Commonly Asked Questions About Paint and Other Finishes on Toys

I try to update both my Ultimate Green Dollhouse Guide and my Ultimate Eco-Friendly Play Kitchen Guide annually. This year though, I’m trying to cover all the safety issues parents are concerned about – read how to choose a safe and eco-friendly play kitchen set or dollhouse for more info.

Paint and other finishes are commonly used on play kitchens and dollhouses (not to mention other toys). Many are toxic, but there are some safer paints and finishes on the market.

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Why are traditional paints and finishes dangerous?

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs), gases that are emitted by various synthetic materials (both liquids and solids), are found in abundance in traditional paints and finishes, with oil-based paints containing the most VOCs. Plenty of health issues can occur from VOC exposure. According to the EPA the following are issues…

Eye, nose, and throat irritation; headaches, loss of coordination, nausea; damage to liver, kidney, and central nervous system. Some are suspected or known to cause cancer in humans. Key signs or symptoms associated with exposure to VOCs include conjunctival irritation, nose and throat discomfort, headache, allergic skin reaction, dyspnea, declines in serum cholinesterase levels, nausea, emesis, epistaxis, fatigue, dizziness.

VOCs are worse indoors than out, which is a major reason why you need to buy safer, low-VOC products if they’re used in your home. Research has found that indoor VOC levels average 2 to 5 times higher indoors than outdoor levels. Shockingly, after immediate exposure to some activities, like paint stripping, levels in your house can be up to 1,000 times greater than outdoor levels.

You can also be exposed to VOCs even if you’re simply storing a product with high VOC levels, as some VOC products release fumes even if they’re just sitting around in your cupboard. See a list of VOC products.

Paints, lacquers and varnishes also contain solvents, monomers, softening agents, biocides and much more that are harmful during the manufacturing stage, during application and sometimes for the life of the product, not to mention disposing of such products. The EPA actually has paint on its top-five list of environmental hazards.

Are zero VOC and low VOC paints the same?

“Zero VOC” paint means paints that have < 5 g/L of VOC. “Low VOC” paint are paints with a wide range of VOCs from 50 g/L to as much as 250 g/L.

Are there downsides to safer paints and finishes?

Downsides of safer paints include cost (way more expensive) and they usually don’t coat as well, meaning many coats are needed or you’ll need to repaint more often.

Where can I find low-VOC paints? 

You can also make homemade beeswax finish for natural products.

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