I'm shopping for a lingerie chest. Should I avoid particleboard, MDF, and veneer?

Asked by Raven Wild, Woodstock, MD

What is the difference between particleboard, MDF, and veneer? Do they all outgas? I need to buy a lingerie chest, and I want it to be nontoxic. I also want it to look nice. My first choice would be a lovely green/eco-friendly product, but I don't want to spend a lot of money.


Mike Binder

Answered by Mike Binder

Chevy Chase, MD

Meditch Murphey Architects

March 5, 2009

Particleboard is made of sawdust and small chips of wood bound together with an adhesive. MDF, or medium-density fiberboard, is generally much finer and smoother than particleboard. Veneer is a term for any thin layer, generally a high-quality material like natural wood or melamine, used to cover a coarser material like MDF or particleboard.

I'm not sure what your tastes are, but I am guessing that unfinished particleboard would not be attractive to you as a lingerie chest. MDF would work better but would limit you to a dull brown color (unless you painted it). I think the way for you to go is a high grade of particleboard or MDF with an applied veneer. This construction is typical for many moderately priced pieces of furniture on the market.

To avoid offgassing, choose particleboard and MDF products with no added urea-formaldehyde. If you're on a budget, you will probably want to use a plastic-laminate or melamine veneer (melamine is perfectly OK if you aren't planning to eat it); a wide range of colors and patterns is available. Veneers are not a common source of offgassing, but you should ask manufacturers about their products just to be sure. Adhesives used should be low-VOC. Finishes like polyurethane should also be low-VOC and water-based if possible.

Recommended maximum VOC contents (in grams per Liter [g/L])
Flat paint50 g/L
Nonflat paint150 g/L
Clear wood finishes350 g/L
Stains250 g/L
Adhesives50 g/L

That said, if you are looking for a piece of stand-alone furniture (i.e., not hiring a carpenter to create a built-in lingerie chest for you), you might want to consider buying something secondhand rather than a brand-new product. Reusing materials and furniture is one of the greenest actions you can take. You can avoid the issue of offgassing and get a nice piece of furniture through an online source like Craigslist or from a retail store that sells used furniture.

If you'd rather have something new, there are green options. IKEA often has nice nontoxic furniture and Target has come out with eco-friendly products as well (though I did not see lingerie chests in this line). You'll need to do some additional research on your own. Just remember the following tips:

  1. FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified solid woods and veneers are the best option, if you can find/afford them.
  2. No exotic hardwoods (such as those from rainforests).
  3. MDF and particleboard should be urea-formaldehyde free.
  4. Adhesives used in the product should be low-VOC.
  5. Choose products with low-VOC, water-based finish coats (like polyurethane).

For more information:

For more tips on shopping for eco-friendly furniture, read Miriam Landman's "Can You Recommend Sources for Green Furniture?"

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