Health concerns with wood finishes and cabinets

Let’s talk kitchen cabinets, we like our cabinets to be durable and look nice. In order to get that finished look, cabinets are stained then a finish is applied.  Unfortunately, these stains and finishes can be harmful to our health. Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are a large group of chemicals that are found in many products such as paint, varnishes, and adhesives. Today we will talk about health concerns with wood finishes and cabinets.

Many of our cabinets and wood finishes contain solvents and volatile organic compounds.

According to the Minnesota Department of Health,

“Once these chemicals are in our homes, they are released or “off-gas” into the indoor air we breathe. They may or may not be able to be smelled, and smelling is not a good indicator of health risk.

Common examples of VOCs that may be present in our daily lives are: benzene, ethylene glycol, formaldehyde, methylene chloride, tetrachloroethylene, toluene, xylene, and 1,3-butadiene.” Benzene may be linked to leukemia, breast cancer, and lymphoma. Methylene chloride may affect the nervous system.

Several studies suggest that exposure to VOCs may make symptoms worse for people with asthma or who are particularly sensitive to chemicals.

According to the National Institute of Health,

Short-term exposure to various VOCs may cause:

  • Irritation of the eyes and respiratory tract
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Visual disorders
  • Memory problems

Long-term exposure to various VOCs may cause:

  • Irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of coordination
  • Dizziness
  • Damage to the liver, kidneys, and central nervous system
  • Cancer


Consider wood cabinets made from solid hardwood they will avoid harmful adhesives, plywood and particle board that may contain formaldehyde. The Environmental Working Group suggests  solid wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, or FSC, to reduce your formaldehyde exposure.

According to the Environmental Working Group,

When composite wood is your only option—a likely scenario, especially if you’re looking for cabinet bases—avoid products that use urea formaldehyde-based glues, which continue to release formaldehyde for the life of the product. Instead, look for products certified by the California Air Resources Board as having no added formaldehyde, or NAF; or ultra-low emitting formaldehyde, or ULEF.”

Phenol-based glues emit 90 percent less formaldehyde than those that are urea-based.

MycoBoard are boards that are made from plant or wood fibers, these boards are formaldehyde-free and can be used to build do-it-yourself cabinetry.

Cabinets manufacturing may use solvents. Solvents are used to allow better mixing of ingredients, the can also be used as a degreaser.

Health concerns with wood finishes and cabinetsAccording to OSHA,

“Health hazards associated with solvent exposure include toxicity to the nervous system, reproductive damage, liver and kidney damage, respiratory impairment, cancer, and dermatitis.”

  • Solvents which cause damage to the nervous system include n-hexane, perchloroethylene, and n-butyl mercaptan.
  • Solvents associated with liver or kidney damage include toluene, and carbon tetrachloride, (4) 1,1,2-2-tetrachloroethane, chloroform.
  • Solvents known or thought to pose reproductive hazards include 2-methoxyethanol, 2-ethoxyethanol, and methyl chloride, among others.
  • Known or suspected solvent carcinogens include carbon tetrachloride, trichloroethylene, 1,1,2,2-tetrachloroethane, perchloroethylene, perchloroethylene, methylene chloride and others.

Health concerns with wood finishes and cabinets -Types of finishes

Water based stains usually emit lower VOCs but you need to check that it is not produced with glycol ether solvents which are harmful.

Synthetic oil based stains are durable but usually emit high VOCs.

Natural oil based from tung and linseed are generally produce less VOC’s but they take longer to try. Metals such as lead or arsenic may be  used during production to shorten drying time. Make sure you look at the Materials Safety Data Sheet.

Acrylic or urethane varnish usually contains petroleum and synthetic ingredients that emit high levels of VOCs.

Lacquer usually contains toluene and xylene solvents which can be harmful. They typically emit high VOCs.

Shellac can be made with methane which should be avoided. In addition, shellac does not  usually hold up.

essential oils for sensitive skin

Health concerns with wood finishes and cabinets – Label requirements

Base VOCs need to be labeled.

The amount of VOCs listed on a can of paint is the amount in the base coating.

The colorant added to the paint has VOCs but are not listed so the level would be higher.

Tips for reducing health concerns with wood finishes and cabinets

  • Choose a finish made from linseed oil and beeswax.
  • Use a water based finish, they are generally lower in VOCs
  • Remove or reduce the number of products in your home that release VOCs. This does not mean ripping out your kitchen cabinets as this would be costly. You could open windows to allow VOCs to gas off. With time the off gassing is expected to decrease.
  • If you are planning on redoing your cabinets, ordering furniture or redoing your wooden floors, use low-VOC paints and furnishings when available. You may want to consider ordering these items unfinished, this way you choose what finishes are applied.
  • Choose formaldehyde-free plywood.
  • Choose solid hardwood instead of particle,avoid composite wood cabinets
  • Buy Green Seal-11 certified stains and finishes. This certification limits VOCs as well as solvents, heavy metals, certain phthalates, and hazardous air pollutants like ethylene glycol and formaldehyde. Source EWG
  • Be sure to look at the material data sheets
  • Dispose of unused chemicals properly.
  • Keep the room cool, chemicals off-gas more in high temperatures and humidity.


Occupational Safety and Health Commision

GreenGaurd Certification


Do you have any health concerns for wood finishes or cabinets?

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