Updated January 2020
There are many choices for non-toxic flooring suitable for the chemically sensitive or the health-conscious individual.
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.
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
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.
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.
1. Greenest Floors “Dark Green” (0 VOC, No Offgassing)
i. Natural Solid Hard Wood
Natural wood flooring is usually my number one choice. However, wood contains natural terpenes that do bother some, and they can contain anti-sapstain chemicals which could explain why some people react to wood used in building and not wood in the forest.
Aromatic woods like pine have much higher natural volatile compounds than maple, for example.
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.
I go into detail on more options for wood sealers and stains in my post on sealers.
Wood Floor Glues
For subfloor glues, my top pick is definitely AFM Almighty Adhesive which is safe and highly tolerable. If that doesn’t work for you, try Liquid Nails Subfloor Adhesive. You don’t need to use subfloor glue though!
These big-box stores have networks of installers. I tend to go with the installers that work with Lumber Liquidators, but other stores have good networks as well.
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
Non-toxic underlayment types are silicone backed paper (for the most sensitive) or Rosin paper. Nail down installation with a paper underneath is less toxic than the glue-down method. 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, you just have to find someone who specializes in that system.
Most polished concrete systems use sodium silicate or potassium silicate which are very safe and benign. Polished concrete is breathable which makes it one of the best flooring types alongside tile for over a 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.
Types of Non-Toxic Tiles:
Marble tile is good in theory, but 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. 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 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 these 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, granite, soapstone, and limestone are all 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. Though I have not seen hemp oil used in this application, it is a drying oil, so this should work in theory. Walnut is a semi-drying oil so I would have some reservations in putting it over a large area. The post on sealers explains this further.
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 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.
Porcelain tiles are inert and safe. I have not seen evidence that porcelain tile contains lead. A benefit of both porcelain and ceramic tiles is you won’t have to seal them.
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 and healthy, most types are too slippery to use on the floor. Some have used some types on the floor, but I would recommend these only for walls and backsplashes.
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 is made from linseed, binders, wood flour, limestone and dry pigments which are mixed and then calendared onto a natural jute backing. It’s got a UV cured sealer on top.
This is the glue used to install it.
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 I recommend (the sheet) is glue down. The tiles (MCT) are also glue down, they have a plastic backing (not PVC) it’s slightly more rigid and would generally work better in a trailer. 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 no 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. 0-VOC Engineered Wood
While many engineered woods have significant offgassing (see section below), Kahrs brand has zero added formaldehyde and claims 0 added VOCs. I tested it and found it to be quite good.
Here is my more detailed review of my look at this floor. Here are their test results with Total VOC 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 and two of the VOCs are terpenes naturally occurring from wood.
Despite all this, most folks do really well with Kahrs, and it is usually the first option in the engineered category I look at with clients unless they know this won’t work for them.
The next option I would look at is Cali Bamboo Geowood. I really like their limestone substrate, it is highly tolerable and much healthier and than the standard substrate in most brands (normally substrate is a wood and glue mixture. This one does claim formaldehyde-free and was tested by Green Design Center. I did pick up the offgassing in the finish.
Lauzon engineered flooring
Made in Canada, Lauzon also claims 0-VOC and 0 formaldehyde, but like Kahrs, when digging into their fact sheets on specific flooring, this did not seem to be the case on each type.
Check out Anderson and Whickham brands which have also made claims of 0-VOC.
Use floating where possible, not glue down. The Kahrs underlayment is excellent.
For natural, non-toxic carpet or natural fibers and synthetics can be good.
No flame retardants, no mothproofing, no stain repellent, natural padding and either no adhesive or a non-toxic adhesive.
The most sensitive will want undyed natural carpet. Not all do well with the natural smell of wool though, and you might be pleasantly surprised with some of the non-toxic synthetic options below.
I have reservations about natural latex which are outlined in this post on mattresses, and I’m not sure if the same precautions need to be taken with carpet. I personally have a slight preference for synthetic backing.
Non-Toxic Natural Fiber Carpets
The best non-toxic chemical-free wool carpets are:
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. Natural Home Products – wool, contains natural latex, but checks all other boxes.
4. Hibernia wool. I have sniffed Hibernia and it does have a wooly smell (as you would expect), but not a chemical smell. The company has since changed ownership (2018). They do use mothproofing (typically permethrin is used on wool carpets).
5. 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
Top two pics for non-toxic synthetic residential carpet are:
1. Home Fresh – My top pick for synthetics carpet (polyester), this carpet contains charcoal which absorbs some VOCs (up to a point) and was extremely low in odor and offgassing. The carpet does have Scotch Guard coating on it so I do not know how they can claim 0 VOC exactly. The backing is a built-in felt backing, which seemed good to me.
I got a sample that was a few months old, but it has stayed bagged up, and I found it to be very good, extremely low in offgassing. I did not pick up classic carpet offgassing at all. Though it is not 100% odorless, it is close, and did not seem like an offensive odor to me. If you don’t have an extreme sense of smell you may very well find this odorless.
I was actually quite surprised as I have sniffed many carpets. This is my top pick for a green healthy synthetic carpet. Available in the US (not Canada). For $350 off, email me for a discount link (or try this link).
(Note: I’ve been recommending them as my top choice for 2 years before they had this referral program and despite the company refusing to send me a sample directly or answer my questions. I just actually think this is an impressive carpet).
2. Flor 0 Fedora a low-VOC which is made from recycled plastic, it was less of that telltale carpet chemical smell. It offgassed to “odorless” way faster than their standard type. You will need to test their “dots” that attach these to the floor as well. This Fedora line does not hold up well with pets and does not look super durable, though some might prefer this carpet because of how fast it offgasses.
If you have conventional carpet in your house that is still offgassing, seal in the VOCs with Carpet Seal.
Commercial Grade Carpets
Commercial grade carpet is a lot harder to find in low-VOC. I have reviewed and sniffed a few of the ones that claim the lowest VOC levels.
Flor: Most of their carpets are commercial grade. They claim they have the lowest VOC levels in the industry as of 2017, though when probed for information on their VOC levels or any evidence to substantiate that claim, they did not have any.
They have Green Label Plus which you can find almost anywhere now and is not a low level of VOC. However, when testing their carpet it did not have that tell-tale new carpet smell.
The initial offgassing was as strong as other regular brands but it seemed less offensive (I know everyone is different here). But, what did impress me was that the sample offgassed way faster than other brands that have the tell-tale new carpet smell. A few weeks outside and it is fairly tolerable for a conventional carpet.
The other good option for commercial grade is wool. Though commercial companies are more reluctant to use wool because it is more expensive.
Godfrey Hirst wool commercial carpets show test results of very low VOC levels. Though they do have that classic carpet smell and it does contain mothproofing (permethrin).
Woolshire wool is also rated for commercial, I found it much more tolerable than Godfrey – it smells wooly but not like chemicals. It does have mothproofing in it. It smells similar to Hibernia brand. If I was picking a commercial brand I would consider Woolshire first and then Flor.
Some of Earth Weave’s lines can be used in light commercial applications and those do not contain mothproofing or other chemical treatments. In a light commercial setting, this is the greenest way to go.
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.
Carpets with a conventional synthetic backing (but not Flor), can be glued down with AFM 3 in 1.
I have a separate post devoted to non-toxic area rugs.
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 laminates now are 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 it does not help you to distinguish between them.
Formaldehyde-Free Laminate Floors
Many 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 only go with GreenGuard Gold Certification as this is the strictest level of formaldehyde 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 offgas (possibly MDI).
My Top Brands
Swiss Krono, Home Decorators Collection and Traffic Master meet GreenGuard Gold and I found them very low in offgassing. Pergo was also low in offgassing, though I could not tell the age of the samples.
Here is my video review of 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 offgas quicker – to me it seemed 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 which is a bonus.
3. Light Green (Low-VOC)
i. Engineered Woods
Junkers, Wood Flooring International all meet EU emission standards. WD brand is one recommended by sensitive folks.
The substrates can still be problematic. Many use phenol-formaldehyde which offgasses relatively quickly.
This may work for some but they are not in the same category as the formaldehyde-free versions above.
Cork like wood has a natural odor (terpenes). A resin is used to bind all the small pieces of cork together into flat pieces (I have seen polyurethane binders which I find to have strong offgassing that persists). In theory, you can make tiles or rolls without resin (they heat press them for some insulation) but this is not how cork flooring is made.
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 or substrate which tends to be problematic in terms of chemical offgassing. It is finished with urethanes/acrylic which may be tolerable once cured.
I have tested Cali Bamboo cork which I found to be the best one. US Floors was the second best. NOVA and Cancork smelled very strong to me.
Here is my Facebook post about the testing of these brands. These floors claim to be green, but the offgassing is higher than I would go for and that’s why they are in the light green category.
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.
iii. Bamboo Flooring
Bamboo requires resin or adhesives to hold the top layer pieces together, a substrate and a finish. However, 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.
Cali Bamboo GeoCore is made on a limestone-based core which I found tolerable.
The other type that is very solid is the Ecofusion, which is not the typical engineered product it is 100% bamboo through and through (with the usual glues. I look at it in this flooring video here.
iv. Magnetic Ceramic Tiles
I tested Kablan’s magnetic ceramic tiles. These are ceramic tiles with a magnetic backing. The other side of the magnet is an underlayment that is glued down to the floor.
I found they the magnetic backing components did have a moderately strong smell, though you may not be able to smell them once the floor is installed.
My video review of them here. You may have areas where you want tiles that you can pull up.
v. Luxury Vinyl Plank
Luxury vinyl plank (LVP) is much more tolerable than people generally think. I know, most of us think vinyl is one of the worst options. It is low-VOC, and mostly phthalate-free now.
But I do have concerns over small amounts of metals explained more below
Should you Consider Vinyl as a Safe Choice?
This might be one of your first considerations for an RV, and can be considered if engineered and laminate floors don’t work for you, or if you are in the mild to moderately sensitive category.
Brands of LVP
I 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 but they claim phthalate-free.
Armstrong has three different thicknesses. The least thick 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, slightly higher VOCs in my estimation than the thinnest option.
I don’t like the cork backing on the “Best” as the glues are higher in offgassing. All the Armstrong vinyl I have reviewed is phthalate-free.
Out of the Home Depot brands, Traffic Master was the thinnest one. Life Brand to me seemed to have the lowest offgassing of the Home Depot Brands, though the underlayment offgassing was strong to me. 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.
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
Kahrs Engineered – Materials $5-12/sq ft, labor $3-10/sq ft
Home Depot Brands engineered start at $3/ sq ft for materials
Marmoleum – Materials $4.50-5/sq ft, labour $1-4/sq ft
LVP – 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
Laminate – Home Decorators Collection $1.30-2/sqft
Trafic Master $0.50-2/sq ft
Cork $8-10/sq ft including installation
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