When Painting, Planning Pays Off

brain cancer genes immunity indoor air interior design lungs Nov 28, 2017

by Angela Cummings and Sophia Ruan Gushée


One of the easiest and least expensive ways to freshen up a room is to paint the walls. However, paint can pollute indoor air. Below are tips to help protect both your health and your finances. 

Detox Your Painted Walls

Three key things to consider when selecting safer paints are lead, VOCs, and HAPs.


While the US banned lead from house paint in 1978, lead is still found in the painted walls of older homes. And this still contributes to childhood lead poisoning. In fact, an estimated $43 billion is spent on medical and societal costs related to childhood lead poisoning in the U.S., according to Sophia Ruan Gushee’s A to Z of D-Toxing.(1)

No amount of lead is safe for children. Lead can affect all organs, lower IQ, and reduce attention spans among other health challenges.(2)


Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) is a category of compounds that pose human health risks. For example, the two below are commonly found in paint products.

  • Benzene: may cause leukemia, breast cancer, lymphatic cancer and damage chromosomes(3)
  • Formaldehyde: may affect immune system, respiratory system and cause cancer(4)

VOCs can off-gas in the home and contribute to poor indoor air quality. However, most people don't realize that VOCs were studied and regulated mainly for their effects on the outdoor environment: their ability to create ozone and contribute to smog. But, low- and zero- VOC paint products have been interpreted as safer choices for the indoor environment. They may be, but, VOCs have, historically, not been studied for human health impact.

We now know that certain VOCs do pose health concerns.


Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAPs), on the other hand, have been studied for their effects on human and environmental health. According to a report by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, HAPs have been known to cause headaches, dizziness, difficulty breathing, increased risk of cancer, birth defects, and other harmful effects. As of a 2014 report, the EPA had a list of 188 HAPs.

For how long does paint off-gas?

Most off-gassing occurs when paint is freshly applied. However, VOCs can continue to off-gas for up to 3 ½ years.(5) 

Reduce VOCs When Painting

The tips below should help reduce the number of VOCs in your home:

  • Seek paints that are low in VOCs and HAPs. Paints with zero- or low- VOCs are most likely better than conventional paints, but it's still hard to know. Beware of products that claim that their paint products contain no emissions. That's most likely impossible. Look at the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS), which won't tell you the whole story but it will at least help you avoid known toxicants.
  • Fresh Air. Open windows to allow fresh air into the house, both in the room you’re painting and throughout the house. Having a good cross breeze helps to circulate the fresh air throughout the house and rid toxic air faster.
  • Ventilate. For as long and often as you can, continue to facilitate ventilation and fresh air exchange.
  • Old Homes. Use caution when preparing or painting homes built before 1978.(6) Lead was prominent in paints back then and can remain on the interior or exterior walls. Removing peeling paint can stir up lead-filled paint and be toxic to people of all ages, especially young children who are notorious for putting hands or objects into their mouth. Investigate painters certified in lead paint removal, and check their references.
  • Calculate Carefully. Calculating the amount of paint you’ll need can save money and storage space, and reduce your exposure to VOCs from the leftover paint. Buy only the amount of paint that you need to complete the project. Read the product label for the manufacturer’s suggested coverage calculations.
  • Pay Attention. Be aware of how your body is reacting to paints. Indicators such as feeling dizzy, nauseous, or lightheaded may be a sign that your body needs fresh air. Even manufacturers of low VOC paint suggest having adequate ventilation. Pay attention to what your body is telling you and take steps to stay healthy when doing painting projects.
  • Follow Manufacturer's Instructions. They may be offering advice that helps with health and safety.


  • Clean Up. Clean up leftover paint on paint brushes, rollers, and paint trays. Off-gassing of paint can occur wherever paint is located – on the walls, in tools, or in paint containers.
  • Dispose of Extras. Dispose of leftover paint when you’re done with your project. Depending on the amount of paint left, consider donating the paint to a local non-profit that may be able to freshen up a small space, or dispose of the paint following local municipality guidelines. If you are not able to part with the leftovers, seal the can tightly and store in an area with good ventilation.
  • Delay spending lots of time in a newly painted room. While there are safer paint options, there may be no such things as nontoxic paint. Before spending time in the freshly painted room, let the room air out for as long as possible. 

Make your painting experience a healthier one by planning ahead. Allow yourself time to select a healthier paint, find out if lead is a concern, and create an overall plan for reducing exposures to VOCs, HAPs, and lead. 



(1) A-to-Z of D-Toxing, Works Cited Part 1

(2) (3) (4) A-to-Z of D-Toxing, Works Cited Part 2

(5) (6) A-to-Z of D-Toxing, Works Cited Parts 3 and 4

Stay connected with nontoxic lifestyle news and updates!

Receive our free Ruan Living Nontoxic Cleaning Guide when you join our email list.
Don't worry, your information will not be shared.

We hate SPAM. We will never sell your information, for any reason.

About Ruan Living

Ruan Living simplifies a nontoxic lifestyle through its Practical Nontoxic Living podcast, free detox workshops, online D-Tox Academy, and transformative 40-Day Home Detox. It aims to help you avoid toxic chemicals, heavy metals, and electromagnetic fields (EMFs) from what you buy, own, and do— without compromising your joy and convenience. Ruan was founded by Sophia Ruan Gushée, author of the bestselling critically acclaimed book A to Z of D-Toxing: The Ultimate Guide to Reducing Your Toxic Exposures and several detox workbooks. A graduate of Brown University and Columbia Business School, Sophia has served on the Brown University School of Public Health Advisory Council and Well+Good Council. A popular nontoxic living speaker, consultant, and teacher, Sophia lives in New York City with her husband and three daughters. Her passion for empowering others to enjoy nontoxic living began with the birth of her first daughter in 2007. Everything she creates is a love letter to her children and for the healthiest, brightest future possible. You can learn more here: Sophia’s Impact.


This article is for informational purposes only. This information is provided “as is” without warranty.

It is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. We do not offer medical advice, course of treatment, diagnosis, or any other opinion on your conditions or treatment options. To the extent that this article features the advice of physicians or medical practitioners, the views expressed are the views of the cited expert and do not necessarily represent the views of Ruan Living.

In no event will Sophia Ruan Gushee or Ruan Living be liable for any damages or loss of any kind resulting from the use of this website. Anyone relying upon or making use of the information on this website does so at his or her own risk.

Some of the services and products recommended on this website provide compensation to Sophia Ruan Gushee or Ruan Living. All recommendations are based foremost upon an honest belief that the product, service, or site will benefit our site visitors in some way.  

Detox Your Inbox

Easy tips, podcasts, workshops, updates, and more!


For You

40-Day Home Detox



D-Tox Academy




Ruan Living

Our Mission

Sophia Ruan Gushée

Corporate Wellness

D-Tox Academy





Stay In Touch

[email protected]