Your low-VOC options include options for most materials – a great selection to consider for your home.
- Modern Living Includes Low-VOC Flooring
- Flooring with Zero or Low VOCs
- Indoor Air Quality Certifications and Labels
- CARB2 (California Air Resources Board) Compliant
Modern Living Includes Low-VOC Flooring
When you’re purchasing new flooring, you want something that looks great, is durable, affordable, and meets the needs of your family. You also want something that’s safe, healthy, and won’t add harmful chemicals to the air inside your home.
Today, many manufacturers are striving to, and succeeding, in producing eco friendly, safe, non-toxic products with zero, or low VOCs.
Below we’ll explain what VOCs are and how to avoid them, what certifications products carry and what they mean, and provide a list of the best green, non-toxic, low VOC flooring on the market today.
About VOCs in Flooring
Some readers know they want low-VOC flooring because it is healthier for everyone – but they aren’t sure what it is.
One of the most common VOCs that most people have heard of is formaldehyde, but thankfully it isn’t used as widely as it once was.
V.O.C. stands for Volatile Organic Compounds. They are chemicals used in manufacturing industrial and commercial products. The problem is that they can be released from the materials – evaporating quickly or sometimes released slowly over time, diminishing indoor air quality (IAQ). This is called off-gassing. Breathing these fumes can harm your health.
VOCs in flooring: They are found in many materials that go into many types of traditional flooring including paints, dyes, stains, adhesives, foam and plastics.
Small amounts of VOCs don’t affect us much because they quickly dissipate, but because flooring material covers an entire room, or even the whole house, they can harmfully affect air quality in the home.
Getting Informed: Educating yourself is your first step when purchasing flooring without potentially harmful VOCs. Today there are a number of third-party organizations that provide testing and certification for products to assure that they meet strict standards for no VOC or low VOC emissions.
Following the Flooring with Zero or Low VOCs is a list of these certifications and what they mean. If you’ve found flooring that you like but can’t find the VOC information in the product information, you can always request it directly from the manufacturer.
Flooring with Zero or Low VOCs
While you can find good, non-toxic, low VOC flooring options in almost any flooring category, certain types of flooring, in themselves, emit no VOCs. These include stone, tile, polished concrete, and solid unstained hardwood. In these cases, the VOCs will come from the installation and finishing materials like floor stains, adhesives, grout, and underlayments.
Throughout this section on the best low-VOC flooring options, you’ll find information on how to install products with no or low VOCs. If you’re a DIYer, you can purchase them yourself. If you hire a flooring contractor that is going to choose the product, insist they use one of them.
Below we review some of the best non-toxic flooring options available today.
Ceramic and Porcelain Tile
Ceramic and porcelain tile have no VOCs because the materials are natural and they are made at high temperatures. Glazes on tile can contain lead, so if that is a concern, check the box or call the manufacturer to determine whether the tile you’re considering is lead-free.
For existing tile, ask for a lead test from the manufacturer or do a simple 3M Lead Swab on the product.
Buying Tip: Daltile claims that all of their tile is lead-free except those that use red glaze.
Natural stone, such as marble, granite, slate, flagstone, and limestone are natural products and do not emit any VOCs.
Wait a second! Although tile and stone are non-toxic, the thinset or mastic used to adhere the tiles to the subfloor and the grout used between the tiles can have VOCs.
Unmodified concrete-based thinset is the safest type and easy to find. Look for products without acrylic-latex additives.Custom Building Products Standard Thin-set Mortar and Schluter Set offer unmodified thinset products.
As for the grout, look for a concrete-based product like Custom Building Products Polyblend and Polyblend Plus, zero VOC grout. These products both have polymers, listed as EVA, which is non-toxic and considered to be safe.
Green companies now make natural, no-VOC sealants like walnut and hemp oil which can be used to seal stone flooring.
When installing tile, you will need a tile membrane or underlayment. Look for a product made with polyethylene which is a very safe plastic, like Schluter’s DITRA (Ditra-mat) or Kerdi.
Polished concrete can look very beautiful in today’s modern homes. It’s also green and healthy. Most polished concrete floor systems use sodium silicate or potassium silicate which is both non-toxic and safe. The concrete is finished by polishing, sealing, or oiling. Most of the finishing products are considered non-toxic with zero VOCs, but it’s a good idea to check first.
Natural solid hardwood flooring gives off almost no VOCs, although Pine, more than other woods like Maple, will give off natural VOCs such as terpenes. Terpenes are what make a plant smell the way it does – that fresh pine wood smell in this case – but it can bother some people even if it isn’t dangerous. Natural hardwood that has not been cured properly can contain molds. To avoid this possibility, choose a solid hardwood that has been kiln-dried.
Choose your finish wisely. Since VOCs in solid hardwood flooring come from the stain and finishing treatments used, look for flooring that has been finished with zero-VOC products. You can also purchase unfinished hardwood and finish it yourself with non-toxic products like Tung or Hemp oil.
Buying Tip: Use baseboards and trim made from solid wood. Avoid MDF (medium-density fiberboard) and PVC (polyvinyl chloride) baseboards because they do contain unacceptable amounts of volatile organic compounds.
We use the title “natural linoleum” because some people call sheet vinyl “linoleum.” It is a very different material!
Linoleum has been around for over 150 years. It was hugely popular until sheet vinyl was introduced – which was cheaper – but homeowners didn’t realize it was loaded with VOCs.
Linoleum is made with all natural materials including solidified linseed oil, cork, wood flour, limestone and natural pigments.
Marmoleum is the only natural linoleum currently available in North America and is made with a non-toxic UV-cured sealer.
A linoleum floor has low to no odor, has antibacterial properties from the linseed oil, is water resistant, and very durable, although it can be scratched by very sharp objects. Marmoleum linoleum comes in sheets, tiles, and click-together planks which can be installed without using an adhesive.
Buying tip: Marmoleum is also known as Farbo Marmoleum.
Engineered Hardwood Flooring
Most brands of engineered hardwood flooring are now made with low VOCs or none at all. Engineered flooring is made with a core for stability constructed of layers of plywood or high-density fiberboard (HDF) bonded together with resins or adhesives. These resins and adhesives can emit VOCs. Plywood is made with formaldehyde but by the time it gets to you, it is technically cured and no longer off-gassing VOCs.
Buying tip: Avoid HDF as it off-gasses more and longer than plywood. In other words, look for engineered hardwood with one of the low-VOC certification labels found below.
Look for engineered hardwood flooring that is CARB2 compliant and uses a plywood or solid slat core as well as flooring that has been stained or finished with a zero-VOC product, such as aluminum oxide or a UV-cured finish.
Recommended brands include Tesoro, Kahrs, Cali Bamboo, and the Shaw collections of Castlewood, Camden Hills, and Albright.
Waterproof Engineered Hardwood
You can now find engineered hardwood flooring that is guaranteed to be waterproof. It is made with a stone or composite waterproof core and includes a real hardwood veneer that is covered with a waterproof sealant. Waterproof engineered hardwood is a good choice for areas where you want wood flooring and where the possibility of water exposure exists, like a kitchen or bathroom, but it is also a good choice for anywhere in the home.
Recommended low-VOC brands include Cali Bamboo Geowood, which has been confirmed formaldehyde-free by the Green Design Center. Raintree, another low VOC waterproof hardwood flooring, is made with a high-quality wood top layer, making it look and feel like real wood.
Laminate flooring has come a long way in recent years. Now most laminate floors sold in North America are low in VOCs, including formaldehyde. Laminate flooring is made with a high-density fiberboard core, a melamine backer for support, a visual layer which includes a photograph of real wood, and a topcoat, which is a transparent wear-layer.
Buying tip: Make sure that the laminate you choose is not made with MDF (medium-density fiberboard), which is usually higher in formaldehyde. Choose flooring that is FloorScore or GreenGuard certified. GreenGuardGold is the strictest certification for formaldehyde.
Top brands: GreenGuard certified laminate brands include Shaw, Trafficmaster, Home Decorators Collection and Swiss Korona
For more information on non-toxic laminate flooring, check out this page.
Luxury Vinyl Planks and Tiles
Luxury vinyl is made in layers, similar to laminate, but contains an SPC (stone polymer composite) core which is a mix of limestone, PVC, and plasticizer or a WPC (wood plastic) core. Luxury vinyl also includes an image layer and a topcoat or wear layer.
Vinyl planking is milled into planks and installed like wood and vinyl tiles are cut into square or rectangular shapes.
Both are very low in VOCs but an SPC core will have less of an odor than a WPC core. While some luxury vinyl flooring does carry FloorScore or GreenGuard certification, the VOC levels are below the threshold for these certifications. When purchasing luxury vinyl flooring make sure it is made in America and look for virgin material, not recycled flooring, and phthalate-free vinyl, as both are less likely to emit VOCs.
Healthiest brands of luxury vinyl include Shaw, Mohawk, Cali Bamboo, COREtec, Daltile, and Home Depot’s brand, Traffic Master.
The best natural, eco-friendly carpet is made from wool, without moth-proofing or stain protection, uses natural adhesives, and has a cotton or hemp backing. Wool carpet is very expensive and not very stain resistant.
Today, there is a good variety of synthetic carpet choices, even recycled carpets that are low in VOCs.
Tips: When shopping for synthetic carpet look for a zero or ultra-low VOC carpet made from PET or PTT polyester. A typical nylon carpet tends to have more VOCs than polyester. Added treatments will increase the chance of VOCs including flame retardants, stain repellents, and anti-static treatments. Also look for carpet that does not use SBR latex or PVC backing.
Brands: The lowest VOC brands available include HOME Fresh by Empire Today. The carpet is made from PET polyester, includes a polyester felt backing, is extremely low in off gassing, and has almost no odor.
Mohawk claims their Air.o carpet has no odor and is zero-VOC. Air.o is made from 100% PET polyester with a polyester felt backing. Mohawk provides a non-toxic, double sided tape for the seams, rather than melting glue or using adhesives.
Mohawk also offers low VOC carpet in through their SmartStrand and EverStrand collections.
Shaw carries a number of low VOC carpet options including the Caress collection made with 100% nylon and the Bellera collection manufactured with 100% PET. All Shaw carpets are Green Label Plus certified and 85% of their carpets are Cradle to Cradle certified.
Many types of flooring require an underlayment or pad, including engineered hardwood, laminate, and carpet. An underlayment is used for various reasons including leveling, cushioning, and as a moisture barrier. Look for underlayments that are GreenGuard, or better, GreenGuard Gold certified. Some of these include underlayments made with polyethylene, polypropylene, EVA foam, breathable cork, felt, and natural rubber.
You can find these products in many home improvement stores including green building supply online stores.
Indoor Air Quality Certifications and Labels
Here are the best certification labels for low-VOC flooring.
FloorScore, according to its developer, “is the most recognized indoor air quality (IAQ) certification standard for hard surface flooring, adhesives, and underlayments.”
FloorScore certified flooring means that it has a very low amount of VOCs and does not harm indoor air quality. It also allows the product to qualify for green building awards through LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), WELL, and Green Globes.
You’ll find FloorScore used for all kinds of flooring including ceramic and porcelain tile, cork, engineered hardwood, bamboo, laminate, linoleum, vinyl flooring, and carpet as well as adhesives and underlayment products used with flooring.
Green Guard/GreenGuard Gold Certified
A GreenGuard certified product means that it has been scientifically tested and shown to have low chemical emissions, i.e., low VOCs. GreenGuard certification is used for any indoor product. GreenGuard Gold means that the product has an even lower level of VOCs.
CARB2 (California Air Resources Board) Compliant
The state of California has very strict regulations regarding formaldehyde in wood products, and the adhesives and resins they contain. If a product is CARB2 compliant, it adheres to California’s standards for air quality and contaminants, meaning the product doesn’t pose any health risks.
Certain flooring products are subject to CARB2 requirements including any multi-layer flooring like engineered hardwood, bamboo, or cork and laminate flooring that is constructed with adhesives or a plywood or high-density core. If a product is CARB2 compliant, it means that it meets strict emission standards for formaldehyde.
Formaldehyde Guidelines – NAUF and ULEF
NAUF stands for No Added Urea Formaldehyde and means that the product does not use that chemical. NAUF products use phenol-based glues which emit 90% less formaldehyde.
ULEF stands for Ultra-low Emitting Formaldehyde and means that the product may contain formaldehyde but that it is emitted at ultra-low levels meaning that the product will not harm indoor air quality.
CRI Green Label Plus Certified
Green Label Plus is an independent testing program that identifies carpet, adhesives, and cushioning materials as very low emission VOC products. Green Label products are the lowest VOC emitting on the market and can earn credit under LEED, Green Globes, and other green organizations.
Cradle to Cradle Certified
For a product to gain Cradle to Cradle certification it must meet criteria in 5 categories including material health, sustainability, clean air and climate protection, water and soil stewardship, and social fairness.