Whole Living Daily

Ask Mindy: How Can I Refinish My Hardwood Floors Without All the Toxins?

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Got a green dilemma? Ask me! I'll be answering a new question each week.

Q: I have a chemical allergy. Now after 8 years with two cats, a dog, and now two children my floors need to be stained and refinished. What are the best products for me to use? —Constance Crossen

A: Your floors have indeed seen (and felt) a lot of action, with doubtless more to come, so you’ll want a reliable, protective sealant to help the wood resist water and wear.  Given your allergies, you’ll also want a product that’s as free as possible of chemicals that can vaporize into the air you and your children breathe.

The principal health threat associated with most wood stains and finishes is the emission of volatile organic compounds (VOCs)  into your indoor air, where the fumes can waft around for weeks and provoke everything from watery eyes and noses to asthma, allergic reactions, headache,s and fatigue. Some VOCs (notably formaldehye, ethylene glycol, and benzene) are toxic to nervous systems and have been linked to cancer.

The best products for your health and that of your family are stains and finishes labeled either no- or low-VOC. These labels mean that the finishes or stains are low-emitting, meeting the standards of California’s South Coast Air Quality Management District. For extra assurances look for the “green cross” label of Scientific Certification Systems, an independent third party that tests and verifies that products are low in toxic VOCs. Another reputable certifier is GreenGuard.

Although the most toxic VOCs are synthetic chemicals made from petroleum, pungent natural plant solvents made of citrus or pine can also cause irritation and allergic reactions in sensitive persons. So a good green rule of thumb is, the less odor, the better.

Happily, there are many least-toxic, high-performance protective floor coatings that fit the label, including some low-VOC polyurethanes.

Water-based finishes
The following companies manufacture sealers for wood flooring that, while synthetic, use water instead of harsh solvents.

  • AFM Safecoat makes clear, SCS certified low-VOC polyurethane finishes and sealers.
  • Bonakemi USA produces GreenGuard certified finishes. 
  • Vermont Natural Coatings water-based floor finishes are made with Polywhey, which uses (yes) whey as a binder.
  • Parlay has a low-VOC, fast-drying, clear finish.

Natural sealers, waxes, and oils
These companies make plant-based stains, which let the wood breathe and feel softer underfoot. They're not as protective as a hard finish, but they do harden and seal wood to some extent.

  • AFM makes a natural, low-VOC, oil wax finish.
  • Auro says its solvent free wax pastes are dirt and water-repellent. Makes sense, just think of those indestructible English wax-coated canvas jackets.
  • Bioshield’s natural floor waxes need to be applied on a surface primed with Bioshield oil.
  • Livos, which uses beeswax, seems particularly appealing if one is averse to stronger odors.

Many of the products above are sold at Green Depot, which is a place I recommend contacting with your green-product decorating and renovating questions.

Mindy Pennybacker is Whole Living’s eco expert. She regularly answers readers' green-living questions. She is also editor of GreenerPenny.com and author of Do One Green Thing: Saving the Earth Through Simple, Everyday Choices.

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Comments (5)

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  • Thanks for the sharing! I was had some hardwood flooring in Phoenix, AZ that was looking really old. This helped me make it look completely brand new again!

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