An easy to follow guide on how to create a healthy home environment using materials free from harmful toxic chemicals and off-gasses.
First of all, I appreciate that a title containing words such as ‘volatile organic compounds’ sounds like an absolute hoot so I decided to try and grab your attention with a childish pun, and well, I’m not sorry.
What are VOCs?
So, now that I have you here, what the actual VOC am I bangin’ on about? I have to admit that although we have filled our home with as many natural materials as possible, not an awful lot of focus was put into the types of decorating products and household furnishings that we used and how they would affect our air quality. A lot of the commonly used products and building materials found in our homes release harmful VOCs or toxic off-gasses into the atmosphere; wet-applied materials (such as paint and varnishes), composite wood products, chemically processed fabric, plastics and even metal finishes to name but a few, have been chemically processed, and as a result release toxic gasses into the air that we breathe, damaging our health in the process.
Common short term symptoms that have been reported as a result of exposure to VOCs include:
- Irritated airways and mucous membranes
A recent media report published that 45% of UK homes have high indoor air pollution as a result of dangerous levels of formaldehyde and other pollutants.
Now, I’m not going to lie, this subject can be a little overwhelming – the more you delve into it the more you can feel a little bit like you’re drowning in too much information, and short from building your home from scratch and placing it in it’s own micro dome away from all other people and objects, you will not be able to eliminate VOCs altogether but, switching out the products we use to decorate with safer, environmentally friendly options is always a good idea and they can make a big difference to the air quality in your home.
So, if you’re about to embark on re decorating a room in your home or you’re in the beginning stages of a renovation, I’ve put together a list of brands who are committed to producing products that are both kind to our health and the environment.
Have you ever felt like you want to throw up while giving that room a much needed glow up? The smell of fumes while painting your walls or a piece of furniture are difficult to ignore, aren’t they? You desperately try to open up all of the windows and ventilate the room as much as possible, until the paint dries and the smell subsides. Unfortunately, the startling fact is that most conventional paints continue to omit harmful VOCs such as formaldehyde for up to five years after the paint has dried.
With the World Health Organisation publishing an alarming statistic claiming that professional decorators are 40% more likely to contract lung cancer within their lifetime, combined with the knowledge that the production of just one litre of paint results in up to 30 litres of toxic waste, the switch to naturally produced paints is a great place to start in beginning the shift towards a less harmful home.
The good news is that although eco paints only account for a small percentage of the market, there is much more choice available than there was five years ago, and this can only continue to improve as they grow in popularity. They are made using natural ingredients and, very often, low-carbon or carbon-neutral production, making them the healthier choice for your home – you can even compost any leftover paint! Bonus.
Eco paints low in VOCs
Earthborn Claypaint is virtually VOC free, acrylic free and totally oil free. Certified free of harmful emissions and odour free. That’s a lot of ‘frees’! https://earthbornpaints.co.uk/product/claypaint/
It’s highly breathable, creating a more comfortable living environment, minimises condensation and deters mildew. No only that but Earthborn claim that their paints can reduce dust and allergen build-ups.
AND they are currently the only UK brand to carry the EU eco-label flower accreditation. Bravo.
Bauwerk was created with a vision to produce exemplary modern lime paint in harmony with nature. Made from natural materials they claim to stand out from conventional low or zero VOC paints that are made from plastics but with only one toxic part removed, leaving all of the rest in.
Their collection of natural paints work differently, working with nature to make them; using clay, minerals and beautiful natural pigments. You can paint without fumes, washing-up and disposal is completely safe and non-polluting and no toxic chemicals are released into the environment in the production of their paints.
We used Bauwerk colour in our bedroom, you can read more about the process in a previous blog post I wrote. We’re really happy with how it turned out, although I think I panicked and added one too many coats. I would love to use it in an entire house if and when the next project should come up.
Little Greene waterbased paints now contain less than 0.1% ‘volatile organic compound’, which is three times better than the industry’s lowest eco rating.
On a user level; there are no harmful solvents in Little Greene waterbased paints so using them won’t contribute to atmospheric pollution. Not one little bit…
This makes their range of Water Based paints as close to ‘Zero VOC’ as you can get, meaning they are excellent for painting Children’s rooms, for asthma sufferers, or if you care for the environment.
Their lowest VOC water based paint is Waterbased Limewash Paint, which is great for traditional exterior walls, and Acrylic Satin Emulsion Paint, which gives a lovely finish on walls, ceilings and painting over wallpaper.
Wallpapers low in VOCs
When The Ecology Centre last did a study of the 11 leading wallpaper brands, they found that almost all of them contained PVC, and half of them contained other major chemicals of concern. It would seem that wallpaper materials are far more complex and contain a lot more chemical additives than just paper and ink.
Wallpapers labeled with the Greenguard certification mean they have low levels of VOCs. Look out for low or zero-VOC water-based inks or paint, and it is advisable to get a sample if you are chemically sensitive.
Ferm Living papers are printed with water-based colours on non-woven fleece paper. They are PVC-free and they don’t add flame retardants.
“We want to inspire people to live a more mindful and sustainable lifestyle, and it is our ambition to grow the percentage of sustainable materials across all product categories with every new collection. We do so by integrating sustainable thinking already in the design phase, where the first important choices for a product are made. Wherever possible, we employ sustainable criteria for new products, and take a ‘cradle to grave’ approach, where we consider the product’s entire lifecycle.”
This environmentally-friendly wallpaper meets the Oeko-Tex® 100 Standard. It is free from formaldehyde and other harmful VOCs and even the toner is food safe.
Their wallpapers are made of high-quality non-woven paper and are all PVC/vinyl-free, except for the Hotel Chique collection which is vinyl coated.
They have a wide range of designs inspired by nature that would bring a little bit of the great outdoors into your home without causing harm to the environment in the process.
Woodchip & Magnolia is a UK based company that produces their papers in small batches using water-based inks. They don’t use any PVC or add any flame retardants in any of the wallpapers they manufacture. The substrate reaches the highest FR standard without the need for additional flame retardant chemicals.
They have a whole “eco manifesto” and are very dedicated to sustainability. Every Woodchip & Magnolia design has a story. And every story starts with founder and designer Nina Marika Tarnowski, who, since childhood, has used the flora, fauna and rich landscapes of her native Lancashire as inspiration for her designs. It is this appreciation of nature which underscores Woodchip & Magnolia’s commitment to the environment.
Glues and Caulks
There’s no point researching non-toxic wallpapers and then slapping a load of adhesive on the back that contains a long list of ingredients such as fungicide among other things.
Roman PRO-838 Heavy Duty Clear Wallcovering Adhesive is an economical, commercial grade, clear wallpaper paste for medium to heavy wallpapers. It has the VOCs listed in the ingredients as less than 5 g/l, which is very low.
Caulk / Sealant
If you’re particular about your cutting in, but but your cutting in just doesn’t cut it, then caulk is your best friend. It will smooth everything out and make the room look more finished and professional. I struggled finding a traditional caulk that was low in VOC’s as while writing this in 2021 they frustratingly don’t sell them in the UK. I did however find this Multibond sealant that would work in very much the same way.
Marmox Multibond is a premium sealant-adhesive. It is made in the UK using the latest environmentally friendly technology to create a 100% solvent free material with absolutely zero VOC’s.
One of the only sealant-adhesive’s currently available in the UK that contains no hazardous, environmental or ecological impact. Unlike other mastics, if it gets on your hands or even clothes it can be washed away with just water without leaving a mark. Similarly it does not stain stone or ceramic tiling like conventional sealant-adhesives do. Once Multibond sets it becomes incredibly strong and fully waterproof.
The best options for flooring that is low in VOCs are real hardwood, polished concrete, and tile. However, specific types of natural linoleum, carpet, and engineered wood can be a great choice as well.
Natural wood flooring is of course my number one choice. It’s one of the purest and safest options available. That said, you will need to consider the glue (or underlay if using) and the sealant to protect the finish of the wood.
Although oil-based finishes can off-gas for years, it’s most severe during the first few days after application. A safer, greener alternative are water-based products. They contain around 250 to as little as 50 grams of VOCs per litre. Choose linseed, Tung, and other natural oils.
Bona Mega Natural is a highly durable floor varnish low in VOCs that has been specifically designed to better retain the look and feel of natural, untreated wood. It produces a subtle, rich tone. I wish we’d used this to protect our oak flooring as we decided to keep it natural, and as a result it has marked quite a bit over the last three years. I’m tempted to give it a light sand and apply some of this product this year. I’ll let you know how it goes.
Bona also make an adhesive that is low in VOCs. We used it for the wooden flooring in the entire ground floor of our house. It is a single-component, silane-based, soft elastic adhesive for the installation of engineered, parquet and solid board flooring. It is also compatible with underfloor heating.
Most polished concrete systems use sodium silicate or potassium silicate which are very safe and benign. Polished concrete is vapor breathable which makes it one of the best flooring types, alongside tile, over a concrete slab.
You can do acid stains, add natural pigments, use white cement, or add white sand to Portland Cement to get many different unique and modern looks.
Along with concrete and encaustic tiles, slate and natural stones like travertine, soapstone, and limestone are great options for floors low in VOCs. Always check if a resin or sealer is already applied, and then check to see which natural sealers will work over the stone of your choosing. Honed stones (i.e. not glossy) are the easiest to seal with a natural pure option and very dense stones like many granite types and some slate do not require a sealer at all.
Natural Fibre Carpets and Rugs
When you’re choosing a non-toxic carpet or rug, you need to think carefully about the material that you choose, and look for non-dyed, non-chemically treated products where possible.
Here’s a quick overview of the materials available and a few things you should bear in mind.
Wool is a renewable and sustainable material which can be a great choice for an eco-friendly rug. Wool is naturally stain-resistant, hardwearing and is a natural fire retardant.
Sisal is non-toxic as it’s grown without pesticides or fertilisers as it is extracted from the Agave plant. It’s also highly durable. making it perfect for high traffic areas such as stairs and hallways.
Jute is one of the most popular biodegradable and recyclable, natural materials used for rugs in the UK due to it’s durability and affordability.
It is vital to make sure that the rug or carpet has been created without glues, artificial backing materials or any other treatments that could contain harmful VOCs.
Axminster Carpets use a manufacturing process that’s carefully managed at every stage in order to reduce environmental impact to an absolute minimum. Most of the wool in their carpets is locally sourced, reducing raw material road transport miles. The wool and jute (backing) elements will biodegrade naturally over around 12 months in landfill, under normal conditions. Carpet can be placed in landfill, in the UK, as industrial waste, at the end of its serviceable life. And they even recycle their carpet in greater volumes to further reduce their environmental impact.
The carpet is delivered packed in paper and on cardboard tubes, both of which can be recycled locally across the UK. They really have been thoughtful about every step.
Riviera Home’s™ Eco Collections are made from 100% natural Wool.
‘All of our wools are totally natural, with no added chemicals, dyestuffs, moth proofing or stain blocking treatments used. We achieve the stylish colours used in our ranges by carefully blending various types of wools from renewal resources and wool itself has great natural anti-soiling properties. We then weave our carpets either on traditional handlooms or high technology tufted machines using natural jute and cotton, materials that are again from sustainable and renewable resources.’
‘The final finishing process of our carpets and rugs uses natural latex straight from the rubber tree so again no nasty chemicals used and no VOC used in our products. When it comes to production waste or the ultimate disposal of our carpets at the end of their useful life cycle, our carpets can either be recycled or will naturally bio-degrade in the earth. Our carpets will bio-degrade in a period of just 1-5 years without adding back into the earth any harmful chemicals.’
I hope that you found these tips for designing a room low in harmful VOCs helpful. I originally wanted to include a list of furniture brands in this blog post too, but while doing my initial research, I felt that this subject should have it’s very own blog post, as there is so much to cover.
So, while I cobble all of that together, I’d love to hear any recommendations that you might have in the comments below.