Vinyl flooring has become a favorite with homeowners and contractors for a variety of reasons from its resiliency to the array of styles. It’s a product that has more pros than cons, but no type of flooring is perfect – even luxury vinyl. VOCs are the main cause of concern for most consumers with vinyl, and in this guide, we’re going to help you find the safest vinyl flooring around.
What are VOCs?
There’s a good chance you’ve heard the term VOC used, but may not know exactly what it means. VOCs are volatile organic compounds, and something that is released into the air at a certain temperature. In fact, they are everywhere around whether you are indoors or outside.
Volatile organic compounds are actually emitted by biogenic sources like plants and trees, but from common pollutants as well. That includes exhaust from combustion through vehicles and lawn mowers along with industrial exhaust from factories. A variety of things can affect the air quality outdoors, which is why we have the Air Quality Index.
The AQI can tell you how the air quality is outdoors in your area, but has nothing to do with the air inside your home. VOCs indoors are 2-5 times higher which means they are potentially more harmful as you’re exposed to them in an enclosed area for longer periods of time. They also come from some surprising sources like aerosol sprays, cleaning agents, smoking and home goods including flooring.
While certain types of laminate flooring came under fire for claiming their products met CARB standards for formaldehyde limits when they did not, it’s not the only type of flooring that can produce VOCs. Any form of synthetic flooring is prone to this including carpet and vinyl. Solid hardwood and other surfaces can emit volatile organic compounds as well depending on the finish used.
How Volatile Organic Compounds are produced from Vinyl Flooring
If the finish from wood flooring can produce VOCs indoors, you can certainly expect the same flooring made from synthetic materials. While we’ve talked about the types of vinyl flooring and how they are produced, the main problem with this type of material is called off-gassing.
Have you ever unboxed a memory foam pillow or sat in a new car? That “smell” is a product of off-gassing, and something that will fade over time. How long depends on the product, however, and the levels of VOCs it emits which used to vary widely. Because vinyl flooring is made from a combination of plastic, stabilizers and other compounds, VOCs can be hard to avoid.
VOCs and your Health
Everyone experiences VOCs on a daily basis, and while there’s more exposure indoors, that doesn’t mean vinyl flooring is something to completely avoid. The first step is to understand how VOCs can potentially affect your health.
Irritation is the key word with VOCs whether it’s mild or severe. This can include anything from headaches to watery eyes or an irritable throat. Those are mild symptoms, which will be magnified if anyone in the home has a pre-existing respiratory condition. Prolonged exposure could have a serious impact, which is why certification is important with vinyl flooring.
Vinyl Flooring Certification
While you can’t find VOC-free vinyl flooring, manufacturers have taken many steps to ensure their products are safe to use indoors. Regulations vary throughout the world when it comes to vinyl flooring, but in the United States, the main label to keep an eye out for is FloorScore.
This regulatory body ensures vinyl flooring meets certain standards in regards to indoor air quality. Flooring with this certification is safe to use indoors, but not completely free from volatile organic compounds. It only means the flooring meets the “limit” so people that already have respiratory issues could still be affected by VOC emissions.
VOCs in different types of Vinyl Flooring
When you want to narrow the search for low-VOC vinyl flooring, it’s best to start looking by type. There are around a half-dozen forms of vinyl flooring sold today, and even when they are rated safe, some produce far more VOCs than others.
Any type of vinyl flooring that requires adhesive will increase indoor exposure. That includes sheet vinyl, which needs to be glued down and thinner vinyl planks. Peel and Stick vinyl flooring also uses adhesives along with VCT and a few other forms of vinyl tile.
Floating vinyl flooring is safer as no adhesives are required, although each plank or tile is still made from plastic. Each piece locks together, so no adhesive is needed for the installation itself and the same goes for EVP flooring. SPC and WPC are engineered with rigid cores so they aren’t as flexible as LVP or vinyl planks.
Other Low VOC alternatives
At this time, there are only a handful of flooring styles that are truly VOC-free and most are not very comfortable. Solid concrete may not leech formaldehyde into the air, but it’s not exactly colorful or comfy underfoot. Solid hardwood flooring is more forgiving, and can actually be almost completely free of VOCs depending on the stain or finish used.
Certain types of wood can be aromatic, however, and the terpenes within could irritate some homeowners. Hardwood that has been finished and cured with water-based finishes are typically considered safe indoors across the board. During the installation process, you should still be wary with any adhesives or fillers, however.
Like concrete, natural stone including slate is also safe, but porous so fillers are often used along with sealants. They usually aren’t an issue, whereas the glazing on ceramic or porcelain tiles could contain lead with the exception of printed tiles. Linoleum is an interesting alternative as well along with non-toxic wool carpeting.
As you can see, there aren’t many alternatives for flooring that’s completely free of VOCs and all vinyl flooring will emit a measure of volatile organic compounds. It’s completely safe to use indoors, however, as long as you look for high-quality options that carry FloorScore certification.