Buying Oil-Based Paint in California

Due to concerns about VOCs (volatile organic compounds) and their impact on air quality, the use of oil-based paints has been restricted in California. This has made buying and using oil-based paints more complicated for California residents.

Buying Oil-Based Paint in California

In this guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know as a buyer in California, including:

  • An overview of oil-based paint and its pros and cons
  • Oil-based paint regulations in California
  • Where you can still buy oil-based paints
  • Recommended uses for oil-based paints
  • Alternatives like latex and water-based paints
  • Safety tips for using oil-based paints

Understanding the regulations and options for purchasing oil-based paint will ensure you choose the right paint for your project in compliance with California law.

What is Oil-Based Paint?

Oil-based paint, also referred to as alkyd paint, is made with alkyd resins suspended in an oil solvent. Traditional oil-based paint uses petroleum-derived solvents like mineral spirits or paint thinner.

The oil allows the paint to take longer to dry and provides a smooth, hard finish. Oil-based paints are known for their durability and ability to withstand weather and wear. They strongly adhere to surfaces and resist chipping, peeling, and fading better than other paint types.

Some key advantages of oil-based paints include:

  • Smooth finish – The oil provides a smooth, glossy finish that is hard to achieve with other paints.
  • Durability – Resists fading, chipping, and wear better than latex or water-based paints.
  • Adhesion – Bonds tightly to surfaces and previous paint coats. Won’t peel or chip as easily.
  • Hide imperfections – Can hide surface imperfections like cracks and knots in wood.
  • Block stains – Effective at blocking stains from water, smoke, ink, etc.
  • Metal protection – Provides excellent rust prevention on metal surfaces.

Oil-based paints traditionally contain high levels of VOCs from petroleum solvents. This has led to regulation in California aimed at improving air quality.

Oil-Based Paint Regulations in California

California has strict regulations on oil-based paints and other paints containing VOCs due to air quality concerns. VOCs contribute to smog and pollution which can be harmful to human health.

The key regulations are:

  • South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) – This governing body oversees air quality for the greater Los Angeles area including Orange County and parts of Riverside and San Bernardino counties. Under Rule 1113, the sale of paints containing over 100g/L VOCs has been prohibited since January 2001. This effectively bans the sale of traditional oil-based paint with petroleum solvents in these areas.
  • Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) – The BAAQMD implements Regulation 8, Rule 3 which sets similar VOC limits of 100g/L for architectural coatings including paints. This covers the San Francisco Bay Area.
  • State VOC Limits – California’s Air Resources Board (CARB) sets statewide VOC limits under Regulation for Reducing VOC Emissions from Consumer Products. In 2010, restrictions came into effect limiting VOCs from paint thinners and multi-purpose solvents.

So in areas like Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego and other urban regions, the sale of traditional high-VOC oil-based paint is prohibited. Some exemptions exist for specialty uses like anti-graffiti coatings.

Outside of major metro areas, oil-based paints with VOCs over 100g/L can still be purchased legally. Always check local regulations as some cities or counties may impose additional restrictions.

Where You Can Buy Oil-Based Paint in California

While traditional oil-based paint can’t be purchased everywhere in California, there are still options for buying oil-based or alkyd paints modified to comply with VOC laws:

Big Box Stores

Major retailers like Home Depot and Lowe’s have limited supplies of oil-based paints in California stores:

  • Regions like the Bay Area and Los Angeles only sell low-VOC options.
  • In Central Valley and Northern California, you can still find some traditional oil-based paints.
  • Selection is limited compared to latex and water-based paints. Many brands have been discontinued.

Always check the label for VOC content – most will be under 100g/L. You may need to ask for assistance finding compliant oil-based paints.

Paint Specialty Stores

Paint stores like Kelly-Moore and Benjamin Moore offer better selection of oil-based paints for California:

  • They carry specialty low-VOC oil-based primers and paints.
  • Staff can guide you on compliant options and ordering paints not in stock.
  • Small batch custom paint mixing is offered to get specific colors and finishes.

Online Retailers

Ordering oil-based paint online opens up more possibilities:

  • Retailers like Amazon and Home Depot offer wider online selection shipping to California.
  • Specialty paint brands based outside California will ship traditional oil-based paints where allowed.
  • Check product listings closely for VOC content and verify local regulations before ordering.

Just because a paint can be shipped to California doesn’t mean it complies with all local laws for VOCs. Do your research before purchasing paints online.

Auto Body Supplies

One place you can still readily buy traditional oil-based paints is at auto body supply shops catering to car painters and mechanics. However:

  • These paints produce strong odors and require respirator masks and protective gear.
  • Most body shops have switched to compliant waterborne paints.
  • Prices are much higher than consumer paints.

Unless you have professional painting experience, auto-body paint supplies are not recommended for home projects. Stick to compliant consumer oil- or water-based paints from major retailers.

Recommended Uses for Oil-Based Paint

Though oil-based interior house paints have been mostly phased out in California, oil-based primers, enamels and specialty paints still offer benefits for certain applications:


Low-VOC, modified oil-based primers are excellent for preparing surfaces:

  • Provide superior adhesion to glossy surfaces like tile and metals.
  • Offer stain-blocking for water stains, smoke damage, grease, permanent markers etc.
  • Seal porous surfaces like drywall and wood.

Oil-based primers are useful for both interior and exterior applications. Always top-coat with a low-VOC compliant paint.

Wood Surfaces

On wood surfaces like cabinets, doors, trim and furniture, modified oil-based paints provide a smooth, hard finish:

  • They self-level better than latex paint to minimize brush strokes.
  • Resist yellowing compared to traditional oil-based.
  • Provide good protection outdoors and on high-wear surfaces.

For interior wood, latex enamel paints now offer comparable performance and easier cleanup.

Metal Surfaces

Oil-based paints excel at preventing rust on metal surfaces:

  • Provide excellent adhesion to glossy, slick metal.
  • Softer oil finish resists cracking compared to hard latex coatings.
  • Withstand exposure to elements better than other paint types.

Use on iron railings, gates, pipes, tools, and other metal surfaces. Rust-inhibiting primers are also available.

Always check labels and local regulations before using oil-based paints. Despite limitations, they remain the best choice for certain specialty applications.

Alternatives to Oil-Based Paint

For most general interior and exterior home painting projects, latex and water-based paints offer good performance with easier cleanup and fewer odors and VOCs:

Latex Paint

Latex paint has improved greatly in quality, becoming the mainstream choice:

  • Available in various finishes – flat, satin, semi-gloss and high-gloss.
  • Provides good adhesion and durability for most surfaces.
  • Cleans up with soap and water – no strong solvents needed.
  • Low odor makes it ideal for interior rooms.
  • Wide range of colors and budget-friendly options.

Limitations include lesser durability outdoors and temperamental adhesion on glossy surfaces.

Water-Based Acrylic Paint

Acrylic paint uses water as the carrier instead of petroleum solvents. Benefits include:

  • Very low odor and VOCs.
  • Produces hard, durable finish similar to enamel.
  • Cleans up with water like latex paint.
  • Good scratch resistance.

Drawbacks are slower drying times compared to latex and limited color options.

For most indoor and outdoor painting projects, latex or acrylic paints provide comparable performance to oil-based with fewer emissions and environmental impacts.

Using Oil-Based Paints Safely in California

While buying oil-based paints may be more challenging in California, they can still be used safely if proper precautions are taken:

Use Proper Respirators

  • Oil-based paints contain solvents that can cause headaches, dizziness and other health effects without proper ventilation.
  • Always use a properly fitting respirator mask rated for organic solvents when spraying or painting in confined indoor spaces.
  • Take outdoor painting breaks regularly to get fresh air.

Provide Adequate Ventilation

  • When painting indoors, open windows and use fans to circulate air to minimize vapor buildup.
  • If possible, work in a garage or outdoor area with good airflow.
  • Position fans to ventilate the work area but avoid blowing fumes directly into your face.

Avoid Ignition Sources

  • Turn off propane and gas appliances to eliminate any ignition risks from fumes.
  • Avoid smoking, open flames or sparks near oil-based paints.

Limit Exposure Time

  • Take frequent breaks when working with oil-based paints to limit your exposure to solvent vapors.
  • Keep children and pets away from recent applications until fumes disperse.

Clean Up Spills Properly

  • Use paint thinner to clean up spills – never rinse oil-based paints down a sink or sewer.
  • Dispose of rags, rollers and other waste covered in oil-based paint properly as they can combust.

Check Local Bans

  • Verify oil-based paints are permitted for your specific project location – some cities have total bans.
  • Get any required permits for commercial painting or multi-family residences.

Following all safety guidelines is crucial when working with oil-based paints. Consider less toxic water-based alternatives whenever possible, especially for indoor painting.


Oil-based paint availability is limited in California but not completely banned statewide. With low-VOC options and proper use, oil-based paints can still serve specialty purposes like rust prevention and woods stains. For most home interiors, latex and acrylic paints provide safer, easier alternatives. Always check local VOC regulations before purchasing and using traditional oil-based paints.

Following this guide on where and how to buy compliant oil-based paints in California will allow you to take advantage of their unique benefits while complying with air quality laws. Be sure to use proper protective gear and ventilation when applying oil-based paints. Consider safer water-based options whenever feasible to minimize environmental and health impacts. With some prudent planning, oil-based paints can still be purchased and utilized for certain applications in California.

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