Paint

In this guide we investigate, score and rank the ethical and environmental record of 20 brands of paint.

We also look at toxic chemicals, recycling projects, shine a spotlight on the ethics of Akzo Nobel and give our recommended buys.

Madeleine Jones explores the environmental impacts of the paint industry.

About Ethical Consumer

This is a product guide from Ethical Consumer, the UK's leading alternative consumer organisation. Since 1989 we've been researching and recording the social and environmental records of companies, and making the results available to you in a simple format.

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What to buy

What to look for when buying paint:

  • Is it made of natural ingredients? This is a fail-safe way to avoid most of the nasty, artificial chemicals that are in so many products and help to protect the environment.

  • Are you using recycled leftover paint? There are organisations like Community Re-Paint, Paint 360 and PaintCare who reduce waste by re-distributing and recycling leftover paint.

  • Is it vegan? Many paints use animal products in order to make paint dry quicker. Look for a vegan brand.

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What not to buy

What to avoid when buying paint:

  • Does it contain toxics? The long and complex ingredients lists of paint products often include toxic chemicals. These are bad for the environment and for general health.

  • Does it contain high VOC levels? Some paints carry a label to say that they contain Volatile Organic Compounds. We suggest that you buy paints with labels that express minimal or low levels of VOC.

  • Does it contain animal products? Many paints contain casein which is derived from cow’s milk. Some also contain beeswax and shellac.

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Score table

Updated live from our research database

← Swipe left / right to view table contents →
Brand Score(out of 20) Ratings Categories Positive Scores

Our Analysis

The paint sector suffers from a number of ethical issues, from the use of harmful chemicals and petrochemicals to animal testing and the amount of consumer waste produced. 

In this guide we focus on some of the most harmful ingredients found in emulsion and gloss paints, and ask are there any viable ethical alternatives in this market?

Harmful chemicals

The main challenge for the paint industry is the phase-out of toxic chemicals. Three of the most harmful chemicals found in most paints are titanium dioxide, methylisothiazolinone and volatile organic compounds, such as formaldehyde and benzene.

1) Titanium Dioxide

It is estimated that 28% of the world’s titanium dioxide is used in paints. It is also used in many other products including paper, plastics, rubber, printing inks, ceramics, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals.

It is mined globally, but mostly in South Africa and Australia, from the minerals rutile and ilmenite. 

Environmental issues of such mining include pollution of ground-water resources and the release of radioactive elements. Add to this the use of heavy goods vehicles, clearing forests for mining and transport networks, and harming fragile coastal areas.

Titanium dioxide is thought to cause health problems. The European Chemicals Agency (ECA) classifies titanium dioxide as a “substance suspected of causing cancer through inhalation”. But the regulating body concluded that, having considered available scientific data, there was insufficient evidence to classify titanium dioxide in the more severe category for carcinogenicity.

Of the brands we have rated in this guide only some of AURO, Nutshell and Earthborn’s products are free from titanium dioxide. All the other paint companies use this as standard.

Image: earth painting with rainbow background eco paint
Paint often contains harmful chemicals that affect the environment and the people in it.

2) Methylisothiazolinone

Methylisothiazolinone (MI) is used as a preservative in consumer products like cosmetics and household cleaning products to extend their shelf life. It is sometimes used in paints. Though not thought to be inherently toxic, MI is a relatively common allergen and has been identified as a possible neurotoxin.

In February 2019, AURO and Farrow and Ball were both phasing out the use of MI. No other brands had information specifically on MI.

3) Volatile Organic Compounds

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are solvents added to paints for fluidity and to make them dry quickly. They can be can be naturally occurring (such as ethanol) or can be synthesised chemically.

VOCs are mixtures of chemicals that can easily change state into gases. In the presence of sunlight, VOCs can react with oxides, which are naturally present in the atmosphere, and create greenhouse gases (which contribute to global warming) and other small particles that cause smog.

This process, known as ‘off gassing’, can occur long after the paint has dried, creating an ‘invisible paint pollution effect’ long into the future.

The World Health Organisation has found that, when painting, the levels of VOCs given off can be as much as 1000 times higher than found outdoors.

In terms of health, VOCs are not acutely toxic but can lead to long-term adverse health impacts. 

VOCs are what cause the headaches and nose or eye irritation that you’ve likely experienced whilst painting. More regular and prolonged use of paints with medium to high VOC levels can lead to more serious issues such as damage to the lungs. Paints with high VOC levels can be particularly hazardous for people with respiratory problems like asthma, as well as for children and the elderly.

In 2010 an EU directive came into force which heavily restricted the solvent (or VOC) content in paints.

VOC globe labels

VOC labels were introduced by the British Coatings Foundation (BCF), a UK Trade Association representing the interests of the decorative, industrial and powder coatings industry. It is an optional labelling system though many companies use it.

There are five categories:
Minimal (0-0.29%)
Low (0.3-7.99%)
Medium (8-24.99%)
High (25-50%)
Very high (over 50%)

We would recommend only using paints with minimal or low levels as detailed in the table below:

table: voc levels of different paint brands

The remaining brands we rated did not have information on their use of VOCs. 

Companies with minimal or no VOCs, or working towards such standards, received a better score in our Pollution & Toxics category.

Ingredients legislation

EU legislation has forced companies to be more transparent about the ingredients they use.

In 2015, paint companies were made to use a hazard labelling system in line with the Globally Harmonised System of Classification and Labelling (GHS).

Further legislation has meant that companies are required to provide safety data sheets for their products. These data sheets are usually available on brands’ websites, though companies were not rated on this.

Eco paints

Regular paints are filled with vinyl resins, synthetic dyes, petrochemicals derived from oil, acrylics, formaldehyde and ammonia, amongst other things. On the other hand, ‘eco paint’ is an umbrella term for different types of ‘natural’ paints. 

It can include paint made using clay, chalk, and natural solvents such as orange oil and balsamic turpentine from pine trees. Natural vegetable resins and oils, such as linseed and rapeseed, replace all petrochemicals.

Earthborn, Auro and Nutshell do not use petrochemicals and they all publish full ingredients lists for their paints.

Image:  earthborn eco paint
Eco paint is made using natural ingredients. Earthborn's clay paint is one example of this.

As a result, these companies received an exemption in our Environmental Reporting category for providing environmental alternatives.

Earthborn additionally carries the EU Ecolabel for its indoor paints and varnishes which means its products meet criteria that guarantee: 

  • Minimized content of hazardous substances
  • Reduced content of volatile organic compounds

Other ‘eco’ brands worth noting are Little Greene Paints, whose paints are based on vegetable oils, and LIVOS, who use linseed oil and plant, earth and mineral pigments.

Though Lakeland Paints are free of VOCs, they use petrochemicals and synthetic pigments.

Can I make my own paint?

Unfortunately, there isn’t much choice when it comes to making your own paint. Most paints you can make yourself are water-based paints which aren’t suitable for painting walls, ceilings and furniture. They are perfectly usable for paper, though not particularly durable.

There are plenty of online articles on how to make paint, usually using food or other household products. The website Science Made Simple have a few examples of household items that can be used for this including coffee, washing up liquid and shaving foam!

Animal ingredients

It is common for animal ingredients to be found in paints. The main one being casein, derived from cow’s milk. Casein gives paint faster-drying qualities and makes it more durable and permanent.

Some paints also contain insect ingredients such as beeswax and shellac.
 
Beeswax has protective properties for surface coatings, aiding its longevity. Shellac provides protection from pollutants and helps with permeability. Vegans, be warned!

We looked into whether the companies we rated sold paints containing animal ingredients. Lakeland Paints state that its products are completely free of animal ingredients, for which it received product sustainability and company ethos marks.

Most of Earthborn’s products are vegan except its casein paints and furniture wax. LIVOS and Auro also sell many vegan paints. The remaining companies we rated did not have information on whether they used animal ingredients.

Animal testing

Animal-tested ingredients appear to be relatively common amongst mainstream paints. Companies which had animal-tested ingredients in their products included Akzo Nobel and PPG Industries Inc. These, as well as others who failed to have an animal testing policy at all, received a worst mark.

However, smaller companies like LIVOS, Earthborn, Lakeland Paints, Nutshell and AURO explicitly stated they did not use animal-tested ingredients.

Waste and recycling

It is common for people to buy more paint than they need. An estimated 50 million litres of the 320 million litres of paint sold in the UK each year goes to waste. The last thing you should do is dispose of paint by pouring it down a drain. Rather, it can be re-used through projects like Community Re-Paint and Paint 360 (see below). 

You can also take it to a Household Recycling Centre (also known as a tip) but only around a third accept liquid paint. The ones that do will either solidify it to turn it into waste or pass it on to a re-use scheme. Only 2% of the total amount of leftover decorative paint gets reused or put back into the manufacturing process. You can find information about your nearest Household Recycling Centre through your local council.

Most paint is sold in metal tins or plastic tubs, the former of which is potentially recyclable. It should also be easy for paint tubs to be made from recycled materials but there is little evidence to suggest that this is currently the case. The only company that had appeared to invest in this was Crown Paints. Working with the Bradford-based packaging company Emballator, Crown started selling plastic paint tubs made from 100% recycled materials in August 2018.

Community RePaint is a leftover paint redistribution project with 70 schemes across the UK. See our interview with Sarah Burns, the Network Coordinator of the project. We would recommend checking if there’s a Community Re-Paint centre near you before buying new paint. 

Based in Cradley Heath in the West Midlands, Paint 360 aims to increase recycling rates of paint.

The company puts leftover paint back into the manufacturing process of new paint. It collects leftover paint from House Waste Recycling Centres. It then creates new paint sold under the Paint 360 brand. It is currently available at Travis Perkins. 

As a social enterprise, the organisation engages young long-term unemployed people as the core of its workforce.

Recommended by the British Coatings Federation, PaintCare “brings together local and national government, the waste industry, paint companies, retailers and other stakeholders to help solve the problem of leftover decorative paint.”

Its website contains plenty of advice and information including recycling options, PaintCare’s full action plan and resources on creating a circular economy on leftover paint distribution. 

Company Profile

Based in the Netherlands, Akzo Nobel is the world’s largest coatings producer. It currently owns Dulux and Cuprinol and previously Crown. In 2014, Akzo Nobel blocked collective bargaining at a Korean subsidiary over workers’ concerns such as wages, working hours and industrial disease.

Want to know more?

If you want to find out detailed information about a company and more about its ethical rating, then click on a brand name in the Score table. 

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