There seems to be a lot more paint labeled low-VOC (low-volatile organic compounds) these days. Partly a reaction to changing regs and partly to capitalize on the green movement, manufacturers are using fewer solvent-based additives. Sometimes, though, labels can be misleading.

“The phrase low-VOC can be confusing,” says Jeff Spillane, senior product manager at Benjamin Moore & Co. in Montvale, N.J. “In many cases, the term low-VOC can be used to indicate that a product is lower than a previous version. Years ago a product may have been 450 [grams per liter], and today there may be a version that is only 200 grams per liter. Although less than half the VOCs may be called low-VOC, it is still high.”

Organic compounds—a necessary ingredient in paint—help products perform a variety of important functions. “Historically, the paint industry used organic solvents to provide application, film forming, drying, and performance properties desired by customers,” says Mary Ellen Shivetts, product stewardship manager at Pittsburgh-based PPG Pittsburgh Paints.

The problem, however, is that VOCs emit smog-forming chemicals, which is bad for the environment and for people. “They have been regulated by air quality control agencies because they are a source of ozone formation and smog,” says Todd Wirdzek, vice president of product development at San Carlos, Calif.–based Kelly-Moore Paint Co. Most homeowners, he says, may not be too concerned about the immediate effects of ozone formation, but they care about paint odor and perceived health effects of breathing paint vapor.

Luckily, most paints today are made from water-based latex polymers that eliminated most of the solvents in paint, Wirdzek says. But builders should still be wary of labels.

“What many people do not know is that low-VOC paints can actually contain relatively high levels of VOCs,” says Sam Lueder, a spokesperson for Mythic Paint in Hattiesburg, Miss. “The [federal] government classifies a low-VOC paint as one that contains less than 250 grams of VOC per liter of paint.” And that’s for flat paint; non-flat paint may contain up to 380 grams per liter to be considered low-VOC. Adding a color tint usually brings the levels up even more.

Lueder warns that buyers should also be aware of toxins in paints. “These toxins are not necessarily categorized as VOCs but are listed in the warning label on the can,” he explains.

Low- and no-VOC paints had a bad reputation early on in terms of quality, but manufacturers and some in the architectural community say things have changed. “They were thick and difficult to work with,” says architectural color consultant Bonnie Krims of Bonnie Krims Color Studio in Concord, Mass. “I found them unmanageable and avoided them. Now, I enthusiastically recommend them.”

Advancements in paint technology have resulted in low- and no-VOC paints that perform well. Spillane says contractors just need to look for paints that take into account the changes that inevitably occur when VOCs are removed. These paints are just as good—and often better.