Is MDF Safe?
MDF has become the general title for any dry process fiberboard, so you’ve probably heard of it before. You’ll hear about it again while you shop around for furniture. But, what does it really mean? Is it good for you or your home? In this article, I’ll tell you if MDF is safe for you and your family.
What is MDF?
When I describe what typically comprises MDF, or Medium Density fiberboard, it may sound like an obvious toxic recipe. And yet, this board is widely used all over the world thanks to its economical price and easy installation. While various types of MDF have been developed to suit different needs, there is a basic list of “ingredients” for this recipe.
Typically, you’ll find wood fiber, urea-formaldehyde resin glue, water, and paraffin wax in it. This mixture is then shaped under high temperature and pressure into sheets or boards of different sizes. It’s as simple as that. MDF is meant to be an alternative to solid wood and plywood. There are other alternatives that are similar to MDF, but do have distinctive differences. Let’s talk about those.
- Laminated board: Some MDF products are finished with laminate, but a laminated board is its own thing altogether. It’s just thin layers of wood board or wood chips bonded together – usually with toxic resins. Then, the board is covered with a plastic, protective layer on one or both sides.
- Particle board: This is very similar to MDF, but it’s a low-density fiberboard. It’s made from wood chips glued together with synthetic resins. People usually cover it with veneer for aesthetic purposes. But the main attraction of this board is the cheap cost.
- Fiberboard: As you can guess, this is made of wood fibers and toxic resins. While particle board and MDF have specific densities, fiberboard can be low, medium, or hard density. So you can think of “fiberboard” as the larger, general category under which MDF falls.
Is MDF dangerous?
The quick answer is yes. Most definitely. Just think of all the contact that furniture made of MDF has with chemicals throughout the production process. The wood chips or fibers are usually bonded with urea-formaldehyde. This strong substance is known to aggravate allergies, asthma, and cause other respiratory illnesses. It’s also a known human carcinogen.
Although manufacturers have taken measures to limit their employee’s exposure to formaldehyde in the process of production, there is little said about the continued off-gassing fumes of your furniture once it leaves the factory and enters your home. There is usually a finish on MDF furniture to make it look better and increase its strength and durability. The common finishes are laminates, veneers, or spray paint.
Laminates are basically wood-colored plastics that are adhered to the board. The plastics and adhesives are all synthetic. Veneers are made of MDF and are able to continue off-gassing for up to two years! Specifically, the resin binder, urea-formaldehyde. If you already have MDF furniture and are suspicious that it might be the cause of some irritating symptoms, such as a sore throat, phlegm, dry eyes, or headaches, here are some questions to ask yourself:
- Is it open and exposed or sealed and laminated? It is recommended to be sealed, rather than exposed. This can reduce off-gassing effects.
- How long has it been in your home? The off-gassing only decreases with time, so if it’s new, you may have found the cause of your troubles.
- What kind of binding formaldehyde did the manufacturer use? Some companies claim to not use formaldehyde.
- Did the manufacturer add other toxins to the mix? Such as flame retardants or water-resistant chemicals?
Not all furniture made with wood is made equal. It’s okay to be picky about what kind of wood your furniture is made out of. Before you buy that next piece of furniture, think of these hazards. MDF, although it may be cheaper or easy to assemble, also comes with some serious drawbacks. Here are just a few of those drawbacks:
- It is not strong: Because of its method of production, MDF is not as strong as a solid piece of wood. It doesn’t have a natural grain to give it natural strength. If it does break, it’s not easy to repair either.
- It’s not durable: It will not last nearly as long as solid wood furniture. This is due to a number of reasons. The MDF board will weaken quickly with heat, humidity, use, and water exposure.
- It’s not water-resistant, and thus, not versatile about where it can be used in the home: When MDF comes into contact with water, it’s liable to swell. Even if it’s veneered or laminated. So, it’s not a flexible choice of furniture because you need to avoid the bathroom, bedroom, laundry room, and pretty much anywhere you may spill something! It’s also easily stained, so water is not your only worry.
- And worst of all, it’s a major source of VOCs.
As I’ve said before, these bad boys will be off-gassed into your home for months, even years, leaking many of the chemicals that were used in producing it. That possibly includes waxes, dyes, urea-formaldehyde, paraffin wax, water-resistant agents, insect-proof agents, and fire retardants.
MDF is clearly not the best choice for your health, the environment, and even for social responsibility (mass production outsourced from countries that practice child labor!). There are way more cons than pros.
Why Solid Wood Is a Better Choice?
Solid wood is the best alternative to any conventional fiberboard furniture materials. There are so many advantages of solid wood furniture, so let’s take a look at some of them:
- Solid wood furniture is made of renewable resources that require almost no additional energy input to produce – air, soil, sunlight. MDF, however, is made with nonrenewable resources that require a lot of energy to produce.
- Solid wood furniture will break down organically after its long life span. It can be easily repaired and reused before it reaches the landfill. MDF furniture is not easily repaired or reused. And because of its mixture of glues, finishes, chemicals, and plastic sealants, MDF doesn’t break down organically.
- Solid wood furniture tends to be more intricate and personal in its design because of the handmade craft. That’s something you can’t get from mass-produced manufacturing.
- You pick the wood for your solid wood furniture based on what purpose is needed. With MDF furniture, you lack that flexibility.
- You can’t beat the quality construction of solid wood furniture. The furniture is built to last a lifetime and longer, all without chemicals in the production. The techniques are passed on from generation to generation to make the finest quality pieces. On the other hand, MDF furniture is not made to last.
Where to buy Non-MDF furniture?
- Medley: You can get FSC certified, solid wood furniture here. Using years of experience, they have made a company that values the needs and health of their client. They guarantee not to use fire retardants, heavy metals, pesticides, wood preservatives, and any known carcinogen (including urea-formaldehyde). This means their furniture is not only made of the highest quality solid wood, but also finished with a natural polish of beeswax, carnauba wax, and olive oil.
- Atlantic Furniture: This company puts your safety first by using solid hardwood. The construction techniques and steel reinforcements are used to extend the durability and increase the strength of the furniture. They also use an extensive, detailed five-step finishing process that leaves your furniture beautifully sealed.
- Avocado: They have beautiful, handmade furniture for your bedroom. You can choose a customizable dresser, end table, and bed frame all without jeopardizing your health. They use 100% reclaimed wood and zero-VOC sealants.
When buying furniture, it’s important to choose natural materials that have not been chemically treated as well as nature finishes, such as beeswax or linseed oil. This way, you’ll dramatically reduce your exposure to toxic chemicals at home. As MDF is full of potentially toxic chemicals, such as formaldehyde and VOCs, MDF furniture is not a safe choice. The best option is solid wood furniture with a natural finish. For more information about non toxic furniture, check our articles about solid wood bed frames, futon frames, and non toxic sofas.