1. Spray Foam
My number one priority of materials to avoid is two-part spray foam, this could be referred to as polyurethane or “soy foam”. (“Soy foam” is still polyurethane).
Sometimes they try to obscure what it is by not mentioning it’s a polyurethane, by only mentioning the soy, castor or other oil component.
All two-part spray foam insulation is a big problem in my opinion. I have found that it offgasses far more in real life conditions than the perfect small sample the companies can make in a lab for the official testing.
You can use one part canned spray foam around windows and other openings that have to go through walls – that is usually acceptable for most people.
Sometimes two-part spray foam can go terribly wrong in the installation and that is an even bigger nightmare (Google: spray foam insulation lawsuits), but even with most average installers, I have found it offgasses noticeably for 2-3 years.
Two-part spray foam also contains toxic flame retardants which is a priority chemical to avoid.
(Rigid foam also contains flame retardants but this is used on the exterior or under the slab. You can avoid rigid foam too if you like. See more insulation options here.)
You do have to consider avoiding spray foam early in the planning stages because it can have a major impact on your design (especially the roof, in some cases).
Any other insulation next to this is far better. My top pick for most walls is Rockwool, my insulation post goes through all the healthy options.
2. High Offgassing Flooring
Sheet vinyl is a high offgassing material compared to other options. I always avoid this.
You can use other sheet flooring, even plastic ones if you like, or Marmoleum to go all-natural.
LVP (luxury vinyl plank or tile) is much much better than vinyl sheet – the VOCs are really low. It does contain plasticizers though.
I would avoid phthalates (a plasticizer that we know is harmful to health according to mainstream sources) which are found in some, but not many, brands of vinyl flooring, including LVP.
The replacement plasticizers are, so far, thought to be much safer, but I would prefer not to use flooring with plasticizers if that is possible (which would mean avoiding almost all vinyl floors).
Used in gyms, this is really high in offgassing in my opinion.
If you are creating a home gym I have a post on non-toxic gym flooring.
Rubber is really only used in gyms, garages, and outdoor playgrounds.
Conventional Nylon Carpet
This is a high offgasser too, though most brands are improving with time. Nylon carpets tend to be the carpet textile treated with the most chemicals (compared to polyesters and wool).
There are many synthetic carpets that are low in offgassing, especially the PET and PTT polyester varieties – though many contain stain guard chemicals which are usually perfluorinated compounds – a high-priority chemical to avoid in most experts’ opinions.
Wool is much better, but you still have to look for brands that are not treated.
Low and zero-VOC carpets are listed here.
Non-toxic area rugs can be found here.
Epoxy coatings are, as a general rule, really harsh at first. However, they do come to a complete cure with time. This would be something I want to avoid if it’s new but not necessarily a problem when well cured.
My top flooring picks are outlined in my Guide to Non-Toxic Flooring.
3. Certain Adhesives
I would avoid “glue and screw” drywall in most cases – that is gluing every piece of drywall to the studs.
That is usually a polyurethane glue which is quite strong and slow to offgas.
If they are doing this because it’s a high-performance house then you could still consider this, but look closely at the adhesives and safer alternatives.
(On the topic of drywall, I would avoid premixed drywall mud, especially if they are skim coating the walls. Use dry mix mud, it’s the same thing but without added chemicals which can really add up when it’s all over every wall).
Subfloor and Decking Glues
Another place where polyurethane glues are used is in subfloors, especially Advantech subfloor (and roof decking) because the warranty requires it.
That is a good quality product, so if you have a good builder it would not be unusual for them to specify Avantech. But if you can, I would avoid these polyurethane glues.
You can use plywood subfloor and decking and less potent subfloor glues like AFM Almighty or Lepage PL 400 which will work for most cases – talk to your builder about that.
Glue Down Flooring
I would avoid gluing down flooring (of any type) mainly because there are so many great non-toxic floors you don’t need to glue down, so this is an easy chemical source to eliminate.
Countertop and Shower Stall Adhesives
Look at adhesives used for the countertop and shower install. This is probably going to be fine anyway, but it’s worth checking.
They usually use silicone to attach most countertops as standard procedure.
Be sure to check the installation instructions and the warranty.
Medium density fiberboard (MDF) does offgas formaldehyde and at much higher levels than other engineered wood products.
The priority level at which I would place avoiding it does depend on where it is used and how much of it is used.
I would put larger amounts of MDF higher up on this list and very small amounts pretty low.
- I would avoid new furniture made with MDF. The bedroom is the highest priority to keep “clean”. My furniture post has lots of good options, many affordable.
- Avoid baseboards and other trim made with MDF, because that is an easy one to eliminate (use solid wood).
- Solid core doors almost always have MDF. They can have quite a bit of MDF (basically the whole door) or very little. Some solid-core doors use particleboard in the center. Hollow core doors are much healthier and much cheaper.
- Cabinets – I would avoid MDF here for sure as well. The next step up is particleboard – less formaldehyde and most of it blocked with melamine and laminate finishes – but still, it does have formaldehyde and is not perfectly blocked. Depending on how sensitive you are/how far you want to go with avoidance (and your budget) you could save money here by going with cheaper cabinets like IKEA which are particleboard. Even better would be solid wood doors and drawer fronts with plywood boxes – Kraftmaid is the obvious brand to go with there. Their paints and clear finishes were really good too. Midrange prices (of course more money for the upgrade to solid wood/plywood). My cabinet post goes into more detail on IKEA materials, Kraftmaid, and even more “eco” brands.
5. Certain Countertops
I do like to avoid white and very light real stone as the sealers needed are potent/high VOC. And you are supposed to re-seal it for sure, especially if it’s a light stone.
With darker stones, you can check to see if it needs a sealer or if you can use walnut oil.
Or, make it easier for yourself and go for a countertop that doesn’t need a sealer. Quartz is a great choice for almost everyone, easy.
I would also avoid laminate countertops since they are usually made with an MDF base and then the laminate is glued on top. If you have to go with laminate, here is a video on how to seal in the offgassing.
My main countertop post goes through all the options including non-toxic sealers.
Another post covers the costs of the most affordable non-toxic countertops.
I would avoid conventional oil-based paint – still used on trim and doors in many homes (though not the norm anymore).
Enamel paints, also used on trim, are also more potent than regular acrylic latex paints – I would avoid them. My top zero-VOC paints are listed in that post.
I would avoid certain wood floor finishes like conventional oil-based finishes and some specialty varnishes.
Your basic water-based polyurethane is fine for most people (if you are healthy or not particularly sensitive). If you are very sensitive you want to dig into the least toxic brands.
Interior furnishings I would avoid:
- Vinyl window blinds – better alternatives listed here.
- Furniture with flame retardants – not used much anymore but this was commonly used in foam furniture until recently. You could still find these chemicals used in window treatments.
- I would also avoid fabrics with perfluorinated compounds whenever possible. Safer upholstered furniture is listed here.
Those are the top areas to avoid. If you are healthy and not chemically sensitive you could end the list there.
If you are chemically sensitive then you want to look at your individual sensitivities and your priorities on what you would most like to avoid.
I help people one on one to go through pros and cons to decide which materials are best for you.
For many of these items you don’t need to spend more – of course a few are upgrades, but a few are actually downgrades (ie marble to quartz, and solid core to hollow core doors).
A related post covers ways to save money on a build while still building a healthy home. The emphasis is on where you can cut back so that you do have the money to spend it on areas that really matter to you.
Corinne Segura is a Building Biologist Practitioner with 7 years of experience helping others create healthy homes.