If you need assistance choosing the best cabinets for your sensitivities, please contact me for a one-on-one consultation.
Conventional cabinets have been a large source of VOCs in the kitchen, with all conventional brands using some kind of pressed wood, MDF, plywood or particleboard (or melamine with a particleboard interior) which typically give off formaldehyde.
There are pressed wood products with no formaldehyde added now and some cabinets makers are using these.
The move towards CARB II and GreenGuard Gold has greatly improved the formaldehyde levels in the conventional options in recent years.
Finishes are likely to be toxic unless stated otherwise. Many are low-VOC, but that term tends to be too vague for the chemically sensitive. Not many have taken the leak towards 0 VOC yet.
Healthy Cabinet Materials
Healthy cabinets would be made of solid wood, plywood or pressed wood without formaldehyde, or metal. Sometimes glass or MgO board can be used.
Of course, some are sensitive to the terpenes of wood and wood can also pick up and hold onto secondary odors. My cabinets are solid wood, but the reason cabinets are made of pressed wood products is that solid wood can warp in the kitchen.
1. Metal Cabinets
There are companies that make metal kitchen cabinets:
Bertolini (affordable, 100% metal).
Fadior makes stainless steel cabinets.
IMD has no wood and no adhesives (North America and Europe).
Pedini (high-end) An Italian company that was at the forefront of green cabinetry. They offer some metal options.
When shopping for metal cabinets you want to see if there are any non-metal components and what those are.
2. Solid Wood Cabinets
Healthy Cabinet Makers make solid wood cabinets aimed at the chemically sensitive.
It’s rare to find cabinets made out of solid wood, so I would certainly go with a company that has expertise with this type of construction.
Solid wood is prone to warping in high humidity, which is why most cabinets are not solid.
This company also has a commitment to healthy finishes.
3. Low-VOC and Formaldehyde-Free Cabinets
i. KERF makes cool looking cabinets out of Purebond (formaldehyde-free) plywood, and zero-VOC finishes. (Pictured left).
ii. Neil Nelly Cabinets makes low-VOC wooden cabinets with no-added-formaldehyde cases/drawers with low VOC glues, adhesives, and finishes.
iii. Executive Cabinetry uses Purebond no added formaldehyde plywood.
iv. Another popular brand is Crystal Cabinets, their finishes aren’t perfect, but a major upside is you can finish them yourself.
This is often the top pick for many in the high-end green market. This post lists non-toxic cabinet paint and finishes.
v. Bellmont Cabinetry offers a line called Eco-Core that is melamine with no added formaldehyde.
vi. Taylor Made Cabinets offers no added formaldehyde cabinets, with plywood boxes and solid wood
vii. Royal Cabinets makes a line called Green Leaf that has no added formaldehyde and low-VOC finishes.
viii. The Breathe Easy line uses formaldehyde-free plywood, and non-toxic finishes and glues.
Some of the same companies that make kitchen cabinets also make non-toxic bathroom vanities and closets. Here is a company making solid wood closets.
4. Fully Custom-Made Cabinets
Cabinets can be made with a combination of solid wood, Purebond (formaldehyde-free plywood), possibly formaldehyde-free particleboard, or MgO board.
Purebond plywood is made of “soy glue” which is the same or similar to polyurethane glue. Not all sensitive folks do well with this.
Personally I would choose plywood made with phenol-formaldehyde (which offgasses quickly and fully) over formaldehyde-free brands.
Drawers can be made of mostly metal.
My cabinets, pictured, are custom made with solid wood on the doors/face. MgO was used for the boxes. IKEA metal drawers were used for the drawers, with MgO as the base of the drawer.
The wood did warp a little in my kitchen (this was poplar wood).
Some ideas to cut down on costs while keeping the cabinets low in toxicity:
- Use shelves instead of upper cabinets – either wood, glass or metal
- Salvage cabinets and countertops from demolitions as they may have off-gassed or you may find metal ones
- DIY simple open shelving made of solid wood, tadelakt, metal, or glass
- Metal and glass cabinets you can custom make or make yourself here is a description and instructions from Build a Healthy House
- Incorporate affordable metal drawers or shelves inside of cabinets (like my IKEA parts)
5. Non-Toxic Outdoor Kitchen Cabinets
Non-toxic outdoor kitchen cabinets can be made of polyethylene or metal.
Folks who have not found a suitable material in indoor options might use the outdoor styles inside.
You could, of course, use these outside as intended, as well.
One benefit here is you might find modular options in this category easily at big box stores.
6. Less Toxic Big Box Store Cabinets
Less sensitive folks have reported doing well with Thomasville brand cabinets from Home Depot and the lacquered VEDDINGE cabinets from IKEA.
In fact, many people are finding that since CARB II came into effect, regular cabinets are fine for them. You may want to compare some, look for GreenGuard Gold if possible and check out the different finishes for yourself.
In cabinets with a lacquer or melamine finish on the outside, this does appear to block a lot of the offgassing. If the edges are sealed in by the finish, that is even better.
If they are not, they can be sealed with AFM products as outlined in the post on sealing in toxins.
The IKEA drawers have metal sides which is a great feature, and the fiberboard base can be swapped out. IKEA also sells glass cabinet drawers and glass shelves for inside cabinets. You can really cut down on cost and toxins but using many IKEA parts.