Paints & Sealers (VOC-Free)

Conventional paints, stains, sealers and epoxies are some of the greatest sources of indoor chemicals - they are filled with VOCs, including formaldyhyde, toulene and more1.

Let's revisit some of the natural and effective finishes we have used for centuries before the days of chemical finishes.


1. Wood Finishes

Natural Oils and Waxes

Photo kohwoodflooring.com
Linseed Oil and Tung Oil, the later usually cut with a Citrus Solvent, are the most widely used natural finishing oils for wood. The strong headach-y smell of scented oils comes from their naturally occurring terpenes and or tannins, which are actually natural VOCs; for the chemically sensitive, these two strong scented oils will probably be intolerable but the smell does fade a bit with time. They are far too strong for me however. Definitely buy small amounts of each Here and Here (US), and test for your own sensitivity If yo are going to try these. For Canadians, get yours Here and Here.







milk paint pigments & hemp on floors,
hemp on window frame,
still unsealed cabinets
Hemp Oil and Walnut Oil are much better alternatives for wood finishing. They do have a scent, which I would consider pleasant, but I would test for your own sensitivities (and allergies!) by buying samples from Vitacost. You get 10$ off with that link! (They ship to Canada and US).

Linseed, Tung, Hemp and Walnut Oil are drying oils (although some claim Walnut is a semi-drying oil); they all penetrate, harden and preserve wood, and provide a long-lasting finish that does not turn rancid.

I used Hemp Oil on all the interior wood in my chemical-free tiny home. I am really happy with it. But the ladder to the loft does get very grimy (i.e. the dirt from feet mixes with the oil). Not sure if all the oils would do the same, but I think so.

Wood can then be finished with a beeswax polish for extra durability. I don't know how long it takes to dry but I found that it was sticky for a while and attracted dust and grime on surfaces that are walked on. I used beeswax on the window sills to provide a water-resistant finish and I'm really happy with it. This Beeswax/Carnauba Polish would be great, or you can make your own, but use one of the drying oils listed above. I wouldn't recommend using olive or other (non-drying) oils that can go rancid on wood. Here's a how-to on finishing wood with natural oil and wax.

Stains

Photo from homesteadhouse.ca
Each oil on its own will tint the wood to a varying degree, so you should test for the look you want to achieve - you might find that you don't need a stain at all.

Non-toxic milk paint pigments can be used as a stain applied to the raw wood before finishing with oil and wax. I will be writing a how-to for these pigments as they are very tricky to work with! I used them on my floors, my bathroom cabinets and my two stairs.





Sealer

I have used ECOS sealer on the wood in the kitchen as it is a little more durable than hemp in the kitchen. I also wanted something that did not darken the wood as much as hemp. I can't recommend this clear varnish enough (though the shipping was very expensive to Canada). It is truly zero VOC from my own assessment, and to me is benign. A happy surprise after testing so many "0 VOC" paints and tile sealers that took me out.


2. VOC-Free Paint?

Paint is tricky! I used Milk Paint in my chemical-free house to seal in the dust on the walls, though I a lime wash is preferable. On unfinished wood you need to add white glue to milk paint and I have not found a glue that I found 100% tolerable. Milk paint is also not great  in a high moisture area like the bathroom because of the casien. (It could be prone to mould in a high mouisture area). I would avoid it if I did things again.

Apart from that, there are a myriad of paints claiming to be green or zero VOC. It's not easy to find out exactly what is in them, and some ingredients like biocides might not be listed.  For example, conventional manufacturer - Benjamin Moore makes a "zero-VOC" paint that is high-quality, and comes in great colours, but it was totally intolerable for me while wet.


Here are some alternatives that claim to be non-toxic and zero VOC that you will have to test against your own sensitivities. The most natural ones are the clay-based paints.

Green Planet Paints - (Natural Source, Clay-Based Paint) available online, and in specialty paint stores in Canada and the US.

Auro Natural Paints - (Natural Source, Clay-Based Paint) available online, ships to US and Canada.

Mythic Paint - The green building supply store in Vancouver claims that Mythic is the best of the non-toxic acrylics. When dry it seemed totally fine but I'm still not certain of its safety for MCSers when wet. I am using the interior line inside my chemical-free tiny house though I cannot totally vouch for it's lack of toxicity - like all paints, there are a number of additives that are not disclosed. If you are in the US it's easy to order it online from their website and in Canada you have to get it at specialty paint or green building supply stores. It's definitely the best out of latex paints. I used mythic in my washroom.
 
YOLO Colorhouse - Once you get past the name (sigh), this paint comes in a pretty good range of colours and they can custom match a colour for you. What exactly is in it no one can tell you. I have heard of  EIs who can tolerate it but I think Mythic is better. It's available in stores across Canada and the US and online @ YOLO Colorhouse.

AFM Safecoat Zero VOC Paint- Contains no formaldehyde, ammonia, crystalline silica, or ethylene glycol. Tintable to thousands of colors with zero VOC colorants. Recommended by many EIs as well.

Primers

If you are using magnesium oxide board you will need to prime before painting AFM Safecoat Low VOC Transitional Primer or Mythic primer, which is OK for me but not great when wet.


3. Plasters 



Plaster is applied directly to earthen walls or pumice-crete.

There are clay-based plasters and lime-based plasters. I prefer lime because it is naturally mould resistant. Plasters can be tinted with natural pigments. Here is a detailed post on my experiences using clay plaster and limewash in my tiny house.

To learn more, get yourself a copy of The Natural Plaster Book.


4. Earthen Floor Finishes 

If you don't have ox blood on hand, no problem, you can seal your earthen floor with any of the hardening oils we talked about under wood finishes (above).  I would use  Hemp Oil. This blogger claims that Walnut Oil went rancid with time. Beeswax can also be used in the final coat for extra protection if desired.





5. Sealers

Sealing Toxic or Exterior Wood

My exterior
If you are buying new wood-framed windows, the wood will likely have been treated with fungicides. and should be sealed with AFM Safecoat Safe Seal,  AFM Safecoat Transitional Primer, or B-I-N Shellac Base Primer & Sealer). It is much wiser to use aluminum windows. I framed them on the inside with wood so they have the illusion of being wood-framed. Plywood should also be sealed with one of the same sealers if you must use it (don't, because it gives off formaldehyde).

To protect exterior wood against the elements you could use something a little stronger (as the VOCs will not be within the building envelope) like: AFM Naturals Clear Penetrating Oil, or Sinan Company N. 253 Natural Undercoat Enamel (if you can find that in-store). I left my exterior cedar unsealed. There is another method to naturally seal cedar which is burning it, if interested you should look into that.

Sealing Tile, Concrete, Stone

My favourite
Sealers include: AFM Mexeseal (for marble, limestone, granite, sandstone, slate and concrete), Agristain for Concrete (for concrete, plaster and porous tiles), Lithofin (for stone and more), and my preference, for all-round best non-toxic sealer that is easy to track down online: AFM Safecoat Penetrating Water Stop (Zero VOC!) I am using it on my bathroom tiles and have used it on the clay plaster in my kitchen. Ships to Canada and the US.

For sealing grout use AFM Safecoat Grout Sealer or AFM Safecoat Safe Seal.

Sealing Joints 

I used Murco as a joint compound and found it totally tolerable. It has cracked at the joints which is something other builders have noted as well.



Paula Baker-Laport's: Prescriptions for a Healthy Home has been indispensable in informing this post. Get it here (Canada), or here (USA).




1 biocides, ammonia, crystalline silica, ethylene glycol, phthalates, isocyanate, mineral spirits, benzene, propane sulfone, petroleum distillates, nitrobenzene, ammonia, naphtha, and phenol. Sources: 
North Carolina Cooperative ExtensionService, Grassroots Info, & Cleveland Clinic .


13 comments:

  1. Have you tried coconut oil for a wood finish? And then doing a beeswax oil finish by handrubbing the final coat of beeswax.

    Jim
    www.tinygreencabins.com

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  2. Hi Jim,

    I wouldn't use coconut oil on floors as it is not a drying oil. A drying oil is preferable for wood floors and is defined as: an oil with an iodine number greater than 130. A non-drying oil will not penetrate and harden like a drying oil and will likely smell rancid with time.

    Corinne

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  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  4. Interesting Blog!!! Keep up the good work. Stonera Systems Pvt .Ltd Products offer suitable solutions for every surface in your home including water based sealant for granite, Marble, stone, floors and many more...
    Water based sealant for marble

    ReplyDelete
  5. BioWorx.us is new to the "green" cleaning industry. None of their products contain VOC's (including the glass cleaner and fragrances)or other harsh chemicals. Plus they show on their web site lab studies how BioWorx compares to other cleaning products in soap scum and scale removal. They do quite well in each key cleaning category.

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  6. I am really enjoying your blog. My son and I both have MCS, and it is a challenge to find safe materials to renovate with. We are in the process of choosing flooring for our kitchen. We're considering solid wood, prefinished flooring--but are a little concerned about offgassing from the finishes. We're also considering on-site finishing, but I'm concerned about that too! Do high quality prefinished solid wood floors offgas much?

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    Replies
    1. what are they finished with? you will have to test them. polyurathane i have found can offgass quickly as long as it's not in the same building as you when curing. tiles would be preferable in the kitchen I think, or polished concrete.

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    2. They also make a ceramic tile thst looks like also make a ceramic tile that looks like hand scraped wood! It's beautiful and really cheap.$ 1.99 sqft through Home Depot...I'm using it throughout my house.

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  7. Or you could try magnesium board with beeswax, carnauba wax and linseed to seal. Just had to sand low VOC poly off an entire house full of floor because of sensitive lungs.

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  8. Does anyone know if raw linseed oil is harmless to lungs ?, just finished re sealing floor with the beeswax , carnauba linseed mix a few days ago and after a few minutes in the house my nose feels stingy.

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    Replies
    1. I describe the issues with linseed in the first paragraph.

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  9. Does linseed take long to off gas the terpenes? Not sure what to do now ? Researching using activated charcoal . Any ideas? Thank you for your blog :)

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    Replies
    1. it does take a pretty long time. depends on your level of sensitivity to it.

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