What is the environmental impact of using spray paint? What happens when you press in that cap? In the following sections we dive into the use phase of spray paint and related impacts.

  1. 01. The use phase
  2. 02. More about VOCs
  3. 03. Tips to reduce VOC emissions
  4. 04. Insights from manufacturers

The moment you pick up a spray paint can and start to paint is a magical experience. Do you remember the first time you picked up a can and started with your lines? Most of us will and probably have an old photo of their first piece in a shoe box. Bear in mind how many times you have painted after your first piece. The amount of surface that you covered and number of cans that you have devoured over your lifetime.

Using spray cans to paint graffiti. From tags, throw-ups, pieces, murals to street art. It is an amazing way to create unique color gradients or overlays, tight lines and numerous other effects. The excitement and joy the way paint flows out of the can, the forms it can take using different caps or self-made tools for the craziest lines. This makes spray cans a versatile and flexible piece of equipment to paint with.

01. The use phase

From an environmental perspective it is good to learn more about the effects of using spray cans in practice. As a considerable amount of impact is related to the usage of spray cans. The moment that you press in the cap, the can that releases the paint, your arms and hands that take control to handle the pressure and small amount of paint to create your art. That’s the moment that the spray can is entering a new phase in the life cycle: the use phase.

In the production phase we covered the steps that happen, up to the factory gate of a paint manufacturer. The formula of the paint together with the type propellant create an unique and distinguishable effect when you paint. The output of using spray cans is the coverage of a surface with paint.

Have you considered the level of technical aspects that are embodied in our favorite tool? Crucial properties and qualities that are relevant in the use phase of spray paint cans are: consistency, coverage, drying time and odor. Another property is the amount of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) that are released. As paint is sprayed on a surface it will stick to the surface and start to react with its environment. The paint transitions from an aerosol with tiny particles into a smooth covered surface that needs to dry and harden. During these processes VOCs are being released into the atmosphere. So.... let's talk about VOCs.

02. More about VOCs

This section explains more about Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) by answering WHY they are relevant in graffiti and spray paint. This sections answers WHAT they are and HOW the affect the environment. In the WHO section we share more about VOCs in graffiti paint by using an example.


VOCs are contributing a great deal to the environmental impact of spray paint.  Especially in the use phase of spray paint cans the VOCs are emitted. Depending on the type of spray paint and the brand the use phase can contribute up to 30% of the total environmental impact. Learn what they are and how they affect the environment.


So what’s the deal with VOCs? What are they and why are they relevant? VOC is the abbreviation for Volatile Organic Compounds. VOCs stem from 1) the use of solvents and 2) the propellants that are used in spray paint cans to pressurize the can. Solvents enable paint to harden on the surface that is painted. When the paint dries, solvents are released into the air [1]. 

Solvents tend to be either oil-based (high VOC content) or water-based (low or no VOC content). Latex paint, uses water-based solvents, which has lower VOC levels and is generally more environmentally friendly than oil-based paints [6].

In the US a VOC level of 250g/L is considered high. Especially if you compare this to typical latex paint (which is water-based) and has between 0 tot 10 g/L VOC emissions. In general, a low VOC paint contains less than 50 grams of VOC per liter paint, this is the same for different finishes e.g. flat and non-flat sheen [5]. 

In the US there are states and cities that strictly regulate how often and how much one can paint in terms of VOCs.


So how do VOCs exactly harm humans and the environment? First, let’s tackle the environmental aspect. We found the following explanation: 

“When exposed to sunlight, VOCs react with Nitrogen Oxides (NOx) and Carbon Monoxide (CO) to form Tropospheric Ozone (O3), often referred to as ground-level smog. Naturally occurring ozone in the stratosphere protects the planet by absorbing harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun. However, if formed at ground level, these compounds can stimulate diseases in plants, inhibit seed production, and hinder fertilization. Heatwaves and hot climates can exacerbate photochemical reactions and lead to increased production of low-level ozone. [2]”

How harmful are VOCs for humans?

VOCs can cause acute symptoms, including headaches and dizziness. The long-term effects are less certain, but according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, some VOCs are suspected carcinogens. Besides spray paint, other products also emit solvents, including adhesives, cleaning supplies, and even some home furnishings [3].

The website of Airthings present VOCs in a visual appealing way. On their website you can learn more about VOCs and their effect on human health.


VOC’s are troublesome but are they inevitable? Who can do something about them? Well, it's mainly the manufacturers and artists buying and using spray paint. Read our tips below to reduce VOC emissions if you would like to paint more sustainable.

03. Tips to reduce VOC emissions

Together with manufacturers, the artists are key to do something about VOCs too. To reduce the amount of VOCs that are emitted when you paint:

  1. Try to use more latex and bucket paint to make a piece. OR
  2. Use water-based spray paint to create your art work.

Both latex and water-based spray paint paint contain less to zero VOCs. Using these products more and more in your artwork will help to lower the environmental impact of your mural or graffiti piece.

04. Insights from manufacturers

Which manufacturers provide insight into the VOC emissions of their products? Well we are happy to find that for example MTN provides Technical Datasheet (TDS) of their spray paint products. In one of their TDS [4, p.8] an indication of the amount of grams of VOCs per liter spray paint is noted. The unit is: gram/Liter (g/L).

The verdict? One liter of MTN 94 spray paint contains: 576,19 grams of VOC.

So is this good or bad? The amount that MTN discloses is considered as a high level of VOC content within the paint industry.

  1. EPA
  2. The CCM Group
  3. Consumer Reports
  4. Montana Colors MSDS MTN 94
  5. How Stuff Works
  6. How Stuff Works - Low-VOC paint