All you need to know about non-toxic paint

The jargon behind safe paint can be confusing, but these two terms are all you really need to understand.

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I'm decorating my baby's nursery and am struggling to find non-toxic paint. I don't really understand the jargon on which paints are safer. Can you point me in the right direction?

As you say, the science behind non-toxic paint is littered with jargon. The main terms to get your head around are natural paints, zero-VOC and low-VOC. Normal paint includes chemicals known as Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC) that release toxic gases.

Natural paints are made from raw ingredients such as plant oils, beeswax and clay. They are still quite rare, come in a limited range of colours and can be pricey. It is also unclear how long they last. You could try buying online and getting them shipped from overseas (try, but it could be quite a chore.

Much more common are zero-VOC and low-VOC paints. These are essentially the same as normal emulsion but with a lot of the bad stuff taken out. (Traditional paint has about 300 grams of VOC per litre, low-VOC has a maximum of 50 grams, and zero-VOC has no more than five grams.) You can find these in the UAE if you know what to ask for. The key is to check the core ingredients and, most importantly, the VOC levels. The fewer the better.

It sounds easy, but in practice it isn't. Some paint salesmen will tell you anything just to make a sale. But some suppliers really understand and care about this.

Sigma Paints (04 354 9307), which has a zero-VOC paint that costs roughly twice as much as standard emulsion, was able to answer my questions. Dulux (04 344 2525 and Mirdif City Centre) was also helpful.

Low-VOC paint means a healthier room for your baby but it can be more expensive. If you're painting over old paint, you may want to use a layer of low-VOC sealant first because emulsion can churn out harmful gases for up to five years, particularly in high humidity environments like the UAE's. The cost can mount up, especially if you're planning to redo all the rooms your baby will use.

The jury is still out on whether low-VOC paints work as well as their toxic cousins. Some painters say they're just the same, while others say they need an extra coat and don't last as long.

If all this sounds like too much expense and hassle, there is another option. Nasa calls plants "living air purifiers" and recommends up to 18 houseplants for every 200 square metres of floor space. Nasa's must-have list of plants includes dracaena massangeana, peace lily and mother-in-law's tongue. Good luck.

Pallavi Dean is an award-winning independent design consultant who practises in the UAE. If you have a question for her, email