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February 11, 2023
There has been a big push in recent years to make low-VOC flooring more widely available. And we think that’s wonderful!
Whatever stage of the building process you’re in, picking a floor that won’t make you or your loved ones ill is incredibly important. Does that mean all floors that aren’t low in VOCs will make you sick? Of course not! But there are definitely some things to consider.
But these eco-friendly flooring options aren’t just healthier. They can be absolutely beautiful, too! That’s why we’re going to walk you through everything you need to know about low-VOC flooring. We’ll explain exactly what VOCs are, what products contain them, and even where to buy low-VOC flooring of your very own!
If you are choosing between low VOC flooring brands, look for brands that have passed California’s manufacturing and testing requirements for quality control and indoor air quality.
VOC stands for Volatile Organic Compound. These are chemicals that are released from many industrially made products. VOCs exist in many items we use every day. They can be found in paints, stains, cleaning products, cosmetics, hairspray, dry cleaning products, fuel, and even plastics.
Have you ever smelled that “new car smell”? Or the smell of a new plastic gadget right out of the box? Those are VOCs being released into the air through a reaction called off-gassing. Gross!
Usually, VOCs don’t affect us too badly because they dissipate relatively quickly. And of course, a single off-gassing item won’t affect the air quality of a room. But when we’re talking about the entire floor of an entire house, VOCs can really affect air quality.
How Can VOCs Affect Your Health?
VOCs can be released immediately or over time and can cause a variety of reactions, including:
Eye, nose, and throat irritation
Headaches, loss of coordination, and nausea
Damage to liver, kidneys, and the central nervous system
The impact on your health depends on your level of exposure and the length of time you’ve been exposed. Some people, like the elderly or small children, may feel greater impacts than healthy adults.
What Does VOC Mean When it Comes to Flooring?
When it comes to flooring, VOCs can be found in… well, almost all types of surfaces. Some types of fake wood flooring (like vinyl plank) are definitely not naturally low-VOC flooring choices because they’re made of plastic.
But even natural surfaces, including many types of wood flooring, aren’t necessarily low-VOC flooring choices either. That’s because VOCs can be found in:
Options that are man-made or made from synthetic materials usually have higher levels of VOCs than natural materials (remember what we just said about vinyl?) So if you’ve been thinking about synthetic carpet, this might be a good time to consider looking into low-VOC carpet choices or the cost to replace carpet with hardwood.
What is Formaldehyde and How Does it Relate to Low-VOC Flooring?
Formaldehyde is one of the most common VOCs, and it has been classified as a probable human carcinogen by the EPA.
If it’s bad for you, why is it used? Good question. Formaldehyde is best known for its preservative and anti-bacterial properties, but many types of glue use formaldehyde because it helps create products that have exceptional bonding strength.
What flooring contains formaldehyde?
Formaldehyde-based resins are components of top coat finishes, plywood, fiberboard, particleboard, and more. If you compare vinyl plank vs. laminate flooring, for instance, you’ll find that formaldehyde is present in vinyl’s adhesive layers as well as laminate’s HDF base layer.
When you search for individual types of flooring, look for these acronyms—they’ll tell you exactly how much formaldehyde is in your chosen product.
ULEF: the greenest flooring options
“ULEF”, or ultra-low emitting formaldehyde, means a product’s glues and resins likely contain formaldehyde, but the product emits formaldehyde fumes at ultra-low levels. This is the highest standard and is best for your indoor air.
NAUF: the medium green flooring options
The next best options are products labeled as “NAUF”, or no added urea formaldehyde. This indicates the products don’t use urea formaldehyde, which releases formaldehyde across a product’s lifetime. Instead, NAUF products use phenol-based glues, which emit 90% less formaldehyde.
If you can’t find flooring that meets the above standards, look for products certified by the California Air Resources Board. These products will be labeled as “California Phase 2 Compliant” or “California 93120 Compliant for Formaldehyde”. Since California’s regulations are some of the most strict in limiting formaldehyde emissions, having those seals should help your breath easier.
What are Benzene, Perchloroethylene, and Methylene Chloride?
Formaldehyde isn’t the only VOC you come into contact with daily. Benzene, perchloroethylene, and methylene chloride are also VOCs, although they’re less of an issue when it comes to low-VOC flooring considerations.
The Lumber Liquidators Low-VOC Flooring Scandal
Of course, one of the big reasons you’re probably reading up on low-VOC flooring is the infamous Lumber Liquidators scandal, so let’s talk a bit about that.
In March 2015, a 60 Minutes report found that flooring company Lumber Liquidators (which has since rebranded as LL Flooring) was selling products packed with formaldehyde. Investigators proved the toxic flooring was being sold across the country, and public awareness of the need for low-VOC flooring rose to a new level.
The company eventually settled an agreement with the Consumer Product Safety Commission. As part of the settlement, the company agreed to provide free testing for some of the flooring they sold to consumers.
How do I get the flooring I bought at Lumber Liquidators tested?
The Lumber Liquidators’ free testing program only applies to laminate flooring the company imported from China. The flooring in question was sold between February 2012 and May 2015. If you purchased that flooring, you can call 800-366-4204 or go to the Lumber Liquidators page for more details on getting your flooring tested.
Low-VOC Flooring Certifications
Educating yourself is the first step to protecting your home from the harmful impacts of products with VOCs. Even if you see terms like “green” or “eco-friendly flooring”, the criteria to earn those designations may not take into account the VOCs emitted from the product.
Our advice? Look for certifications from third-party organizations. These include:
This is a big question, and one that doesn’t have a super-clear answer. That’s because you can’t guarantee you’re getting low-VOC flooring or eco-friendly flooring just by buying a certain type of flooring. As we said above, any type of flooring can contain VOCs.
Our advice? Start by looking for products that have the certifications we listed above. Then, think about the following:
Look into products that are minimally processed. You can find natural cork sheets, for instance, that have undergone very little chemical treatment—and the disadvantages of cork flooring are few and far between.
Check out some sustainable wood flooring options. High-quality sustainable woods don’t always need a lot of finish to bring out their natural beauty.
While it’s popular, durable, and simple to install, vinyl flooring can pose a challenge to your health and our environment. There are some options for you, though. Look for boxes of vinyl flooring that are FloorScore-certified and CARB2 compliant. You can also shop for products that guarantee they’re phthalate-free.
Low VOC, Eco-Friendly Laminate Flooring
Laminate flooring is also widely popular. Just remember: for laminate flooring to be an eco-friendly flooring option, look for products that have designs printed with water-based inks. You’ll also want to use glue that indicates it’s low-VOC or isocyanide-free.
Low-VOC Flooring Finish Options
Even if the product you choose is an environmentally friendly flooring choice, the final finish can cause health issues. So before you paint that final coat on your flooring, look for top coat products that are water-based. While they may occasionally be a little more expensive, they will also be healthier for your home.
Natural oil and hardwax oil finishes that come from flaxseed, linseed, tung tree nut, and even vegetable oil are great and low in toxins. And often, you can achieve the same wood floor colors using natural finishes as you can by using artificial finishes.
Conclusion: Low-VOC Flooring is a Great Way to Reduce Toxin Exposure
While you can decrease your exposure to toxins by focusing on ventilation, it’s always a good idea to buy low-VOC flooring products too. We hope we’ve shown you how to do just that! Now, find a flooring store near you to talk to the experts—they can show you the specific products that fit your needs. And for more flooring info, check out:
Rebecca hails from Charleston, SC where she's refinished two homes with her husband (so far). She's addicted to the beach and seafood, but her greatest love is her family, including her husband and three sons.
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