In Summary:

Cabinet fronts, doors, and drawer fronts tend to be made from solid hardwood.  However, the rest of the cabinet is generally made from various composite wood materials, such as plywood or particleboard, which can release formaldehyde into indoor air.  To minimize the impact that cabinets have on interior spaces:

  1. Specify cabinets made with hardwood plywood sides, bottoms, and back panels.
  2. If offered, opt for hardwood plywood shelving instead of particleboard.
  3. Request no-added-formaldehyde (NAF) or Ultra-Low Emitting Formaldehyde (ULEF) woods when possible.
  4. Prefer solid wood veneer facings over laminate or thermofoil.
  5. Purchase cabinets that come pre-finished with a paint or stain already applied.

Here’s Why:

Due to their high cost, we don’t expect to see solid wood constructed cabinets popping up on specifications for projects across the country anytime soon. The affordable housing market may be forced to choose chemically-bound wood cabinets for the time being. The good news is that, from a health perspective, being careful about the type of composite wood used to construct cabinets can have a huge payoff for indoor air quality.

Most  composite woods - plywood, MDF, particle board, etc. - are held together with a family of binder resins that, throughout their service lives, release carcinogenic formaldehyde into the air.  There are two ways to reduce the amount of this formaldehyde in your next project:

  1. Select plywood instead of other composite woods.  Some composite woods require much more binder (and emit more formaldehyde) than others.  Plywood has the least amount of binder (3.5% by weight) of composite woods, compared  to MDF (10% binder by weight), or particleboard (12.4% binder by weight).

  2. Look for ULEF or NAF designations.  Regardless of which composite wood is used in your cabinet, prefer products marked as being ULEF (Ultra-Low Emitting Formaldehyde, or NAF (no added formaldehyde) to insure lower formaldehyde emissions.

Click here for more information on understanding composite woods and their resins.

While the construction of the cabinet is a major opportunity to limit hazards in your spaces, don’t forget about the other choices you may make, that can have big health payoffs, too:

  1. Select wood veneers instead of laminates.  Laminates are made with resins similar to those used in composite woods, and therefore also emit formaldehyde over time.  

  2. Avoid vinyl.  Some cabinets may offer polyvinyl chloride (PVC) edge-banding on shelving, or offer thermofoil (vinyl) coatings on parts of the cabinet’s construction.  Chlorinated plastics including PVC are never healthy materials, especially in their manufacturing and disposal, so, avoid these whenever possible.

  3. Buy cabinets that are pre-finished.  This keeps stains and coatings in a factory where both workers and the environment are better protected than they would be if finishing were happening after installation. But beware: Thermofoil is vinyl, so be sure to read the fine print to know what type of finish you’re getting.