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October 24, 2020
If you’re shopping for low-VOC vinyl flooring, you’re probably searching for an eco-friendly flooring option that also boasts excellent durability.
Maybe you have rambunctious kids running through the house; maybe a puppy or two sliding across the floor. Whatever the case, you need a super-strong surface—but you also need a safe one. After all, your family’s health comes first!
We all know that vinyl is one of the best faux wood flooring options around thanks to its incredible durability and gorgeous visuals. But it’s true—vinyl flooring can also contain harmful VOCs and other chemicals.
The good news: low-VOC vinyl flooring has come a long way in recent years. These days, if you know what to look for, it’s totally possible to find vinyl plank, LVT, and vinyl sheet that do right by your home and your health.
Below, we’re going to get into everything you need to know in order to shop smart for low-VOC vinyl flooring. We’ll explain the different types of vinyl flooring on the market, the VOCs you need to look out for (and how to identify them), how to safely install vinyl, and even where you can find low-VOC vinyl floors.
First of All: What Exactly is Vinyl Flooring Made Of?
You most likely know this stuff already, but we’re going to cover the basics just in case (especially since we’re going to be using some of these terms later on).
In its most basic form, vinyl flooring is made out of PVC (polyvinyl chloride)—plastic. Some vinyl plank floors include layers made of other materials like rubber or even fiberglass, but it all depends on the product.
This all-synthetic construction helps make vinyl (both low-VOC vinyl flooring and the regular stuff) very water-resistant. In fact, many types of vinyl flooring are completely waterproof—one of the reasons it’s a go-to mudroom flooring option.
Sure, vinyl used to be thought of as “cheap” or “plastic-y”. But these days, 3D printing and embossing techniques have made it almost impossible to tell the best types of vinyl flooring apart from real wood.
Interestingly, this is one of the reasons so many water-resistant wood flooring products have been popping up recently. Vinyl is giving hardwood a run for its money and making things like wood floor bathrooms and laundry rooms easier than ever. And it’s also why low-VOC vinyl flooring products are on the rise—they offer another way for vinyl to compete with hardwood!
Is Vinyl Flooring Safe?
Any google search will tell you that when it comes to VOCs, vinyl flooring ranks relatively low on the list of eco-friendly flooring types. The good news is that there’s a big difference between low-VOC vinyl flooring and not-so-low-VOC vinyl flooring.
Bottom line: you can absolutely find low-VOC vinyl flooring (and low-VOC adhesives) that are safer to use for your family’s living spaces. Again: you just have to know what to look for.
What Are the Different Types of Vinyl Flooring?
When it comes to vinyl, things can get confusing quickly—because there are so many names for this type of flooring. Just remember: many fancy product names like “LVT” and “LVP” actually refer to the same thing. The “differences” are minimal, and the names exist for marketing purposes.
That said, here’s a quick rundown on the different types of low-VOC vinyl flooring you can buy:
Sheet Vinyl: Not The Best Option When it Comes to Low-VOC Vinyl Flooring
Vinyl sheet is often the least expensive vinyl option, but it’s not the easiest type of flooring to install. It comes in a roll and needs to be cut to shape. And during installation, you have to be extremely careful when gluing it down—otherwise, you could be in for a world of bubbling and warping.
More importantly, sheet vinyl is not the best bet for low-VOC vinyl flooring. Why? Hint: it’s not about the vinyl itself—it’s about the installation!
Yep—the adhesive needed to install vinyl sheet is often packed with VOCs. In fact, along with finishes, adhesives are one of the most common sources of VOCs in flooring.
Are there non-toxic adhesives you can use? Absolutely. But they’re a bit less common and can be more expensive.
LVP vs. LVT: What’s the Difference Between Vinyl Plank and Vinyl Tile?
Luxury Vinyl Plank (LVP) and Luxury Vinyl Tile (LVT) are higher-end versions of vinyl flooring.
These days, the terms are often used interchangeably. Vinyl plank seems to be the go-to generic term, but again, it depends on who you ask. Some people use the term LVT to denote vinyl flooring that’s cut into the shape of a tile, rather than a plank. You can think of that as a tile vs laminate comparison in looks alone—the material is essentially the same.
Either way, both vinyl plank and LVT can come as flexible or rigid products, with rigid products sometimes offering additional benefits (better underfoot feel, sound-dampening properties, etc.) But again, it depends on the specific product you buy.
Does Vinyl Plank Flooring Contain VOCs? What About LVT?
How do LVT and vinyl plank stack up when it comes to low-VOC vinyl flooring? Pretty similarly. Sure, plastic is not generally VOC-free (and we’ll get into that in detail below), but there are no added issues with installation.
What do WPC and SPC mean? Are They Low-VOC Vinyl Floors?
WPC stands for Wood Plastic Composite; SPC stands for Stone Plastic Composite. Both of these products are simply rigid-core vinyl planks/tiles made up of multiple layers.
WPC contains no solid wood. Rather, its core is a composite of (you guessed it) ultra-fine wood flour and plastic. Similarly, SPC contains no solid stone. Instead, its core is made up of (you guessed it again) stone powder and plastic.
Where sustainable flooring is concerned, WPC and SPC may be higher in VOCs thanks to the adhesive used in their multi-layer construction… but they might not. It all depends on the specific product.
Low-VOC Vinyl Flooring: What You Need to Know
We’ve been talking about VOCs a lot, but we haven’t really talked about their specific dangers yet. Here’s what you need to know about VOCs in order to make an educated flooring purchase.
What Does VOC Mean in flooring?
VOCs stands for Volatile Organic Compounds. These chemicals are released from various industrially made materials after installation, via a process called “off-gassing”. Exposure to these vapors can occur through inhalation or skin exposure.
Most industrially made materials have some levels of VOCs. That “new car smell”, for example, can be attributed to off-gassing. Off-gassing can last a few weeks to a few years depending on the product—so it’s always wise to have an air purifier and good ventilation when you install new floors.
VOC Off-Gassing in Vinyl Flooring
We’ll just come out and say it: plastic is one of the main culprits when it comes to VOC off-gassing. And vinyl flooring is made of plastic!
So: is vinyl flooring the most low-VOC flooring you can buy? No. But, the flooring industry is getting better and better about producing low-VOC vinyl floors. And if you buy a good product and install it without adhesives, it doesn’t have to be harmful!
The Main Types of VOCs
While there are many different kinds of volatile organic compounds, you should be aware of the most common ones when shopping for new floors. These common VOCs include:
And that’s because VOCs can do a number on your health. They can lead to headaches, nausea, dizziness, long-term breathing complications, and worse.
What is Formaldehyde?
Formaldehyde is a colorless, strong-smelling gas used in some home building supplies. It is a known carcinogen and has been banned from use in many different applications by many countries. Check out the EPA’s fact sheet on formaldehyde for additional information.
What Contains Formaldehyde?
Formaldehyde is found in building materials, insulation, glues, paints, lacquers, and even some medicines and cosmetics. Even hardwood floor alternatives like engineered wood can contain formaldehyde (one of the disadvantages of engineered wood is that its multi-layer construction requires adhesives).
Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) refers to the quality of air inside of a building—no surprise there. VOC off-gassing has the biggest impact on IAQ where flooring is concerned (just another reason to look for low-VOC vinyl flooring).
How to Identify Low-VOC Vinyl Flooring
Now that we know why it’s important to search for low-VOC vinyl flooring, here’s how you can identify it.
Look for Phthalate-Free Vinyl Products
Phthalates are man-made chemical “plasticizers” that are used to make plastics more flexible and durable. You’ll find them in many items you use every day. While the research about their negative effects is inconclusive, they’re still industrial chemicals you’ll probably want to avoid.
Luckily, many brands are now offering phthalate-free vinyl flooring. Make sure to find one of these products!
Choose Virgin Vinyl vs. Recycled Vinyl
While recycled is usually a word that means a greener product, the standards for vinyl recycling are different. For example, getting reclaimed teak flooring or reclaimed ebony flooring would be great for the environment. The materials would be just as good as materials that had never been used before (one reason that many of the best hardwood floor brands now offer reclaimed wood).
In contrast, recycled vinyl is a mix of vinyl and other materials that may have been mixed in with it in the waste stream (think metals and other toxins). Because of this, recycled vinyl can have negative effects on health (as well as product performance). It might not be as much of an environmentally friendly flooring option, but virgin vinyl flooring is the lower-VOC vinyl flooring.
Shop With Your Nose
Alright, we know this sounds a little crazy, but hear us out. Like Toucan Sam always says, follow your nose! After all, shopping for vinyl is different than choosing between wood floor colors or types of tile. When it comes to vinyl, you can smell VOCs!
Sure, a little bit of a smell is normal and will wear off—but that smell makes you ill, you don’t want it in your home.
Look for Non-Toxic Brands of Vinyl Flooring
There are quite a few brands that offer safer vinyl options for your home. Proximity Mills, for example, only sells FloorScore-certified low- and zero-VOC products (bonus: they’re recyclable, too).
Whatever brand you go with, make sure their products are tested and certified before you purchase them.
Installing Low-VOC Vinyl Flooring
We’ve talked about this a little bit already, but the way you install your flooring makes a difference when it comes to VOCs.
Most people fall into one of two groups when it comes to installing floors. One group doesn’t hesitate to hire a professional (which is good if you’ve recently googled “what is subflooring” or “how to use a saw”).
The bottom line? It doesn’t matter which type of installer you are. When it comes to VOCs, if you don’t choose a good product or installation method, you’ll be feeling the effects for years to come.
Let’s Talk About Glue
As we mentioned, adhesives can have a lot of dangerous chemicals in them. If you use them to install your floors, make sure that you’re only looking for low-VOC glue. In states like California, these are the only options allowed on shelves, but not every state is there yet with regulations.
Installation Safety Measures to Reduce Chemical Exposure
While your installation is in progress and for the weeks following, keep the windows open as much as possible for air circulation. All types of flooring include some dust and mess when installed, so follow these suggestions whenever possible:
Let the product sit for a few days before installing
Wear a mask while installing
Vacuum dust and particles up daily
Use an air purifier in the room with the new floor for at least a few weeks after installation
Keep windows open as much as possible
Throw away the packaging right away
Keep children away from the install while in progress
How Does Low-VOC Vinyl Compare to Other Flooring Options?
How does vinyl compare to other types of flooring? Let’s find out.
Laminate flooring is similar to vinyl in that they’re both composite floors, but the materials used to make them are different. Namely, all vinyl flooring types are made with some kind of plastic. And while some specialty laminates like RevWood, RevWood Plus, and RevWood Selectdo contain plastics, they don’t contain nearly as much as vinyl floors do.
Are There Other Low-VOC Flooring Types to Consider?
Absolutely! There are lots of options that are VOC-free, even, but everything has its pros and cons. You can install concrete flooring that looks like wood, for instance, but it will have a larger price tag and comes with other issues. It’s up to you to decide where each factor ranks in importance within your budget and comfort level!
The Bottom Line: Low-VOC Vinyl Flooring is Out There—You Just Need to Find It!
Remember: learning about flooring is only half the battle. Finding the right low-VOC vinyl product for your home is another matter entirely. Our advice: do your research. Shop at an independent flooring store near you rather than at a box store.
Independent stores are staffed by helpful and knowledgeable flooring specialists that know everything about the products they sell. Box store staff members? Not so much.
But don’t worry: armed with this article (and with your neighborhood flooring retailer’s help), we know you’re going to find the non-toxic vinyl floor of your dreams. And for more flooring info, check out:
Steph is a book nerd, rule follower, and pizza lover who can't get enough of playing outside. She was raised on the ice rinks of MN and currently resides in sunny San Diego. As a freelance writer, she loves research, producing content, and organizing information for a wide variety of clients. She currently has at least 10 browser windows open at all times.
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