Updated Fall 2020
There are many choices for non-toxic flooring suitable for the chemically sensitive or the health-conscious homeowner.
The best options are real hardwood, polished concrete, and tile. But specific brands of natural linoleum, carpet, and engineered wood are excellent choices as well.
I will look at a few options that are still non-toxic, but not quite as healthy, like luxury vinyl plank, laminate, cork, and bamboo.
If you need assistance choosing the best floor for your sensitivities, budget and area of the house, please contact me for a one-on-one consultation.
This post covers green non-toxic flooring divided into three categories, starting with the purest options:
1. The Greenest Options (Dark Green)
2. Medium Green
3. Light Green
I recommend all of the products here, some products have affiliate programs and some do not. Upon purchase, I earn a small commission through affiliate links at no extra cost to you.
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1. Greenest Floors “Dark Green” (0 VOC, No Offgassing)
i. Natural Solid Hard Wood
Natural wood flooring is usually my number one choice. It’s one of the purest and safest options. A few caveats for those extremely sensitive:
Wood contains natural terpenes that are safe (and even beneficial) for healthy folks, but do bother some extremely sensitive people. Aromatic woods like pine have higher natural volatile compounds than maple, as an example.
Flooring can contain anti-sapstain chemicals, which could explain why a few people react to wood used in building and not wood in the forest. Not all of these treatments are harmful.
Wood also has a higher possibility of harboring mold than less porous materials. To prevent mold you should make sure your wood has been kiln-dried and kept dry at the store and onsite. In normal conditions, this is not an issue.
I go into detail on more options for wood sealers and stains in my post on sealers.
Wood Floor Glues
These big-box stores have networks of installers.
Usually finished with aluminum oxide infused polyurethane and cured under UV lights, these are typically very well tolerated once cured. I consider this to be a safe product even for the chemically sensitive. Test it first. It is close to 0-VOC.
This finish has two main benefits, not having to finish it in house and the finish partially blocks the wood odor.
Install of Hardwood
My post on non-toxic underlayments includes silicone backed paper (for the most sensitive) or Rosin paper. Nail down installation is less toxic than glue-down. You may need a small amount of regular wood glue on the last piece, or you may be able to face nail.
ii. Polished Concrete
If polished concrete flooring makes you think IKEA warehouse, think again, polished concrete can look beautiful and be green and healthy.
The Retroplate system uses “liquid glass” (a modified sodium silicate) and is completely non-toxic and 0-VOC. This option is available across Canada and the US.
Most polished concrete systems use sodium silicate or potassium silicate which are very safe and benign. Polished concrete is vapor breathable which makes it one of the best flooring types, alongside tile, over a concrete slab.
You can do acid stains, add natural pigments, use white cement, or add white sand to Portland Cement to get many different unique and modern looks.
Other concrete sealers
A lot of people want to know if epoxy sealers are non-toxic. Epoxy is a two-part sealer, where each part, in theory, comes to a complete chemical reaction with the other. In reality, it’s not that neat. It’s likely to offgas even if it claims 0 VOC.
Eventually, it should come to a complete cure. I don’t advise epoxy over a slab or basement floor, where it’s best to have it be able to dry to the inside.
Types of Non-Toxic Tiles:
Marble tile is good in theory. Most of it has a resin put on it at the factory to fill in tiny holes and fissures, and it might have a (chemical) sealant on it as well. The resin seems to cure and be fine for most people, the sealer is not as good for a couple reasons. Look for honed stones you can seal yourself.
A pure slab, or tile, that does not have a glossy finish can be sealed with a natural or low toxin sealer.
Slate is also good, you can find it unsealed like these tiles from Home Depot. Though like marble, a resin is used to fill lines and pits.
Concrete tiles have beautiful designs. You may want to ask what additives are in the concrete and test them out for tolerability. I sealed my concrete tiles with AFM Penetrating Water Stop. You can also use tung oil or Meta Cream.
Other natural stones like travertine, soapstone, and limestone are great options for green healthy floors. Always check if a resin or sealer is already applied, and then check to see which natural sealers will work over the stone of your choosing. Honed stones (i.e. not glossy) are the easiest to seal with a natural pure option. Very dense stones like many granite types and some slate do not require a sealer at all (bonus).
Tile Sealers: Budding green companies now make walnut oil and hemp oil that can be used on natural stone and concrete. I have tested the natural oils on slate, light-colored marble and dark-colored marble. Walnut oil is the preferred oil for most indoor stones, as hemp can turn the color, and tung is too thick.
Ceramic tiles have a high incidence of lead in the glaze. Ask for lead test results from the company and do a simple 3M Lead Swab (those are useful on a number of household items, and they are affordable). But to pick up lower levels of lead, you need to hire someone who has an XRF tool.
Lead in Tiles: All ceramic/porcelain tiles should be tested for lead. A client just tested American made tiles that stated they were lead-free, but when tested they showed high levels of lead. So it might be wise to test any glazed tile regardless of origin. And be extra careful when removing them as the lead dust is particularly harmful. Tile over existing lead tiles if possible, instead of removing.
Once you have ruled out lead, ceramic and Porcelain tiles are inert and safe. Plus, you don’t have to seal them. My post on grout and thinset looks closely at the other components used in the install.
Wood-look tiles claim to be 0-VOC even though there is a printed image on them. The glaze seems to block this. I have tested them and I do not detect anything that is different from regular tiles. Wood-look tiles are usually porcelain but can be ceramic.
Glass tiles are inert, but most types are too slippery to use on the floor. Some folks have found a way to use some glass tile types on the floor, but it’s an unusual application and not something I have found available for purchase.
Air Cleaning Tiles
Crossville Tiles have a coating option called Hydrotect. This uses the PCO process to clean the air. A layer of non-toxic titanium dioxide is used to coat the tiles. This reacts with UV light, and just like the PCO air purifiers I reviewed, creates a reaction that can break down some bacteria, molds, VOCs, and viruses. I don’t know how impactful this tile coating will be to the overall air quality in a room. The company does have some reports that show a reduction in bacteria, which may be worthwhile for some folks.
If you read my article on PCO air filters you will remember that some people have a bad reaction to this process. It’s possible that in a high VOC area it creates formaldehyde, or in a clean environment, it can create NOx. I would try out a PCO air purifier before installing this tile, to make sure it works well for you.
This air cleaning technology is also used on wood floors.
2. Medium Green (0 to Low-VOC)
i. Natural Linoleum
Marmoleum, the only natural linoleum currently available in North America, is made from linseed oil, binders, wood flour, limestone, and dry pigments. They are mixed and then calendared onto a backing. It’s got a UV cured sealer on top.
I found that after one month the odor all but disappeared from the product – though many people say the odor never disappears 100%. I am using this in my trailer. I was surprised and impressed since I don’t normally do well with linseed.
Three Types of Marmoleum
- The roll down flooring that is the most typical kind (the sheet) has a jute backing and is glue down.
- The tiles (MCT) are also glue down, they have a polyester backing (not jute, and not fiberglass as some websites say) and are slightly more rigid.
- The “click” is the same sheet (roll down material) mounted onto a substrate of HDF and cork. It takes longer to offgas, but it has the advantage of not needing glue.
This is one of my top flooring choices, I recommend it often and it looks cool as well. I like many of the colors and the concrete look.
ii. Engineered Wood
Most brands of engineered wood floors now are 0-VOC or close to it, even if they are not marketed that way.
What to Look for
- A plywood base/substrate
- A stain/varnish that is 0 VOC
Plywood is made with formaldehyde but by the time this product gets to you, it technically is considered cured. They can usually claim that this is no longer offgassing formaldehyde. It’s only the extremely sensitive who should make sure this is good enough.
There are a few brands that use a fibreboard base so check to see what the substrate is.
The hybrid type described below has a PVC base.
Most finishes on engineered wood have no offgassing or close to it. I look for water-based UV cured, which is polyurethane. This usually has aluminum oxide in it and it very close to 0-VOC.
There are also 0-VOC oil-based finishes which are also UV cured. The UV curing speeds up the offgassing so that it is much faster than it would be if you applied it yourself. Both are worth checking out.
Sometimes the stain has a bit of a VOC odor, but you will only know by getting samples yourself, since all brands could qualify for the strictest certifications.
Kahrs is a top brand that has been marketed as “green” or “eco”. They claim zero added formaldehyde and zero added VOCs. I tested it and found it to be quite good.
Here is my look at their different lines, and here are their test results. With a total VOC level of 50 ug/m3, it’s still not clear to me how three of those five chemicals are not added to the glues or finish. However, that is still an extremely low level of VOCs, and two of the VOCs are terpenes naturally occurring from wood.
The majority of folks do well with Kahrs, but many other brands are just as good.
There are many brands that are good. Lauzon and Home Crafters (from Home Depot!) in Canada. Tesoro, Cali Meritage, USFloors, Whickham, Azur Reserve, and Rockwood, are American brands. There are so many more.
A category of engineered wood that is actually a vinyl/wood hybrid has wood on the top layer and vinyl composite as the base layer.
Cali Bamboo Geowood is one I really liked. It is very tolerable, and for those sensitive to wood, this limestone/PVC substrate (SPC) may be preferable to a plywood base for some people. Plywood will have that odor of pine/spruce/fir and is made with some formaldehyde.
This one is formaldehyde-free and it was tested by Green Design Center. I did pick up some offgassing in the stain on the top.
Another similar (and inexpensive) wood/vinyl hybrid is Opti-Wood. You can find this at Home Depot (in Canada and the US). It’s well priced, and I did not pick up offgassing in the top layer in the samples I bought. The wood layer eliminates the higher offgassing top layer of vinyl in LVP and it should prevent a lot of the leaching of plasticizers.
In most situations, engineered wood with a plywood base is preferable. But there are reasons to use the hybrid. It eliminates that pine/spruce/fir odor and also doesn’t have an discernible PVC odor.
iii. Healthy Carpet
For safe, non-toxic carpet, both natural fibers and synthetics can be healthy. If you are interested in carpet, I have a whole post dedicated to this topic that goes into detail on brands, chemical treatments, and how the installation affects toxicity.
I have a separate post devoted to non-toxic area rugs.
Non-Toxic Natural Fiber Carpet
1. Earth Weave – wool, no mothproofing, no other treatments, does contain latex. I always prefer undyed wool for the very sensitive.
2. Nature’s Carpet – wool – contains natural latex adhesive. The dark green line does not have mothproofing and uses undyed wool. The medium green line does not contain natural latex, which for me is a big plus, but it does contain mothproofing.
3. Seagrass – I really like seagrass carpet because of how it feels underfoot. The DMI brand makes one I like that is not dyed or treated with insecticides or other chemicals. It does contain natural latex.
Non-Toxic Synthetic Carpet
1. Home Fresh – One of my top picks for synthetic carpet (PET polyester) with a felt backing. It was extremely low in odor and offgassing. It does contain Scotchguard.
See the carpet post for more details.
2. Air.o by Mohawk – My other top pick for synthetic, this carpet is very similar to Homefresh. The carpet fibers are made from 100% PET (polyester). They claim it has no odor and is 0-VOC. Some sellers list it as containing Scotchguard treatment.
It has a similar felt padding which is far superior health-wise to typical polyurethane or latex rubber.
3. FLOR – makes carpet tiles which can be arranged as rugs or wall to wall carpeting.
Their regular nylon lines have a different type of offgassing odor than typical carpet, not necessarily less strong, but it did offgas faster.
The Fedora line is made from recycled plastic (PET) and is very low VOC, it quickly approached odorless, in my opinion.
Commercial Grade Carpets
Low-VOC commercial carpet is harder to find than residential. I have reviewed and sniffed a few of the ones that claim to have the lowest VOC levels.
There are wool and synthetic commercial options reviewed in my dedicated carpet post.
Can Carpet ever be a Healthy Flooring?
Because carpet does collect dust, mold spores, pesticides, flame retardants and all types of contaminants and allergens that ride on dust, a HEPA vacuum like the Nilfisk is essential for cleaning.
Terrazzo is a little complex as there are different materials, resins and sealers involved. But there are systems that are 0-VOC and low-VOC.
v. Laminate Flooring
Most (or possibly all) laminates in North America are now low-VOC.
Look for brands that have certifications, there are many, but GreenGuard Gold is the best certification for laminate.
Most brands can easily meet the other certification levels, so those does not help to distinguish between them.
Formaldehyde-Free Laminate Floors
Most are formaldehyde-free in the core (or more accurately said, no added formaldehyde).
Make sure they are not made with MDF, which is usually high in formaldehyde. Almost all brands are now are made with an HDF backing.
I would go with GreenGuard Gold Certification if you can, as this is the strictest level of formaldehyde allowed (0.0073 ppm), far below any of the other certification levels.
This is “background levels”, there is as much formaldehyde in the outdoor air. This is not the laminate from years ago!
A number of other brands have this certification as well. It’s possible to make HDF without harmful adhesives, but it seems that the formaldehyde has been replaced with undisclosed glues that do still offgas noticeably (possibly MDI glue). It’s wise to check out samples of a few brands.
My Top Brands
Pergo was also low in offgassing, though I could not tell the age of the samples. They used to have Greenguard Gold certification before they were bought out by Mohawk. I don’t think the glues have likely changed, Mohawk simply doesn’t use Greenguard.
Some lines are “waterproof” – they have an extra component of wax on the tongue and groove parts. I did not find these to be higher in offgassing. I tested all the Pergo lines and they were all similar.
Here is my video review of the brands you can buy at Home Depot, I was impressed.
Home Decorators Collection seemed lower in offgassing straight out of the box, but Traffic Master offgassed quicker – to me it seemed to almost fully offgassed in about a month. Whereas, HDC did not seem to have made much progress at all in a month.
Green Brands of Laminate Flooring?
Brands sold at green supply stores like Eurostyle (by the large worldwide company Krono Flooring) were not able to say their actual formaldehyde or VOC levels, and only cited their certifications, and so they did not provide any information to distinguish themselves from the competition.
This type of flooring can be floating – it doesn’t require adhesive during installation, which is a bonus. My post on underlayment goes through the choices there.
vi. Zero-VOC Resilient Flooring
Most sheet flooring is vinyl sheet which I find far too high in offgassing. Marmoleum mentioned above is another type of resilient flooring.
Recently though, there are a few very healthy additions to this category.
UPO by Kahrs makes three really great options. Xpression and Zero Tile are made of safer plastics – TPE and polyolefin (which in this case almost certainly means polyethylene and/or polypropylene). No plasticizers and no PVC.
Quartz tile, their stiffer flooring has a base of the mineral quartz and PVC, with no phthalates and no DHEP. It’s virtually odorless, even lower odor than LVP. Nothing like the usual vinyl rolls.
Another new healthy resilient flooring is Shaw Contract’s commercial bio-based polyurethane. It’s made of 90% natural oils (but not linseed) and minerals. It barely has an odor. The backing contains PE and fiberglass and gives off a very slight odor.
You would have to check out the glues as well for each of the floors you are considering.
3. Light Green (Low-VOC)
Cork like wood has a natural odor (terpenes). But with cork flooring, a resin (glue) is used to press and bind all the small pieces of cork together into flat sheets.
I have seen polyurethane glues used which I find to have strong offgassing that persists. Polyvinyl acetate can also be added.
Every cork flooring I have tested is too high in offgassing for me to consider.
In theory, you can heat press cork like they do with some insulation, but this is not how cork flooring is made. That only works with insulation.
An adhesive is also required either to glue it down (and there are 0-VOC glues for this) or, in the floating floors it is usually glued to a fiberboard (HDF) substrate, which has its own offgassing. Though some floating floor brands are cork through and through.
It is finished with urethanes or acrylic which are likely tolerable once cured and are far less of a concern than the glues used to press it together.
Brands of Cork Flooring
I tested Cali Bamboo cork (when they had the type with cork on the top layer) which I found to be the best one at the time. They claim no added urea-formaldehyde (which indicates phenol formaldehyde is added).
US Floors Cork was the second best – this is GreenGuard Gold certified which means the adhesive is almost certainly not formaldehyde. Though the replacement polyurethane glues seem just as high in offgassing to me.
NOVA Cork (38 ug/m3 formaldehyde) and Cancork (no added formaldehyde in the adhesive) smelled very strong to me, and were the strongest of the four.
Here is my Facebook post about the sniff testing of these brands. These floors claim to be green, but the offgassing is higher than I would ever go for, and that’s why they are in the light green category.
I clicked two pieces together and put a small amount of water on it. Here are my photos from my test – a small amount of water did go through in between the seams. I personally would not use this flooring in a wet room.
Floors with some Cork
Some flooring that has a cork core and laminate on top can sometimes be referred to as cork flooring even though it has a laminate or plastic top.
Cali Bamboo Silverwood falls into this category, which is cork with a laminate/ceramic top, as well as Woodwise which has a PET plastic (not vinyl) engineered top layer.
ii. Bamboo Flooring
Bamboo requires resin or adhesives to hold the strands together, most have a substrate and then a finish. There are many that are GreenGuard certified for low emissions.
This wood is known to be problematic in that it can shrink, expand and do poorly with water/moisture/spills.
It doesn’t do well in high humidity (warp) or very low humidity (crack).
Cali Bamboo GeoCore is made on a limestone-based core which I found quite impressive in how low VOC it was.
The other type that is very solid is the Ecofusion, which is not the typical engineered product – it is 100% bamboo through and through. I look at it in this flooring video here.
Formaldehyde is a typical glue in bamboo flooring. If it doesn’t have formaldehyde it will have isocyanate based glue (like MDI) or soy flour polyamide-epichlorohydrin (PAE) resin. The bamboo is also treated with borates. The finish is usually UV urethane acrylate finish containing aluminum oxide. (Source: Pharos project)
iii. Magnetic Ceramic Tiles
I tested Kablan’s magnetic ceramic tiles. These are ceramic tiles with a magnetic backing. The other side to the magnet is an underlayment that is glued down to the floor.
I found that the magnetic backing components did have a moderately strong smell, though you may not be able to smell them once the floor is installed.
I have a video review of them here. Since the video, they have made these tiles lighter in weight. You may have areas where you want tiles that you can pull up. It’s a cool idea, I quite liked them.
iv. Luxury Vinyl Plank
Luxury vinyl plank (LVP) is much lower in offgassing than people generally think.
I know, most of us think vinyl is one of the worst options.
It is very low-VOC, and most of it is phthalate-free now – though those were replaced with alternate plasticizers.
There is a huge difference between LVP and sheet vinyl flooring. Sheet vinyl is way higher in offgassing.
However, I do pick up the chemical odor off every brand I have sampled and I do have concerns about plasticizers (which all brands contain), and small amounts of metals (explained more below).
This type has a core (SPC or WPC), vinyl top, and an underlayment. It is click together.
Most of the LVP click together flooring has an SPC (stone polymer composite) core – a mix of limestone, PVC and plasticizer.
Only a few brands have WPC (wood plastic composite), these used to have real wood but now the ones I’m seeing are plastic. They have an added foaming agent, which can be formamide.
I can’t make a generalization about which one is lower in offgassing, it’s been variable.
Should you Consider Vinyl as a Safe Flooring Choice?
This might be one of your first considerations for an RV, and can be considered if engineered wood and laminate floors don’t work for you. They can also be considered by anyone in the mild to moderately sensitive category.
Non-Toxic Brands of LVP
I sniff tested Armstrong and Cali Bamboo brands – both surprised me in how low the offgassing was.
I also tried the brands you can find at Home Depot which I review here. Armstrong and Cali Bamboo are still my top choices.
Cali brand has a limestone backing which is excellent in terms of health and safety (much preferred over vinyl and/or cork backing).
Cali discloses their testing and the VOC levels are extremely low. Here are their phthalate testing results (they are not phthalate-free).
Use a floating floor instead of glue down when possible. You don’t always have to go with the branded underlayment for all floors, but the Cali underlayment is very good.
An alternative to Cali is Tesoro, which also has a limestone backing and they claim it is phthalate-free.
Armstrong has three different thicknesses. The thinnest one (called Good) as shown here, has the least offgassing, however, it’s a glue down floor. “Better” and “Best” are thicker and are click together, and are slightly higher VOCs in my estimation than the thinnest option.
I don’t like the cork backing on the “Best” as the glues in cork are higher in offgassing. All the Armstrong vinyl I have reviewed is phthalate-free.
Home Depot Brands
Home Decorators was similar to Traffic Master. All brands sold at Home Depot, Lowe’s, and Lumber Liquidators are phthalate-free.
Double-check on all brands to make sure it’s virgin (not recycled) vinyl.
Phthalate-Free Vinyl Flooring and Replacement Plasticizers
Phthalate-free brands are preferable – which most are now. If phthalates (also known as ortho-phthalates) are not used, other plasticizers will be used instead.
Replacement plasticizers include DOTP (also called DEHT). Some may contain benzoate ester (Source).
Toxic Metals in Vinyl Flooring
Organotins (a form of tin) can be used in the top layer. Antimicrobials can be used, usually in the underlayment. I have seen various types, including silver. EHN found the heavy metal cadmium recently in vinyl floors (probably recycled ones, they say).
It’s important to avoid recycled vinyl. Lumber Liquidators and Floor & Decor banned recycled vinyl to avoid the associated toxic contaminants like metals and halogenated flame retardants.
Lead, cadmium, chromium, and mercury can be present and are only officially limited (not banned), as far as I have seen, by Floor and Decor.
Though antimony, bromine, and lead have been virtually eliminated according to the latest study.
Offgassing of VOCs in Vinyl Flooring
Sheet vinyl is higher offgassing than LVP. I have seen this is the 0.5 – 5 mg/m3 Total VOC range, whereas vinyl click will be less than 0.5 mg/m3.
It gives off small amounts of aldehydes as well as a couple of other VOCs. These are less of a concern to me than plasticizers which are a longer-lasting and more concerning class of chemicals.
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Cost Comparison of Green Flooring 2020 (USD)
- Wood $8 – 10 / sq ft including installation
- Polished concrete is $8 – 15 / sq ft for residential
- Stain and sealed concrete – materials $1/ sq ft (unless you are pouring the concrete or have lots of prep)
- Tiles are usually $8 – 10 / sq ft but it depends on the tiles (tiles come in a wide range of costs) and prep of subfloor/installation difficulty
- Marble floor material costs are $10 – $20 / sq ft (specialty marbles can go up to $40 per square foot). Labor is an additional $3 to $7 / sq ft
- Kahrs Engineered – Materials $5 – 12 / sq ft, labor $3 – 10 / sq ft
- Home Depot Brands engineered wood start at $3 / sq ft for materials
- Marmoleum – Materials $4.50 – 5 / sq ft, labour $1 – 4 / sq ft
- Wool Carpet J Mish $4 – $8, Earthweave $6, Nature’s Carpet $7 / sq ft
- Cali bamboo – under $3.30-5 / sq ft, labour about $3-4 / sq ft for click
Armstrong starts at $1 / sq ft for materials
Home Depot brands $1-3 / sq ft
- Cali bamboo – under $3.30-5 / sq ft, labour about $3-4 / sq ft for click
- Home Decorators Collection $1.30-2 / sq ft, labour $3-4 / sq ft
Trafic Master $0.50-2 / sq ft
Pergo $2-3 / sq ft
- Home Decorators Collection $1.30-2 / sq ft, labour $3-4 / sq ft
- Cork $8-10 / sq ft including installation
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