These days, "environmentally friendly" and "nontoxic" can seem like marketing buzzwords. The search for a greener home, from our skincare to our décor, has certainly gone mainstream, but many of the solutions are far from new. Such is the case with milk paint, a water-based, nontoxic paint that has been used for thousands of years. In fact, it was found in King Tut’s tomb.
It was only with the industrialization of paint in the late 1800s that milk paint fell out of use. Unlike oil-based paints, milk paint can’t be mixed and transported in a metal can and instead needs to be mixed from powder before applying. However, a renewed interest in milk paint has led to a small resurgence. The interest is often twofold: Milk paint is valued both for its antique appearance and its nontoxic properties.
If one or both of these things interest you, it’s time to consider giving milk paint a look.
What Is The Difference Between Milk Paint and Regular Paint?
“Milk paint” sounds like a name that could easily be given to a paint that may look, well, milky. But unlike egg creams or milk of magnesia, milk paint actually contains dairy. It’s made with casein, a protein found in milk, which is usually an additive or supplement for food, like in protein powders or baby formulas. However, casein has also been used to produce things like glue, cement-like mixtures, and, of course, paint. To make milk paint, casein is mixed with lime—the mineral, not the citrus—and pigments.
Unlike the house paints we are used to, milk paint is sold powdered. To use, you simply mix it with water. It’s also completely biodegradable, and small amounts can even be disposed of by simply pouring them into the ground or down the drain. But unlike oil-based paints, once mixed, milk paint has a relatively short lifespan, which is why it fell out of favor as paint production was industrialized.
Because casein can spoil, milk paint typically needs to be used in a few days and stored in the fridge. Some newer milk paint brands, however, can last up to 14 days if stored correctly.
What Makes Milk Paint a Nontoxic Alternative?
Milk paint has become a popular option for home renovation projects as people become more aware of VOCs (volatile organic compounds) in oil-based paints. Most modern paints are an alternative to the highly dangerous lead paint that has been banned in the U.S. since the 1970s but can still be found in older homes.
However, these safer paints still off-gas, which is where that "paint smell" comes from. While that new paint smell is a sure sign of VOCs off-gassing in your home, paint can continue to emit VOCs at lower levels for months. VOCs in paint can pose health risks and even be dangerous to those who are pregnant.
Today, more and more paints intended for indoor use are low or no-VOC paints. For those who want to eliminate the risk of VOCs altogether, or who simply want a paint with a water-based formula made from natural ingredients, milk paint is a great alternative.
What Are the Advantages of Milk Paint?
Nontoxic benefits aside, there are lots of reasons to love milk paint. For starters, milk paint is incredibly durable. It resists chipping and flaking, and it can even work well in outdoor applications. Milk paint also dries fast—in as little as 30 minutes. Plus, because it’s water-based, it will easily clean off your hands.
Milk paint also provides a unique finish that has been described as slightly brushed and subtly matte. Because milk paint was so often used in older houses and furniture, restorers and even hobbyists will use it on antique or even newer pieces to give it that classic feel.
Milk paint also adheres well to almost all natural surfaces, like wood, brick, or stone, without a base coat. On top of treated wood or paint, milk paint can have more of an antique, semi-sheer finish, though it can also be easily layered or prepped with a bonding agent for a more opaque look. For non-porous surfaces like metal, a bonding agent can also be used.
While milk paint’s relatively short shelf life often makes it a go-to for smaller projects, like furniture or crafts, it works well for just about any home project, from exterior paint to walls to toys.
What Should I Know Before Buying Milk Paint?
Currently, milk paint is available from a handful of specialty retailers and small businesses. For now, you’ll be unlikely to find it in the aisles of your neighborhood hardware store or paint store. Thanks to the internet, however, you can order milk paint in equivalent sizes to pre-mixed oil paints, with enough powder for a pint, quarter, or gallon of paint when mixed.
Because milk paint is still handmade in smaller batches, it tends to be more expensive than oil-based house paints. However, because of its versatility, it’s also easy to experiment with on smaller projects to get a feel for it.
Whether you paint a door, a shelf, or an entire room, you will be rewarded with a unique finish and look that also has the advantage of being nontoxic.
Alford K, Kumar N. Pulmonary Health Effects of Indoor Volatile Organic Compounds—A Meta-Analysis. IJERPH. 2021;18(4):1578. doi:10.3390/ijerph18041578
Boyle E, Viet S, Wright D, et al. Assessment of Exposure to VOCs Among Pregnant Women in the National Children’s Study. IJERPH. 2016;13(4):376. doi:10.3390/ijerph13040376