Updated Summer 2020
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If you need assistance choosing the best paints, sealers, and finishes for your sensitivities and project, please contact me for a one-on-one consultation.
1. Natural Non-Toxic Wood Sealers
i. Natural Oil Wood Finishes
Linseed, tung, refined hemp, soy, and walnut oil are drying oils.
Drying oils penetrate, harden and preserve wood – providing a long-lasting finish that does not turn rancid.
I wouldn’t recommend using olive or other (non-drying) oils that can go rancid on wood.
Linseed and Tung Oil
Although they are natural, legally 0-VOC, and technically non-toxic, they do offgas aldehydes (and other compounds), that can be bothersome for the chemically sensitive.
I look at additives including possible metals, chemicals added, as well as which compounds they offgas and when they fully cure.
Linseed and/or tung are often labeled as “teak oil” or “danish oil”, though this is a general term that can mean either it’s pure or mixed with additives, as I go over in the post on these oils.
Hemp Oil Finish
Hemp Oil is my top choice for an all-natural drying oil for wood due to how mild and safe the odor is.
It does have a light aroma, which I would consider pleasant. I would test for your own sensitivities (and allergies) by buying a small amount first.
Hemp oil is the only ingredient in the Milk Paint Company and the Homestead House brands. I used the Milk Paint brand and was happy with it. If you order it directly through their website you can get 10% off with code mychemicalfreehouse.
I used hemp oil on all the interior wood in my chemical-free tiny home – floors, stairs, interior door, and window sills. The ladder to the loft did get grimy, though the dirt did wipe off easily.
It’s not the most durable of the wood finishes compared to some more conventional options but I was very happy with it.
Make sure it’s refined hemp oil (made for a wood finish) as opposed to the edible oil from the grocery store.
This finish is certainly one of the safest and healthiest options for wooden toys, butcher block countertops, and other food-safe surfaces.
Walnut Oil another drying oil, is used on surfaces like concrete countertops, raw slate, non-glossy marble and granite, soapstone, sandstone, and onyx.
I tested the Milk Paint walnut oil and the odor is very mild, even lighter than hemp. I was extremely happy with its performance on stones.
I go through sealing various stone types more in the countertop post.
Another oil to check out is Penofin Verde which is Brazilian rosewood oil mixed with other natural oils.
They use “vegetable ester solvents” and zero VOC pigments.
I would expect a solvent odor and offgassing here.
Oils need to be reapplied to wood every few years or more in high traffic areas.
ii. Natural Wax Wood Sealers
Beeswax & Carnauba Wax
Wood (but not floors) can then be finished with a beeswax polish for extra durability. Beeswax takes 30 days to fully dry.
I used beeswax on my window sills over the hemp oil to provide a more water-resistant finish and I was really happy with it.
It also works well on counters, cutting boards, and toys.
This Beeswax/Carnauba Polish works well but does have mineral spirits in it. Mineral spirits do evaporate quite quickly and leave the product once cured. I haven’t found odorless mineral spirits to be a very toxic ingredient.
Walnut oil with carnauba wax works great as well. I have used this brand on many surfaces.
Wax usually needs to be re-applied every year.
Natural Shellac Resin
Shellac is a resin, and one of my top picks for many different purposes.
Shellac, in the purest version, is just the natural flakes of the resin produced by a beetle, and alcohol.
You can purchase flakes from www.shellac.net or Amazon.
Shellac can be used on many indoor surfaces, including floors, toys, and furniture.
Natural, de-waxed shellac, would be the purest choice for most projects. It does come in a synthetic formula as well, so be sure to check which one it is. Regular (waxed) would be used for some applications.
If you want to buy it ready-made, Zinsser makes one they claim is only shellac and alcohol. I discuss this more in the posts on sealing in toxins since this finish is great at sealing in offgassing and odors.
Oils for Earthen Floor Finishes
If you don’t have ox blood on hand, no problem, you can seal your earthen floor with any of the hardening oils we talked about under wood finishes.
I would use Hemp Oil, though a final coat of linseed and possibly wax, may be needed to get it to hard enough. I did find that to be the case on a project I worked on.
Beeswax can also be used in the final coat for extra protection if desired.
iii. Natural Non-Toxic Wood Stains
Natural Oil Wood Stains
Each oil in the section above will tint the wood to some degree, so you should test for the look you want to achieve – you might find that you don’t need a stain at all.
You may need a stain just to lighten it.
If you do want a stain I prefer the oil and stain in one options:
Rubio is a low odor modified linseed with many color options. We don’t know a lot about what’s in it other than (modified) linseed and wax. It’s significantly lower odor than pure linseed. It does have a drier, the Part B. I review it in more detail in this post.
It comes in 40 different colors including lightening shades like greys and whites.
They claim 0-VOC, though the MSDS does indicate some VOCs. Despite the unknowns, I really liked this brand for both low odor and performance.
This is Brazilian rosewood oil based, with other natural oils. They use natural solvents and it contains a mildewcide. It comes in 18 shades including lightening grey and whites.
They claim no odor, though the SDS indicates mild odor, and extremely low VOCs.
Tried and True premixed oil and pigment stains went on beautifully. I tested the Java color on oak.
This is pure polymerized linseed and pigment, nothing else added. This is the most natural option, with no solvents or additives.
It comes in 5 darkening shades.
Legally linseed is 0-VOC, but it does give off natural volatile compounds. I do a deep review of linseed and tung oil in a dedicated post.
A well-known brand available worldwide. Their stains alone are low odor but they are meant to be used with the top coat of Polyox Oil.
Polyox contains sunflower, soya and thistle oil, with waxes, including paraffin, plus de-aromatized white spirits, siccatives, and polysiloxanes. They declare all of their ingredients.
The Polyox oil had a very noticeable solvent odor for me, the majority of that odor did flash off quickly but the general odor did take more time than I expected to go down. I would not consider this low enough in toxins for me to use.
I did really like the stain colors though. The Wood Wax comes in bright colors (along with the usual wood stain colors and greys and white) which would be fun for art and toys.
The Oil Stain, which is for floors, comes in 10 colors including lightening shades.
They claim very low VOCs.
Water-Based Non-Toxic Wood Stains
The truly non-toxic water-based wood stains are more difficult to apply than the oil-based ones.
This was highly tolerable for me when I was at my most sensitive. They also have tinted varnishes.
All of their ingredients are fully declared. These are acrylic based, which is usually more tolerable than polyurethane.
2. AFM Durotone
A recently improved formula from a popular brand for the chemically sensitive.
It comes in 11 colors including one lightening shade.
A topcoat is required, either water-based or oil.
3. Milk Paint Pigments
Milk Paint pigments can be used as a stain applied to the raw wood before finishing with oil and wax. Here is my how-to. I found these stains difficult to work with and would go for premixed next time.
Earth Pigments also makes natural stains. If you do try these, be sure to test them first and follow the instructions on the type of wood and how dark you can go and you will get better results than me.
iv. Clear Water-Based Wood Sealers
1. ECOS varnishes, which are acrylic based, are super low toxin. They don’t seem to be as durable as the polyurethane alternatives according to many people I have talked to.
I used ECOS sealer on the wood in my kitchen and I was very happy with it. I have not had problems with water marks, and for me, any trade-off was certainly worth the low toxicity.
I find this to be a very tolerable brand that I was able to apply myself at a time when I could hardly tolerate any coatings.
2. AFM Polyureseal is liked by many. It is a very tolerable formula by a high-quality brand. You can expect this brand to be durable.
Vermont Natural Coatings’ interior floor finish is extremely similar to this one.
3. Another zero-VOC polyurethane that holds up well and is becoming more popular is Vermeister. Some venders claim it contains no acetone or ammonia, which are exempt VOCs. The SDS sheet does however list ammonia.
4. Danish Soap finish. An unusual non-toxic way to finish floors is a Danish process using soap as the finish. You can either use just soap, or soap and lye. Lye is quite toxic while it’s reacting, and I don’t know how long that takes to dissipate.
When used in the making of soap the lye reacts with other components and in the end you just have a safe soap product.
v. Non-Toxic Kitchen Cabinet Finishes
Clear Finish for Cabinets:
- ECOs Clear Interior Varnish is an acrylic 0-VOC finish. Very tolerable, but not super durable with water. Their exterior varnish could also be considered.
- AFM Acrylacq is a clear alternative to conventional lacquer. It is acrylic and siloxane. You can get a matte look by using 2 coats of gloss finished with a coat of matte. Or you can use the gloss or satin. This is a durable finish. AFM is my top choice in this category. VOC 93 g/l.
- AFM Poly BP This is a polyurethane finish (with a little bit of acrylic). This is another durable finish for cabinets. VOC 93 g/l.
- Vermeister Polyurethane finish that claims 0 VOC. It does contain an exempt VOC though, ammonia (ECOS clear varnish does as well!)
Natural Oil Finish for Cabinets:
- Rubio Monocoat oil plus for furniture comes in a lot of cool colors. It is easy to touch up and has been reported to work well on cabinets. If you don’t mind the natural linseed oil and some unknowns with the formula, I really like the quality of this finish.
- Penefin Verde rosewood/linseed 1g/l VOC.
vi. Sealing in Toxins
Sealing in Fungicides
This version of shellac from Zinsser claims that the only ingredients are shellac and alcohol. That’s one you can find at Home Depot as well as Amazon. You can also mix the flakes yourself with Everclear alcohol.
Sealing in Formaldehyde
AFM Safeseal is used to seal in formaldehyde in wood products. You can also use shellac which is one of the best sealers to seal in odors and VOCs, including formaldehyde. I have tested these side by side on formaldehyde offgassing, they both performed very well. Shellac beat Safeseal.
Safeseal is made with acrylic polymers and also lists dipropylene glycol methyl ether.
You can always contact me for one-on-one help so we can find the best product for your application.
vii. Exterior Wood Sealers
Rubio doesn’t declare all of their ingredients but I was quite happy with it. Penefin has natural solvents and I would expect a fairly strong odor there, though I have not tried it myself.
I like Milk Paint Company tung oil with pine and zinc called Outdoor Defense Oil. It contains no other additives. If you do well with tung and pine oil, this could work for you.
AFM Safecoat makes a Natural Clear Penetrating Oil, a linseed based outdoor sealant. It’s made of flax, linseed, hemp, and soybean oils. They claim it’s free of isoaliphate, cobalt, and lead driers as well as aromatic hydrocarbons, mildewcides/fungicides or preservatives. Mold growth can occur with extreme humidity on exterior surfaces (like with all linseed based finishes).
AFM has a new exterior clear sealer called Polyureseal EXT which is an acrylic/polyurethane.
2. Non-Toxic Tile, Concrete & Stone Sealers
i. Stone, Concrete and Brick Sealers
1.AFM Mexeseal is a surface coating for masonry/stone. It is for unpolished marble, limestone, granite, sandstone, slate, fireclay (brick, tile, terra cotta, pavers), and concrete. Mostly for honed stones – though it can work on some polished stone (you would have to test it). Good for slate floors, and concrete floors. In sum, use on porous interior tile or masonry surfaces where oil and water repellency are desired. Not for use outside. Not for interior showers. The product is polyurethane and acrylic. Very low VOC.
2. ECOS sealer/stain is for concrete, masonry, brickwork, and plaster. They make a solid color concert sealer and semi-transparent concrete sealer. These are acrylic coatings with a little bit of silicone in there.
3. ECOS clear sealer is acrylic, just like the stains with pigment. You can use it on concrete floors.
4. Lithofin for initial treatment for rough & honed surfaces – natural stone, engineered stone, and tiles: ceramic/porcelain/quarry and to touch up and protect polished travertine and limestone surfaces which have become matte or dull over time.
5. AFM Penetrating Water Stop (zero-VOC) for porous, mineral containing surfaces such as brick, pavers, concrete block, and other cementitious materials, stone, and stucco. I used it on my concrete bathroom tiles and on the clay plaster in my kitchen. The only components listed on the SDS are silicone and lye. This product does not create a film on top of the surface, it is like a densifier.
6. AFM Watershield is a clear, penetrating sealer that repels water, grease, and oils. For use on porous surfaces such as concrete, stucco, brick, and stone. This can be used over American Clay Plaster. This can also be used outdoors on vertical wood surfaces e.g. under eaves that are raw wood or those stained with water-based stains such as AFM Durotone. Not for use on decks or horizontal fence railing. This is an acrylic sealant so it will be at least in part, a surface coating.
7. Milk Paint Soapstone Sealer is walnut oil and beeswax. It works well on soapstone, concrete, raw slate, honed marble, granite, sandstone, and onyx. You can buy this from the Milk Paint store and Amazon. I have used this sealer on many stone surfaces and I have been really happy with it. It’s all-natural and low odor. It needs some time to cure, but all natural oils do. You can get 10% off with the code mychemicalfreehouse.
8. Hemp Oil is also a drying oil, and like walnut oil, it does work on most stone and concrete (as well as wood). It can change the color of some stones, so test it first. It passed my tests, but it can yellow or green just a little, depending on the base color of the stone.
9. Metacreme is a synthetic water-based low odor sealer for natural stones and concrete. I have tested this one on stone countertops and found it quite good. It has a chemical odor that is fairly mild. It works on marble, in wet areas, and goes over the grout as well. This could be used if walnut oil is changing the color of stone too much, though in my tests it did not hold up as well to what I threw at it.
11. Tung oil also makes a good finish for concrete and many stones. It can be used on concrete floors as well. It is often preferable to other oils in outdoor conditions. The odor is higher than the other natural oils and even the synthetic sealers (I review the offgassing odors of tung and linseed in a dedicated post). Though some might prefer this oil and not be bothered by the natural odor. Tung oil forms a very durable film.
ii. Concrete-Based Grout Sealer
For sealing grout there are a number of good options, I discuss grout sealers options in my post on grout and thinset.
Corinne Segura is a Building Biologist Practitioner with 6 years of experience helping others create healthy homes.
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