Conventional Cabinets & VOCs
Conventional cabinets can be a significant source of VOCs in the kitchen – with all of the low and mid-range brands using particleboard or MDF at least in their lower-end lines, which offgas formaldehyde.
There are pressed wood products with no added formaldehyde now, and some cabinet makers mentioned in this post 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 particleboard or MDF) offgas quite rapidly, while at the same time more companies are offering formaldehyde-free options.
Paints and varnishes are not likely to be zero-VOC unless that is stated. But the brands here are offering natural finishes, custom finishes, or factory cured finishes which I found to be almost no VOC.
The best option for most people is the mid-range brands with the right healthy upgrades.
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 so I have included non-wood options on the list.
The cabinets in my tiny house are solid wood, but the reason cabinets are made of engineered 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.
Fadior makes stainless steel cabinets. The cabinets are made of all stainless with aluminum reinforcements, no wood or PVC.
Bertolini affordable, 100% metal.
IMDesign has no wood and no adhesives (North America and Europe).
Pedini (high-end) Italian company that was at the forefront of green cabinetry. They offer some metal options.
Contur Cabinets is a Canadian company making metal cabinets.
Lasertron Direct makes high-end custom stainless steel cabinetry for indoors and outdoors.
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. Even the boxes are solid wood.
Solid wood can be prone to warping in high humidity (if not constructed well by a specialty company like this).
This company also has a commitment to healthy finishes.
3. Low-VOC and Formaldehyde-Free Cabinets
ii. Another very popular brand is Crystal Cabinets. They can use standard plywood or Purebond plywood (check to make sure they have the no added formaldehyde Purebond) for the boxes. They have an option for low emitting finishes, or you can finish them yourself.
iii. Executive Cabinetry offers a choice between regular plywood and Purebond (no added formaldehyde plywood).
You can also have them finish them for you with the varnish of your choice (though that option is fairly expensive).
This is often the top pick for many in the high-end green market.
iv. Bellmont Cabinetry offers a line called EcoCore that is melamine over a no added urea-formaldehyde particleboard. Their veneer plywood is a safer choice. They have doors that are solid wood (for stained finish only).
v. Taylor Made Cabinets offers custom no added formaldehyde cabinets, with plywood boxes and solid wood drawers and doors. Their MDF is made without formaldehyde.
vi. Royal Cabinets makes a line called Green Leaf that is made with no added formaldehyde materials (solid wood fronts are an option) and low-VOC finishes.
vii. Barker Cabinets offers RTA cabinets made with Purebond plywood for the boxes. The raised panel doors (Windsor, Seattle, etc.) are made of solid wood panels (no MDF). The painted doors are made with a conversion varnish that does have some offgassing (the offgassing was low but took about 5 months to hit odorless to me). The stains and clear stains did seem to have some slight offgassing as well (possibly better than the paint, depending on the age of the samples).
viii. PureKitchen uses Purebond Plywood for the boxes. They made a door style with plywood and solid wood (not MDF). They offer MDF made with MDI glues instead of formaldehyde. The paint is Sherwin Williams Chem Aqua Plus. The glue is a PVA type (which is good).
ix. NorthPoint Cabinets. This RTA line has a solid wood and plywood option. Drawers are made of solid wood + plywood, and the boxes, shelves, and even back panels are made of plywood. The stained doors are solid wood with a veneered plywood center panel. The painted doors are all HDF. The finishes are 100% water-based and UV cured, so there won’t be any offgassing there.
- Here is a post on which companies make solid wood vanities.
- Here is a company making solid wood closets.
4. Fully Custom-Made Cabinets
Custom cabinets are usually made by local craftsmen or local companies. This is usually the highest-end option. You can get custom cabinets in just about any style.
One company I like, Crown Point, uses formaldehyde-free plywood for the boxes and can use solid wood for fronts. They even have experience painting cabinets with all-natural Milk Paint.
In general custom cabinets can be made with a combination of solid wood, plywood, Purebond (formaldehyde-free plywood), or formaldehyde-free particleboard.
Purebond plywood is made of “soy glue” which for some people is preferred over regular plywood. Not all chemically sensitive people do well with this.
Drawers are usually solid wood in high-end cabinets but they can be made of mostly metal (which is what I did).
In my tiny house, we kept it really simple with basic cabinets made by my carpenter-builder.
My cabinets, pictured, are custom made with solid wood on the doors/face. MgO was used for the boxes (a highly unusual choice!). IKEA ready-made metal drawers were used 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, concrete, 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. IKEA also offers some mostly glass options.
- Incorporate affordable metal drawers or shelves inside of cabinets (like my IKEA parts).
- Cabinets made entirely of formaldehyde-free plywood (see this video).
5. Non-Toxic Big Brand Cabinets
i. KraftMaid Cabinets (Lowes and Home Depot)
KraftMaid cabinets are a great mid-range semi-custom option.
They offer all plywood cabinets boxes as an upgrade. The shelves are also plywood. Most plywood now quickly offgasses to completion. It’s a far better choice than particleboard. However, it does sound like recently Kraftmaid is using a plywood with MDF layers (higher in offgassing). So be sure to check before ordering.
The drawer sides are solid wood, with a plywood base.
The doors are solid hardwood frames with solid or veneer center panels, or laminate doors.
I like solid wood as my top choice followed by laminate doors.
You can order samples for $3 each to see the finishes. I personally found that the painted lacquer finish hit odorless very quickly, within days. I don’t think any instrument would pick up offgassing off these at that time. They said the samples are always newly produced.
The clear finished seemed even better to me right away. But both finishes would be fine for 99% of folks and both are better than conversion varnish used by other brands.
KraftMaid cabinets cost you anywhere from $100 to $300 per linear square foot.
Merillat and Kraftmaid are owned by the same company, and Merrillat’s best line, their Masterpiece, is the exact same product as Kraftmaid.
Other Home Depot Brands
Many folks have reported doing well with Thomasville brand cabinets from Home Depot.
iii. IKEA Cabinets
IKEA is obviously a very affordable ready to assemble (RTA) option.
From IKEA, the lacquered VEDDINGE cabinets and melamine-faced cabinets are preferred because those finishes block some offgassing.
The KUNGSBACKA cabinet fronts and side panels are made of PET plastic wrapped around particle board, which is also a great way to block offgassing from the particleboard.
More on that below.
Formaldehyde Levels in Big Box Store Cabinets
Many people are finding that since CARB II came into effect, which drastically reduced formaldehyde in nationwide 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.
With most particleboard and MDF, the main adhesive is formaldehyde. You can see the typical levels in the chart in this post.
I would avoid MDF and particleboard, opting for brands that offer an upgrade to all plywood boxes and solid wood doors.
My second choice after that is a melamine or laminate finish which blocks most of the formaldehyde.
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.
Lacquer paints do have some ability to seal in offgassing, but this doesn’t block the formaldehyde as well as the melamine or laminate does.
How to Block & Seal in Formaldehyde
In cabinets with a melamine or plastic laminate 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 the edges are not sealed with melamine, the formaldehyde offgassing from the edges can be sealed with AFM Safeseal or Zinsser Shellac. You should also seal up the unused shelving holes with shellac as well.
If you go with the lacquered finish you can 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 want to dig down deeper into materials – my post on Laminate, Melamine, and Thermafoil goes into more detail.
6. Plastic Kitchen Cabinets
Non-toxic outdoor kitchen cabinets can be made of polyethylene or metal. The above cabinets are from Werever Outdoor Cabinets which are made from high-density polyethylene.
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.
One company, Reform, which makes doors and accessories to fit on the IKEA base cabinet frames, makes a solid polyethylene (HDPE) door line called MATCH. That would be an awesome option for many sensitive folks. You would need to check out the above section on IKEA to see if the base cabinets could suit you.
Looking for healthy bathroom vanities (that don’t contain formaldehyde)? This post on solid wood vanities reviews the best brands.
Corinne Segura is a Building Biologist Practitioner with 8 years of experience helping others create healthy homes.
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