How to Reduce VOCs from Existing Paint in Your Home

Freshly painted room
A fresh paint job can be a mixed blessing!

When we moved into our rental apartment, everything was freshly scrubbed and painted and bright and lovely. Problem is, two months later the place still smells of paint fumes and VOCs (volatile organic compounds), no matter how often I open the windows! With a baby on the way, the quality of the air in my home is more important than ever, yet that old VOC-laden paint was already there before I had a say so.

Traditional paints can continue to release VOCs for years, and if you’re trying to improve the air quality inside your home, it may not be as simple as just applying a fresh coat of low-VOC paint. Water-based paints are designed to be breathable, so while low-VOC paints do offer some measure of protection, they won’t completely seal off the VOCs coming from the coatings underneath.

When trying to upgrade an existing home to low or zero VOC paint, you have three choices:

  1. Paint Over It: If your previous paint job is more than 5 years old, you may choose to just paint over it with low or zero VOC paint. How long paint releases VOCs depends on the type of paint, the surface being painted, and the climate. It’s generally thought to be strongest during the initial drying and curing, then to continue for several years and possibly even (in small amounts) for the life of the paint. However, if the previous coating is pretty old, the amount of off gassing is likely to be pretty low, and at least you’ll be making a nontoxic investment for the future.
  2. Remove Old Paint: The only way to stop off gassing completely and forever is to eliminate the source. If you’re ambitious, you can sand or strip away the old paint coatings to give you a fresh surface for your low VOC paint. Keep in mind, however, that the old paint may contain lead; or be covering manufactured materials, such as particleboard, which often contain hazardous chemicals like formaldehyde, that produce VOCs as well. So sanding old paint down to the bare material may not really help reduce VOCs, and could even make matters worse.

Lead-Based Paint

Some people prefer to completely remove old coatings of lead-based paint, so that you never have to worry about the paint chipping and uncovering the old layer in the future. However, lead-based paint removal shouldn’t be done casually by homeowners, due to the risk of lead exposure from the dust and fumes. Consider hiring a contractor who specializes in lead-based paint removal, and be sure to check out our article on the Dangers of Lead Paint in Your Home.

Safecoat sealers
Safecoat sealers
  1. Use a Sealing Primer: A third option is to paint the surface with a non-toxic, sealing primer, such as AFM Safecoat Hard Seal (for nonporous surfaces) or Safe Seal (for porous surfaces). These products are very effective at blocking VOCs, including formaldehyde, from old paints and building materials. And although they’re a little pricey, these sealers may be just the solution in situations like mine, where the toxic paint is pretty fresh, and there’s no feasible way to remove it.

Painting Tip

Try to do your painting during dry seasons, such as fall and winter, and consider using a dehumidifier to speed up the curing process. The drier the air, the faster VOCs will be drawn out of the paint, which you can then remove from your home by running fans and opening windows.

Further Information


  1. Hi Julie, thanks for the informative article. I was wondering if you had used the safeseal or hardseal products, and if it was successful in blocking VOC emissions, thanks!

  2. Two years ago, I had the carpet removed and the oak floors beneath refinished. They were beautiful; however, the fumes from the wood finish were so strong I felt like my home had become a gas chamber. So, I opened up all of the windows, bought four box fans, and had them running 24/7 for days. It was March and still cool out so we stayed at a hotel in the meantime (major extra expense I was not anticipating). I returned a few days later to find absolutely no change in the intensity of the VOCs. I was beside myself, I didn’t know what to do. My house was just so toxic. But I spoke with a chemical engineer at work and he said what I needed to do to break up the gases was to warm them up. So I went home, cranked up the heat, and within a day you couldn’t even tell there were VOCs. So before painting over it, try applying a lot of heat and then ventilating.

    • This is just what I need to try. This is incredibly bad. Dangerous. Thank you will do this tomorrow. HIGH HEAT first–with windows closed? I really need hep fast.
      This is new paint Today! Some cabinets were to be rolled ad brushed and while I was away–everything was SPRAYED..
      Feels like I now need to have entire kitchen cabinets removed. And the walls? What about them?

  3. Hi
    Six months ago I used a paint called Pure Performance by PPG (Pittsburgh Paint) with no voc and low odor. After 6 months the paint REEKS and the company refuses to pay for the walls to come out and be redone. They claim there are no vocs in the paint but something is causing the strong and sickening odor. There is another product of theirs that they are being sued for by the Attorney General for having voc when their lable says non.

    I want to warn everyone to stay far away from any product this company sells. Another homeowner in my area has the same problem. I had thought about the Safe Seal. I have several containers of it. But…there is a plastic vapor barrier behind the sheetrock and someone has said that using the Safe Seal might cause mold to grow on the sheetrock.

    I spent a great deal of money putting this building together which is supposed to be my art studio. I cannot use it due to the sickening odor. Any suggestions considering the warning about creating mold with Safe Seal? I do not think that painting over it would help. If anyone here has had the same problem with this paint please can you email me at

    Thank you.

  4. Hi Julie Day, How did it go with using AFM? I used Sherwin Williams paint for a room, not realizing how much the vocs would affect me. I get headaches after being in the room. Two walls are cinder block and two are drywall. I am wondering if I can at least use AFM on the cinder block walls. Any advice is appreciated!

  5. I had a roof job done by Berkeley Exteriors he assured me no fumes would get in my home. All the living areas were saturated with toxic VOCs from roofing adhesive. We had to evacuate. Almost a month later they are still there even with intense ventilation. I have two questions, 1. How long will they last? 2. How can I clean up after fumes go away? Clothes, books, papers, art work, bedding, rugs, furniture, equip. everything needs to be cleaned, how? Any info. you have would be so much appreciated.

  6. I had asked about using Safecoat Hardseal to cover Pittsburgh Paint (never buy this paint under any circumstances) and haven’t heard back regarding any success stories in covering toxic smelly paint with this Safecoat product. Please, I need advice. Thank you. By the way, the paint was put on fresh sheetrock, two coats primer and two coats satin white.

  7. New floor and varnish voc is so high we left took up floor can’t go in house. Heat house up to 100 degree 3 days. No good, now what? Help

  8. Regarding item #3 in article (Use a Sealing Primer) — I contacted the manufacturer and they recommended a different product — NOT SafeSeal, which is more for porous surfaces.

  9. Thank you so much for posting. A tenant used a vinyl latex ceiling paint in my first floor apartment after I spent a lot of time energy and money making as green a rehab as possible including making sure the air is healthy inside. I’m so grateful to know I can seal it.
    Thanks again!


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