How to choose & use eco-friendly paints & finishes

You don't have to be a slave to chemicals when you need to paint or polish in your home. Here are some suggestions. 

How to choose & use eco-friendly paints & finishes

1. Use natural paints

  • Use natural paints soon after purchase, as they contain few preservatives and so don't last long.
  • Allow for extended drying times. Natural paints don't contain chemical drying agents.
  • Natural paints tend to be thinner than regular paints. When painting a ceiling, cut a slit in a sponge and thread it onto your brush to prevent paint running down your arm.
  • Wear a mask when mixing powders as some can be caustic.
  • Remember: natural paint leftovers can be added to your compost!

2. Cleaning up

  • To clean brushes after using water-based paints, wipe off excess with newspaper, then wash the brushes in a bucket of water. Pour the water on waste ground, away from food plants or drains, or, as a last resort, down the sink.
  • To clean brushes used with solvent-based (oil-based) paints, use a non-toxic thinner or natural turpentine-based product; or boil the brushes in vinegar then wash them in water. Try to avoid excessive use of mineral turpentines as many contain benzene, a carcinogen.
  • Never pour unused paints or solvents down the sink or into drains. Old cans of natural or water-based paint can go in the garbage, but old cans of solvent-based paint cannot. Ask your city office if it organizes pick-ups of unwanted chemicals or if you can drop the cans off at a special part of the dump.

3. Sealing wood

  • Avoid polyurethane wood sealants. Many contain diisocyanate, a respiratory irritant, and all contain a range of other VOCs. The most toxic are the two-part coatings that have to be mixed before application. Oil-modified urethanes generally release less gas than moisture-cured ones.
  • Try natural oils, which penetrate the wood but allow it to breathe. Products based on tung oil, from the tung tree, are a good choice, but make sure they don't contain synthetic resins.
  • Use beeswax to create a durable, attractive surface. The wax can be applied on top of natural oil.
  • Consider natural stains. Lime finishes come in a range of colours that give an aged look to wood while highlighting its grain. Other washes and stains give timber a light colouring while allowing the grain to show through.
  • Remember that some natural sealants such as oils and beeswax may need to be applied more often than synthetics to keep the wood in good condition.

4. When to use shellac

  • Try shellac for painting wooden shelves and to seal treated wood or wood-composite products that may emit toxic fumes.
  • Derived from a resin exuded by the Asian lac insect, shellac is 100 per cent natural, easy to apply, smells good and dries to a matte finish in two to three.
  • It can be used on plain wood surfaces or painted ones.
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