With so many low-VOC and no-VOC paints currently on the market, it can be a challenge to select the right auto paint for your body shop. Here's what you need to know.

shutterstock_254268181Most body shop owners are familiar with volatile organic compounds (VOC), a class of chemicals released as gases that contribute to that harsh new-paint smell. They also know that gases can be harmful to humans and the environment. In people, VOCs can cause nausea, nose and throat irritation, headaches, nerve damage, and possibly cancer. The 210,000 tons of solvents that the auto industry releases every year create ozone, which causes air pollution

In recent years, auto manufacturers and body shop owners have turned to paints with fewer VOCs in an effort to ensure worker safety and reduce their environmental effects. Choosing the right kind of low-VOC paint for your body shop can improve the quality of your work and the health of your workers.

What Constitutes Low-VOC Paint?

While the EPA regulates VOC levels from auto manufacturing facilities and some body shops, there are no established federal standards for the paint products themselves to be considered “low-VOC.”

Fortunately, a number of independent nonprofit organizations such as Greenguard and Green Seal conduct thorough evaluations and award “green labels” to manufacturers that pass their stringent guidelines, providing a helpful reference for the auto industry. A number of paint manufacturers, including Rodda, Benjamin Moore, and Miller Paint Company hold Green Seal status.

The chart below provides a good guide for what most industry professionals consider “low-VOC” paint:


Product Category

CARB/Low-VOC Limit

Primer Sealer

2.1 lbs./gallon

Primer Surfacer

2.1 lbs./gallon

Topcoat (single stage)

2.8 lbs./gallon


3.5 lbs./gallon


2.1 lbs./gallon


Many well-known producers of automotive now offer low-VOC paints, including Valspar, DuPont, and Summit Racing. A handful of companies have even begun marketing no-VOC paint, including AFM Safecoat, Behr, and Sherwin Williams.

Weighing the Options

Low-VOC paints come in two flavors: low-VOC solvent-based paints and waterborne paints. The primary difference lies in each paint’s carrier agent – the chemical that suspends a paint’s pigment until it’s ready for application.

A solvent-based paint still contains some VOCs, which will evaporate into the air as the paint dries. In waterborne paint, water is the only solvent, eliminating almost all volatile compounds in the solvent.

Here’s how these paints stack up in a few important tests:

  • Drying Time: Solvent-based paints have a faster drying time than waterborne paint, so if you’re in a hurry, solvent-based paints might be the better choice.
  • Cost: Solvent-based paint is generally less expensive than waterborne paint, and will likely work with your existing painting equipment. If you switch to waterborne paint, you’ll need to purchase a stainless steel paint gun to prevent corrosion.

  • Quality: Though waterborne paint is more expensive and takes longer to dry, it provides superior coverage and truer, brighter color quality, thanks to a higher concentration of solids. Waterborne paint also requires less clearcoat to even out surfaces when doing complicated paint jobs.
  • Employee Health: Waterborne paint is the healthiest option for body shop staff. Since there are few to no VOCs in the paint, you’ll improve air quality and reduce health risks.

We recommend making the switch to waterborne paint, since much of the industry is already moving in that direction. Some states – especially California – all but require it for most body shops. If you do make the change, you’ll need a stainless steel paint gun to prevent corrosion, as well as some drying equipment to help speed up the longer curing process. With a few modifications and additional training, you’ll have better paint job results while staying ahead of the regulatory curve.

Breathe Easy

Whether you choose the low-VOC or the waterborne option, you’ll need a healthy supply of compressed air to assist in application and drying. At Mattei, we’re here to ensure that you can apply a beautiful finish to every car while meeting the highest health and safety standards. Our rotary vane air compressors – coupled with the appropriate dryer and filters – produce high volumes of the purest grade air and significantly shorten drying time, cutting costs and heightening efficiency in every aspect of operations.

Topics: Air Compressor, automotive, paint


Additional Resources

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