Installing a New Floor? Here's How to Pick a Healthier Option
Everything you need to know to tackle that DIY floor project like a pro
12 June 2020
You and your floors spend a great deal of time together. But what happens when you're ready for an upgrade? Goodbye old floors, helloooo shiny new ones! Whether you’re doing it yourself or hiring a pro, making the choice of what flooring to go with can be completely overwhelming. With seemingly endless flooring options and lots of factors like durability, proper maintenance, kids, and pets, it can be hard to know where to start. One aspect of flooring that you may or may not have thought about is how it affects your health and the environment. Turns out that some materials are better than others, and it really depends on the various components that go into flooring products. Unfortunately many products are marketed as eco-friendly, but they actually aren’t. It can be so tricky! So to help you wade through all the options and choose the healthiest flooring, we've got a guide that will help you on your shopping journey so that you know what questions to ask.
Floors we love:
- Linoleum: This flooring material should be at the top of your list. Linoleum is typically made from bio-based, non-hazardous ingredients like linseed oil and cork dust (1). It comes in a lot of colors and patterns, is slip resistant, and incredibly durable. It's also budget friendly!
- Solid wood floors, pre-finished: Not only are solid wood floors beautiful, they are also one of the healthiest flooring choices out there (1). You'll want to make sure that these floors are marked as "pre-finished", meaning that the stain and topcoat were applied during the manufacturing process (and with proper safety gear) so you won't have to (1).
- Ceramic tiles: Ceramic tiles come in an endless array of patterns and are a safe flooring option as well. However, make sure that the ceramic tiles you're purchasing were made in the USA (1). Ceramic tiles made in the USA are tightly regulated and do not contain heavy metals like lead and mercury among other hazardous chemicals (1). If you go with a glazed tile, then the tile itself will not need a sealer, which is a good thing as many sealers contain PFAS chemicals.
- Cork floors: Cork floors are a very trendy flooring choice because of the natural look and the soft, cushioned feel. The cork comes from the bark of the cork oak tree, and is formed into flooring with the help of a binder and a topcoat finish or sealer. Avoid cork floors that have a PVC topcoat.
Floors we like:
- Engineered wood floors, pre-finished: Engineered wood floors are not as healthy a choice as solid wood floors. However, they expand and contract less than solid wood and are very durable. Engineered wood floors require glues to help hold the thin sheets of wood together. Formaldehyde, which can cause cancer, is a frequent chemical used in the glues to hold engineered wood floors together (4). Look for floors made with NAUF (no added urea formaldehyde) or NAF (no added formaldehyde). Make sure to look for pre-finished engineered wood, as that will ensure you do not have to expose yourself to the variety of harmful chemicals necessary to finish the wood floors.
- Laminate: Laminate flooring is made by gluing a sheet of decorative paper over wood. This makes laminate a versatile choice, because there are so many different types of decorative paper you can choose from (1). However, glue is again used to hold the layers together. If you've decided to have laminate floors, look for laminate floors that do not contain formaldehyde in the glue (1).
- Carpet (without fly ash, no vinyl or polyurethane backing, and PFAS stain repellent treatment): If you are looking for carpet, healthier choices are carpet without any stain or water repellent or resistant treatments and with better backing materials. These treatments contain PFAS (Teflon-like) chemicals. Many times these stain treatments are given to carpets that fall into the “performance” product categories, so be sure to ask if they are chemically treated. Thankfully Home Depot and Lowe’s do not carry carpets treated with PFAS anymore! Additionally, many carpets these days use polypropylene backings, which are healthier than vinyl or polyurethane backing, but it’s always good to check. Lastly, fly ash is a byproduct of coal burning and is sometimes used in the backing of carpets. This has been largely phased out, but it’s also good to double check! If you want to stick to natural materials, wool, jute, and sisal carpet are a good choice.
Steer clear of these materials:
- Vinyl floors, including Luxury Vinyl Tile: Stay away from anything made of vinyl, especially vinyl floors! These are essentially just plastic sheet flooring. These are the number one unhealthiest flooring choice to choose because vinyl products contain or are manufactured with lead, arsenic, PFAS, toxic PCBs and all sorts of nasty chemicals (1, 5). They have a huge climate change impact and no real way to dispose of them safely (5). Trust us, the more you look into LVT, the more problems you will find! Linoleum is a great alternative that is comparable in price and look.
- Carpet containing polyurethane backing and PFAS: You've probably heard of PFAS (it's that stuff that makes your jacket waterproof) and know it can cause developmental and reproductive problems, but what about polyurethane (1)? Polyurethane, which is found in the backing of some carpets, also contain hazardous chemicals such as phthalates (1). Another yucky chemical to keep an eye out for in carpet backing is recycled foam, which can contain flame retardants (2). Look for backings that are made from hemp, cotton, or natural latex, instead of polyurethane (3).
- Rubber floors, especially made with crumb rubber: Rubber used in floors comes from recycled tire scrap and can include some crazy chemicals (1). Lead, hydrocarbon processing oils, and other hazardous materials have been found in rubber flooring (1). Definitely stay away from installing rubber floors. Natural new rubber is a better option, but can be hard to find.
If you want to read more about flooring options, the Healthy Building Network has a variety of additional resources on its HomeFree site.
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