COUNTER PRODUCTIVE | Which Countertop is Healthiest for the Home?
Creating a healthy home requires approaching every decision factoring not only the initial health impact due to chemical off-gassing but also the long-term effects from the entire life cycle. Cleaning, maintenance, and eventual replacement of any product need to be considered before making the final choice, as these things could be far more detrimental to one's health than the initial installation. Now calculate the cost, aesthetics, and availability, and this process becomes far more difficult. There are several situations in the home design process that fit the above statement. Flooring, plumbing fixtures, wall treatments, and appliances just to name a few. But in this article, I will be focusing on one of the most confusing areas of the home…kitchen, and bath countertop materials. Which is the best option for your new kitchen or bath?
To help with the decision-making process, I developed the Degree of Green rating system in 2007 which has evolved into the Degree of Green Healthy Home (DGHH) rating system that I use today. There are dozens of reasons why a product, service, or system can be called green: recycled content, recyclability, natural, low energy, human friendly, and organic just to name a few. But none of these reasons are THE correct reason. None are incorrect, either. So why do manufacturers, retailers, and “building experts” lump everything into the same boat? Mainly, because they just don’t know any better.
Today, Degree of Green plays a part in my educational portal to teach people how to build healthy AND green. Through my podcasts, videos, blog posts, and links to the best resources around the world, The Green Design Center-Building for Health is your trusted partner in building, remodeling, and simply just living in a healthy home. Each countertop material I mention below will have its pros and cons. Meaning, there is no perfect product. What you have to decide on your own is what will be the most important factor in making your choice. If you decide on laminate because it’s the least expensive, you’ll end up replacing them far quicker than if you choose quartz. Yes, quartz is 3-5x the cost of laminate, but it’s also more durable and offers more installation options for sinks, and has fewer seams. You get the point. You’ve got to give a little to get a little. I have both ranked and provided information on the materials, keep reading.
Laminate countertops are making a comeback, folks. These materials a better than ever with an almost endless array of colors and patterns. Laminate counters start with an MDF or particleboard substrate that receives a layer of plastic laminate glued to the top side. The laminate itself is a layered material consisting of paper, melamine, and other resins. Once fully cured, this material is inert. However, the substrate can release urea formaldehyde unless it's sealed. Also, the adhesive is typically a contact cement, which can be quite odiferous during manufacturing.
PROS: inexpensive, many choices, easy to install
CONS: not extremely durable, not heat resistant, water can damage the substrate so no under mount sinks.
Degree of Green Healthy Home Rating (DGHH): C+ Price Point: Low
Cultured Marble is typically used in bathrooms only as the man-made material is not durable enough for full kitchens. It is made from crushed stone in molds. This product consists of a mixture of 70-80% real marble and stone dust combined with polyester resin and dyes and is finished with a high gloss look. The manufacturing process is getting good enough to make it difficult to visually tell between cultured and real.
PROS: inexpensive, easy to install, water and chip-resistant, integral sink bowls to eliminate caulk joints.
CONS: scratches easily and is not repairable, limited colors and patterns, strong initial odor.
Degree of Green Healthy Home Rating (DGHH: B- Price Point: Low
Solid surfacing is a lot like cultured marble. It too consists of marble dust, polyester, and dyes, but acrylic is also added into the mix. This makes the material more repairable for scratches and gouges and offers both a glossy and a matte finish. Solid surfacing can be used all over the home, including tub and shower surround. These were the hottest countertop materials available until quartz came along. Pricing is about the middle of all the choices.
PROS: Many colors and patterns, durable, integral sink bowls, repairable.
CONS: Some stone patterns are not perfect, and can get stained or scorched.
Degree of Green Healthy Home Rating (DGHH): A- Price Point: Medium
The natural stone category is huge right now. Granite, marble and quartzite being the most popular. In some parts of the country, granite is now the “entry” level countertops offered, even though they are more expensive. These mined mineral stones are durable and heat resistant, but they do require regular maintenance to keep them looking good. A sealer needs to be applied usually once a year to prevent staining and water absorption, and these sealers are not human friendly. While the stone itself is ultra-heat resistant, the sealers are not and will discolor if you’re not careful.
PROS: Hard and durable, beautiful natural stone colors and patterns, thick slabs that look and feel substantial.
CONS: sealing is required to avoid stains, cracking and chipping is not uncommon, natural stone can have random mineral streaks that some people find unattractive.
Degree of Green Healthy Home Rating (DGHH): B- Price Point: Medium to High
Quartz is definitely the hottest trend in the countertop space. Consisting of 90-95% natural stone quartz with a polyester resin blended in, these man-made slabs look almost exactly like the real deal without the required regular sealing. Soap and water to clean is about the only thing you’ll ever need to do. The material itself is inert, so chemically sensitive clients typically have no problems with quartz.
PROS: excellent color and pattern options, water and stain resistant, long lifespan.
CONS: hot pans can scorch, are not easily repaired, expensive.
Degree of Green Healthy Home Rating (DGHH): A Price Point: High
Composite tops are somewhat similar to laminate but without wood substrate. Dozens of layers of paper and resin are pressed together and heated to create a thick slab of material that can be used for countertops, shower surrounds, and even exterior applications. Most brands offer a small selection of dark, solid colors. However, some new entries into the space are bringing cool colors and stone-like patterns to the mix.
PROS: Price is attractive, water and heat-resistant.
CONS: very limited selections, fabrication is not easily found.
Degree of Green Healthy Home Rating (DGHH): A Price Point: Medium to High
See remodelista article for more info.
PORCELAIN AND SINTERED STONE Finally, you’ve used porcelain tile throughout your home, so why not for the kitchen countertops too? Large format porcelain has slab sizes up to 5’ x 10’ and is fabricated similarly to natural stone. It's naturally water, heat, and stain resistant. If you like the idea of Carrera marble without having to deal with the cost and maintenance, then porcelain is definitely the way you want to go.
PROS: water, heat, and stain resistant, harder than granite, near-perfect stone patterns.
CONS: price, availability, limited edge profiles.
Degree of Green Healthy Home Rating (DGHH): A+ Price Point: High
So where do you start? Budget, aesthetic, and functionality, of course. But then factor in your needs and wants for low-emitting materials and easy maintenance, and your choice may not be so simple. Hopefully, this guide will make that process a bit quicker for you.
By, Andy Pace Healthy Home Concierge, Founder of the Green Design Center and Host of Non-Toxic Environments Podcast
About Andrew Pace:
Andrew Pace is a Healthy Home Concierge and Founder of The Green Design Center, a leading resource for homeowners and contractors looking to source products that are healthy and green and receive expert consulting advice on designing and building healthy green homes. Andrew is the host of the weekly Non Toxic Environments Podcast. He is a worldwide expert on green and healthy building products and services customers and contractors from around the globe. As founder of the oldest healthy building supply company in the United States, Andrew has become one of the single most helpful and educational experts dealing with the day-to-day concerns of those individuals who suffer from allergies, asthma and chemical sensitivities. For more information, please visit https://www.thegreendesigncenter.com and follow along at @gdc_buildingforhealth.