Flooring and Health: Vinyl vs. Linoleum

Flooring and Health: Vinyl vs. Linoleum

Laurel responded to my post What is the best flooring for a basement? with the following: ________________________________________________________________________

You have made a common mistake. You referred to Marmoleum or linoleum as not being a natural product made entirely of plastic. Nothing could be further from the truth. Lino (not vinyl) is 100% natural made of wood sap, linseed oil, wood flour, cork dust, and minerals such as calcium carbonate on a burlap or canvas back. I believe that despite it being a natural product, the ingredients in it create a natural antiseptic environment which would discourage mould growth. You'll need to check that out.

Vinyl on the other hand is a toxic outgassing, and you were correct, plastic to which nothing will grow. So you avoid mold while poisoning yourself with vinyl fumes. ________________________________________________________________________

She raises some good questions. My reply was long enough for a general post to everyone - so it is!

Hi, Laurel (and readers anywhere!),

I didn't refer to the make-up of linoleum or Marmoleum, just vinyl. I linked the three as similar products with regard to their uses, and specifically the appropriateness of these floors for a basement, though I can see how the connection I made could seem to go further. They are all similar forms of resilient flooring, and I talk about the one we deal with most.  


Roll Out The Lino Statue, Staines High Street photo by Jim Linwood

Vinyl hit in the early to mid 20th century, and it overtook linoleum for a few main reasons. One is that vinyl was fire retardant. It was easier to maintain, and also had more versatility of design

(then, not as much now), but the big one was obviously the price, especially in the post-war housing boom. Linoleum is still around, but I believe only three companies still make what we would have to call 'real' linoleum (the term has unfortunately become too generalized, referring to many things which are not the all natural product you have well described).

One of those is Forbo, who make Marmoleum, a combination of the words marbelized and linoleum, which is a proprietary, very specific recipe that includes the linseed oil and wood flour, but also rosin and jute. Forbo's brand has over half the market for real linoleum in the world, which means that Marmoleum may also soon become a confusing term. Shoppers, always do your homework and make sure you're getting what you really want. Marmoleum is a linoleum. Vinyl isn't linoleum. They are all the same kind of thing, but they are not all the same thing exactly, and in ways which may matter to you,

World's Best Tile photo by Steve Snodgrass  


Unfortunately, linoleum is not known for mold resistance. It's make-up creates a nice enough growth environment that if you look up the two words online, you won't find articles about how mold resistant linoleum is (and if it was, we flooring people would be all over that on our blogs) but rather a string of "How do I get rid of the mold under/on/growing through my linoleum?" This is where Marmoleum rises above. Forbo claims it to be anti-bacterial, and therefore mold resistant.      


Regarding off-gassing, vinyl can be, and often is, but is not always an offender in this area. For the benefit of those listening from the next table, off-gassing refers to the release of gasses from the materials used in manufacturing some products, usually those made of plastic or PVC such as shower curtains, vertical blinds, clothing, furniture or other wood products, and flooring, including some carpets and some vinyls. It can be detected as the "new" smell. That's the nice part, but off-gassing usually refers to Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), which can irritate eyes, noses and throats, and bother people with asthma or allergies. Not nice.

Smoke photo by (jronaldlee) James Lee

VOCs should be a primary concern when considering the material and manufacture of your floors, and you need to know what to look for. For instance in one of its two forms, formaldehyde is volatile. The more innocuous variety is almost as pervasive as the dust mite, virtually everywhere all the time, and mostly harmless. Products which emit this may be called “formaldehyde free,” though they may also be termed LOW-VOC. That is technically correct, but as far as our concerns go may also be needlessly alarming. The worrisome version of formaldehyde is urea formaldehyde. It can irritate the above listed body areas as well as one's skin, and it can also lead to fatigue and cancer.     At Floors To Your Home, we make sure that all of our flooring is free of harmful formaldehyde, completely, and that it all meets the VOC safety standards of the United States, not just those of the countries where the material is produced if it comes from overseas. Also, most of our vinyl requires no adhesive, which can be an issue with any resilient floor, even the linoleums. We occasionally carry a few glue-down floors, but most of our vinyl flooring is either click together or loose lay - no glues, mastics - none of that.    

What about those who find themselves with a floor that may have outgassing issues? Here are some tips.

  1) The outgassing, if it will happen at all, will not be a permanent feature. A product outgasses for a while, then it stops. The time would be different for different manufacturers, but a study called Emission of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from PVC floor coverings concluded that, "PVC floorings after 10 days of installation in the room should not be source of indoor air contamination." Now, the study was done in 1998, and the technology has improved over time, but until you hear a different number, go the full 10.   What can you do for those 10 days, or even to speed the process up?

a. Ventilate the room - open windows, run fans, keep HVAC fans 'on' - all of that.   b. If you can, open the vinyl material in some covered area outside, a patio, a deck, somewhere open to allow any out-gassing to wrap up there. If you're not certain if the 10 days will be enough, then use your nose. Once the new floor smell is gone, it should be ready to bring in.

2) If you choose to have a glue-down floor, try to find one needing water based adhesives rather than solvent based. You will find less toxins (and odor) from the water based varieties. Whoever sells your floor to you should know which adhesives go with it, so make them do the work for you. Also, if you do the installation yourself, keep the area ventilated (windows open, not just fans) and verify the instructions' recommendations on using a mask, whether the disposable, white bulb types or a full-on cartridge-type respirator mask.    

I'm glad Laurel wrote us. A lot of this needed to be said here, as we haven't covered these differences before. I hope it's been helpful, both her words and mine!

– – – –
David has written and made videos about flooring products and installation since 2011 at Floors To Your Home (.com), where he is also the PPC Manager, a Researcher, a Website & Marketing Strategy Team member, Videographer, Social Strategist, Photographer and all around Resource Jito. In my spare time I shoot and edit video, put together a podcast, explore film history, and mix music (as in ‘play with Beatles multi-tracks’). Connect with  W. David Lichty


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