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Nontoxic Interior Design: Is Your Home a Haven or a Health Hazard?

Nontoxic Interior Design: Is Your Home a Haven or a Health Hazard?

If they don't tell you what's in it, you probably don't want it in your home.

Your home is a haven, a place of respite and renewal, a sanctuary. But could your sanctuary make you sick? We all want homes that are happy, healthy, and safe, but many commonly used home furnishings and décor contain health hazards and toxins. By incorporating more sustainable and nontoxic interior design options into your home, you can help limit your exposure to potentially hazardous chemicals.

Many of the chemicals used in flooring, paint, and other home furnishings are linked to health issues, including congenital disabilities, infertility, hormonal imbalances, and even cancer. It's frightening, but it's also essential to become aware of these hazards because we spend over 90% of our lives indoors, and more than half of that time is spent in our home. Given the current global pandemic and the even greater amounts of time we’ve all been spending at home, it’s safe to say our homes affect our health and wellbeing.

It’s important to learn and stay informed regarding links to our health and the environment so we can make more mindful choices when building a new home , remodeling, or purchasing furnishings. Fortunately, there are many options for nontoxic interior design that are beautiful, sustainable, and contribute to your sense of wellness.

Photo Credit: Shoppe Amber Interiors | Photography: Joe Schmelzer

Toxins in Furniture and Upholstery

Life happens in our living rooms (after all, it's right there in the name)! We sit on the couch, kick back in a comfy chair, cover ourselves with a soft blanket, or rest on a throw pillow. Our living room is the place where we lounge.

Upholstery, and especially cushions, are often coated and filled with toxic, flame retardant chemicals. Growing scientific evidence tells us flame retardants are adversely associated with health conditions like cancer, infertility, delayed fetal and child development, neurological disorders, and disruptions in endocrine and thyroid function. Concerning? Yes!

Even more disturbing—one flame retardant, chlorinated Tris, was commonly used in children's pajamas through the 1970s. Scientists discovered Tris was a mutagen or a gene-altering agent that could lead to many problems, including developmental delays and possibly cancer. Clothing manufacturers agreed to stop using the chemical in sleepwear, but manufacturers still use it, along with other flame-retardant chemicals in other household items—including furniture upholstery.

Furniture Frames and Wood Also Contain Toxins

After this history lesson, you’re probably side-eying your vintage sofa and wondering if you should toss it out… which leads us to furniture frames. Frames commonly contain formaldehyde—a known potential human carcinogen.

All solid wood naturally releases trace amounts of formaldehyde, but engineered woods like medium-density fiberboard (also known as MDF), particleboard, and plywood release much higher levels. Engineered woods are treated with high temperatures, increasing the amount of formaldehyde the furniture pieces emit.

Holding frames together is glue, which—surprise—also contains formaldehyde. The adhesive is used to hold layers of engineered wood together. The toxic chemicals in the glue are absorbed both by inhalation and through the skin.

Architect: Jeffrey Dungan | Photography: William Abranowicz

Upholstery Recommendations for Minimizing Toxins

If you don’t want to embrace sitting on the floor (which may help your posture and flexibility), then my best advice is to READ THE LABELS. Less toxic design options for furniture are becoming more and more readily available.

As a general rule when buying furniture, avoid any items containing "anti-this" or "anti-that" treatments. Contradictory (I know) but keep in mind, the treatments often don't last anyway, and as they breakdown over time, we get exposed to toxic chemicals. For example, PFCs (perfluorinated compounds) are highly toxic and ubiquitous in non-stick and stain-resistant finishes, like Teflon.

If you’re looking for a modern, eco-friendly furniture line, I suggest exploring a brand like California-based Medley designs (formerly Stem Goods). The furniture is simple, beautiful, and high-quality, made with durable, eco-friendly materials.

There are many other eco-friendly furniture options out there, but here are a few points to consider when furniture shopping:

  • Avoid flame-retardant chemicals

  • Choose natural latex, cotton, wool, or down-filler, over polyurethane foam, and synthetics

  • Seek solid hardwood frames, specifically kiln-dried, which has far less moisture content than air-dried wood and is stronger and durable

  • Find manufacturers who use water-based and low-VOC glues

  • Choose upholstery made from certified organic fabrics like cotton, linen, hemp, bamboo, or blends

  • Give it the sniff test—consult your nose, and if it stinks, don’t buy it!

Now Let’s Talk Flooring

Have you ever heard anyone wax on about the smell of freshly laid carpet? For some, it's comparable to the coveted new car smell. Unfortunately, the scent is also an indicator of the hazards contained within your flooring.

Carpeting is a significant source of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). New carpet may include toxic chemicals like formaldehyde (again), acetaldehyde, benzene, toluene, and more. These chemicals can lead to a variety of health issues and concerns. New carpeting has been associated with coughing and wheezing in infants during their first year of life—not a great start for a little one!

The good news is the most significant release of VOCs occurs in the first 72 hours following installation. However, carpet continues to emit low levels for years. When combined with the other VOCs in your home, this leads to poor air quality and potential health issues.

You may sense a pattern here, but carpeting along with the backing, adhesives, and padding are usually treated with toxic flame retardants, stain protectors, and antimicrobials during the manufacturing process. While these "helpful treatments" sound great on a label, there's no real proof the finishes last over time. It’s also important to note that the addition of these treatments can interfere with the recycling process, making the items even less sustainable and eco-friendly.

Exploring Sustainable Carpet Alternatives and Flooring Options

If you’re shopping for nontoxic interior design options for flooring, remember you aren't beholden to carpet. It's definitely decreased in popularity over the years. In the 1970s through the 1990s, homeowners were all about the wall-to-wall carpet.

(Remember shag? Berber?) These days, many people prefer the beautiful look of more natural flooring options.

As you and/or your interior designer source options, you can still look at labels and choose rugs made of natural and organic materials like cotton, wool, and hemp. These floor coverings will give your home the warmth of carpet without the worry of toxic chemicals.

As for flooring choices, there are many excellent, less volatile alternatives to choose from. Here are a few nontoxic flooring options to consider.

Hardwood: Consider Forest Stewardship Council-certified solid wood flooring (look for the stamp!), or reclaimed wood for the most sustainable options.

Wool carpet: Wool carpeting is more expensive than synthetics, but certainly a healthier option and worth the cost. As a bonus: wool carpets naturally repel insects.

Natural carpet: Another beautiful option to consider is a natural carpet made from cotton, jute, hemp, or sisal. Look for untreated, organic carpeting.

Tile: We often think of tile for bathrooms, but it’s a beautiful nontoxic option in other rooms as well and can include stone, porcelain and ceramic (watch out for lead), recycled options, and terrazzo among others.

Cork: Relatively new to the flooring scene, it turns out cork is sustainable, renewable, durable, and seriously beautiful as well. Who knew? If you haven’t considered cork flooring, it’s definitely an option to check out.

Linoleum: It's important to note true linoleum is entirely different from synthetic vinyl flooring. Real linoleum is made from linseed oil and all-natural, biodegradable materials. This flooring option lasts between 20 and 40 years; it's stain-resistant, naturally antimicrobial (the linseed oil breaks down, killing microbes), and hypoallergenic.

Design: Marie Flanigan Interiors | Photography: Julie Soefer

Clearing Your Walls of Toxic Paint

The paint in your home can also be another primary culprit of VOC emission in interior design. As I mentioned above, VOCs are suspected carcinogens that contribute to poor air quality and toxicity in your home. They can be harmful to child and fetal development, cause reproductive damage, and are suspected asthma triggers.

If your walls are covered with older wallpaper instead of paint, you’re likely experiencing toxin exposure. Traditional wallpaper often contains Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) and phthalates, as well as toxic adhesives. PVC is particularly terrible and among the most harmful toxins. It’s found in vinyl flooring, shower curtains, upholstery, toys, and many plastic consumer products. Avoid it!

Choosing Safer Paint Alternatives

As with furniture and flooring, there are safer alternatives to traditional paint. I urge you to do a little research on the contents of products and less-and-nontoxic interior design options before you buy. It may seem like extra work and inconvenience, but your health and wellbeing are worth it.

Before you cover your walls, look at these alternative options for paint. These wall covering options are beautiful, easy to work with, and best of all, safe.

Low or no-VOC paint: Low and no-VOC paints contain less than 50 grams and 5 grams of VOCs per liter, respectively. Once again, the nose knows—these paints produce very little odor, even when you're painting in a small, occupied space.

Wallpaper: Wallpaper options have come a long way over the years. Many options feature water-based ink on recycled or FSC-certified paper. These gorgeous, modern designs contain low-to-no VOCs and safe adhesives.

Renewable wallcoverings: Consider covering your walls with materials like bamboo, stone, grasscloth, linen, or even cork. These natural materials are eco-friendly and lovely.

Photo Credit: Jenny Komenda

Next Steps for Healthy Nontoxic Interior Design

You may be wondering, "what do I do next to ensure my home is safe?"

First, you don't need to run out and build a new house or throw out all your furniture. It's essential to keep it all in perspective. Many toxins we're exposed to every day (like car exhaust) are deadly in large quantities but otherwise cause minimal harm. It's important to realize toxicity comes from being surrounded by small amounts of chemicals which, over time, may lead to more significant health concerns.

Your home should be a safe place where you stay healthy and stress-free. Prioritize your approach to health, fitness, and wellbeing—but always remember the goal is progress, not perfection.

My suggestion is, rather than run out and redecorate, become aware of the toxins and potential hazards within your home furnishings and décor. When it comes time to choose a new item or update a space, use your new knowledge to make healthier choices or work with a designer who can help. You may be surprised at how smaller, cleaner, sustainable updates can impact your health and wellbeing.

Although not an exhaustive list, hopefully this information has shed some light on a form of toxin exposure often overlooked. It’s no reason to be afraid, but it’s certainly something to be aware of. How are you incorporating less toxic, sustainable design options in your home?

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X Lauren

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