Updated Spring 2021
The best options are real hardwood, polished concrete, and tile. But specific brands of natural linoleum, carpet, and engineered wood are excellent choices as well.
There are many choices for non-toxic flooring suitable for the chemically sensitive or the health-conscious homeowner.
I will look at a few options that are still non-toxic, but not quite as healthy, like luxury vinyl plank, laminate, cork, and bamboo.
If you need assistance choosing the best floor for your sensitivities, budget and area of the house, please contact me for a one-on-one consultation.
This post covers green non-toxic flooring divided into three categories, starting with the purest options:
1. The Greenest Options (Dark Green)
2. Medium Green
3. Light Green
I recommend all of the products here, some products have affiliate programs and some do not. Upon purchase, I earn a small commission through affiliate links at no extra cost to you.
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1. Greenest Floors “Dark Green” (Zero-VOC, No Offgassing)
i. Natural Solid Hardwood
Natural wood flooring is usually my number one choice. It’s one of the purest and safest options. A few caveats for those extremely sensitive:
Wood contains natural terpenes that are safe (and even beneficial) for healthy folks, but do bother some extremely sensitive people. Aromatic woods like pine have higher natural volatile compounds than maple, as an example.
Flooring can contain anti-sapstain chemicals, which could explain why a few people react to wood used in building and not wood in the forest. Not all of these treatments are harmful.
Wood also has a higher possibility of harboring mold than less porous materials. To prevent mold you should make sure your wood has been kiln-dried and kept dry at the store and onsite. In normal conditions, this is not an issue.
AFM Poly BP is another great non-toxic finish.
I go into detail on more options for wood sealers and stains in my post on sealers.
Wood Floor Glues
You can buy solid unfinished hardwood flooring from specialty flooring stores, as well as Home Depot, Lowes and Lumber Liquidators. Lumber Liquidators is usually going to have the lowest price.
These big-box stores have networks of installers.
Usually finished with aluminum oxide infused polyurethane and cured under UV lights, these are typically very well tolerated once cured. I consider this to be a safe product even for the chemically sensitive. Test it first. It is close to zero-VOC.
This finish has two main benefits, not having to finish it in house and the finish partially blocks the wood odor.
Almost all brands of prefinished hardwood are of the same composition. It would likely send you in circles if I mention brands – you want to start with what’s available in your area.
You will find that almost every brand has a UV-cured water-based polyurethane finish (with aluminum oxide).
Installation of Hardwood
Nail-down installation is less toxic than glue-down. You may need a small amount of glue on some pieces, or you may be able to face nail.
Best practices for wide planks is to glue and nail. Consider the width of the planks at the planning stage.
ii. Polished Concrete
If polished concrete flooring makes you think IKEA warehouse, think again, polished concrete can look beautiful and be green and healthy.
The Retroplate system uses “liquid glass” (a modified sodium silicate) and is completely non-toxic and zero-VOC. This option is available across Canada and the US.
Most polished concrete systems use sodium silicate or potassium silicate which are very safe and benign. Polished concrete is vapor breathable which makes it one of the best flooring types, alongside tile, over a concrete slab.
You can do acid stains, add natural pigments, use white cement, or add white sand to Portland Cement to get many different unique and modern looks.
Other concrete sealers
Concrete can also be sealed with topical acrylic or polyurethane sealers, penetrating sealers or epoxies.
A lot of people want to know if epoxy sealers are non-toxic. Epoxy is a two-part sealer, where each part, in theory, comes to a complete chemical reaction with the other. In reality, it’s not that neat. It’s likely to offgas even if it claims zero-VOC.
Eventually, it should come to a complete cure. I don’t advise epoxy over a slab or basement floor, where it’s best to have it be able to dry to the inside.
For a complete review of concrete stains, sealers, and paints, see my dedicated post on this topic.
Types of Non-Toxic Tiles:
Marble tile is good in theory. Most of it has a resin put on it at the factory to fill in tiny holes and fissures, and it might have a (chemical) sealant on it as well.
The resin seems to cure and be fine for most people, the sealer is not as good for a couple of reasons. Look for honed stones (the hexagon is honed marble).
A pure slab, or tile, that does not have a glossy finish can be sealed with a natural or low toxin sealer. White marble is the most difficult stone to seal in a non-toxic way.
Slate is also good, you can find it unsealed like these tiles from Home Depot. Though like marble, a resin is used to fill lines and pits.
Concrete tiles have beautiful designs. You may want to ask what additives are in the concrete and test them out for tolerability. I sealed my concrete tiles with AFM Penetrating Water Stop. You can also use the sealers in the concrete post.
Other natural stones like limestone, travertine, and soapstone are great options for green healthy floors. Always check if a resin or sealer is already applied, and then check to see which natural sealers will work over the stone of your choosing. Honed stones (i.e. not glossy) are the easiest to seal with a natural pure option. Very dense stones like many granite types and some slate do not require a sealer at all (bonus).
Tile Sealers: Green companies now make walnut oil and hemp oil that can be used on natural stone and concrete. I have tested the natural oils on slate, light-colored marble and dark-colored marble. Walnut oil is the preferred oil for most indoor stones, as hemp can turn the color, and tung is too thick.
Ceramic/Porcelain tiles have a high incidence of lead in the glaze. Ask for lead test results from the company and do a simple 3M Lead Swab (those are useful on a number of household items, and they are affordable). But to pick up lower levels of lead, you need to hire someone who has an XRF tool. Daltile makes claims of no lead (other than in red glaze).
Lead in Tiles: All ceramic/porcelain tiles should be tested for lead. A client just tested American made tiles that stated they were lead-free, but when tested they showed high levels of lead. So it might be wise to test any glazed tile regardless of origin. And be extra careful when removing them as the lead dust is particularly harmful. Tile over existing lead tiles if possible, instead of removing.
Once you have ruled out lead, ceramic and porcelain tiles are inert and safe. Plus, you don’t have to seal them. My post on grout and thinset looks closely at the other materials used in the installation.
Wood-look porcelain tiles are zero-VOC even though there is a printed image on them. The glaze seems to block this. I have tested them and I do not detect anything that is different from regular tiles.
Glass tiles are inert, but most types are too slippery to use on the floor. Some folks have found a way to use some glass tile types on the floor, but it’s an unusual application and not something I have found available for purchase.
Air Cleaning Tiles
Crossville Tiles have a coating option called Hydrotect. This uses the PCO process to clean the air. A layer of non-toxic titanium dioxide is used to coat the tiles.
This reacts with UV light, and just like the PCO air purifiers I reviewed, creates a reaction that can break down some bacteria, molds, VOCs, and viruses.
I don’t know how impactful this tile coating will be to the overall air quality in a room. The company does have some reports that show a reduction in bacteria, which may be worthwhile for some folks.
This technology is also used on wood floors.
2. Medium Green (Zero to Low-VOC)
i. Natural Linoleum
Marmoleum, the only natural linoleum currently available in North America, is made from linseed oil, binders, wood flour, limestone, and dry pigments. They are mixed and then calendared onto a backing. It’s got a UV-cured sealer on top.
I found that after one month the odor all but disappeared from the Marmoleum product – though many people say the odor never disappears 100%. I am using this in my trailer. I was surprised and impressed since I don’t normally do well with linseed.
Three Types of Marmoleum
- The roll down flooring that is the most typical kind (the sheet) has a jute backing and is glue down.
- The tiles (MCT) are also glue down, they have a polyester backing (not jute, and not fiberglass as some websites say) and are slightly more rigid.
- The “click” is the same sheet (roll down material) mounted onto a substrate of HDF and cork. It takes longer to offgas, but it has the advantage of not needing glue.
You can use this in wet areas like kitchens and bathrooms if it’s properly installed.
ii. Engineered Wood
Most brands of engineered wood floors now are zero-VOC or close to it, even if they are not marketed that way.
What to Look for
Plywood is made with formaldehyde but by the time this product gets to you, it technically is considered cured. They can usually claim that this is no longer offgassing formaldehyde. It’s only the extremely sensitive who should make sure this is good enough.
There are a few brands that use a HDF fibreboard (which offgasses a lot more!) base so check to see what the substrate is. Some brands have solid slats as the base, explained and listed in my post on engineered wood flooring.
(The hybrid type described below has a PVC base.)
Most finishes on engineered wood have no offgassing or close to it. I look for water-based UV cured, which is polyurethane. This usually has aluminum oxide in it and it very close to zero-VOC.
There are also zero-VOC oil-based finishes which are often UV cured. The UV curing speeds up the offgassing so that it is much faster than it would be if you applied it yourself. Both are worth checking out.
Sometimes the stain has a bit of a VOC odor, but you will only know by getting samples yourself since all brands could qualify for the strictest certifications.
Kahrs shares their test results.
There are many brands that are good, these are just a few examples. The engineered wood flooring post has more options.
- Tesoro Coastal Lowlands – White Oak, Hickory, Maple, Walnut (plywood base)
- Cali Bamboo Meritage – Oak (plywood base)
- Shaw Camden Hills – Hickory (plywood base)
- Shaw Castlewood – Hickory (plywood base)
- Shaw Albright – Oak (plywood base)
- Tesoro Great Northern Woods (solid slat base)
- Tesoro Great Southern Woods (solid slat base)
A category of engineered wood that is actually a vinyl/wood hybrid – this flooring has real wood on the top layer and vinyl/limestone composite as the base layer.
In most situations, engineered wood with a plywood base is preferable. But there are reasons to use the hybrid.
This eliminates that pine/spruce/fir odor in engineered wood and also doesn’t have a discernible PVC odor off-gassing that LVP has. In many ways, it’s the best of both worlds.
It’s one of my top picks for a trailer or RV. (More trailer flooring options here).
1. Cali Bamboo Geowood is one I really liked. It is very tolerable, and for those sensitive to wood, this limestone/PVC substrate (SPC) may be preferable to a plywood base. Plywood will have that odor of pine/spruce/fir and is made with some formaldehyde.
It is formaldehyde-free and it was tested by Green Design Center. I did pick up some offgassing in the stain on the top.
2. Another similar (and inexpensive) wood/vinyl hybrid is Opti-Wood. You can find this at Home Depot (in Canada and the US). It’s well priced, and I did not pick up offgassing in the top layer in the samples I bought. The wood layer eliminates the higher offgassing top layer of vinyl in LVP and it should prevent a lot of the leaching of plasticizers.
3. Raintree is a brand that has a high-quality wood top layer, with some higher-end looks. I have some samples, and like the other brands, the wood layer is very thin. From a distance, it’s hard to tell if these are real wood but underfoot, you can tell it definitely feels like real wood not plastic. The top pick in this category.
iii. Healthy Carpet
For safe, non-toxic carpet, both natural fibers and synthetics can be healthy.
If you are interested in carpet, I have a whole post dedicated to this topic that goes into detail on brands, chemical treatments, and how the installation affects toxicity.
I have a separate post devoted to non-toxic area rugs.
Non-Toxic Natural Fiber Carpet
1. Earth Weave – wool, no mothproofing, no other treatments, does contain latex. I always prefer undyed wool for the very sensitive.
2. Nature’s Carpet – wool – contains natural latex adhesive. The dark green line does not have mothproofing and uses undyed wool. The medium green line does not contain natural latex, which for me is a big plus, but it does contain mothproofing.
3. Seagrass – 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.
Non-Toxic Synthetic Carpet
1. Home Fresh – One of my top picks for synthetic carpet (PET polyester) with a felt backing. It was extremely low in odor and offgassing. It does contain Scotchguard. This refer a friend program should get you $350 off.
See the carpet post for more details.
2. Air.o by Mohawk – My other top pick for synthetic, this carpet is very similar to Homefresh. The carpet fibers are made from 100% PET (polyester). They claim it has no odor and is zero-VOC. Some sellers list it as containing Scotchguard treatment.
It has a similar felt padding which is far superior health-wise to typical polyurethane or latex rubber.
3. FLOR – makes carpet tiles which can be arranged as rugs or wall-to-wall carpeting.
Their regular nylon lines have a different type of offgassing odor than typical carpet, not necessarily less strong, but it did offgas faster.
The Fedora line is made from recycled plastic (PET) and is very low VOC, it quickly approached odorless, in my opinion.
Commercial Grade Carpets
Low-VOC commercial carpet is harder to find than residential. I have reviewed and sniffed a few of the ones that claim to have the lowest VOC levels.
There are wool and synthetic commercial options reviewed in my dedicated carpet post.
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.
Terrazzo is a little complex as there are different materials, resins and sealers involved. But there are systems that are zero-VOC and low-VOC.
The concrete post looks at this a little more.
v. Non-PVC Rigid Core Flooring
The vast majority of rigid core click-together plastic flooring is luxury vinyl plank (LVP) which is PVC based. More on LVP in the last section of this article.
Sono Eclipse is a PVC-free rigid core flooring made in Germany.
It is made without phthalates or other plasticizers. That is huge, as plasticizers are the biggest chemical of concern in LVP floors.
They also claim it’s made without chlorine or other additives.
The core is made of polypropylene and mineral powder.
Like LVP it is waterproof.
vi. Zero-VOC Resilient Flooring
Most sheet flooring is vinyl sheet which I find far too high in offgassing.
Marmoleum mentioned above is another type of resilient flooring.
Recently though, there are a few healthy additions to this category.
UPO by Kahrs makes three really great options. Xpression and Zero Tile are made of safer plastics – TPE and polyolefin (which in this case almost certainly means polyethylene and/or polypropylene). No plasticizers and no PVC.
Quartz tile, their stiffer flooring has a base of the mineral quartz and PVC, with no phthalates and no DHEP. It’s virtually odorless, even lower odor than LVP. Nothing like the usual vinyl rolls.
Another new healthy resilient flooring is Shaw Contract’s commercial bio-based polyurethane. It’s made of 90% natural oils (but not linseed) and minerals. It barely has an odor. The backing contains PE and fiberglass and gives off a very slight odor.
You would have to check out the glues as well for each of the floors you are considering.
3. Light Green (Low-VOC)
i. Laminate Flooring
Most (or probably all) laminate floors in North America are now low-VOC.
Look for brands that have certifications, there are many, but GreenGuard Gold is the best certification for laminate.
Most brands can easily meet the other certification levels, so those does not help to distinguish between brands.
Formaldehyde-Free Laminate Floors
All of the brands I have seen use a formaldehyde-based adhesive in the HDF (high density fiberboard) core. Laminate is made of HDF and a printed image on top with a melamine coating.
Make sure they are not made with MDF, which is usually higher in formaldehyde. Almost all brands are now are made with an HDF backing.
I would go with GreenGuard Gold Certification if you can, as this is the strictest level of formaldehyde allowed (0.0073 ppm), far below any of the other certification levels.
This is technically “background levels”, there is as much formaldehyde in most outdoor air.
This is not the laminate from years ago, but it does have obvious offgassing that is higher than most other options here. I certainly have found that it does raise the interior levels of formaldehyde.
I dig deeper into what it is made of in the post on laminate.
My Top Brands
The following are GreenGuard Gold Certified:
(More options in the post dedicated to non-toxic laminate).
Some lines are “waterproof” – they have an extra component of wax on the tongue and groove parts. I did not find these to be higher in offgassing.
This type of flooring is usually “floating” – it doesn’t require adhesive during installation, which is a bonus.
My post on underlayment goes through the choices there.
Cork, like wood, has naturally occurring odorants. But with cork flooring, a resin (glue) is used to press and bind all the small pieces of cork together into flat sheets.
I have seen polyurethane glues used (which I find to have strong offgassing that persists), polyethylene, and formaldehyde binders. Polyvinyl acetate can also be added.
In theory, you can heat press cork like they do with some insulation, but this is not how cork flooring is made. That only works with insulation.
An adhesive is also required either to glue it down (and there are zero-VOC glues for this) or, in the floating floors it is usually glued to a fiberboard (HDF) substrate, which has its own offgassing.
Though some floating floor brands are cork through and through (and that type is my top choice).
It is finished with urethanes or acrylic which are tolerable once cured and are far less of a concern than the glues used to press it together.
Brands of Cork Flooring
I tried the WISE waterproof Amorium Cork flooring in 2020 and I definitely think this is the healthiest brand out of all of the ones I have seen.
I could pick up the offgassing clearly (it’s not zero-VOC in my opinion) but it’s lower than the others and it made pretty good progress. Many sensitive folks like it.
I clicked two pieces together and put a small amount of water on it. Here are my photos from my test – a small amount of water did go through in between the seams. I personally would not use this flooring in a wet room.
Cali Bamboo, US Floors, NOVA, Cancork
Most cork flooring I have tested is too high in offgassing for me to consider.
I tested Cali Bamboo cork (when they had the type with cork on the top layer) which I found to be the best before Amorium Wise came along. They claim no added urea-formaldehyde (which indicates phenol formaldehyde is probably added).
US Floors Cork was the second best – this is GreenGuard Gold certified.
NOVA Cork (38 ug/m3 formaldehyde) and Cancork (no added formaldehyde in the adhesive) smelled very strong to me, and were the strongest of the four.
Floors with some Cork
Some flooring that has a cork core and laminate on top can sometimes be referred to as cork flooring even though it has a laminate or plastic top.
Amorium Woodwise which has a PET plastic (not vinyl) engineered top layer falls into this category. I consider that topcoat very safe.
Most cork floors have a HDF (high density fibreboard) base with cork on top, HDF is too high in offgassing for me and so I do not particularly like this type.
Related Post: Non-Toxic Gym Flooring
iii. Bamboo Flooring
Bamboo requires resin or adhesives to hold the strands together, most have a substrate and then a finish. There are many that are GreenGuard certified for low emissions.
This wood is known to be problematic in that it can shrink, expand and do poorly with water/moisture/spills.
It doesn’t do well in high humidity (warp) or very low humidity (crack).
Cali Bamboo GeoCore is made on a limestone-based core which I found quite impressive in how low VOC it was. The top layer is a thin layer of bamboo.
Formaldehyde is a typical glue in bamboo flooring. If it doesn’t have formaldehyde it will have isocyanate based glue (like MDI) or soy flour polyamide-epichlorohydrin (PAE) resin. The bamboo is also treated with borates.
The finish is usually UV urethane acrylate finish containing aluminum oxide. (Source: Pharos project)
iv. Magnetic Ceramic Tiles
I tested Kablan’s magnetic ceramic tiles. These are ceramic tiles with a magnetic backing.
The other side to the magnet is an underlayment that is glued down to the floor.
I found that the magnetic backing components did have a moderately strong smell, though you may not be able to smell them once the floor is installed.
I have a video review of them here. Since the video, they have made these tiles lighter in weight. You may have areas where you want tiles that you can pull up. It’s a cool idea, I quite liked them.
v. Luxury Vinyl Plank
Luxury vinyl plank (LVP) is very low in VOCs and offgassing.
Most people find it odorless, but those like me with a high sense of smell can certainly pick up the offgassing.
I do pick up the chemical odor off every brand I have sampled (they are all very similar) and I do have concerns about plasticizers (which all brands contain), and small amounts of metals (explained more below).
Most of it is phthalate-free now – though phthalates were replaced with alternate plasticizers. The most common plasticizer used now is DOTP.
There is a huge difference between LVP and sheet vinyl flooring. Sheet vinyl is way higher in offgassing.
There are thinner vinyl floors that are not roll down vinyl nor click together LVP. Armstrong “Good” line is a thinner vinyl that seemed ever lower in odor than LVP to me, but it is glue down.
Multilayer LVP (Click Together)
This type has a core (SPC or WPC), vinyl top, and an underlayment. It is click together.
Most of the LVP click together flooring has an SPC (stone polymer composite) core – a mix of limestone, PVC and plasticizer.
Only a few brands have WPC (wood plastic composite), these used to have real wood but now the ones I’m seeing are plastic. They have an added foaming agent, which can be formamide.
I generally find SPC to be lower in odor than WPC but it’s been variable.
The underlayment is usually an integrated plastic layer, though some brands have cork.
The cork adds significant offgassing in my opinion, however, it is going to be mostly blocked by the click-together system. I personally avoid the brands with cork underlayment.
Should you Consider Vinyl as a Safe Flooring Choice?
This might be one of your first considerations for an RV, and can be considered if engineered wood and laminate floors don’t work for you.
They can also be considered by anyone in the mild to moderately sensitive category.
All LVP (and LVT) brands are very similar there are only four main differences outlined below.
FOUR Things to Ask (when choosing LVP floors)
- Double-check to make sure it’s virgin (not recycled) vinyl.
- Look for phthalate-free
- You might have a preference for SPC over WPC
- Check the underlayment, you may choose to avoid cork
- Virgin vinyl
- Made in America
- Starting at $2.81 /sqft
- Mohawk Dodford 7.5″ Luxury Vinyl Planks
- Mohawk Thatcher 7.5″ Rigid Core Vinyl Planks
- Mohawk Franklin 7.5″ Rigid Core Vinyl Planks
- Virgin vinyl
- Thatcher and Franklin are SPC core
- Made in America
- Dodford $2.75, Thatcher & Franklin $4.59 /sqft
- Virgin vinyl
- SPC core
- Made in America
- $5.87 /sqft
Home Depot Brands
Out of the Home Depot brands, Traffic Master was the thinnest one. Lifeproof to me seemed to have the lowest offgassing, though the underlayment odor was strong to me.
Home Decorators was similar to Traffic Master.
Phthalate-Free Vinyl Flooring and Replacement Plasticizers
Phthalate-free brands are preferable – which most are now. If phthalates (also known as ortho-phthalates) are not used, other plasticizers will be used instead.
All brands sold at Home Depot, Lowe’s, and Lumber Liquidators are phthalate-free. Almost all other brands are now too.
Toxic Metals in Vinyl Flooring
Organotins (a form of tin) can be used in the top layer. Antimicrobials can be used, usually in the underlayment. I have seen various types, including silver. EHN found the heavy metal cadmium recently in vinyl floors (probably recycled ones, they say).
It’s important to avoid recycled vinyl. Lumber Liquidators and Floor & Decor banned recycled vinyl to avoid the associated toxic contaminants like metals and halogenated flame retardants.
Lead, cadmium, chromium, and mercury can be present and are only officially limited (not banned), as far as I have seen, by Floor and Decor.
Though antimony, bromine, and lead have been virtually eliminated according to the latest study.
Most brands use virgin vinyl so this is not as much of a concern now.
Offgassing of VOCs in Vinyl Flooring
Sheet vinyl is higher offgassing than LVP. I have sheet vinyl in the 0.5 – 5 mg/m3 total VOC range, whereas vinyl click will be less than 0.5 mg/m3.
It gives off small amounts of aldehydes as well as a couple of other VOCs.
These are less of a concern to me than plasticizers which are a longer-lasting and more concerning class of chemicals.
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Cost Comparison of Green Flooring 2021 (USD)
- Wood $8 – 10 / sq ft including installation
- Polished concrete is $8 – 15 / sq ft for residential
- Stain and sealed concrete – materials $1 / sq ft (unless you are pouring the concrete or have lots of prep)
- Tiles are usually $8 – 10 / sq ft but it depends on the tiles (tiles come in a wide range of costs) and prep of subfloor/installation difficulty
- Marble floor material costs are $10 – $20 / sq ft (specialty marbles can go up to $40 per square foot). Labor is an additional $3 to $7 / sq ft
- Engineered Wood – Materials $3 – 12 / sq ft, labor $3 – 10 / sq ft
- Marmoleum – Materials $4.50 – 5 / sq ft, labour $1 – 4 / sq ft
- Wool Carpet J Mish $4 – $8, Earthweave $6, Nature’s Carpet $7 / sq ft
- Cali bamboo – under $3.30 – 5 / sq ft, labour about $3 – 4 / sq ft for click
Home Depot brands $1 – 3 / sq ft
- Cali bamboo – under $3.30 – 5 / sq ft, labour about $3 – 4 / sq ft for click
- Home Decorators Collection $1.30 – 2 / sq ft, labour $3 – 4 / sq ft
Trafic Master $0.50 – 2 / sq ft
Pergo $2 – 3 / sq ft
- Home Decorators Collection $1.30 – 2 / sq ft, labour $3 – 4 / sq ft
- Cork $8 – 10 / sq ft including installation
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