Low VOC Paints Still Have Odor

September 21, 2014 | By | 9 Comments

Often times when meeting with customers and looking at jobs I am asked Zero VOCsabout using low VOC/zero VOC paints. Low VOC and “green paints” seem to be the catch phrases these days when looking for a healthier paint. Many customers are surprised to learn that most of these Zero VOC paints still have an odor. Some are better than others, while some smell worse than a full fledged oil paint. To understand why we first need to understand what a VOC is.

VOC stands for Volatile Organic Compound. Below a definition from Wikipedia.

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are organic chemicals that have a high vapor pressure at ordinary room temperature. Their high vapor pressure results from a low boiling point, which causes large numbers of molecules to evaporate or sublimate from the liquid or solid form of the compound and enter the surrounding air. For example, formaldehyde, which evaporates from paint, has a boiling point of only –19 °C (–2 °F).”

Not All VOC’s are Bad

VOC’s are all around us in our daily life. For example, the smell of fresh cut grass is caused by the release of VOC’s, and peeling the skin off an orange releases 850 g/l of VOC’s into the air.

Now I’m not saying they are all good because that’s certainly not the case. There are many VOC’s that are harmful I just wanted to point out that avoiding them throughout daily life is all but impossible.

No VOC’s Means No Odor? Wrong! 

Paints are comprised of three parts.

  • Pigments: This gives the paint its color.
  • Binders: Also known as the medium, this allows for the color to stick to the surface.
  • Solvents: This is what keeps the paint in a liquid form.
VOC’s are found in the solvents because that’s the component of paint which evaporates during the drying process. There is no way to create a paint without solvents so some kind of chemical must be used to keep paint liquid and then evaporate to dry. Remove the VOC’s from the solvents and they get substituted with other chemicals such as ammonia. Many of the Low/Zero VOC paints I’ve applied have a higher ammonia smell because it’s commonly used as a zero VOC chemical replacement. Even though ammonia doesn’t sound like the friendliest or healthiest thing to breath in it is a Zero VOC chemical.
Everyone is Different
Smells affect everyone differently, and every brand or line of paint all have different smells. The key here is to use a paint that you have the best tolerance to. Having used hundreds of different paints throughout my career I know which ones to avoid. However, just because I don’t like the smell doesn’t mean it’s bad because everyone reacts differently.
My Job is a Balancing Act
When I meet with customers that are concerned about smell and VOC’s I try to guide them to a paint which has Low/Zero VOC’s, aren’t smelly, and deliver the performance needed to accomplish the job. This can sometimes be a juggling act but here are some of my go to paints’ for low odor and paints I try to avoid.
My Top Low VOC / Low Odor Picks:
  • Sherwin Williams Harmony – This paint has been found to actually absorb VOC’s in the air by removing them from the environment.
  • Sherwin Williams Promar 200 – This is a true Zero VOC paint with good performance. When shopping at any commercial location there’s a very good chance the walls are painted with it. While it still has a smell it’s low and dissipates quickly.
  • Benjamin Moore Natura – A couple years ago Benjamin Moore was sued because they sold this paint as a Zero VOC / Zero Smell paint, it was anything but zero smell. Since then they have fixed the problems and it is a very low odor paint with outstanding performance.
  • Sherwin Williams Cashmere – This is a Low VOC paint and one of my favorites. It has a low odor and application is a breeze.
  • Benjamin Moore Aura – A Low VOC paint and quite possibly the best performing paint on the market. However, there is a slight ammonia smell.
  • Benjamin Moore Eco Spec – A good all around paint especially for commercial applications. I’ve painted many dialysis centers with this paint and never had a complaint.
Paints I Try to Avoid
  • Sherwin Williams Emerald interior – This is Sherwin Williams’s top of the line paint which is rated as a Zero VOC. I’ve used it twice and both times had a bad reaction. I suffered from a severe headache and watery eyes each time I used it.
  • Valspar Signature – I’ve found this paint to have a very high ammonia smell.
  • Any Oil Based Product – Oils are always the biggest odor offenders. I try to avoid them at all costs but sometimes they are necessary for things like sealing water stains and smoke damage. Also, the only wood stains I use are oil because they are far superior to their latex counterparts.


Finding a paint that reacts best with you is an individual exercise. The paints I’ve listed above are ones I’ve used in countless homes without complaint however, everyone is different. I’ve known people that love the smell of gas and skunks. I find both repulsive but hey to each their own. Just remember Zero VOC does not mean zero smell. Every paint evaporates when in the drying process. The only thing I know of that has no smell when evaporating is water and paint are comprised of much more than that. Finding the paint that has the least offensive reaction to you is one of my many goals when working in your home.

Give Us a Call!

Call Paragon Painting, for all your Zero VOC painting needs. We will always use the best products on the market and give you a detailed painting quote with a fair price. We service the entire Charleston, SC area including:

SummervilleMt PleasantMoncks Corner, Folly Beach, Ladson, North Charleston, Hanahan, James Island, Johns Island, Sullivans Island, and beyond. We are the exterior and interior house painting experts, call us at 843-695-9450

Filed in: Interior Painting | Tags: , , ,

About the Author (Author Profile)

I've been brought up in the painting industry and have learned everything I know from my father Paul Briggs. He is the founder of Paragon Painting and I joined him full time in 2003 after graduating college. I am now happily married with two beautiful children ages two and five.

Comments (9)

  1. Would love to hear your thoughts on BEHR’s line of paint. Our Zero VOC Premium Plus line, our Ultra interior low VOC, and our new Marquee low VOC line.

  2. What a great story! I’m sure you’ll be very happy to see the site and a good variety of the comments

  3. Dug

    I just put on SW Emerald before reading your post, and I have to agree it has a strong odor! To the point that I did a Google search for “why no voc paints have odor” and found your blog…

  4. Linda

    Used Behr Premium Plus paint and primer in one, low odor and zero Voc on my bedroom woodwork several weeks ago. There continues to be an annoying odor and my ears ring like crazy. Can’t get rid of the smell. Would not use this paint again. I am allergy prone.
    Thank you for your comments about these paints.

    • Frank Squire

      Linda: Painted inside of my house last year with Behr Premium Plus; since then I have had a stale cigarette smoke odor linger plus ringing in my ears. After reading your post, I think this is more than a coincidence. Regardless of the cause, I too, will not use this paint in the future. Thanks!

  5. It’s an awesome post in support of all the internet visitors; they will take benefit from it I
    am sure.

  6. Carla Murray

    I used Valspar signature all over my TH. It smelled like old lady perfume and was like a vinyl coating on the walls. I tried for 7 mos to air it out with windows open then cold ac and air purifiers but it never lessened. I had it professionally painted by a painter. We used Benjamin Moore Natura primer and waited a day then a coat of ceiling and walls and waited a day and then a second coat of ceiling and walls again. Now it smells like ammonia and acetone and then switches to a sour doughy smell. I have never been able to live here. If I stay a few days I experience burning eyes and throat and severe nausea. Can u advise a remedy?

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    This post truly made my day. You can not consider just how much time I had spent for this info!

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