Polyurethane is a coating that is typically used to treat wood floors to give them a glossy shine after the floor has been laid. It comes in two different forms, oil and liquid.
You may well be wondering whether you should use it on your wooden floors, or maybe you already have and you are now wondering if that was the best choice.
We are here to answer that for you. In a short answer yes polyurethane is toxic. However, this does not mean you need to go ripping up your floor in a panic.
We are going to use this article to go into more detail in our answer to your question: is polyurethane toxic?
Keep on reading to find out more, because there are things that can be done to lower the toxicity, and even avoid it altogether.
We are going to divide our article into some handy little subheadings so that you can understand the answer far easier, and find the information that is relevant to your situation.
Table of Contents
What exactly is polyurethane?
A good way of explaining polyurethane is by looking at it as a liquid rubber. Sounds weird, right?
We just mean that it comes from the family of polymers, just like rubber, but unlike rubber, it is not solid and can be found in oil and liquid form.
It is super versatile and is used for lots of different things. For example, it can be found in insulation, and of course, coating for floors and furniture. It gives things a glossy, smooth coating and often protects things from water and damage by giving it a protective coating.
It is for this reason that it is so desired for home use. However, polyurethane is not without its issues. Polyurethane is actually toxic.
What makes polyurethane toxic?
Polyurethane is a VOC. This means it is a Volatile Organic Compound. This term typically refers to solvents, which will probably immediately get the alarm bells ringing in your head.
What a VOC does is evaporate and release gas into the atmosphere that can be harmful to us humans and other natural life around us.
The worrying thing is that VOCs are often present in our homes, so those gasses and particles that they give off get released into our home.
This could be potentially harmful to us, our families, our pets, and our plants. To try and deal with this problem, products that contain low VOCs can now be bought. For example, you can buy low VOC polyurethane.
What is low VOC polyurethane?
Low VOC polyurethane is exactly what it says on the tin. It is a polyurethane that contains lower amounts of VOCs in it. This means that it gives off less of those harmful gases that we talked about in the atmosphere.
For example, water based polyurethane tends to give off far fewer VOCs than its oil version.
This may sound great at first, however, it should be noted that in a small and enclosed space like a house, the levels of VOCs that it still gives off will be just as harmful to yourself and your family.
How can polyurethane affect us?
There are a number of side effects and symptoms that humans can suffer from because of polyurethane.first it is important to note that the most worrying finding has been that polyurethane has been found to contain isocyanates.
This harmful compound can cause some serious lung irritation, it is this finding that has polyurethanes their ‘toxic’ status. This lung irritation can cause asthma, especially in young children.
In fact, there was a study that we found through another article that showed that children who have been exposed to the polyurethane that is in the top 25% of concentrations are up to 100% more likely to develop asthma.
The same study showed that there is an even higher chance of them developing eczema and rhinitis. This proves that polyurethane can cause chest tightness, coughing, skin conditions, and even trouble breathing fully.
In fact, asthma can be deadly. As well as this, the harmful VOCs given off by polyurethane, even low grade VOC polyurethane, can cause vomiting and headaches, too. Any asthma sufferers should also avoid using polyurethanes as the fumes can trigger asthma attacks.
We recommend that anyone who is particularly vulnerable such as young children, those with underlying health conditions (especially those that affect the respiratory system), pregnant women, and the elderly should all seek other options when it comes to polyurethane.
This means they should even avoid those polyurethane products that claim to be low VOCs, as even these can cause harmful effects to humans. You may well be wondering what other options you can use instead.
Luckily for you, our next section deals with the alternatives you have, and how to deal with floor or furniture that has already been treated with polyurethane.
What are my other options?
The good news is, polyurethane coatings only tend to last around one year. It starts to dissipate after around a year. You can then give it a coat with one of the recommendations we are going to tell you about.
If you are looking to lay down a new floor, then we recommend steering well clear of polyurethane coatings, as we truly believe it is not worth the risk when there are so many other options out there that will give you gloss, shine, and protection, but will not have harmful effects on yours, or your families health.
We highly recommend you seek out organic options or at least look for coatings that are VOC free. Do not be tempted by the low VOC version, as we hope you now know how harmful these can still be in your home, even with the lower amounts.
Our favorite options are actually mostly natural ones. Tung oil is a really popular alternative. It gives a natural finish, and although it looks a little different from polyurethane, many people use it to great effect, especially on hardwood flooring.
It is easy to use, and even better than that, it is non-toxic, so you can use it without the worry that it will be harmful to you and your loved ones.
Another natural option that is very popular is linseed oil. This is a very versatile alternative to linseed oil that can be used on its own, or as an added ingredient to organic, non-toxic, commercial finishes.
Other finishes that have proved popular as non-toxic alternatives are shellac, lacquers, and varnish.
There are lots of options when it comes to each of these, and they all have their own pros and cons.
It really depends on your own personal needs and whether you will be using it on your floor or other wooden furniture.
For example, shellac does not react well with heat, so should not be used on a dining table where hot crockery may be placed on it.
You can rest assured, though, that each of these will be far safer for you, your loved ones, and your house.
To conclude, we hope we have adequately answered your question ‘is polyurethane toxic?’.
As you can see, polyurethane is indeed toxic, and we do not recommend that you choose it should you be considering a finish for wood floors or furniture.
Instead, why not choose one of the alternatives we have listed above. That being said, there is no need to rush into a panic and rip up all your floors and get rid of all your furniture if you do have a polyurethane finish.
Remember, after a year the polyurethane dissipates, and it will not affect you or your family.
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