What is truly the healthiest wood floor option, and what are the safest finish products to use?
I was told not to do engineered floors unless I could find one with no formaldehyde. Then I was told to avoid aluminum oxide finish because if we ever needed to sand the floor, aluminum would get into the air. I looked at oil finishes but they contain solvents and drying agents. I thought about doing solid wood with a water-based stain and polyurethane sealer, but I just read that a low-VOC label doesn't always mean a product is healthy. Can anyone give me the bottom-line truth on all this?
Your confusion and frustration bring up a very important reality: There are no 100-percent green and healthy products. In our quest to find the best green products for our projects, we all need to "pick our battles."
- An individual like you, seeking a healthy home, will establish one set of criteria for your flooring decision;
- another person who might be focused on finding a sustainable source of wood for their floor would use different parameters.
Choosing wood flooring, like choosing any green material, takes examining a number of its attributes—looking at its whole life story, and all its qualities, then deciding which characteristics align with your priorities.
Here are my thoughts on the confusing advice you've received about
- engineered flooring,
- floor finishes, and
- solid wood flooring.
There are a number of good manufacturers making engineered flooring from certified sustainable wood, and with formaldehyde-free glues. A few companies I feel good about are EcoTimber, which recently got top marks for its flooring in Consumer Reports; Plyboo, which does an exemplary job of overseeing its Chinese manufacturing of bamboo flooring; and Columbia Forest Products, which manufactures veneered wood panels that can be made into flooring, using very safe and strong soy-based glues. Refinishing engineered flooring—or any wood floor, really—requires avoiding exposure to, and capturing, the dust and particulate from sanding. You should also take steps to minimize your exposure to emissions from the new finish. Read my tips article Make Floor Refinishing Greener and Safer for more detail on this.
Factory-finished flooring often does most of its offgassing before it gets to the consumer. If you do need to finish the floor on-site, in your home, there are a number of water-based polyurethane finishes that are strong and low-toxic, as well as natural plant-chemistry based floor finishes that penetrate deeper into the wood, giving a more matte finish. I continue to have success with Bona Traffic, a commercial water-based polyurethane product. There are a growing number of companies producing finishes from plant chemistry, including a company called Vermont Natural Coatings that makes a floor finish with whey, the waste product from cheese production. Other natural finishes I like are AFM Safecoat's "Naturals" line, OSMO's Hardwax Oil, and in my neck of the woods—western North Carolina—a wonderful company called Earthpaint with a growing line of natural paint and finishing products safe enough to eat! These natural plant-chemistry based finishes can be a greener alternative to newer water-based polyurethanes, but some sensitive people have a reaction even to these natural ingredients' emissions.
Solid Wood Flooring
Solid unfinished wood flooring will avoid concerns regarding formaldehyde in the glues that bind some engineered floors together. (Wood itself does contain naturally occurring formaldehyde, but only a trace amount.) Reclaimed wood flooring has a lighter environmental impact, and can offer unique woods and grains remarkable by today's standards. Often a local mill will have reclaimed wood sitting on their lot, so I would start on a regional level, calling my area's wood suppliers to find local sources for reclaimed wood flooring. You'll save on shipping. Beyond that, there are 50 or more companies nationwide supplying reclaimed wood flooring. I just did a quick Internet search and found these two based on the east coast: Goodwin Heart Pine Company is based in Micanopy, Florida, and Mountain Lumber is based in Ruckersville, Virginia.
Once you've narrowed down your options, order fresh samples of the wood flooring you are considering and test your reaction to the product. This can help assure that you are making a healthy choice uniquely right for you and your green priorities.
For more information:
Read Kirsten Flynn's Q&A "We have two small Pomeranian dogs. What type of wood flooring will look rich and hold up for many years?"