealing, you can basically translate them as “chemicals, chemicals, chemicals, and more chemicals.”
To top it off, did you know that if your home is painted too quickly, these chemicals can off-gas for years? That’s right. If you paint the second coat of latex paint (or the toxic versions of oil-based stains and paints) when the first coat hasn’t fully dried, you’ve essentially created a slow chemical leak inside your home.
This is not the case with natural paints.
Natural paints from plants, minerals, milk protein, and clay
Natural paints are a beautiful, long-lasting, and non-toxic alternative to conventional paints. In fact, truly natural paints are so safe that a pregnant woman could paint the nursery with the windows closed without worry. Even zero-VOC paints can’t claim that.
Truly natural paints do cost more, but not prohibitively so. And while they are more difficult to find in stores, they’re (mostly) easy to find online.
Natural paints are typically made from plants, milk-protein, and clay and tinted with mineral oxides. They tend to be offered in a limited range of colors, but the natural depth and complexity of the colors are not something that cannot be achieved with synthetic pigments.
Natural paints are also fast and easy to clean up. Unlike oil and latex, you can safely throw them in the garbage or rinse them down the sink with a bit of soap and water.
Plant-based paints are as easy to use as latex. Like latex, plant & mineral paints require 1 to 3 coats and may need a primer. These paints dry in just 1 to 3 hours and most brands can re-coat in 4 to 6 hours. Of all the natural options, plant and mineral paints offer the largest selection of colors and are the easiest to use… but they tend to be the most difficult to find.
Several years ago I used a wonderful brand called Fresh Aire, but they’ve since gone out of business. I’ve yet to find anything as good, so I now lean toward milk and clay paints.
Milk paint is usually a mix of milk protein (casein), lime, clay, and earth-based pigments. It works best on raw wood and offers a naturally rustic look with slight variations in shading that add to its beauty. Milk paint ages well, it does not chip, and it becomes more lustrous over time. These paints are packaged as a dried powder and need to be mixed with water before use.
Milk paint requires 1 to 3 coats with a top-coat of linseed oil or wax. These paints take just an hour to dry and you can re-coat in as little as 2 hours.
Clay paints offer a thicker, plaster-like finish with rich hues. They are naturally mold-resistant, highly durable and easily cover interior surfaces without the need for a primer. They also take just 1 to 2 coats, though each can take 2 days to dry. Clay paints also help to regulate the temperature and humidity inside your home, staying warm to the touch in winter and cooler in summer.
Natural paint brands
Natural Living Guide
Find practical tips & natural alternatives to the everyday chemicals that invade our lives.