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Paint it green with optimal formulations

As consumers become more aware of the negative impact certain paints have on human health and the environment, the call for the wider use of green label paint grows stronger.

Green label paint is paint that is considered less damaging to our health and to the environment than other similar products because it is formulated with mostly unharmful and environmentally-friendly materials.

In some countries, paints may contain harmful substances, including heavy metals, formaldehyde derivatives, sensitive biocides and harmful monomer residues, while many contain solvents that produce volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs are emitted as gases that pollute the atmosphere and cause short and long-term health effects in humans.


Countries around the world classify materials as VOCs and substances that are considered harmful according to their local regulations based on varying criteria. Certain paint products are therefore considered green label in one country but not in others.


Many paint manufacturers have made efforts to make safer and environmentally-friendly paints without sacrificing performance, while also attempting to keep costs under control. One of the main directions is to substitute volatile solvents with water-based products, despite the challenges that this may present for certain applications.

The main regulatory challenge for producers is that there are different VOC regulations in different countries. For example:


  • In the US, solvents are exempt from being classified as VOCs if they do not damage the ozone layer. Such solvents include acetone, an active ingredient used in nail polish remover and paint thinner, and tertbuytl acetate, which is used in lacquers, enamels, inks, adhesives, thinners and industrial cleaners. Producers can dissolve a general-purpose resin in these solvents and the resultant coating would be considered “green label”
  • In Australia, you can acquire a specific branded ester alcohol product that is not considered a VOC, whereas in many other countries it falls firmly in this category. Producers in Australia can add this particular coalescent abundantly and the resultant paint will be classified as “low VOC”


In general, most countries agree that for a product to be considered “green” it must not include the following solvents:


  • Alkylphenol ethoxylate (APEO) surfactants – considered harmful to aquatic organisms
  • Formaldehyde – a hazardous air pollutant
  • Chlorine – an extremely reactive chemical element that can form a toxic gas that attacks the respiratory system, eyes and skin
  • Carcinogen materials – substances that promote the formation of cancer
  • Propylene glycol – a synthetic organic compound that is miscible with a broad range of solvents like water and acetone. It is considered a VOC everywhere around the world


As a producer, it is very important to understand what qualifies as green label paint in your intended market. Green label paints are termed as “Nordic Swan” in Norway, “Blue Angel” in Germany, “Milieukeur” in the Netherlands, “Green Seal” in the US and “Environmental Choice” in New Zealand. Recently, countries in the European Union developed a common certification under the EU Ecolabel, which ensures that a certified paint is formulated according to certain standards.

In sourcing the right raw materials for your green label paint, the first question to ask must always be: “what materials are exempt from my intended market?”


Then, when you know what is not permissible, you need to source suitable green alternatives. Although some materials can be replaced with more environmentally-friendly variations including non-APEO surfactants, VOC exempt coalescent, and chlorine and HCHO free biocides, consider that these substitutes usually come at a higher production cost.


To meet green standards, binders must be entirely APEO, HCHO and chlorine free. At this point, producers must also remember their sustainability goals – repeated attempts to perfect formulations as a result of deviating from a defined protocol will certainly contribute to environmental damage.


Also consider working with materials that are synergistic. This will result in lower costs and improved performance. However, a deep knowledge of surface chemistry is again required to truly understand how certain materials interact with one another.


Producers do not need to wholly replace certain materials like binder, surfactants and biocides. This will most certainly result in higher costs and, if formulation protocol is not correctly followed, poorer overall performance. Instead, a balance must be struck between only a partial replacement of materials and optimal formulation protocol.


In my experience, when it comes to cost consideration, you should not focus solely on the individual cost of materials but instead, consider the total formulation and production costs involved. Applied correctly to minimize waste and maximize quality output, the benefits of well-formulated paint will eradicate those initial concerns.

The raw materials to formulate a green label paint include:


  1. Waterborne paints has been progressively growing up from the do-it-yourself market to many industrial applications, allowing a reduction of volatile solvents emitted during the drying process of the paint.
  2. Solvent-free or high solid paints, especially for high-performance industrial applications, where solvents are reduced completely or to a large extent.
  3. Binders, particularly free monomers and solvents used to regulate some properties such as viscosity or film forming ability, pigments and fillers where limiting the content of heavy metals has been a progressive process.
  4. Biocides is another area of concern because the active substances can cause allergenic problems because of skin sensitivity developed in humans after exposure.
  5. Products that are considered poisonous, carcinogenic or toxic. In this category will be some organic chemicals that may be used to provide some specific performance-enhancing properties in paint.

Developing green label paint for your intended market can become easier with a clear strategy and an understanding of the chemistry involved. To get the best from substitute materials, producers need to work with skilled and experienced formulation experts who are well versed in complex surface chemistry.

About the author

Ramon J. Viñas is based in Spain and has a Master’s degree in Chemical Engineering and an MBA.He is currently DKSH’s Vice President, Global Specialty Chemicals Industry, Performance Materials.