What is important to know about paints and varnishes?

Many paints, varnishes, flooring and wallpaper can contain chemicals which can be harmful to your health and the environment. These hazardous substances can be released from paints and varnishes during their use and directly affect the indoor quality in your home.

The problem

We are very used to quick-drying, colourful and abrasion-resistant paints. Their properties result from the use of a variety of different chemicals in the paints and varnishes. Some of them could cause damage to human health and the environment when not properly used, stored or disposed of.

The most important group of chemicals of concern in paints are called volatile organic compounds (VOCs). They evaporate into the indoor air – you can smell them while painting – and when they are inhaled may cause health problems. Other possibly hazardous chemicals have functions as biocides, pigments or provide a specific surface like gloss, structure etc.

Hazardous chemicals are used as ingredients in paints and varnishes for the following purposes:

  • As resins or binders: components that cause the formation of a film of paint/varnish on the surface that is painted or varnished. The main types of chemicals used as binders are oils, alkyds, and waxes.
  • As solvents: components which keep the paint or varnish in liquid form until it is applied. Solvents can be VOCs or water (water-based or solvent-based paints and varnishes).
  • As pigments and fillers: components that determine the colour and opacity (covering power) of the product and some other properties.
  • As additives: different ingredients which are added in small amounts to provide specific properties; the function could support the convenience of using the paints (prevent moulding, thickness of the paint) or could support specific visual properties, like surface structure, glossyness etc..

To achieve the above functions, different chemicals could be used. Examples of chemicals with hazardous properties used as solvents are white spirit, toluene or ethylbenzene. Chlorinated paraffins, n-hexane, ethyl methyl ketoxime are used as additives and binders.


Tips & tricks


Possible health effects

Properties Toxic chemicals Possible health and environmental effects Application
Antibacterial, preservative Formaldehydes and formaldehyde releasers (e.g. benzylhemiformal, 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol, 5-bromo-5-nitro-1,3-dioxane, diazolidinyl urea, Imidazolidinyl urea, Quaternium-15, DMDM Hydantoin) Irritates mucous membranes and skin, can cause hypersensitivity, carcinogenic (nasal pathway) In many types of glues, lubricants and paints, plywood, particleboards furniture, laminate, textiles and leather
Surfactant Nonylphenol (ethoxylates) Endocrine disruptor, persistent, accumulates in the environment Textile paper and pulp processing, paints, resins, glue, protective coatings, detergents, animal medicine, pesticides, steel production
Solvents, detergents, medicine, anti-freeze Organic solvents (Xylene, benzene (turpentine), n-hexane, hydro-treated heavy naphtha, ligroin, naphtha (petroleum), hydrodesulfurized heavy) Harmful to reproduction, unborn child, causes skin irritation and eczema Plaster paints, acrylic paints, enamel, wood varnish, glue, resins, detergents, paint and varnish remover, hydrolic liquids
Synthetic material, soft or rigid, applied for many uses PVC 8-16 substances in PVC can cause different types of damage, such as dipentylphthalate (carcinogenic, toxic, disrupting the reproductive system, CMR, damaging to the unborn child) cadmium, lead and vinylchloride (carcinogenic, on combustion dioxin is released Piping, textile (t-shirts) gloves, (building) plastics, toys
Slows the combustion process by several minutes Brominated flame retardants PBT, some kinds are also classified as CMR, some disrupt the hormone system Polystyrene, textile (furniture fabrics), stuffing of furniture and mattresses wrappings, insulation materials, plastics
Intended to kill, deter or render harmless organisms (plants and animals) considered harmful Biocides (diuron, 5-chloro-2-methyl-4-isothiazolin-3-one) Toxic to living organisms, skin irritation, burns, allergies Wood and wood products, fungicidal paint etc
Component in formulation of epoxy resins, formerly also used as a fungicide Bisphenol A Endocrine disruptor, possible reprotoxic effects, is irritating to eyes, lungs and skin Plastics, resins, epoxy glues
Anti-skinning, thickening agents in paints Additives in paints (Cobalt bis (2-ethylhexanoate), ethylmethylketoxime, 2-butanone oxime, zinc phosphate) Irritant to skin, eyes, respiratory system, possible carcinogen, hazardous to the environment Paints, primer, especially organic solvent-based
Stabilising agents, enhancing adhesion Isocyanates Irritating to eyes and respiratory tract Used in production of rubbers and adhesives

Tips & tricks

→ Ask experts for safe chemical products and construction materials! They will be happy to help you choose or can refer you to someone else.

→ Do not trust the ‘green’ claims of producers. Use products that have been tested by an independent third party, such as the EU eco-label Flower or Nordic Swan. Labels can be used as a guide when choosing safe products, depending on what they guarantee.

→ During and after renovation works with chemical construction products, ventilate and air regularly: if you open all the doors and windows at the same time, the house will be well aired. Airing is very important during and after a renovation to let contaminated air out. Make sure there is constant ventilation in the rooms and air at least twice a day for 5 minutes.→ When storing paints, make sure the lids are on tight.→ If you’re pregnant, have someone else renovate. Invest in finding products that are good and safe; you will find that they are more and more readily available and it is worth it.→ Keep children away when you paint and do not let them play in freshly painted rooms. Children are more vulnerable because they inhale a larger quantity of the chemical substances in proportion to their weight.→ Follow label directions. Avoid products with these symbols:

→ Do not pour paints down household drains. Chemicals in paints may cause problems in the sewage treatment plants and some of them may not be removed and reach the natural environment.

→ Do not through liquid paints in the household waste but bring it to the municipal collection point.