Gloss paint: Low VOC paint

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This article, Gloss paint, was last updated on 21 June 2010 and is now out of date and held in our online archive for reference. Explore our latest Home & garden articles.

farrow & ball

This water-borne gloss is low-VOC at 23 g/l

The laws regulating what goes into paint have changed, meaning that you may notice a difference when you decorate and in the results you get.

Paint generally consists of three components: solvent, binder and pigment. Water-borne paint uses water as the solvent, while solvent-borne formulations add 'volatile organic compounds' (VOCs) to thin the paint and make the solid pigment - or colour - runny enough to apply. The VOCs then evaporate into the air as the paint dries.

As such our Best Buy gloss paint must beat rivals while complying with these lower limits.

What's the problem with VOCs?

VOCs contribute towards 'low-level ozone', or smog. This type of pollution causes respiratory diseases, as well as making breathing very difficult for those that already have difficulties. VOCs - which create the familiar smell of a freshly-decorated room - can also cause headaches and dizziness.

Although the EU has introduced a set of laws to reduce the legal limits of VOCs in paint, shops had until the end of 2010 to phase out old paint stock with a higher VOC content. Check the label when buying gloss paint, as tins with different amounts of VOCs may be mixed on the same shelf.

VOC Label

This label should show the paint's VOC content and the legal maximum in g/l

The label on the tin tells you whether the paint complies with old or new VOC regulations, as well as stating the maximum VOC content of the paint.

Alternatives to high VOC paint

To comply with new regulations, paint manufacturers could boost pigment levels to make up for the reduced solvent. Industry experts predict that the cost of raw materials for paint could rise by 10-20% as a result, because pigment is more expensive than solvent. 

An alternative could be to move towards water-borne formulations. These contain far lower levels of VOCs and would pose less risk to human health, although they dry faster and are harder to apply well, as brush marks tend to show.

Industry experts believe that future EU legislation could ban the use of VOCs in indoor paint completely, so manufacturers may have to move towards water-borne formulations for gloss paint, whether they like it or not.

Water-borne paint

We tested a water-bourne paint to see how it compared to standard solvent-based paint. The Farrow & Ball Eco Friendly Full Gloss is a water-borne paint that contains low VOC levels at 23 grams per litre, so it's worth considering if you're concerned about VOCs affecting the air in your home.

Farrow & Ball performed well in our technical lab tests - it was glossier and harder than even the old formulation solvent-borne paint, as well as being the most resistant to scratches in our test.

At £36.50-£45 for a 2.5l tin it's a pricey alternative and you'll probably find it harder to get a good finish. Water evaporates more quickly than other solvents, meaning that this water-borne paint dries very quickly.

While speedy drying might sound convenient, it makes the paint harder to apply well as lines and brush marks tend to dry before you'd had chance to spread them out.

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