Is Polyurethane Safe? The Facts and 5 Alternatives to Consider

Did you know that polyurethane is that one ingredient present in almost all the things you see? From coatings, adhesives and liquid paints, to solid materials like wheels and blades, polyurethane is literally everywhere. In other words, it follows us at home, in school, and in the office – is there no escaping it? Is polyurethane safe and should you worry about its effects?

Not many people truly give this material a second look. However, concerned consumers and organizations have been talking about its potential harms for years, so maybe it’s time you found out what the discussion is about. You might save your family and loved ones from some nasty health risks. But first things, first.

Is Polyurethane Safe?

Polyurethane comes in many shapes and forms. Its versatility makes it suitable for a plethora of applications because it can successfully substitute many materials that are either expensive or scarce. Polyurethane is also very flexible and it lasts a long time. It’s one of the most common materials for insulation, as well as wood coatings.

Unfortunately, scientists found polyurethane contains isocyanates, a compound that can potentially harm your lungs. Exposure to this product can cause a long list of side effects, including asthma attacks and lung irritation. Furthermore, experts have discovered it can irritate skin and cause heavy breathing after extended exposure. This is a reaction to the developing of lung infections.

People suffering from migraines should keep away from polyurethane fumes. These have been known to cause swelling of the brain cells, which then brings about severe headaches. At the same time, pregnant women, the elderly and sick, and young children should also stay away from polyurethane fumes. The biggest health risk is triggering asthma and other related symptoms, such as coughs, colds, and wheezing. Workers who experience prolonged exposure to polyurethane fumes suffer from various health disorders, including vomiting, unsettled stomach, and dizziness.

The bad news is that even though polyurethane can have such negative health effects, we still find it in almost everything we come in contact with. The good news is that if you’re planning on renovating your own home, you can definitely find alternatives around using it.

Alternatives to Polyurethane

A lot of people don’t know how toxic coatings and paint used in ordinary situations can hamper their health. Even though organizations like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are trying to raise awareness about this subject, standard paints and chemicals today are still highly toxic. Thanks to innovative alternatives to the ubiquitous toxic polyurethane coatings, this fact is gradually changing. Below is a short list of non-toxic alternatives to polyurethane that you can use in your home.

1. Green Polyurethane

Green Polyurethane is the first modified hybrid polyurethane that doesn’t use hazardous isocyanates in the manufacturing process. It’s also one of the potential replacements for polyurethanes that use isocyanates, especially those that spread post-reaction isocyanates in the air. This kind of fumes are particularly prevalent in insulation foams and coatings.

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In addition to its health benefits, Green Polyurethane has other advantages. For example, the Green Polyurethane coatings contain zero volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and are 100% solids-based. They’re also 30% more resistant to chemical degradation and 20% more resistant to wear. Green Polyurethane also cures in all kinds of conditions, including low temperatures.

2. Tung Oil

Made from the seeds of a tree native to China, tung oil get its name after the tree’s heart-shaped leaves. ‘Tung’ translates as ‘heart’ in Chinese. Tung oil is great as a finisher because it enhances the wood’s character. Used for hundreds of years in China, tung oil permeates the wood and consolidates to form an impermeable layer that repels water. Depending on the number of coatings, the protective layer can penetrate up to 5 mm into the wood.

As a preservative, tung oil is adequate for exterior work; however, the thin layer may render it less useful in underground settings. As the tung oil permeates into the wood, it creates a enduring wet look that highly emphasizes the grain of the wood. In woodworking terms, it “makes the grain pop”. Because of this, the wood’s color becomes darkened, conferring the wood a rich, warm, and highly pleasing intensity.

3. AFM Safecoat

AFM Safecoat Hard Seal might be just what you need when you renovate your house. It’s a multi-purpose, clear gloss sealer, specially manufactured to provide high resistance against marring and scratching. When applied properly, the Hard Seal forms a continuous membrane which seals any pollution or toxic off-gassing. Therefore, you may enjoy improved indoor air quality.

Hard Seal features a very low-odor, which makes it safe even for the chemically sensitive. This subtle-gloss sealant works best on particle board or hardwood. It’s also known for falling in the category of ‘least toxic’ products. AFM Safecoat offers a range of sealants and varnishes, so we encourage you to scroll through their product catalog on their website.

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4. Candelilla Wax

Like beeswax, candelilla wax is completely natural. However, unlike beeswax, candelilla was is a plant product. Derived from the leaves of the Candelilla shrub, producers closely track its growth to ensure it is totally sustainable. Therefore, using candelilla wax gets you extra green points thanks to the reduced environmental impact. Vegans confidently describe it the ‘bee-free alternative to polyurethane,’ while many beauty brands use it instead of beeswax. Use the candelilla wax in various home projects, such as polishing the furniture or creating DIY cosmetics.

5. Hard Varnish

Don’t worry about the ‘varnish’ part of this polyurethane alternative solution. Firstly, hard varnish intensifies the color of timber floors. Secondly, it protects these surfaces against water marks and various stains from spills. Thanks to the mix of waxes, tree resins, and plant oils, naturally elegant interior varnish provides a gleaming finish. This polyurethane alternative is essentially a plant-based oil combined with a natural hardener. The hardener is responsible for the durable finish. Whether you want glossy or silky matte, this versatile product creates a washable, protective coating for your wooden surfaces. We recommend using hard varnish for cabinetry, architraves, floors, doors, furniture, kitchen benchtops, and wooden toys.

Header Image: Best Flooring Choices

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David Knoch

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