Child-Safe Finishes for Outdoors

Brightly painted children's playhouse

Outdoor playhouses and activity centres are great for keeping the kids entertained during the summer months. But, like all wooden outdoor furniture, they need to be regularly maintained if you want them to last. And this, naturally, means using messy preservatives and wood stains to keep the wood in tip-top condition.

Four outdoor buildings and furniture, in general, the best stuff to use is likely to be some form of natural oil or solvent-based preservative. But, where kids are concerned, you probably want to avoid anything that has a high level of solvents or chemicals?

What kind of paints and finishes are safe for kids

Most paints and wood-finishes contain Volatile Organic Chemicals (VOC’s) which are harmful to health. There are, however, *regulations in place which govern the levels of these substances used in the manufacture of paints and wood finishes.

As a parent though, you’ll be forgiven for wanting to eliminate as much risk as possible and, in this regard, the regulations do not go far enough. Ideally, you should use products that contain a minimal amount of Volatile Organic Chemicals or, even, none at all.

The good news is that such products do exist and are not always necessarily more expensive.

Because they do not contain oil or spirit-based solvents, water-based (often called ‘quick-drying’) finishes are generally safer to use and can perform just as well, if not better than the traditional alternatives.

It is important to check with each product though since simply being water-based isn’t a guarantee of safety. All paint products have to be clearly labelled in this regard.

Relying on products labelled as Low in VOC’s isn’t the end of the matter though since there is still a huge variation between Low and Minimal.

  • Paints labelled as Low VOC can contain up to 8% of harmful chemicals
  • Paints labelled as Minimal VOC can only contain up to 0.3% of harmful chemicals.

It makes sense then, to look for products with Zero or Minimal amounts of volatile organic chemical content.

*The Volatile Organic Compounds in Paints, Varnishes and Vehicle Refinishing Products Regulations 2005 [link]

*Reducing the emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) EU directive 2004/42/EC [link]

Examples of Zero or Minimal VOC Finishes for Outdoors

Unfortunately, most DIY retailers only stock products which have a ‘Low’ VOC content and, while this is generally acceptable, it means if you want to find products with lower VOC levels you’ll have to look a bit harder.

Natural Wood Preserver
LifeTime Wood Treatment

You won’t find many zero VOC preservatives because of the need to prevent mould and mildew usually necessitates some chemical element. Some of the best-selling solvent-based wood preservers actually have a high or very high VOC content.

This Canadian product, however, claims to be 100% non-toxic and VOC free. It is expensive though and, because it’s formulated for a North American climate, it’s difficult to make any guarantees. Available in the UK via thenaturalgardener.co.uk You can read more on the company’s own website at valhalco.com

When it comes to protection from the elements and decoration you do have a bit more scope. Paints and coloured stains help guard against UV radiation which can cause timber to go grey, they also provide a protective coating that stops moisture being absorbed and causing the wood to rot.

Natural Exterior Woodstain
Auro Natural Woodstain
Exterior Silk Gloss Woodstain
Auro Silk Gloss Woodstain

Natural paint finishes, such as these examples from Auro, provide an adequate level of protection without the need for toxic chemicals. They come in a good range of colours too and because they are water based and odour-free, pleasant to use also.

Choose either a wood stain, available in 23 shades or a silky-gloss finish in 20 colours as well as a clear. Both available from organicnaturalpaint.co.uk

Alternative Wood Preservatives and Finishes with a Low VOC Content

If you don’t want to go the extreme of using zero VOC products there are some alternatives which are still suitable and much more readily available.

Ducksback Wood PreservativeCuprinol 5 Year Ducksback – A water-based preservative available in a range of natural wood shades. Low VOC content, low odour and quick-drying. Similar products are available under different brands but always ensure you select the water-based option.

Use this on all the surfaces, inside and out, every couple of years to keep the wood in good condition. Regardless of what it says on the tin, allow a week or so to dry with plenty of ventilation before letting the kids use the playhouse. Or, ideally, do it at the end of the summer break.

Garden furniture stainCuprinol Garden Shades Paint – a coloured wood-stain available in a range of pastel shades. It’s water based and has a low VOC content.

Use this as a protective, decorative finish if you want to add a bit of colour to the exterior of your playhouse instead of a natural wood shade. The finish is semi-opaque so you can still see the grain of the wood.