For safe, non-toxic carpet, both natural and synthetic fiber options can be a healthy choice.
The post outlines my top picks in the zero and low-VOC categories for residential and commercial use. This includes a look at the carpet fiber, backing, products used during installation, and padding (underlay).
Even folks who are chemically sensitive can do well with carpet in the home.
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The Ideal Carpet Does not Contain:
- Flame retardants – the most harmful types are usually found in polyurethane padding, but aluminum hydroxide can be added to the fibers.
- Permethrin pesticide mothproofing which is added to many wool carpets.
- Antimicrobials which can be added to the backing, the glues, and the face fiber. Pyrithione zinc and/or potassium oleate is often used in the fiber.
- Stain repellent like Scotchguard (perfluorobutanesulfonic acid) which is often added to the textile top layer.
- Anti-static treatment like quaternary ammonia which can be added to the fibers.
- SBR latex backing is at the base of the fibers in conventional carpet.
- Padding offgassing – polyurethane, rubber, and natural latex backings which can all can offgas.
- Toxic adhesives which can be required for glue-down installation or at the seams.
- VOCs – a number of chemical additives are a part of conventional carpet – from the dyes and processing of the fibers to the topical fiber treatments, backing glues, backing materials, carpet padding, and installation tapes and glues.
What to Look for in a Carpet:
- A fiber that is not treated with toxic chemical treatments – wool and other natural fibers like sisal and jute.
- Undyed wool without pesticides is in theory the purest option, but it does have a strong natural odor from the wool oils.
- Natural latex is usually touted as the safe adhesive between the fibers and the backing. 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 preference for backing without natural latex.
- PET polyester is also a safe fiber, though unfortunately, I see it treated with Scotchguard.
- 0 VOC is ideal!
- Nylon can be considered a low VOC option (some brands).
Wool carpet is a natural choice that can be untreated and undyed. It does not contain flame retardants and the best brands would not use topical treatments.
The backing will be a natural wool in most cases.
1. Earth Weave
Earthweave makes a wool carpet, with no mothproofing and no other treatments. It does contain latex. I always prefer the undyed wool option for the extremely sensitive. This is one of the top brands.
Another great brand, Nature’s carpet is also made of wool. The Dark Green line does not have mothproofing and uses undyed wool. The backing contains natural latex and jute.
The Medium Green line and Light Green line contain permethrin mothproofing. The Medium Green has jute, and synthetic backing adhesive. The Light Green has synthetic backing adhesive and synthetic backing (not jute).
I have sniffed Hibernia and it does have a wooly smell (as you would expect), but not a chemical smell. The company changed ownership in 2018. They do use mothproofing (typically permethrin is used on wool carpets).
Seagrass & Jute Carpet
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.
There are also companies that make wall to wall sisal carpet. Sisal is stronger and more durable than jute (and not as soft), but looks similar.
You should ask about pesticides sprayed during transport. Topical treatments are not usually used but you could ask.
1. Home Fresh by Empire Today
My top pick for synthetic carpet (PET 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 Scotchguard coating on it so I do not know how they can claim 0-VOC exactly.
It has a built-in felt backing, which seemed benign to me. The felt is synthetic (polyester).
I got a sample that was a few months old, but it has stayed bagged up, and I found it to be extremely low in offgassing. I did not pick up classic carpet offgassing at all. Though it is not 100% odorless, it is close. 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. It’s available in the US (not Canada). For $350 off try this discount link.
It is installed by tack down or glue down methods, the company says in an email. Though until you do an in-home estimate the company will not say much in email or by phone, so I don’t even feel confident in this response.
2. Air.o by Mohawk
This carpet is very similar to Home Fresh and I’m happy to see another great contender in the synthetic category.
The carpet fibers are made from 100% PET (polyester), just like Home Fresh.
It has a very similar felt padding which is far superior health-wise to typical polyurethane or latex rubber.
They claim it has no odor and it 0-VOC, and I would say it is very close to odorless. It is treated with what they call “Fresh Carpet Technology” an odor-neutralizing treatment of zeolite, similar to Home Fresh’s charcoal. Some sellers list it as containing Scotchguard treatment as well.
Unlike conventional carpet, these two brands do not require melting a glue on the seams or a glue underneath. Air.o is installed with doubled sided tape that they provide.
FLOR makes carpet tiles that can be arranged as rugs or as wall to wall carpet.
Their regular carpet lines are made from nylon, and most have a vinyl backing. Some have a Bitumen backing which I found lower in offgassing than the vinyl. FLOR has a different type of offgassing chemical odor than typical carpet, and I definitely find it offgasses faster.
The Fedora is a specialty line made from recycled plastic (PET) and is very low VOC, it was far lower in that telltale carpet chemical smell than their usual nylon lines. It offgassed to “odorless” much faster as well.
This Fedora line does not look like it would hold up as well as other types, though some might prefer this carpet because of how fast it offgasses.
You will need to test their sticky tape “dots” that attach these tiles to each other. The backing of the tiles is a plastic layer (vinyl or bitumen) and they do not require glue or tacking down to the subfloor to stay in place (just the dots which stick to each other).
This Video Provides an Overview of my Top Four Brands
Commercial Grade Carpets
It is a lot harder to find low-VOC commercial carpet. 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 claimed they have the lowest VOC levels in the industry in 2017, though in my comparison with the other types above, I do not believe that was or is true.
However, in the conventional nylon carpet category, this very well might be the case.
They have Green Label Plus which you can find almost anywhere now and is not a low level of VOC in my opinion. 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.
Forbo makes this interesting product called Flotex. It’s a mix between a carpet and a vinyl sheet flooring.
The fibers are very very short, which you can see in my video on carpets.
From a distance it looks like carpet, but up close it seems like a slighly hairy floor.
The ease of cleaning would be a huge upside with this flooring. For those with allergies who don’t feel they can get regular carpet clean enough, this would be a better choice.
There is some offgassing in this flooring, mostly it seems from the vinyl backing.
Wool can also be a good option for commercial spaces. Though commercial companies are more reluctant to use wool because of the price.
Godfrey Hirst wool commercial carpets showed test results with very low VOC levels. Though they did have that classic carpet smell, and it does contain mothproofing (permethrin).
Woolshire wool is also rated for commercial use, 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 choosing carpet for a commercial space 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.
Mohawk has done some live demonstrations on how it’s very easy to vacuum the Air.o carpet. The fiber pile is high though, which is not the best type for those with allergies.
The FLOR tiles can be taken apart and even washed in the bathtub or outside. While Forbo’s Flotex can take a lot of scrubbing since the fibers are extremely short.
Chemicals used in the Installation of Carpet
Conventional carpet is either glued down or tacked down. The seams are melted together.
Wool Carpet Installation
Nature’s wool carpet is installed very similarly to a conventional carpet. It is stretched onto a tack strip. Seaming tape (standard latex) is used on the back and melted together.
The wool felt padding can be either glued or stapled down to the floor first.
On a concrete floor (basement, slab, or upper-level concrete) the company suggests attaching it as usual. They don’t recommend a plastic vapor barrier underneath.
I would not put wool carpet on a slab or basement floor. But I would put this on an upper-level concrete floor that has completely dried and does not have moisture coming up from a lower level.
They have the same installation instructions for their jute and plastic-backed versions.
Some brands of wool carpet can also be glued down.
Air.o Carpet Installation
Air.o is installed with double-sided tape, not melting of the seams. You can also glue this down. Mohawk sells the tape or glue for this installation. Not using their tape or glue would void the warranty.
I’m assuming Homefresh is also installed with double-sided tape, though this company continues to be impossible to communicate with unless you do an in person estimate.
Carpet Tile Installation
FLOR tiles are installed with tape onto the backing – they are taped to each other. It is not also taped down to the floor underneath/subfloor. It stays in place with traction.
The tape has the same odor as clear packing tape, but is well blocked by the vinyl backing. I review this in my carpet video.
Flocked Flooring Installation
Flotex is installed only with a glue-down system. See Forbo’s branded glues and recommendations.
Carpets with a conventional synthetic backing can be glued down with AFM 3 in 1.
Non-Toxic Carpet Pad
Padding (Underlay) for Wool Carpet
Nature’s Carpet sells a (wool) felt padding. No chemical treatments
Earth Weave also has a wool carpet underlay.
Do not use rebond pad (bonded urethane) with jute backed carpet, as it’s incompatible.
Two other options apart from wool felt is a synthetic felt pad or a rubber pad.
For any Carpet type that requires padding
Synthetic rubber (SBR) is recommended by Green Building Supply. SBR does have an odor. How long this takes to dissipate depends on the product and how sensitive the person is. I would test a new sample of this and make sure you feel it is totally acceptable before proceeding. Do not count on the carpet to block this odor/offgassing.
Air.o and Homefresh have a built in felt padding. No additional padding is needed/recommended.
FLOR tiles have a vinyl or bitumen backing. No additional padding is required or recommended.
Where can you Install Carpet?
Over a Concrete Slab
Air.o carpet with a felt backing claims you can install it in a basement and that it’s very resistant to moisture. I don’t see how a felt backing can be very resistant to moisture and I would not install this over a slab or concrete basement floor myself.
Nature’s carpet, made of wool, also claims that it can be installed over concrete without a vapor barrier because it’s breathable. I would not install this over concrete, certainly not the ones with jute and or natural latex backing. A wool carpet with a synthetic backing will fare far better over concrete, in my experience.
FLOR carpet tiles have a vinyl backing (or Bitumen in some cases). The vinyl is a vapor barrier. If you are OK with installing a vapor barrier over your concrete slab or basement then this is an acceptable installation. I prefer not to block moisture in a slab/basement since it’s always trying to dry to the inside. I have seen a vapor barrier over a concrete slab become a mold risk in most homes.
On an Upper Level Wood Subfloor
Carpet of any kind installed over a wood subfloor is much easier and is much less of a concern.
If you are installing carpet on a first floor with a humid unconditioned basement below, then you should be careful because moisture is making its way up.
FlOR and wool carpets can be installed as rugs and not as wall to wall carpet.
See my post on non-toxic area rugs for the full list of options for area rugs.
Corinne Segura is a Building Biologist Practitioner with 6 years of experience helping others create healthy homes.
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