Nicola Holden Designs – Contemporary Interior Designer, London.

Paint is one of the most transformative changes you can make to your home.  However, choosing paint for your home that is safe for your family and indoor air quality can seem like a mystifying quest.  And, if you choose the safest kind of paint, will it stand the test of time?

Like all products that are marketed as “environmentally friendly”, it’s important to understand exactly what it is you’re getting and whether or not the product is as “green” as it claims to be.  Choosing which paint to decorate your home with is no exception!

Although lead was phased out as an additive in ordinary paint meant for the general public in the 1960s, lead is not the only paint additive that is bad for your health.  Most paints today contain chemicals — known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) — that can negatively affect your health.  When you enjoy that “new paint” smell, ironically you are inhaling dangerous VOCs. 

VOCs are carbon-based chemicals that easily evaporate into the air at room temperature.  They can include fungicides, formaldehyde, ethylene glycol, and benzene.  Although the majority of VOCs leave the paint as the wall dries, not all of them do. In fact, paint can release VOCs into the air for years following the initial painting, a process known as off-gassing, putting your family at risk.

The end result is that the average indoor air quality of our homes becomes more contaminated than outdoor air, leading to a general decline in health and well-being.  Indoor air pollution is currently one of the biggest environmental threats to public health. 

Harmful VOCs are not always acutely toxic, but they have compounding long-term health effects. 

They have been proven to contribute to conditions including cancer, breathing difficulties, dizziness, headaches, fatigue, and blurred vision. In addition, the VOC-rich air in your home over subsequent years can put you or a family member at a higher risk of developing asthma, sinusitis or allergies.  Pretty nasty stuff! 

Thankfully, due to stricter government regulation and more awareness on the part of the consumer, nearly all household paints are water-based meaning that they have lower VOCs.  This means that they off-gas much less than traditional paints.  The EU limit on VOCs in emulsion paint is 30g/L.  However, there are many paints available on the market today that contain lower, or no VOCs.  And from a health perspective, the fewer chemicals, the less off-gassing, the better!

Like many healthier alternatives, no- and low-VOC paint usually costs more than regular paint, but is definitely worth the added expense.  This additional cost is due to the increased content of natural pigments in the paint, which are more expensive to extract from the earth than petrochemicals.  But it is this increased pigment content that gives walls a real depth of colour, absorbing light so that the colour appears to glow from behind.  In addition, higher-quality paint will go on smoother, take longer to dry (meaning brush strokes are less visible), and last longer, demanding fewer retouches down the line. 

An inexpensive brand of paint might make sense in the short term, but we have to ask what is being sacrificed to produce this cheaper paint, and is it worth the so-called saving when our health and our planet is at stake?

Here are some of the paint companies whose products I specify for my client projects, based on their eco-friendly credentials.

(VOC figures extracted from the companies paint charts / websites)

One more tip – don’t overbuy! Paint can be difficult to dispose of properly and this ensures that you won’t end up with too much extra paint to get rid of.

I hope I have helped to clear up any confusion?  Happy painting!

“Colour is what gives jewels their worth”
Christian Dior

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Hello again dear readers! Once again it seems as though I need to apologise for my long absence on this blog. I have been feeling a bit of blogger burnout, on top of being kept very busy between designing projects for clients, my own home project, and the charity that I am a trustee for. I hope you’ve been keeping up with my news on Facebook and Twitter!

Anyway, today is Earth Day. A day that marks our global fight for a clean environment. It is a topic that I have a bit of a passion for, and I didn’t want to let today pass without me posting something on my blog.

So what exactly is a clean environment? I think that the clearest explanation of exactly what constitutes a clean environment is the Cradle to Cradle® philosophy described in the book Cradle to Cradle by Michael Braungart and William McDonough.


But, what does this philosophy actually mean, and how we can all start to apply it to our lives? As Albert Einstein so rightly said, “The world will not evolve past its current state of crisis by using the same thinking that created the situation.”.

Most of us today are aware of the damaging influence that us humans are having on planet earth, and the term ‘eco-friendly’ is now a common phrase in our vocabularies. But, where did it all start?

To answer this question, we need to go back in time to the industrial revolution – a period of massive and rapid change, but also one of great optimism and faith in the progress of humankind. Prior to this, agriculture had been the main occupation for centuries, and industry only consisted of craftspeople working individually as a side venture to farming. But, with the invention of the spinning jenny, patented in 1770, this was all to change as industrialists, engineers and designers worked to make products as efficiently as possible and to get the greatest volume of goods to the largest number of people. The result was huge economic growth and a more equitable standard of living to both rich and poor.

Spinning Jenny
Image Sophienburg Museum.

However, for all its good, the industrial revolution has also resulted in billions of pounds of toxic material being put into the air, water, and soil every year, requiring thousands of complex regulations to keep people from being poisoned too quickly, as well as eroding the diversity of species and cultural practices.

Early industries relied on a seemingly endless supply of natural resources. Today our understanding of the natural environment has changed dramatically, but modern industries still operate according to early models, with a cradle-to-grave mind-set. “It is focussed on making a product and getting it to a customer quickly and cheaply without considering much else.” It is also geared towards a ‘one size fits all’ mentality that doesn’t take into consideration local conditions and customs.

Not only that, but many of the raw materials used in modern manufactured products are actually harmful to humans, and the off-gassing from these products (appliances, carpets, wallpaper adhesives, paints, building materials, etc) results in the average indoor air quality being more contaminated than outdoor air, leading to a general decline in health.

In order to turn this position around, it is not good enough just to be ‘less bad’. We need to do more than reduce, reuse and recycle. What we need today is a total mind shift, and this is where the Cradle to Cradle philosophy comes into play. We need to be striving to produce products and systems where the wastes themselves are completely healthy and biodegradable in order to be safely absorbed into the air, water and soil. Instead of just making the wrong things less bad, we need to start designing with the focus on the ongoing life of materials. For our innovations to become effective we need to design on the understanding that ‘waste’ does not exist – ‘waste is food’.

Earth Day

If this philosophy doesn’t challenge us to do more to protect Planet Earth, I’m not sure what will.

A list of all approved Cradle to Cradle products can be found on the Cradle to Cradle website.

“Glance at the sun.
See the moon and the stars.
Gaze at the beauty of earth’s greenings.
Now, think.”

Hildegard von Bingen

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