If you need assistance choosing the best cabinets for your sensitivities, please contact me for a one-on-one consultation.
Conventional Cabinets & VOCs
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 added formaldehyde now, and some cabinets makers are using these. I don’t always think the alternative glues are better.
The move towards CARB II and GreenGuard Gold has greatly improved the formaldehyde levels in the conventional options in recent years.
Regular plywood based cabinets (as opposed to MDF) offgas quite rapidly and I personally prefer them over Purebond Plywood which looks like it’s made with a polyurethane glue.
Paints and varnishes are not likely to be 0 or ultra low VOC unless that is stated.
Many are low-VOC, but that term tends to be too vague for the chemically sensitive. Not many have taken the leap towards 0-VOC yet. You may need to finish them yourself with non-toxic Sealers or non-toxic Paint.
Healthy Cabinet Brands – Listed by Material
Healthy cabinets could be made of solid wood, plywood, pressed wood without added 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.
The cabinets in my tiny houseare solid wood, but the reason cabinets are made of pressed wood products is that solid wood can warp in the kitchen.
1. Non-Toxic Metal Cabinet Brands
There are companies that make metal kitchen cabinets, and they can look quite cool:
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. Healthy 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
ii. Neil Nelly Cabinets makes low-VOC wooden cabinets with no-added-formaldehyde cases/drawers (Purebond Plywood). They use low VOC glues, adhesives, and finishes. You can ask them about a 0-VOC finish option.
iii. Executive Cabinetry offers a choice between regular plywood and Purebond no added formaldehyde plywood.
iv. Another very popular brand is Crystal Cabinets. They can use standard plywood or Purebond with no added formaldehyde for the boxes. They have an option for low emitting finishes, or you can finish them yourself. You can also have them finish them for you with the varnish of your choice (though that option is fairly expensive).
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 drawers.
vii. Royal Cabinets makes a line called Green Leaf that has no added formaldehyde and low-VOC finishes.
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 alternative adhesives.
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 below the counter 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. The above cabinets are from Werever Outdoor Cabinets.
Folks who have not found a suitable material in the 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 quickly and easily at big box stores.
6. Less Toxic Big Box Store Cabinets
Healthy Home Depot and IKEA Cabinet Brands
Many folks have reported doing well with Thomasville brand cabinets from Home Depot, the lacquered VEDDINGE cabinets, and melamine faced cabinets from IKEA.
Formaldehyde Levels in IKEA and Home Depot Cabinets
Many people are finding that since CARB II came into effect, which drastically reduced formaldehyde in nation-wide brands, regular cabinets work fine for them.
You may want to compare some of the brands at IKEA and Home Depot. If you find GreenGuard Gold certification you know it’s extremely low formaldehyde (and possibly a replacement glue was used).
With most particleboard and MDF, the main adhesive is formaldehyde. You can see the typical levels in the chart in this post.
IKEA uses MDF for the cabinet boxes and particle board in many of the doors.
Melamine Versus Laquer – Which is Safer?
IKEA has two main finishes on the doors.
Melamine is one option. This is a plastic exterior that is fairly thick and does not have noticeable offgassing.
The other option is the painted (lacquered) finish. This is made with a base of particleboard. The paints are either acrylic with a polyurethane coating, just acrylic, or polyester and acrylic together.
Lacquer paints do have some ability to seal in offgassing. But this doesn’t block the formaldehyde as well as the melamine does, and the finish itself has higher offgassing than melamine (though some of them do cure quite quickly).
How to Block & Seal in Formaldehyde
In cabinets with a melamine finish on the outside (like many IKEA cabinets) this does block most of the formaldehyde offgassing. If the edges are sealed in by the finish, that is even better.
If you go with the lacquered finish you should also seal the edges with Safeseal or Shellac.
Metal and Glass Cabinet Components from IKEA
The IKEA drawers have metal sides which is a great feature. The fiberboard base can be swapped out for another material.
IKEA also sells glass cabinet drawers and glass shelves for inside cabinets. The JUTIS line is metal and glass.
I used their metal drawers and metal corner cabinet shelving in my tiny house and put my own fronts on them.
You can really cut down on costs and toxin exposure but using many IKEA parts.
If you need assistance choosing the best cabinets, countertops and other kitchen items for your sensitivities, please contact me for a one-on-one consultation.