Product Sector Guidance: Paints and Wallcoverings

close up image of woman holding wall colors up the wall

Choosing Healthier Paints and Wallcoverings

Many different types of chemicals go into paints and serve different purposes, consisting of solvents, binders, pigments, surfactants, and additives. Several chemicals commonly included in paint are known to cause health risks. Historically, lead was included in paint, which caused widespread and devastating health impacts, especially harmful to the development of children. Thankfully, lead is no longer manufactured into household paint in the U.S.

VOCs are the highest, but not the only concern when it comes to health hazards from paint. They are found in paint solvents and are higher in oil-based paint. They are released into the air as paint dries. Standards have been put in place to limit the VOC content and emissions of paints. Products that contain low-VOC third-party certifications meet the emissions limits set forth by the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) Section 0130. It is important to choose low-VOC certified products for primers as well as topcoat paints. Additionally, the number of coats applied increases the overall content and emissions. Tints that are added to paint also contain VOCs, and are another factor that should be considered when selecting low-VOC paint products. 

Regarding VOC content, it is recommended to have “no more than 10 g/L of VOCs in the bases, and colorants that do not increase the VOC content of the base paint when tinted.” - HomeFree, Healthy Building Network

Other chemicals in paint that are cause for concern include APEs, which are used as surfactants in the paint, and impact the body as endocrine disruptors. Paints with recycled content are also a cause for concern due to potentially high VOCs and the lack of standard practices of testing for heavy metals. Additionally, it is recommended to avoid antimicrobial paints, which include pesticides, and lack any evidence of providing health benefits when incorporated into products. GreenSeal (GS-11) certified products are APE free as well as low-VOC, and have limits on some hazardous content up to 100ppm. 

Information in this section draws from and adapts the work of Habitable. Visit Habitable’s Informed website for the most updated guidance.

Chemicals to look out for in latex paint

VOCsToluene, xylene, ethyl acetate, formaldehyde, methylene chloride, propyl glycol, glycol ethersCancer and liver toxicity, confusion, death, respiratory irritation, gene mutationSelect paints that are certified to be low in VOC content and emissions
APEsnonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs), octylphenol ethoxylates (OPEs)Endocrine disruptionGS-11 Certified paints are APE-free
Antimicrobial additives/biocides Bacterial resistanceSelect GS-11 paints
PFASFluoropolymer type PFASReproductive harm in women, developmental harm in children, increased risk of cancer, reduced immunity, increased cholesterol levels and/or risk of obesitySelect paints with silicone polymers (rather than PFAS)

Healthier Paints and Wallcoverings

Look for these labels:








Recycled paints

Specialty paints (dry erase, magnetic)

Labeled as antimicrobial

Oil-based paints

Low-VOC content paint

Paints that are APE-free and low VOC content and emissions, with low VOC tinting


Paints containing GS-11 certification

Alkylphenol ethoxylate (APE)- free paints

Paints with low VOC emissions and content

Milk based paints



Wallcoverings– also called wall finishes- vary in materiality and durability. They include wallpaper, textile coverings, cork panels, vinyl, and wood veneers. 

Wall coverings are applied using an adhesive. Types of wall covering adhesives include clear, wheat based, clay based, and vinyl on vinyl, which is used to bind together two vinyl surfaces. The first three are water based, and thus healthier; the adhesive for securing vinyl on vinyl tends to have higher levels of VOCs. Some wallcoverings can be sold with “Peel and Stick” adhesives already attached to the backing, similar to double-sided tape. This type of adhesive is popular for DIY installation and is a less toxic alternative to wet applications.

The main component of vinyl wall coverings is a plastic chemical called PVC, or polyvinyl chloride. Flexible PVC products, such as vinyl wallcoverings, can contain stabilizers and flame retardants that are endocrine disruptors and developmental and reproductive toxicants.

Vinyl wallcoveringsLow-VOC certified wallcoverings and adhesivesGreenguard GOLD certified Red List Free or Cradle to Cradle certified wallcoverings