This article is a comparison of linseed and tung oils:
- Are they safe and non-toxic
- What types of chemical additives are used in the different oil types and what compounds do they naturally offgas
- When do they cure and stop offgassing VOCs
- Are linseed and tung offgassing any toxic compounds
- How to seal in and get rid of the smell of linseed and tung oil
I review the following oils:
- Tried and True polymerized linseed (pure and with a stain)
- 100% Tung Oil
- Rubio Monocoat (plain and a blue color)
- Odies Oil
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Linseed and Tung Oil – Chemicals and Offgassing
Linseed and Tung Oil are the traditional natural finishing oils for wood – some forms also work well as stone and concrete sealers.
Oils That Don’t go Rancid
Both of these oils are called “drying oils” which means they polymerize in the presence of oxygen forming a durable and elastic finish.
They do not go rancid like semi-drying or non-drying oils.
Are Linseed and Tung Oil Zero-VOC?
While all of these oils – the pure ones and ones with additives – claim zero-VOC (a legal term), they do give off natural volatile compounds, though they are not technically considered toxic, whether they affect you will depend on you and your tolerance.
Are Linseed and Tung Oil Toxic?
The term “non-toxic” means that the toxins are not at high enough levels to do harm to the average person.
During oxidation (curing) of tung and linseed oils, aldehydes and hydrocarbons are produced. Peroxides, alcohols, ketones and acids may also offgas during oxidation (1).
I could pick up this chemical odor very acutely.
In low concentrations that come off of linseed and Tung Oil, these compounds are not toxic for most people/for healthy folks.
For those who are compromised (chemically sensitive), aldehydes especially, can cause symptoms. This can be considered “toxic” to someone who is compromised or chemically sensitive. It certainly does cause me symptoms.
Are Linseed and Tung Oil Safe for the Chemically Sensitive?
If you are wondering if linseed and tung are suitable for you and your sensitives be sure to test both in the 100% pure versions, as well as Rubio Monocoat and see how you do.
For those who like pure natural finishes and who are not bothered by the natural aromatics of plants and oils, both 100% linseed and 100% tung would be great options.
Which One was Less Toxic, Linseed or Tung Oil?
I wasn’t expecting to like Rubio Monocoat, the modified linseed oil, because of the lack of transparency of ingredients, but I explain why it turned out to be my top choice in many ways.
The finishes produce slightly different looks and you should also check the application procedure for the oils you are considering, as well as the upkeep.
I’m going to compare tung and linseed (including Rubio Monocoat and Odies Oil) in terms of the chemicals added as well as what compounds they naturally give off when curing.
100% Pure Tung – Chemicals and Offgassing
When choosing a tung oil you are looking for 100% pure tung oil.
Are Tung Oils from the Hardware Store Pure and Safe?
I wouldn’t use the “danish oil” mixes from the hardware store, or anything premixed with a thinner.
I have not seen a pure tung oil at Home Depot or other large hardware store (yet). The Behr tung oil contains petroleum waxes, petroleum distillate solvents, and metallic driers.
Pure, Safe Tung Oil Brands
I found the Real Milk Paint Tung to be milder than the brand I initially tested in this post which later changed my view more favorable towards Tung Oil.
Can Tung Oil be Used Straight Without a Thinner Additive?
Tung oil can be applied without a thinner to weathered wood, new wood floors as well as some old wood floors and concrete.
Check to see if your application requires a thinner before starting because the thinners are chemical compounds that may not be tolerable or desirable.
What are the Chemical Thinners in Tung Oil and are they Healthy and Safe?
Common thinners for tung oil are citrus solvent, mineral spirits, or odorless mineral spirits.
The thinners can be hard to tolerate. I describe the 100% natural citrus solvent as very potent – it wiped me out and made me sick when I was highly chemically sensitive, it does not dissipate very quickly. If you are sensitive it’s best to stay away from this while it’s being used and for a few days after. Once it comes down to a more natural level of d-limonene, citrus solvent would be considered safe. If you do well with orange essential oil then you will be fine with low levels of citrus solvent.
(If you expose yourself to high amounts, you can become sensitized and not tolerate even low amounts as your body thinks it’s still getting the high exposure).
If I had to pick one, I would use odorless mineral spirits which should dissipate (offgas) rather quickly. I do better with this one.
However, whenever you are applying something yourself things get trickier. If a non-sensitive person is applying the oil you may opt to use an additive that will dissipate quickly and have them wear protective gear.
Is Tung Oil Food Safe?
100% tung oil is food safe on butcher block, cutting boards, wooden countertops, concrete countertops, and wooden toys once cured. (To err on the safe side, wait 30 days for it to be cured).
The food-safe solvent is the citrus solvent.
Where Can Tung Oil be Used/What Surfaces Can it Seal?
Apart from wood, tung oil can be used on raw slate (slabs or tiles).
Although it did work well on all the stones I tested it on – slate, dark honed marble, light honed marble, and granite. It provides such a thick and durable layer that it is not usually used on indoor stone countertops. (Re-coating can cause white build up).
You might use it on stones in the shower or outdoor stones.
The Real Milk company has a lot of knowledge here. I was happiest with their tung oil which seemed to be lower odor. I am very happy to support this small company with sharing the discount code for 10% off: mychemicalfreehouse.
It can be used on concrete countertops, concrete floors, and concrete bird baths (more on applying tung oil to birdbaths here) and it works well in those applications.
You can use it on metal, in fact, cans for food used to be lined in tung oil. A coat of tung on some types of steel helps prevent rust.
How Long Does Tung Oil Take to Cure & Offgas?
The companies say tung oil normally takes 30 days for a full cure.
The time it takes to cure is not the same thing practically or scientifically as the time it takes to finish offgassing.
However, in my results at the end of this post, I compare all the oils at 30 days to see if I can still pick up the offgassing.
Companies claim 95-98% cured within 7-14 days and depending on conditions, it can take up to 90 days for a full cure.
Does Tung Oil Cure/Polymerise Faster than Linseed Oil?
There is a statement on Wikipedia that tung comes to a full cure whereas linseed continues to polymerize for years.
I was not able to confirm that statement about tung after looking through all the scientific literature on tung oil and talking to many companies.
In fact, my results after 30 days do not confirm this (comparison at the end of the post).
Cure Times Did Not Line Up With Offgassing Times
In the literature, I did see lots of reference to the idea that tung oil has a superior ability to polymerize due to its a-elaeostearic acid (77–82%) content.
In theory, this gives it a greater chemical reactivity and excellent ability to polymerize (cure) (2, 3).
However this didn’t line up with the end of the offgassing level/time, my sniff test at 17 and 30 days revealed more offgassing of tung than all of the linseed oils I tested.
Comparing Offgassing of Tung and Linseed Oil
The offgassing odors of tung are a little different from linseed.
In my assessment, tung is not as pungent when in liquid form, but they both offgas similar VOCs while curing.
During oxidation, aldehydes and hydrocarbons offgas. Peroxides, alcohols, ketones, and acids may also offgas during curing. (1).
At the end of the experiment, the two had reversed in my assessment: tung was the strongest at 30 days. The end of the post shows the comparison.
Linseed Oil – Review of Chemical Additives and Offgassing
Linseed Oil Comes in Three Types
1. Raw, which is pure, is not usually used for wood, as it takes a long time to dry and is often cut with a thinner.
2. “Boiled” which has driers, usually metals like cobalt, or petroleum (which I would want to avoid), this version could be considered toxic if it has toxic metals.
3. Polymerized/stand oil which is pure, food-safe, and faster to dry. This oil does not require a thinner. Polymerised is the type you want to use. I like the brand Tried and True because it’s pure 100% linseed, and because of their total transparency with ingredients and additives.
Odor and VOCs that Offgas from Linseed
The odors of linseed oil (and the citrus solvent) come from their naturally occurring VOCs (4). For the chemically sensitive, both tung and linseed have odors that are stronger than some other finishes.
The pungent smell of linseed comes mostly from the aldehydes (5).
Do you Need to Add a Thinner to Linseed Oil?
You should see if the pure version works for you first.
I prefer to use linseed oil only on applications that do not require solvents/thinners.
The solvents/thinners should be tested separately, and are not always tolerable (or needed). If you are finishing wood, it’s far more likely that tung oil will require a solvent thinner and that linseed oil (in polymerized form) will not.
How Long Does Linseed Take to Cure?
Linseed will dry within a few days.
But according to the literature, the drying (curing) reaction of linseed oil continues for many years even when the oil film effectively dried in a few days (7).
You can speed up the offgassing odor by increasing temperature and decreasing humidity. Raw linseed might be different in this regard (slower to cure), compared to modified oils with driers.
Comparison of Linseed and Tung Oil Offgassing
Tung oil has milder offgassing compared to polymerized linseed in my assessment at first, but at the end of the 30 days, tung had a stronger odor remaining.
Rubio Monocoat (modified linseed with driers), was the exception, it was far less pungent than either polymerized linseed or Tung Oil.
Surfaces to Seal with Linseed Oil
Linseed oil is mainly used to seal wood.
It should not be used on marble or granite.
Odies Oil has been used as a concrete sealer which I am quite certain is linseed based, but the ingredients are not disclosed.
(In the video, I discuss why I think Odies Oil is linseed-based.)
Is Linseed Oil Mold-Prone?
Woodworkers have varying opinions on the two oils, each camp preferring one over the other with some noting caution to linseed oil as being less mold resistant in certain conditions.
Outside in high humidity linseed does not usually do well. For indoors, with regular humidity levels, linseed oil will work just fine, and I have no trouble recommending it.
Rubio Monocoat is the exception in terms of formulas that are suited to outdoor conditions (they have one that is made for exterior applications). (This is the one that we don’t have all the ingredient disclosure for).
Tung oil has the advantage of holding up well to water and mildew outside. The Outdoor Defense Oil Is formulated for outdoor applications and is very mold resistant. It is made from tung oil, pine oil and zinc.
Top Non-Toxic Brands of Linseed Oil
1. Rubio Monocoat Linseed Oil Finish
Rubio Monocoat makes linseed-based finishes (natural and modified) that smell like honey or lemony incense.
It contains a wax component (natural and modified) as well.
They claim zero-VOCs but you should test any linseed product before using it.
Chemical Additives in Rubio Monocoat
The accelerator which is a part B drying agent lists hexamethylene diisocyanate as an ingredient (0.5%), but not all ingredients are listed.
Because part A (without the drier) takes a very long time to dry, it sounds like part raw linseed to me (though it does not smell like raw linseed). This means Part B is unknown driers and hexamethylene diisocyanate.
It does contain non-aromatic hydrocarbons which they claim are not a solvent.
I could not get the company to claim no metallic driers, though it does say it’s free of the following heavy metal drying agents: arsenic, beryllium, chromium, cadmium, nickel, lead. Other metallic driers for oil based finishes (that they don’t say they are free of) include: barium, strontium, calcium, cobalt, iron, manganese, zinc, vanadium, copper, and tin.
Note that a popular drier like manganese would make a natural oil finish not toy safe.
I will always prefer brands that disclose all their ingredients.
Why Rubio Monocoat Turned Out to be My Top Choice
Sensitive folks reporting that they really like this brand is important data, and caused me to seriously consider it.
It turned out to be my top pick based on odors, offgassing level as well as personal tolerance.
I was surprised by how mild it was from start to finish, though I did still pick up a chemical odor at 30 days in the plain color.
I was very impressed with Sapphire which I found cured to my nose at 30 days. Because it’s easy to apply, easy to touch up, and seemed to have the least offgassing, much lower than I expected, I have to say it is my top pick. Though with reservations, since we don’t know everything that is in it.
I would like the company to confirm no metals since metals are a major health problem for many of us.
Performance of Rubio Monocoat
This brand offers unique colors in their stains that few other natural brands offer (greys and white).
Be sure to sample both Part A and Part B as well as different colors, which for me tested quite differently. I tested plain and sapphire.
It also is easy to touch up which is a major bonus.
Cure Time and Offgassing Time of Rubio Monocoat
Rubio Monocoat (Part A & B mixed) takes one week to cure, they say. You can use just part A which takes 3 weeks to dry.
Although I say in the video it is approaching offgassed at 48 hours, at one week my sense of smell ramped way up (due to a reaction I had to something else), at this point, I could still smell it very noticeably.
So the time that it cures will very much be dependent on you and your level of sensitivity.
2. Tried and True – Polymerised Linseed
Tried and True is my top recommendation for pure linseed with a stain because it is totally natural and because of their full disclosure of ingredients.
No driers are used. It’s only linseed oil (and pigments and/or natural waxes in some formulas).
This company does claim that metals are not a component in their formula or pigments, other than what comes naturally from the soil.
Performance of Tried and True – Review
I really liked the look of the Java stain (pictured), it went on beautifully even though I did not sand and prep my wood properly.
That’s going to give you a high-quality stain/finish in one. I was really impressed with how the stain looked after my disaster trying to mix my own pigments with hemp oil.
They offer versions with waxes and resins as well, check out the different formulas to see which suits your project.
3. Odies Oil (Universal Finish)
Odies Oil (the Universal Finish) is another oil I tested in the video.
I suspect this to be a linseed-based finish. The ingredients are listed as: lubricating oil, drying oil, natural waxes; essential oil.
They claim solvent-free, that it contains UV inhibitors, and it has the warning for spontaneous combustion (which is seen on almost all drying oils).
My Experiment to Guess What is in Odies Oil
I made the following mix which came very close to the odor of Odies: odourless mineral oil (a solvent), linseed oil, beeswax, carnauba wax, lemon, and orange oil.
I did not get the exact match but it seemed close, therefore, that is my guess on the basics of what is in Odies Oil.
There is still another essential oil in there I think, lavender or similar – something flowery.
And there is a different mix of waxes I think, compared to my test. But I got quite close to their mix, according to my nose.
Odor and Offgassing of Odies Oil
This tested quite strong to me at first, with the essential oils being overpowering for me (I’m extremely sensitive to essential oils) in the first 24 hours, but at 48 hours that had faded significantly, and what smelled to me like linseed oil was then dominant.
Those who are reactive to essential oils might have trouble with this one, but you can see how fast it fades for you.
As always, I’m not a fan of using products that I don’t know the ingredients of, we don’t know if there are toxins in here, but it did cure faster than some of the others.
They claim 2-3 weeks to cure.
4. Other Brands
Fusion tung oil is a similar oil and stain in one but they don’t reveal all the siccatives (driers). This brand does have other products that I am a fan of, but unknown driers is not one of them.
Oils labeled as teak oil or danish oil from hardware stores are usually a mix of oils like linseed or tung, solvents, and possibly resins, UV inhibitors, and mildewcides.
I wouldn’t use those, go with one of these pure brands.
My Test Results
My test results at 24 and 48 hours are in the video.
My testing at 17 days
- Rubio 1st place
- Tried and True Java 2nd place
- Odies Oil and Tried and True still quite noticeable odor, 3rd place
- Tung actually the strongest at 17 days, last place (though I like the Milk Paint version better).
My testing at 30 days when they should all be “cured”
- Rubio Sapphire – this is the only one that seems totally cured to me at 30 days 1st place.
- Rubio plain – I can pick up the Rubio plain at 30 days though it is very light.
- Odies oil – very slight odor in 3rd place for offgassing levels
- Tried and True Java in 4th place very slight odor
- Polymerized linseed – Tried and True plain still offgassing 5th place
- Tung oil – strongest one. I do not agree that tung oil cures in 30 days, at 30 days I can still pick up the odor of one coat. I kept it at 30 C and about 50% humidity. I cannot say it is 100% offgassed. Later when I tested Milk Paint brand I was much happier with Tung Oil, and would likely choose it over linseed.
Other Natural Oil Options for Sealing Wood
If these two don’t work for you, try hemp oil. I was really happy with pure refined hemp oil. If you want a totally natural purist option, hemp is a good choice. It’s not as strong of an odor as the others.
Other finishing oils reviewed in my main post on finishes are walnut oil and rosewood. That post is also a comprehensive overview of water-based 0-VOC and non-toxic finishes for wood as well as stone and masonry.
Sealing in the Odor of Linseed and Tung oil
If you used linseed or tung oil and then found the odor is too strong for you we can mostly get rid of the linseed odor smell with the following:
Give it Time to Offgass
To get rid of the linseed or tung oil odor I would first wait 30 days if possible. The odor might not be completely gone in 30 days but it will be mostly gone.
If the oils were used on a large area like floors I would also increase heat and ventilation in that area of the home. If you can’t increase the heat, definitely increase the ventilation.
Suppress the Odor if Necessary
If you need to suppress the odor while you are still in the house, you can lower the temperature and/or lower the humidity. This will slow down the offgassing.
Seal in the Smell of Linseed or Tung Oil
The best way to seal in the odor of these oils is to use a clear shellac coat over them. You can use 1-3 coats – just keep going until you feel that you have blocked the smell.
Zinsser Bullseye shellac is a waxed shellac that is harder to go over later but is the best seal in the fewest coats.
Zinsser Sanding Sealer is a dewaxed shellac, that is thinner but will give you a decent seal with enough coats. It’s easier to use another polyurethane or paint over this in the future.
Corinne Segura is a Building Biologist with 8 years of experience helping folks create healthy homes.
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Sources for this Post
4. Identification and Quantitation of Volatile Organic Compounds from Oxidation of Linseed Oil
Juita, Bogdan Z. Dlugogorski, Eric M. Kennedy, and John C. Mackie. Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Research 2012 51 (16), 5645-5652