If you don't like it, paint over it. It's certainly true that
paint has the power to change things. You can brighten up a room with
a colorful picture in much the same way that you can make your house
look more attractive with a fresh coat of paint. This is probably why
we think of painting as a kind of "alchemy"—a way of using
chemicals to change something we don't like into something we do. But
have you ever stopped to think what paint is or how it works,
what chemicals it contains and what they actually do? Let's take a closer look!
Photo: An artist's oil painting palette is as much a chemistry set as a playful collection of colors. "Artistic" paints are much more about color than anything else. If you're painting the outside of your home, it's a whole different story: here, you're much more concerned with applying a surface protective coating to wood or metal, which needs to look attractive only as a secondary consideration.
Paint is protection—much more than just color in a tin or a tube.
Photo: Paint for protection: Painting the hull of the USS Blue Ridge
to protect it from seawater. Photo by Patrick Semales courtesy of US Navy and
You don't necessarily paint things to make them look better. You paint the
outside of your home to keep the rain out. We paint cars and bicycles
partly to make them look good, but also to stop the metal inside them
from going rusty. On airplanes and
space rockets, paint is one of
the things that protects the structure when air, rushing past at high
speed, creates friction and heat.
What sort of chemicals are inside paint?
You might think paint is just a color chemical dissolved in a
liquid to make it spread, but it's a bit more than that. Most paints
actually have three main components called the pigment, the
binder, and the solvent. (The binder and solvent are sometimes
collectively called the vehicle.) There are also typically a
number of additives to improve the paint's properties in various
ways, depending on where and how it's going to be used.
Artwork: Paint is made of a pigment, a binder, and a solvent. The binder holds the pigment together; the solvent turns the binder and pigment into a thinner, easier-to-spread fluid.
The pigment is the color chemical in a paint. It looks a certain color
because it reflects some wavelengths of light and absorbs others
(see our article on light for an explanation of how colors work).
Traditionally, metal compounds (salts) are used to create different colors so, for
example, titanium dioxide (a bright white chemical often found in
sand) is used to make white paint, iron oxide makes yellow, red,
brown, or orange paint (think of how iron turns rusty red), and
chromium oxide makes paint that's green. Black (arguably not a color)
comes from particles of carbon (think what your burned toast looks
like and you're getting close to a color chemical known as "carbon
black"). Different pigments are mixed together to make paint of any
color you can imagine.
Photo: You might think white paint doesn't contain any color so it doesn't need any pigment.
Actually, it needs as much pigment as any other paint. Titanium white paint is so-called because it's made with titanium dioxide pigment.
Pigments are typically solids, so you couldn't use them to paint
by themselves. They'd be difficult to apply, they wouldn't spread
evenly, they wouldn't stick to paper or a wall, and they'd wash
straight off if they got wet. That's why paints also contain
substances called binders. Their job is to glue the pigment particles
to one another, but also to make them stick to the surface you're
painting. Some binders are made from natural oils such as linseed
oil, but most are now made from synthetic plastics
(originally they were made from rubber, which is why we
still talk about "latex paints" today). Visualize the binder as
an invisible skin of plastic with a colorful pigment dispersed through it and you can see just
how a paint gives a layer of protection.
Mix a pigment and a binder and you get a thick gloopy substance
that's difficult to spread. Ever tried painting a wall with treacle?
That's what using a pigment and a binder is like. It's the reason why
paints have a third major chemical component called the solvent. As
its name suggests, a solvent is something that dissolves something
else. The solvent's job is to make the pigment and binder into a
thinner and less viscous (more easily flowing) liquid that will
spread evenly (that's why paint solvents are sometimes called
thinners). Once the paint has spread out, the solvent
evaporates into the air, leaving the paint evenly applied and dry
beneath it. When you apply a really nasty paint and there's a smell
lingering for days while it dries, that's the solvent evaporating into the air.
Photo: Gloss paint uses oil-based solvents so it spreads evenly.
It's usually much thicker and more opaque than water-based emulsion and the oily solvents
have a powerful smell that can linger for days afterward.
Water is the best-known and most versatile solvent we have and
it's widely used in water-based paints, including emulsions (for
walls) and watercolor paints (for paintings). When you paint a
picture with watercolors, you're using water as a solvent to dissolve
some pigment on your brush that you can easily spread on the paper.
One big advantage of water-based paints is that they're relatively easy to clean
up if you spill them (and generally they wash out of clothes).
Other paints (including oil and gloss paints) use solvents made from
strong organic (carbon-based) chemicals extracted from petroleum, such as naptha. If
you leave paints sitting in tins and jars, gravity gradually
separates them into their different chemical components. Typically
you find the solvent sitting on top as a reasonably clear, thin fluid
with the binder and pigment making up a thick, opaque sludge
underneath. That's why it's always important to stir tins of paint
before you use them. Oil-based paints are harder to clean up if you spill
them on things like clothes or carpet. (Water won't be much use; you'll need
an organic solvent to dissolve them, such as white spirit.)
Apart from the pigment, binder, and solvent, most paints also have
chemical additives of various kinds. Some of these are designed to protect the paints themselves—to stop them from degrading in ultraviolet light (from sunlight), repeated heating and cooling in summer and winter, rain (which is
slightly acidic), or from the harsh environmental conditions you sometimes find in places like factories and chemical plants. For example, ceramic substances
can be added to paints to improve their strength and durability.
Often additives have very specific jobs to do. Fluorescent pigments added to paints make them glow in the dark. Additives in paint designed for outdoor use can help to make things
waterproof and rustproof, protect against frost or sunlight, and keep them free of mold and mildew.
Do paints harm your health?
Paints can contain a variety of harmful chemicals, posing not just a health risk to the
people who use them but also to those who may be exposed to them for years afterward—and the wider environment.
Photo: The US Environmental Protection drew attention to the toxic legacy of lead paint in this 2014 advertisement. Courtesy of US EPA and
Lead isn't the only harmful substance used in paints. Some of the solvents used in paints are VOCs (volatile organic compounds), which evaporate to make localized air pollution and can have a variety of long-term health impacts. Fortunately, many modern "latex paints" now use water as the solvent and a synthetic polymer (plastic) as the binder and are relatively safe compared to old paints.
Photo: Protection from paint: It's not just the paint you use but how you use it.
Spray paints can be particularly harmful, both because of the chemicals they contain and the
way we apply them—as fine-mist aerosols that can travel long distances.
If you're spray painting, it's best to wear a mask and eye protection, even if you're working outdoors.
Photo by Xiomara M. Martinez courtesy of US Air Force and
Finding safer paints
Photo: Making paints safer. This can is labeled "Minimal," indicating that it has less than 0.29 percent VOCs. These days, I consciously pick paints like this, which give off almost no smell.
Paint manufacturers have made impressive efforts to reduce the harmful solvents in their products
over the last few years. In Europe, this trend has been driven partly by consumers (who don't like
foul-smelling paints) and partly by legislation:
European law (EU directive 2004/42/EC) set a maximum limit of 30g per litre of VOCs on water-based paints and related products.
If you look carefully on modern European paint cans (or on the data sheets you find
online), most now reveal whether they are low or high-odor and typically even specify the percentage
of VOCs they contain on a simple scale:
Minimal VOC: Less than 0.29 percent.
Low VOC: 0.3–7.99 percent.
Medium VOC: 8–24.99 percent.
High VOC: 25–50 percent.
Very high VOC: Over 50 percent.
A typical household water-based emulsion would likely fall into the second category, while a very low-odor
emulsion might even make the first. Oil-based gloss paints generally rank in the medium or high category, while
metallic radiator paints would score "high" or perhaps even "very high."
Disposing of paint safely
Photo: Try to be responsible when you dispose of old paint cans. Contact your local authority to find out about approved recycling or disposal facilities in your area. Photo by Eliud Echevarria / FEMA courtesy of DVIDS.
Disposing of old or unwanted paint is also a problem: according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, roughly 10 percent of the paint we buy is never actually used
(that's a whopping 65–69 million gallons in the United States alone). If you simply tip it down a drain, you're adding potentially toxic chemicals to wastewater, risking water pollution in
rivers and oceans, harming aquatic or marine life—and potentially harming human life too when the water cycles its way back into our drinking water supplies. Here are a few sites that give tips on disposing of old paint more safely:
Photo: Watercolor paints are made by dispersing pigments in gum arabic (the binder), which is soluble in water.
Although there are many different types of paint, they are broadly
all made the same way. First, the pigment is prepared. If it's made
from a metal salt such as titanium dioxide, it'll be dug from the
ground as a mineral ore, so it will need to be refined in various
ways to remove impurities. (Having pure pigment chemical is essential
to ensure the final paint has a uniform color.) The pigment chemical
might start off as a lump of rock, so it needs to be ground into a
very fine powder. It may also need to be physically or chemically
treated to change its color in subtle (or not so subtle ways). It
might be roasted, for example, to make it darker. Once it's been
ground to a powder, the pigment is mixed with the binder by a huge,
industrial machine that works a bit like a giant food mixer, and
solvent and additives are added as necessary. That's not the end of
the process, however. Because it's vital that each sample of a
particular paint looks exactly the same color as every other sample,
the mixed paint has to be sampled and compared with previous batches.
If the color isn't exactly right, the factory workers add extra
pigments. Extra solvents are added if the paint is too thick. Once
the paint is the right color and consistency, it can put into cans,
bottles, tubes, or other containers and shipped to the stores.
Common types of paints
Photo: Pots of water-soluble, acrylic craft paint. You can use paints like this for all sorts of household crafts. Since they're water-soluble, it's easy to wash spills off your hands and clothes.
Emulsion: Water-based ("latex") paint typically used for walls
inside your home. Emulsions are easy to apply, have relatively little
odor, are easy to wipe clean, and easily wash off brushes with
detergent and water.
Typically emulsion comes in either a matt (dull, low-sheen) or satin (slightly shiny, higher-sheen) finish.
Gloss: Oil-based paint that dries to a hard, shiny coating.
Widely used for a decorative finish and for weatherproofing
wooden window-frames and so on. Gloss paints take longer to dry, have
powerful smells, and can be hard to clean off brushes (since they're
not water soluble). They're harder to apply than emulsion but much
Primer (undercoat): A type of paint you apply to a rough surface
of wood or metal to make the final coat of paint stick and spread
more effectively. Primers are widely used as an "undercoat" to
prepare wood and metal before a "top coat" of something like a
gloss paint is applied. The top coat of paint sticks to the undercoat
which, itself, sticks to the surface beneath. Primers may also contain
chemical fungicides to help stop wood from rotting.
Enamel: A type of paint used for objects subject to wear
and tear (like bicycle frames or outdoor metalwork) or high temperature (such as radiators
or barbecues). Typically enamels produce a hard, fairly chip-resistant, glossy finish, and they can be either
water- or oil-based.
Watercolor: Pigments are dispersed in water or a water-soluble
Oil: Pigments are dispersed in an oil-based (organic) chemical
such as linseed oil.
Acrylic: Paint in which the binder is made from a plastic polymer
Tempera: Traditional paint that uses egg as a binder.
Gouache (pronounced "gwash"): Similar to watercolor, but opaque.
Paints, Coatings, and Solvents by Dieter Stoye and Werner Freitag. Wiley-VCH, 1998. A detailed technical guide to the design and manufacture of paints, including environmental and toxicological aspects.
Paint Testing Manual: ASTM International, 1972. An old but still very valuable guide to the technical aspects of paint. Covers the optical, chemical, and physical properties of paint and various methods of testing it.
Paint the town green by Katherine Sorrell, The Guardian, February 10, 2009. Pros and cons of green paints and a selection of manufacturers to look out for.
The promise of green paint by Sarah Kershaw, The New York Times, May 15, 2008. Are safer and greener paints technically as good as old-fashioned ones using more harmful ingredients?
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