Thoughtful Living: the importance of natural paint
Time to brush up on paint that’s friendlier to the planet – and what it can do for your home and health too. We get the low-down from experts and users alike
Decorating our homes matters. That might sound frivolous until you remember that humans have been painting their walls since the Paleolithic age. The primitive materials used by cave- and hut-dwellers were made, as you’d expect, using natural materials such as bone, earth, charcoal and minerals bound with animal fat or saliva. The creation of petrochemicals, however, changed the face of production beyond recognition, as it did almost everything; now the majority of interior paints are produced using noxious binders that not only fuel the climate crisis but have an impact on our health too.
But decorating with a conscience isn’t easy. What’s the best way of achieving maximum impact with minimum waste? How do you know the true cost of your materials? And, when it comes to paint, how do you make sure you’re doing good as well as making things look good too?
Learning about the products you’re using is at the heart of it, really. And where better to get your information than straight from the paint maker’s mouth? With that in mind, we put the call out to our community, hoping to get a greater understanding of how, if you’re planning a new palette, your choices can make the world of difference.
What are VOCs?
VOC stands for ‘volatile organic compound’, which is a substance that can dissipate into the air – and all paints have them. “The word is thrown around a lot in the industry,” says Edward Bulmer, who runs his own plant-based natural-paint company, “leaving customers Very Often Confused!” In part, this is because VOCs are responsible not just for the odours of pollutants but the perfumes of other, less egregious things: a heady-scented rose gives off VOCs, just as an acrid-smelling chemical solvent emits harmful ones.
It’s a legal requirement in the UK for paint to be low-VOC, but how low you go is crucial – and which VOCs you breathe in is what matters. Edward says that creating a VOC-free paint is almost impossible outside of a lab – “as even peeling an orange emits them” – but by entirely avoiding solvents and synthetic chemicals, you massively mitigate the harm.
Cassandra Ellis, the founder of Atelier Ellis whose beautifully painted house we sold last year, subscribes to a similar ethos. “We don’t shout about making low-VOC products,” she says, “just as we don’t shout about making water-based ones. Our approach is to make and deliver ‘best-practice’ paint.”
What can natural paint do for the planet?
Using paint bound with natural or semi-natural ingredients, such as plant-based resins, generally has a much lower carbon footprint than that of many recognisable brands. On the flip side, plastics – which form the binders of most interior paint – are hugely carbon intensive. “Put simply,” Edward says, the manufacture of regular paint “fuels the climate crisis”. He goes on: “In the UK alone, each year the paint industry creates over 50,000 tonnes of hazardous waste (that is, 2,000,000 litres sent to landfill).” Every time you wash your brush, those plastics go back into the water system, polluting our oceans, rivers and land – and all the wildlife live there.
What can it do for your health?
“When I was first researching natural paint for an interior design project,” Edward tells us, “I was shocked to read that decorators were more likely to have lung cancer due to the carcinogenic fumes from things like paint.” It’s simple: by swapping bad for good, you can avoid the risks.
Research like this is what led Natalie and Luke Morrison, whose ecologically sound renovation project we visited last year, to choose natural paint for their home. Natalie, a nutritionist, was pregnant at the time of the works and the couple already had a small child. “It wasn’t just our health at risk; there are studies that confirm a mother’s prenatal exposure to VOCs affect early postnatal growth, as well as infantile immunological and neurological functional development, not to mention the baby’s future fertility,” she explains, also citing the headaches and asthma attacks that harmful fumes can cause.
Natalie says they found some great companies when searching for non-toxic paint of all types, including gloss and those for wood and exteriors. The couple used Lakeland Paints on the garden wall, shed and staircase, as well as the company’s stain blocker and sealants. “I found them a pleasure to work with,” she reports. The couple also used Bauwerk Colour’s limewash (“We loved the textured finish – and it was fun to apply) and the “wonderful” Victory Colours, which offered a free paint match service for its non-toxic mixes. “These smaller companies, who care about their customer’s health, are invested in their client base and go the extra mile to help you out.”
Why is it suited to heritage buildings?
Natural paint is breathable – consequently making it an ideal material for walls, which need to be able to let moisture out. If they don’t, you’ll end up with damp and the nightmarish problems it causes – wet warping walls and mould, which is not only unattractive to look at and offensive on the nostrils, but extremely unhealthy to live with. Medical practitioners are, Edward tells us, increasingly exploring the link between mould spores and chronic fatigue, as well as the nebulous, nefarious MCS (multiple chemical sensitivity).
Traditional limewash – as made by Francesca’s Paints, whose colours cover almost every wall in this house for sale in Margate – is a brilliant, breathable option and gives walls a beautiful mottled effect. “It allows the passage of moisture, preventing the paint from bubbling up,” the company’s founder, Francesca Wezel, explains. “Limewash is one of the oldest forms of paint, made with just lime and water” and is inherently vapour-permeable, with an incredibly low SD (or steam diffusion) value. (The lower the SD value, the more moisture is able to pass through.)
As with Edward Bulmer’s, Atelier Ellis’ emulsions are also among the most breathable available. “This means you can use it on lime and gypsum plasters,” Cassandra says, “as it lets moisture flow in and out of your home, rather than trapping it. Happy building, happy humans,” adding: “You can use our paint on ancient cottages, Georgian manors and new-builds, as well as the UK’s much loved and lived-in Victorian homes.”
How does natural paint compare in use to standard paint?
In terms of usability, these more ecologically minded options are right up there with the big players. “We’ve worked tirelessly to make a natural paint that matches the finish, durability and usability of modern paint,” says Edward, “but without any of the nasties and with outstanding coverage.” The fact that so many of the homes we sell use his paints – recent listing Sunnybank among them – speaks to their quality.
Natalie and Luke experienced the practical benefits of natural paint too. The firm they hired to do the front of their house – Advanced Painters of Dulwich – has 30 years of experience; they told the couple that Victory Colours’ paints were nicer than the big names they ordinarily used.
For Francesca, aesthetics come into it. “Natural paints have a texture and chalkiness that can not be achieved by modern paints,” she tells us. “They add depth to the walls. Because of their formulation, they absorb the light rather than reflecting it, and the colour changes throughout the day.” And while they can mark, this can also add charm. Cassandra agrees. “We make the best quality paint we can,” she says. “Beautiful paint to use, with beautiful ingredients, locally made and in colours that you don’t want to change.” Her point is important – the less you redecorate, the smaller your carbon footprint will be too.
A final word: buyer beware
“When choosing paint, it’s becoming evident that the contents might not always be exactly what it says on the tin,” Edward explains. It may sound contradictory, but so-called ‘eco-friendly’ paints can sometimes be anything but – and greenwashing is rife. Water-based paints tend to be given the ‘eco-friendly’ label, even if its resin binders are made from petrochemicals. That said, Francesca’s ‘eco-emulsions’, which are free from solvents, glycols and microplastics and have an incredibly low SD rate, are genuine – are among those worth exploring if you own a historic home.
It’s also important to bear those VOC levels in mind, says Cassandra, which are measured before pigments – which can be highly toxic – are added.
SPAB’s advice on paint
Why not read our first Thoughtful Living piece on energy efficiency in historic homes?
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