So here are some tips - and one big thing to watch out for.
The main improvement is that manufacturers have been striving to remove the VOCs - volatile organic compounds - used to slow the drying process. VOCs extend what the industry calls "the open time," meaning that they made for easier brushability and better flow.
But not so good when it came to breathing. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, VOCs can cause headaches, nausea, loss of coordination, and worse, depending on your exposure. The agency notes that professional painters who are exposed to high levels of vapors for long periods have experienced damage to their livers, kidneys, and nervous systems.
VOCs also can irritate your eyes and nasal passages.
And they contribute to ground-level ozone, or smog.
So about a decade ago, paint manufacturers began to make changes. The impetus was more regulatory than consumer-driven, said Debbie Zimmer, director of the Paint Quality Institute, an industry group based in Spring House, Pa.
"When we go back to the late '90s or early 2000s, if you had asked a consumer on the street 'what does VOC mean,' " he or she wouldn't have known, Zimmer said.
Plus, didn't we all love that fresh-paint smell? It was coming from the VOCs.
When low-VOC paints first came out, they weren't as good, Zimmer acknowledged. They dried too fast. But now, with improvements in raw materials and formulations, they're great, she said.
If they're actually low-VOC.
Two paint companies trying to come across as greener recently made the Federal Trade Commission see red.
According to the FTC, the Sherwin-Williams Co. and PPG Architectural Finishes Inc. were telling consumers that some of their paints were free of VOCs, when it was really only the uncolored "base" paints that didn't have the VOCs.
The colorants that would typically be added in the paint store had plenty. Generally, the darker the color, the more pigment, the more VOCs.
The paint case, which was settled when the companies agreed to stop making the claims, turned out to be the first one taken against a company since the FTC revised its "Green Guides" in October. (Although the case started before that.)
None too soon, the guides also took on vague terms such as "environmentally friendly" and "eco-friendly." And vague imagery, such as bird's nests or tree branches.
So when you're buying paint, look for low-VOC paint - and read the fine print or otherwise make sure the claim includes colorant.
Here are more tips from Zimmer and others to make your paint job greener:
Use latex rather than oil-based paint. In general, it has fewer emissions, and you can clean up with water instead of solvents.
Look for durability. Anything that lets you use less material in the long run is good. Zimmer says paint you get what you pay for in buying paint. Likewise, Brent Ehrlich, products editor with Building Green, recommends 100 percent acrylic paints for durability. Some eco-experts like ceramic-based paint, which has tiny smooth spheres that create a hard, scrubbable finish.
Match the paint with the performance. If you're putting it in a high-wear area, shell out for tougher paint so you don't have to redo the job as often.
Also on the durability side, make sure you prep the area adequately, Ehrlich said. "People just buy paint and slap it on the walls and it fails and people say 'this low-VOC doesn't work,' " he said. Clean and sand where necessary. "It's not just the paint, it's the whole paint job," he said.
Provide as much ventilation as possible during painting and for two to three days afterward. Under normal temperature and humidity, most emissions occur during drying, in the first few days after painting, the EPA says.
Various certifications exist. The Paint Quality Institute notes these as "prominent": Green Seal, Greenguard, MPI (Master Painters Institute), and Scientific Certification Systems.
Buy the small sample containers of paint that many companies offer so you can test the color at home. My husband has been known to lose patience when it comes to picking colors, but I can nevertheless attest: It doesn't always look like the tiny paint chip. The sample will spare you from buying a large can you may never use.
Buy only what you need. Many paint companies have paint calculators to help you determine how much to get.
If you have paint left over, consider painting a closet or other small area with it. Or look for a place nearby that accepts donated paint.
If you still wind up with excess paint, close the can tightly, or put it in a smaller container with a tight-fitting lid. Then label it with the date, the paint color, and the room it was used in. (My basement's aging, baffling paint stash is proof of the need.)
If excess paint really does need to go, dry out the latex paint - adding kitty litter to the can will help the process - and put it out with the trash. Oil-based paint should be taken to a household hazardous-waste event, held regularly in many areas.
But, yes, please do paint if it means avoiding buying more stuff. Don't, say, throw out those old kitchen cabinets and buy new. Refresh them with paint.
"GreenSpace" appears every other week, alternating with Art Carey's "Well Being" column. Contact staff writer Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147 or email@example.com, or follow on Twitter @sbauers. Visit her blog at www.philly.com/greenspace.