Have you ever tried to interpret the
ingredients on the label of a can of paint or wood finish? Without a
Material Safety Data Sheet, it isn't easy. Paint companies are
mandated to follow federal guidelines for disclosing ingredients, but
that information can be hard for the layperson to understand, and you
have to search for it.
In contrast, here's what's in a sack of
Unearthed Paints Clay Paint: white clay, marble flour, cellulose
fibers, vegetable casein, diatomaceous earth, soda, methyl cellulose
and mineral pigments. Eight relatively intelligible ingredients — and
they're all listed on the bag.
"We're very committed to
ingredient transparency with all of our paint, plaster and wood
finishing products," says Jessica Pfohl, co-owner of Unearthed Paints. "We want people to know what they're buying as well as
what's ecologically sustainable. That way, they can make responsible
choices for their interior painting projects."
Pfohl, an attorney, and her husband
Florian Speier, a Swiss-trained architect, founded Unearthed Paints
about a year ago in the hopes of bringing a variety of eco-friendly
painting products from Germany to the U.S. So, from their home in
Louisville, Colorado, the couple have become U.S. distributors for a
company called Kreidezeit, which manufactures biodegradable, nontoxic
and VOC-free paints in a small factory in Sehlem, Germany. (Speier is
also a distributor of energy-efficient Zola Windows, manufactured in
"Many people don't realize that
conventional off-the-shelf liquid paints are derived from crude oil.
Making petroleum-based paint involves chemicals and significant
processing, and that, in turn, requires a great deal of embodied
energy. Every can of paint impacts the environment. Our products are
different; we use natural mineral and earth pigments to color our
paints, and the other components are minimally processed. In fact,
most of what happens in our plant is mixing dry ingredients. That
takes much less energy to manufacture, and none of it is
petroleum-based," Pfohl says.
Natural paints have been used for
thousands of years by many cultures, including the Aboriginal people
of Australia. Some of those paintings are more than 10,000 years old,
thanks in part to the durability of naturally occurring earth and
mineral pigments — ochers, sienna, umbers, spinels and ultramarines
— plus simple compounds of clay, chalk and lime. Unearthed Paints
are continuing these time-tested recipes in their product lines. They
offer five varieties of interior paint, which are optimized for walls
but could also work on wood. The company's dry-mix Clay Paint,
available in 12 colors, is suitable for absorbent surfaces such as
plaster, concrete or drywall and dries to matte finish. Vega Paint, a
powdered option that is based on ancient milk recipes, has been
formulated to be dairy-free and is available in 24 colors that can be
lightened to different shades. It also finishes to a matte
appearance. The company's Lime Paint ships in liquid form because its
high alkaline content acts as a natural preservative. It can be mixed
with any Unearthed Paint pigments to achieve a wide color spectrum.
Unlike Clay or Vega paint, which are not intended for humid areas
such as bathrooms or basements, Lime Paint is ideal for these
applications because it resists mildew and algae growth. So is Gecko
Paint, a fourth option. It is packaged as a liquid with great
adhesion capabilities, so it will stick to most wall surfaces,
including tile. Prices for these four options range from about $39 to
$75 per mixed gallon.
"Our fifth paint — Plant Glue Paint — is our most affordable natural paint option, and it should
suit any budget. It actually is designed with the capability of being
washed off of walls, so it definitely isn't the best choice for high
traffic areas, but it's great for ceilings. It's commonly used for
historic properties where layers and layers of paint would hide
intricate Stucco work. We sell it for about $18 per gallon in dry
form, and it can be mixed with any of our color pigments."
Mineral and earth pigments, which
Kreidezeit sources from various parts of the world, provide a range
of rich, vibrant color options that Jessica says are difficult to
duplicate chemically. There are about 100 paint shades in the current
palette, and you can mix packets of pigment colors together to
achieve other color possibilities, too. Learn more about earth and
mineral pigments by clicking here.
If you've used milk paint on your
woodworking projects, you'll be familiar with the preparation process
for using Unearthed Paints dry-blend products. The bag of bulk
powered paint is mixed with water and a packet of pigment color that
comes with it. Once the ingredients are blended — either with a
drill and mixing paddle or even a handheld kitchen mixer — the
liquid should rest for a recommended amount of time to activate the
binding agents. Then, it's ready for use. Pfohl says powdered paint
offers a number of advantages: it extends the shelf life of the
product and eliminates the need for the chemical preservatives that
come in liquid, canned paints.
One user-friendly benefit that is
common to synthetic paints is scrubbability. Natural paints can't be
scrubbed to the same degree as latex, but Pfohl points to different
benefits instead. "Our paint doesn't form the same film layer,
so it's breathable. You'll never have the problems with peeling,
cracking or mold growth with our paints, because moisture can escape
through it. The paint, once applied, actually becomes more durable as
it ages. And, you don't have to take your leftover unused natural
paint to a hazardous waste facility to dispose of it. Just let it dry
and throw it away with the normal trash."
In addition to the five paint options,
Unearthed Paints also sells Clay Roll-on Plasters, natural primers
and thinners and two products for finishing furniture or wood floors.
One, called Hard Wax Oil, is a blend of linseed and tung oils,
Carnauba wax and a resin. It contains no solvents or water yet is
fluid, so it can be brushed, rolled or wiped on. Company literature
says it's a good alternative to polyurethane and forms a durable,
matte finish that's easy to spot repair. Safflower Wax, a second
alternative, is a blend of beeswax, safflower and stand oils (aged
linseed oil). While the Hard Wax Oil imparts a honey hue to the wood,
Safflower Wax does not, which could be beneficial for preserving the
blond coloration of maple or pine. It's also solvent and VOC-free.
Florian and Jessica are proud of the
fact that Kreidezeit is a carbon-neutral factory, and Unearthed
Paints uses energy efficient, carbon-offset shipping practices to
bring products overseas. "We also offer a rainforest pledge: for
every square foot of paint, plaster or wood finish you buy, we will
purchase one square foot of rainforest in the Chaco Forest of
Paraguay and donate it back to the indigenous people who live there
so it can be preserved," Pfohl adds.
In the future, Unearthed Paints hopes
to manufacture the products here in the States to eliminate the need
for global shipping and further reduce the carbon footprint of their
natural paints and other offerings. But that will depend on how
successful these products become with consumers. And that could take
a change in the mindset we have about where we buy our paints and
what our expectations are of the companies that produce them.
"Improving awareness is very
important to us. Before we started this business, I didn't actually
paint much. I thought of paint as smelly, and the desire to change a
room color was never great enough for me to want to deal with the
chemicals in conventional paints. Now I can paint my home and be
reassured that I'm using a safe, sustainable and earth-friendly
product. We want our customers to share in that confidence."