How Stricter VOC Regulations Can Lead to Specialty Chemical Innovation

  • June 18, 2024
  • Blog

Necessity is the mother of invention, and the need for innovation in the world of specialty chemicals is great right now. 

With regulations tightening on volatile organic compounds (VOCs), businesses that make products containing VOCs or that release VOCs in their processes will have to adapt. 

Seatex is an experienced chemical manufacturer that can help develop and commercialize specialty chemicals that meet all regulatory standards.

What Are VOCs and What Are Their Sources?

Several old paint buckets outside
Janitorial cleaning supplies in cart

Essentially, volatile organic compounds are the gasses emitted from the chemicals found in many different types of consumer and industrial products, used both indoors and outdoors. 

Paints and adhesives are well-known to DIYers as potential VOC sources, but office workers, janitorial workers, and others may be unaware VOCs are also found in cleaning and disinfecting supplies, air fresheners, copiers and copy paper, and even permanent markers. 

Why are VOCs a problem? With prolonged or over- exposure, people can experience fatigue, headaches, difficulty breathing, damage to organs or the central nervous system, and even cancer. 

The risks are amplified indoors because the concentrated levels of VOCs in indoor air can linger after the responsible product’s use ceases–in fact, concentrations are commonly found to be up to 10 times higher in people’s homes than outside, where sources include fuels such as gasoline and diesel emissions that create ozone pollution. 

The Evolution of VOC Regulations in the U.S.

At the federal level, VOC regulation falls under the purview of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Although the Clean Air Act was initially enacted in 1963, it wasn’t until 1996 that new VOC standards were proposed to bring consumer products in line with the Act. The Agency has since passed laws regulating the emissions of aerosol coatings, automobile refinish coatings, architectural coatings, and consumer products such as deodorant and household cleaners. 

States are expected to maintain at least the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for air pollutants like VOCs. While some fall short, triggering the creation of a federal implementation plan (FIP) to bring them into compliance, other states set their own limits that exceed the federal standard. 

For example, since 1999 the Consumer Products Regulatory Program administered by California’s Air Resources Board has limited high volatility organic compounds (HVOCs, i.e. any organic compound that exerts a vapor pressure greater than 80 mm mercury when measured at 20° C.) in aerosol antiperspirants to zero, while the EPA allows 40 percent VOC by weight. The Board’s rules apply to “any person who sells, supplies, offers for sale, or manufactures” covered products in the state. The four-county area of Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, and San Bernardino Counties–“the smoggiest in the nation”–has its own air quality governing authority called the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

In 2023, Ohio and New York joined California in tightening and/or creating VOC regulations for disinfectants, sanitizers, construction sealants, automotive chemicals, and other consumer products. 

The same year, Michigan added additional product categories to its VOC regulatory scope, while Colorado revised its regulations to trigger lower VOC limits in the event of an NAAQS failure.  

Specialty Chemical Products with Lower VOCs

The demand for low VOC products is primed to explode, and already certain product categories are surging. 

Paints are leading the way, with the low-VOC paint market forecasted to mushroom over 30% in the next five years. This type of paint includes “zero VOC” (VOCs under 5 grams per liter) paint and is usually acrylic or latex (water)-based, as opposed to solvent-based, although other types such as milk paint, linseed oil-based paint, and mineral paint are available now. 

Vinyl-acetate ethylene (VAE) emulsions first appeared in the 1950s but have recently gained popularity as a co-polymer that can replace coalescent in paints. As coalescing agents such as propylene glycol are a significant source of the VOCs in paint, VAE is fast becoming an attractive low-VOC paint ingredient. 

Organic pigments are another such source of VOCs, which low-VOC ceramic paint replaces with tiny ceramic beads known as microspheres as its coloring additive. 

Low-VOC adhesives, sealants, coatings, and solvents such as paint thinners are also seeing increases in products hitting the market, helped by demand from the construction industry in particular.

Some are also utilizing ingredients like VAE or PVA (polyvinyl alcohol, a water-soluble synthetic polymer), while others are taking advantage of EPA-exempt compounds such as parachlorobenzotrifluoride (PCBTF) that have been deemed to contribute only negligibly to smog (although their toxicity levels may still be little better than EPA-regulated chemicals). 

Ultraviolet (UV) light curing is another approach that enables construction chemicals like adhesives and sealants to reduce or eliminate VOCs from their products, and this technology is also being adopted for non-construction applications such as printing inks

When used in combination with exempt solvents such as acetone and vinyl cyclohexene diepoxide, cycloaliphatic epoxy resins such as 3,4-epoxycyclohexane methyl-3′4′-epoxycyclohexyl-carboxylate (EEC) can be used to make high-performance, UV-cured inks with short turnaround times for use in packaging, signage, labels, and more. 

Navigating Challenges and Seizing Opportunities

Here’s why chemical developers may want to jump into the low-VOC market, and why they should exercise caution when doing so…


One of the toughest obstacles to creating a low-VOC product is the practical aspect of making it work as well as, or better than, its traditional counterparts. 

Coatings, for example, need to perform well in more than 20 metrics, from flow and leveling to hardness, contrast ratio, open time, dry time, dirt pickup, heat stability, freeze/thaw, and more. Non-VOC products can especially struggle with their wet edge and open times; water-based coatings require some prep work and certain temperature and humidity levels for proper adhesion and drying. 

Cost-efficiency can also be harder to achieve with these types of specialty products. Reformulating existing products to bring them into compliance with new VOC regulations can cost tens of thousands of dollars per SKU, and that’s before considering the cost of specialized substitute raw materials. Of course, developing new green products carries costs of its own, including the cost of R&D to identify a winning formulation. 

Finally, there is the compliance aspect. Smart chemical makers stay informed about proposed rule changes to prepare for impacts on their business, but even so, manufacturing processes cannot be adjusted instantly. And since both the federal and state governments have a say in VOC regulation, even the best-prepared companies can find themselves facing tougher regulations on a relatively short timeline if the political winds shift. 


For every challenge chemical makers face with low-VOC product performance, there is an opportunity to become an industry leader if you can solve a particular performance issue. 

For example, improved block resistance in coatings is commonly cited as a need that many customers would like to see addressed. Zero-VOC paints are typically limited as to colors and sheens when compared to traditional paints.

And although the typically higher cost of sustainable products like low-VOC chemicals might seem like a challenge at face value, especially in an inflationary period, a significant majority of U.S. consumers attest they are willing to pay more for eco-friendly items. Using clear marketing language and achieving third-party verification of ESG (Environment, Social, Governance) claims can build trust and avoid the appearance of “green-washing.”

Lastly, there is a major opportunity to marry low VOCs to antimicrobial products, a category that has seen explosive growth since the COVID 19 pandemic. The active ingredient in the first such paint to be registered with the EPA is alkyl dimethyl benzyl ammonium chloride, a quaternary ammonium compound (QAC). Although not much is known about QACs’ VOC potential, research findings indicate that they emit a variety of VOCs. Thus, paints that could offer both cleaner air and mold-resistant walls would have an obvious advantage over coatings that can offer only one or the other.

Specialty Chemicals Need a Special Manufacturer

Innovating new chemical products such as those with low VOCs is a unique undertaking…one that calls for a uniquely qualified manufacturer.

With our experienced and custom specialty chemical services, Seatex can deliver industrial chemicals of any complexity, ranging from simple compounds (e.g. free-flowing, non-foaming) to complex formulations.