Selecting the right paint for your project can be challenging and identifying a paint that reduces your exposure to toxic chemicals on top of that can be even more daunting. The good news is that transformation continues to happen in the paint market, providing developers, architects, and consumers more options for choosing less toxic paint products. Moreover, at Healthy Building Network (HBN), we continue working with our partners to help simplify the process of selecting a safer paint.
Picking a Safer Paint is Easier Than You Think
Many people are already aware of the need to identify paints with low volatile organic chemicals (VOC), as well as ultra-low VOC paints. In addition, just two years ago HBN highlighted the need to address alkylphenol ethoxylates (APE).
Acrylic paints are made of water and other ingredients that don’t readily mix (think oil and water). APEs are one of several groups of chemicals called surfactants that when added to paint allow water to mix better with the other ingredients. APEs also help paint to spread and improve various other mechanical properties. When it comes to health and the environment, however, not all surfactants are equal. Related health concerns of APEs include toxicity to fish and other aquatic organisms, and they are also believed to be endocrine disruptors, meaning they may interfere with hormones in the body.1
Sometimes the jargon around APEs can get a bit confusing, so here’s a quick note about the science: APEs are a group of chemicals that include nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPE) and octylphenol ethoxylates (OPE). NPEs and OPEs break down into nonylphenols and octylphenols, which are not readily biodegradable (i.e. they last for a long time). We care about nonylphenols and octylphenols because they also are chemicals associated with the known and highly suspected negative health effects of APEs.2
Due to these health and environmental concerns, early last year, HBN designated APEs in paint as a transformation target. HBN’s Transformation Targets are product category and chemical combinations that pose serious human and/or environmental health hazards, and for which there exist one or more pathways for avoiding those chemicals. In other words, the products can feasibly be manufactured without those chemicals.
The exciting news is that recent research completed by HBN revealed that more manufacturers are offering low-VOC paints that are also free of APEs. In fact, six paint manufacturers (Benjamin Moore, PPG, Behr, Kelly-Moore, Dunn-Edwards, Imperial Paints, and Miller Paint) have published health product declarations (HPDs) that list alternative surfactants to APEs. Furthermore, one large supplier of surfactants used in paints, while still selling APEs, markets numerous APE-free options as well.
Selecting a Healthier Paint
While this movement away from the use of potential endocrine disruptors in acrylic paints is encouraging, identifying a paint that contains fewer hazardous chemicals can still be both overwhelming and time consuming. That’s why HBN and its partners offer several simple tools to guide you through this process.
The HomeFree Paint Hazard Spectrum
HBN’s HomeFree site is a national initiative supporting affordable housing leaders in improving human health by using less toxic building materials. It houses HBN’s Hazard Spectra, which provide general guidance on how to choose healthier materials within several product categories like paint, flooring, or insulation. The paint hazard spectrum highlights chemicals and performance characteristics advertised by paints that can signal the presence of more toxic content. For example, it outlines things you can do to identify a paint that is free of APEs. It also provides information to help you identify products emitting the lowest levels of VOCs within the low-VOC paint category. It advises consumers to avoid products that may not seem like bad choices at first, like recycled paints and certain specialty paints. While these products can be appealing to consumers, they tend to contain additional toxic chemicals not necessary to improve paint performance. Think of the hazard spectrum as the cheatsheet to get you thinking about what to look for and what to avoid in interior paints.
HomeFree Online Courses
If you want to go a little deeper, HomeFree offers free online courses. The courses are a deeper dive than the hazard spectrum, but still are short enough to complete in one sitting. The course Selecting a Healthier Paint with HomeFree will equip you to know where to look to get the answers you need for identifying the best paint options for a building project. It also provides some useful email templates that can be used to communicate with manufacturers and product representative to help you vet multiple paints at one time
Housing Partnership Network Select EcoGuide
While the sources mentioned above will help you vet any paint you come across, you may only want to save time by identifying products that have already been screened. HBN has partnered with Housing Partnership Network (HPN) to do just that. The HPN Select website helps affordable housing developers and managers connect with vendors of products that meet their budget requirements. Products on the site and in one of the HomeFree hazard spectrum categories provide Healthier Material Guidance. The Guidance screens products based on the spectrum attributes. Products that are green or dark green on the spectrum are free of APEs. This allows you to see how a specific paint measures up against HBN’s paint hazard spectrum without leaving a product’s description page.
While paint still contains chemicals of concern, it is encouraging to see an increase in the availability of low-VOC acrylic paint products free of APEs. Paint formulations can change quickly, but HBN continues to stay on top of changes in the market, and we update our content as new information comes along.
While it is encouraging to see more paint manufacturers providing products with HPDs, most paint products still have very little transparency regarding their chemical formulations. In lieu of transparency, the sources mentioned in this article should help you start making smarter choices in selecting paint for your project. If you are an architect or contractor, make sure, not only to specify low-VOC paints, but also to ask for paints without APEs. If you can’t readily determine this from the product data sheets, request a list of APE-free paints from the manufacturer or supplier. And remember, you can always check out HPN Select to easily identify APE-free paint that fits your budget. The tools are there. At the end of the day it is worth taking a little bit of extra time to select a paint that you can feel good about.
 “Candidate List of Substances of Very High Concern for Authorisation - ECHA,” accessed January 24, 2020, https://echa.europa.eu/candidate-list-table.
 OCSPP US EPA, “Nonylphenol (NP) and Nonylphenol Ethoxylates (NPEs),” Overviews and Factsheets, US EPA, September 21, 2015, https://www.epa.gov/assessing-and-managing-chemicals-under-tsca/nonylphenol-np-and-nonylphenol-ethoxylates-npes.