What are VOCs and what are they used for?

February 1st, 2024

VOCs or Volatile Organic Compounds are chemicals found in solvent-based and in small quantities in water-based paints and coatings. Their main purpose in solvent-based paints is to act as the medium to transfer the paint from the can to the surface and aid the paint’s flow. 

Once applied, the VOCs evaporate and it is because of this, decorating areas should be appropriately ventilated. VOCs can also be found in other decorating materials such as thinners and brush cleaners, which are necessary in products used to clean brushes and rollers used to apply solvent-based paints.

How do I know the VOC content of my paint?

A simple labelling system helps users understand the level of VOC content in the paint they buy. Each decorative coating product containing VOCs will display details of the VOCs contained and in many cases show one of these 5 classifications or globes on the packaging:

- Minimal

- Low

- Medium

- High

- Very High

Effects of VOCs on your health and the environment:

Excessive exposure to VOCs can have negative effects to your health and the environment; however in modern decorating coatings VOC levels are controlled to protect the user.  As long as they are applied as advised by the manufacturer there should be little effect.

It is worth noting that decorating products containing higher levels of VOC often have a stronger odour – something to consider when choosing the right paint for the job in hand.

Which products contain low VOCs?

Water-based products are more advanced than ever before and can often produce finishes that would have been previously associated with those of old formulation solvent-based coatings.

Brewers stock a large range of paints specially formulated to have low VOCs, reducing the impact on the environment. 

Photo courtesy of Earthborn.

A world without coatings

Coatings protect and decorate our world providing surfaces that are more durable, hygienic and aesthetically pleasing. Check out this interesting video produced by the BCF showing how the world might be without coatings: