White Trim and Doors are Yellowing – Why?

A Clean color of white around Trim and Baseboards, accentuates your home's walls and flooring.

Homeowners will find that most of the trim and doors in their house are painted with an oil-based product.   Trim is found around the edges of the house (baseboards, windows, doors) and can accentuate and add style when installing crown molding or decorative trim molding.  The problem is oil-based paint on interior trim and doors is notorious for changing from white to an antique cream 7 to 10 years after painting.  Over the years, I have been asked “Why does this happen?” by many customers. 

First of all, you may wonder why oil-based paint is used so often; especially considering that it has strong fumes and isn’t  very environmentally friendly (due to high Volatile Organic Compounds- VOCs, strong solvents needed for clean-up and difficulty to dispose of properly)?  Using oil-based paints has its advantages:

  • It goes on smoothly
  • Is resistant to abrasion
  • Is moisture resistant
  • Dries to a hard / glossy finish and is more durable in areas with lots of traffic, which is why it’s used so often for baseboards. 
  • Using it on the decorative trim and doors helps to add continuity and color/sheen match with the baseboards.

The yellowing effect of oil-based paint occurs over time due to several causes. 

  • The alkyd chemicals in the oil begin to age/break down due to their curing mechanism. 
  • Exposure to sunlight and gas heat increases the yellowing. 
  • Oil-based paints are more susceptible to mildew.
  • Tobacco staining from smoking leads to a premature aging-effect.

There is really only one option for regaining the original trim/door color:  They must be repainted. The process to do this is:

  1. First, lightly sand the trim/doors with a 220 sand paper. 
  2. Wipe the surfaces to remove any dust from your sanding
  3. Finally, using a quality brush, apply the top coat with even strokes using high-quality oil-based paints.

If your trim/doors have oil-based paint you have to go back with the same type of paint.  Use this painter’s “trick” if you are uncertain what type of paint you have:  using an alcohol swab or cotton swab with alcohol, try rubbing off the paint.  If the paint comes off fairly easily, it latex, if not, then it is oil-based. 

Keep in mind that water/latex-based paints will not stick to oil-based paints resulting in peeling and being easily scratched.  You can use an oil-based primer prior to applying a latex top-coat, however there are problems:

  • you’ll still have to deal with the high VOCs of the oil-based paint
  • more paint is used
  • brush strokes will be more evident
  • Latex paint is generally not as durable as the oil-based.

If you have an option, try to use a quality interior latex paint, especially on decorative trim (crown molding).   Keep in mind that if any alcohol-based products touch the latex paint it will cause the paint to deteriorate and eventually come off.  FYI – some household cleaning products contain alcohol.  The advantages to using Latex paint are:

  • Low odor (lower VOCs)
  • Faster dry time
  • Water clean up
  • Long-term flexibility
  • Non-yellowing
  • Not combustible

Whichever option you choose, whether oil-based or latex, be sure that you use high-end top-quality line of paint.  Examples of paint brands that all have great oil-based (Alkyd) paint product selections are:  Sherwin Williams, Benjamin Moore, and Pittsburgh Paint.

NOTE:  A few paint manufactures have been testing out and/or have on the market new oil-based and latex trim paints that can be applied to trim/doors. These should release less VOCs into the home environment and be able to be cleaned with only water.  We will report on these products in the near future.

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