Shine and Color Matter: Paint Tints, Sheens and Human Health

Julie Silas | June 02, 2010 | Newsletter

This blog post, originally shared in the Pharos Signal, includes information about parts of Pharos that are no longer available. Please use it for historical reference and for the other useful information it contains.

There are thousands of paint products on the market today.  For interior paint products, manufacturers offer a variety of sheens: flat, eggshell, gloss, semi-gloss.  And, for each sheen, the product is offered in a whole host of base tint options: neutral, white tint, pastel tint, dark tint, etc.

In Pharos, we started the standard paint category with information on a subset of glosses and tints -- focusing on semi-gloss paints with a white or light tint base.  Marketing materials from paint manufacturers, however, don't necessarily tell users that there may be health hazard differences associated with the various sheens or base tints. In our research looking at the technical documents behind the marketing claims, however, we have discovered that the sheen and tint base can matter when it comes to buying paint and our health.

For example, Glidden Professional, Akzo Nobel's commercial product line, offers an interior/exterior product known as Lifemaster Oil Int./Ext. paint, available in eggshell, semi-gloss and gloss.  The product is marketed as "sustainable," and listed on the company's "Think Impact" website.  The Think Impact product lines are advertised by Akzo Nobel as: "[P]roducts with specific characteristics that offer environmental benefits for your projects.  We're working toward lowering our environmental impact at every step of the product lifecycle, while keeping in mind current regulations and anticipating future requirements."

Think Impact products strive for sustainability in reducing the carbon footprint, waste, energy and promoting water conservation -- all laudable goals that Akzo Nobel should be commended for.

But what of the health hazards associated with the products?

The product line offers paint that meets Green Seal and SCAQMD requirements -- <50 g/L, but just barely.

  • The eggshell has the highest VOC content -- ranging from 48-50 g/L (depending on tint base).
  • The semi-gloss has similar VOC content between 47 and 49 g/L.
  • The gloss, however, has significantly lower VOC content, with a wide range depending on tint base -- from 31 g/L (white tint base) to 45 g/L (deep tint base).

The company's marketing materials don't tell you that the eggshell and semi-gloss have higher VOC content than the gloss.  The advertising simply tells you that the product line is < 50g/L because that is what is required to meet Green Seal and SCAQMD.  But is that all that really matters?

A careful side-by-side comparison of the material safety data sheets (MSDS) for these products reveals that not only do eggshell and semi-gloss have higher VOC content, but it is probably at least in part due to the presence of xylene - a volatile organic compound known to be neurotoxic in humans. In contrast, xylene is not listed as a material ingredient in the gloss formula, which has the lower VOC content.

Another chemical that appears in some, but not all of, the sheens and tint bases for Lifemaster Oil Int./Ext. is a cobalt compound, cobalt neodecanoate.  Cobalt compounds are listed as carcinogens by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).  In Lifemaster Oil, you find cobalt in all the semi-gloss dark base tints, but not in the white base tint.  In the eggshell and gloss versions, cobalt is in all of the tints, even the white tint base.

The Pharos team unearthed the chemical content information by looking specifically at the MSDS for the gloss product.  To be able to advertise that they are truly sustainable, shouldn't manufacturers be transparent in their marketing materials as well, letting you know that their products may contain chemicals that could be harmful to human health?  Shouldn't manufacturers tell you that their gloss paint does not contain xylene, or that some of their paint mixtures contain an OSHA carcinogen?

Architects, designers and other specifiers of paint should not be expected to dig deep into technical documents and cross reference chemical ID numbers (CAS #s), in order to determine whether a product is safe to put on the walls of a building.  Pharos can help -- but ultimately, it should be the manufacturer's obligation to be transparent and let users know what really is in their products.