How to Choose Baby-Safe Paint

Medically Reviewed by Renee A. Alli, MD on July 10, 2023
3 min read

Not all paint is made the same. Whether you’re welcoming a new baby or simply refreshing the wall color in your home, you might wonder about paint ingredients and how they could affect your family’s health.

Each can of paint has different ingredients in varying concentrations. To choose the paint that’s safest for your household, you need to know something about what’s in it. Here’s how to look for baby-safe paint.

Paint formulas might have ingredients like nonylphenol ethoxylate, ethylene glycol, and formaldehyde. They might also have metals, crystalline silica, phthalates, fungicides, biocides, and other components.

Paints have four main elements:

  • Additives 
  • Binders
  • Pigments
  • Solvents

While pigments add color and sheen, binders hold that color to the surface. Paint also has solvents that act as the liquid, and additives that help thicken, stabilize, de-foam, or preserve.

Most modern paints are unlikely to cause any health issues. But children and babies are more susceptible to respiratory and developmental issues from paint fumes and paint ingredients. So you may want to take extra care when choosing paint for your home.

Paint fumes could cause the following effects in young children:

Consider the VOCs. Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, are responsible for paint fumes. These compounds dry readily at room temperature, evaporating and releasing a strong odor. 

VOCs are found in various paint ingredients, including formaldehyde, ethylene glycol, benzene, toluene, and others. They can be responsible for health effects like headaches, vomiting, and dizziness. Long-term exposure to high levels of some VOCs is thought to cause liver and kidney damage, and even some cancers.

To keep a room baby-safe, choose low-VOC or zero-VOC paint. Note that even pain labeled “zero-VOC” may not be completely free of VOCs. Federal regulations limit VOCs to 250 grams per liter (g/L) in flat (matte-finish) paints, and 380 g/L for non-flat paint.

Some states have their own regulations. For example, California sets the limit for low-VOC paint at no more than 50 g/L and zero-VOC paint at less than 5 g/L.

Beyond state regulations, consider the brand of paint. Look for those with the Greenguard Shield Gold certification, Green Seal (GS-11) certification, or Master Paint Institute Green Performance certification. These will help you identify brands that follow strict zero-VOC and low-VOC rules.

Look for water-based or natural paints. Rather than solvent-based or oil-based paints, choose water-based paints. Water-based (also called latex or acrylic) paints use water as the liquid, and they release fewer chemicals as they dry.

You can also buy or even make “natural” paints that use a variety of non-chemical pigments. For example, milk paints have the milk protein casein as their base, along with lime, natural pigments, chalk, and clay.

Watch out for APE ingredients.  Chemicals called alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEs) and their subtypes like nonylphenol ethoxylate are found in some acrylic paints. They’ve been detected in human breast milk and studies show they’ve caused reproductive and developmental problems in rats.

Be aware of additives. Paint additives can kill mildew or bacteria, or act as pesticides. But these extra ingredients can cause problems for people who are sensitive to them.

Finally, if you’re pregnant, it’s best to avoid exposure to any paint. This includes during application and for the first few days as the paint dries and releases gases.

Always paint in well-ventilated areas away from children, pets, and anybody who has breathing problems. Proper masking and cleanup can ensure you have a colorful new space without unwanted health effects.