Before there were paint cans, there was milk paint. A tried-and-true favorite for many skilled designers, milk paint has been around for centuries. Although it's one of the world's most ancient forms of paint, the formula has been updated over time to adapt to modern needs. It is an eco-friendly, all-natural superstar in the world of paint and design, with zero VOC's or other toxins. Today, milk paint comes in a powdered form, and is known for its durability and velvety finish. With a wonderful variety of colors to choose from, milk paint is typically used on furniture or other wood surfaces.
To make sense of it all, Anne Thibeau, president of (and daughter to the inventor of powdered milk paint), breaks down what it is, how to use it, and where it works best.
“Milk paint is an all-natural paint, consisting of two main ingredients: milk protein (casein) and crushed limestone. Together they form a very tough binder,” Thibeau says. Milk paint gets its color from earth pigments, and clay or chalk is used as a filler to give the color more body. To give you a sense of how long it's been around, traces of milk paint were found in King Tut's tomb (and if that's not a testament to its durability, I don't know what is). From 1300 B.C. to now, much has changed. "[My grandfather] developed a formula for modern day milk paint in powder form, which you mix with water before use," Thibeau says. In an attempt to avoid using chemical preservatives of liquid paints, modern day milk paint was born. And nearly half a century later, SafePaint—a "more forgiving milk paint for non-porous surfaces" that adheres without a bonding agent—was invented. You can make your own milk paint at home, though ready-made powders make the process much more simple.
Milk paint is typically used on walls, furniture, woodwork, and metal. Unlike oil or latex paints, you can paint virtually any surface—including wood, glass, masonry, drywall, and plaster—all without sanding down the area or using primer. But take caution:
"It sinks into a surface and is extremely difficult to remove, curing over time like concrete," Thibeau says. (Remember King Tut's tomb?) If you choose a milk paint option that does require a primer, Thibeau recommends mixing the powder with a bonding agent, and using that as a first coat.
Milk paint and chalk paint are oftentimes confused, but they are made with different ingredients and each have their own distinct look. While milk paint is all-natural and contains zero VOC's, chalk paint is chemically-based. Thibeau emphasizes that this is a common point of confusion, explaining that "Chalk paint has a somewhat chalky appearance that can be reminiscent of milk paint."
If you're looking for authentic milk paint, it should never be sold in liquid form. "Check the fine print!" Thibeau urges.