Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF) is generally made of wood dust and 10% formaldehyde resin as the binder. It gives off about 0.11 parts per million (ppm) of formaldehyde, the very top end of what is allowed by California’s CARB 2 limits. In fact, CARB 2 has to allow for a higher level of formaldehyde offgassing in MDF compared to other engineered woods because it simply gives off more formaldehyde.
MDF is fairly slow to offgas formaldehyde because of its composition and density. It can take years before the offgassing comes to a completion.
MDF board is used because it’s a very stable product and has the least movement from humidity swings. It’s also strong and holds screws well.
It can be formed into flat panels or molded into all kinds of shapes. It can come unfinished, primed, with a wood veneer, or with a melamine plastic laminated to it.
MDF is used in cabinets – frequently as the doors, furniture, solid core doors, interior trim and molding, decorative wall paneling, and laminate flooring.
Standard MDF sheets are made with formaldehyde but MDF can be specified as NAF (no-added-formaldehyde). Since wood naturally contains formaldehyde, it cannot be called formaldehyde-free, technically. No Added Formaldehyde implies that the formaldehyde emission is less than 0.04 ppm. The natural level of formaldehyde in wood is about 0.01 ppm.
MDF looks very similar to HDF (high density fiberboard, hardboard) which is practically the same product, but denser. Particleboard (chipboard) is low density fiberboard. My post on engineered woods goes more into detail on those types, if that is what you were looking for.
Fibers for MDF include:
- Hardwood and softwood dust
- Rice straw
- Wheat straw
Formaldehyde-free resins (glues) include:
- MDI – Methylene diphenyl diisocyanate – offgasses isocyanates, though the companies claim this cures into a polyurethane. I pick up a strong odor off engineered wood products made with MDI which takes many months to go down, in my view. I personally do not find MDI to be an improvement over formaldehyde, though it can be for those sensitive to formaldehyde fumes.
- Soy Glue – There has been talk of developing a soy glue for MDF, like the type used on plywood, but this has not come to market yet.
- Plant-Based Glue – There is one company on the list claiming plant-based glue, but having looked at their patents I’m not clear on what this is. Be sure to get a sample to see this first, especially if you are sensitive to chemicals.
1. Rice Straw MDF
Rice straw MDF is produced from rice straw fibers, an agricultural waste product. It has good natural mold resistance. Rice fiber MDF panels could be used for furniture, kitchen and bathroom cabinets, window frames and doors, moldings, acoustic panels, interior doors, and flooring.
Columbia Forest Products, the company that makes plywood with soy-based glues, has an agreement with a factory to produce rice stray MDF. And though the agreement was signed in 2018, the product is not on the market as of early 2022.
The company intends to use pMDI (polymeric methylene-diphenyl-diisocyanate) glue, with a hope to find a more naturally derived adhesive to take its place.
2. Medex I and II by Roseburg
Medex is an MDF made with MDI glue made by the large company Roseburg
Roseburg also makes an MDF called Medite made from MDI. Both are free of formaldehyde glues.
Where to buy: Distributers are located in the Western United States and BC Canada.
PURE Kitchen Cabinets use Medex.
Evertree is a unique MDF made with a plant-based binder manufactured in France.
This is the only company I know of using a plant-based resin. It is made from rapeseed and sunflower seeds they say. Though looking through their various patents, it wasn’t clear which patent refers to the glue currently being used.
They claim is that it is free of formaldehyde and isocyanates and that composite wood panels produce the same level of emissions as solid wood (0.01 ppm), which is ten times lower than the EU standard (E1).
4. Medite, UK
Medite ECOLOGIQUE, and Medite, CLEAR are a MDF type made in the UK without formaldehyde. They are made with MDI, the company has said in an email.
They say it is made with mixed softwood, polymerized resin, and paraffin wax. Polymerized resin is such a general term that we don’t know what that really is.
Medite ECOLOGIQUE and Medite CLEAR were developed for use in environmentally sensitive interior applications such as museums, laboratories, art galleries, nursing homes, hospitals, nurseries, and schools.
Medite CLEAR is a panel product suitable for use in non-stressed applications like cabinets, display cases, furniture, fixtures, and moldings.
These are not the same product as Roseburg’s Medite.
5. NU Green, Canada
NU Green MR50 is a no added formaldehyde MDF by Uniboard.
NU Green MR50 MDF can be used in residential and commercial applications such as food service industries, institutional buildings, healthcare establishments, kitchens, and bathrooms. It is available as raw panels or laminated with melamine.
The glue used is MDI, they also list paraffin wax and urea as additives along with hardwood and softwood dust.
It is manufactured at a Mont-Laurier facility.
Where to buy: They have distributors in the US and Canada.
Wheatboard, or Ecoboard, is made from 100% wheat straw, an agricultural fiber that is left over after harvests. It is a formaldehyde-free product, they use pMDI.
Formaldehyde emissions for this product have been measured at 0.02 mg/L, which is one-tenth of the amount allowed by the European E0 standard. This minimal formaldehyde emission is naturally occurring in the straw stalks.
Where to buy: The wholesale supplier is Chesapeake Plywood, in the US.
Modenus makes cabinets with Wheatboard MDF.
7. Georgia-Pacific Ultrastock MR
Manufactured with 100% NAF resin, MDI binders, Methylene Bisphenol Isocyanate (MDI), and Polymeric MDI (pMDI).
It provides the same physical characteristics and workability as UltraStock Premium panels
It can be used on interior window and door trim, baseboards, and laminate flooring that may become wet from mopping, condensation, or foot traffic.
Where to buy: They have distributors and suppliers across North America. This has been carried at Lowes in the past.
8. Lowes Unbranded NAF MDF
You can buy or special order no added formaldehyde MDF made with MDI binder from Lowes.
(I have not seen no added formaldehyde MDF at Home Depot).
Corinne Segura is a Building Biologist Practitioner with 7 years of experience helping others create healthy homes.