When it comes to household renovations, a beautiful finish on floors, cabinets, and furniture is highly sought after.
This can be achieved with a popular finishing product called polyurethane. Because it can contain a strong chemical smell, you may be concerned with whether or not it’s safe to be around after application.
It is recommended that you avoid sleeping in the house for a minimum of 48 hours after polyurethane application. If this is not a possibility and you must sleep in your house immediately afterwards, you should sleep in a separate room that is well ventilated.
While a crisp, clean finish in your household is important, your health and safety should be a top priority as well. Being prepared and obtaining the knowledge needed before polyurethane application will help reduce any exposure that could be hazardous.
Table of Contents
- What is Polyurethane?
- Why is It Toxic?
- What Are the Risks?
- How Can You Minimize the Risks?
What is Polyurethane?
Polyurethane is essentially a liquid form of plastic. It has many industrial uses but is also used by homeowners as a finish for wood products. It goes on clear and is highly durable.
It is primarily used to provide protection from scratching, heat, and moisture while giving your wood cabinets, furniture, or floors a gorgeous shine.
Oil-based polyurethane has the benefit of being the most durable, so these products are usually recommended for high-traffic areas. They usually only require one or two coats to achieve the desired finish.
The downside to oil-based polyurethane is that they have the potential to slightly alter the floor’s color after application and drying. They also have a longer cure time, with some brands requiring 30 days to fully cure.
This type of polyurethane is less durable than its oil-based alternative and can be slightly more expensive. It has the advantage of not compromising the natural look of the wood and it dries quicker, so multiple coats can be applied easily.
Water-based polyurethane is also considered less noxious so the smell is not quite as strong and it is less toxic than oil-based polyurethane.
Why is It Toxic?
Since polyurethane is a liquid plastic, and plastic is a synthetic material, the manufacturing process involves the use of multiple chemicals, some of which are hazardous to your health.
The synthetic material is created by mixing organic chemicals, and when the product dries, it releases something called volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. The release of VOCs is called off-gassing.
When you walk into a freshly painted room or a house with newly finished floors, the distinct chemical odor you smell is because of the application chemicals releasing their VOCs.
Depending on whether you chose oil or water-based polyurethane, the off-gassing stage can last anywhere from 1 week up to 30 days. This is why the strong smell may linger slightly, even after the initial 48-hour window.
What Are the Risks?
The toxic fumes associated with polyurethane application can have a variety of health risks to humans and animals. These include, but are not limited to-
- Eye and throat irritation
- Respiratory issues
Another concerning factor with polyurethane is exposure to a certain chemical group called isocyanates. Certain isocyanates are known to be carcinogenic when inhaled, meaning that exposure to them has the potential to cause cancer in both animals and humans.
How Can You Minimize the Risks?
Just like the application or use of any other type of chemical, there are steps you can take to ensure the safety of yourself, your family, and others.
Hire a Professional
This will be the easiest way to minimize any kind of exposure to anyone in the household. Professional carpenters and flooring companies have the knowledge and expertise to be able to apply finishing products safely and efficiently.
They usually already have the necessary protective materials, and they can also advise you on any precautions that need to be taken after the application.
Wear the Proper Protective Equipment
If you chose to do the polyurethane application yourself, it’s important you gather the required safety equipment beforehand. Wear gloves, long sleeves, and close-toed shoes to avoid getting any product on your skin as this can potentially be irritating.
Wearing goggles and a face mask can help prevent the polyurethane from being inhaled or causing damage to the eye area from splashing. Keep kids and pets away during the application process so as to avoid accidental transfer of the product.
Work in a Well-ventilated Area
Do your best to keep the fumes to a minimum. Open as many doors and windows as possible to allow the fumes to escape during the application process. Keep them open as long as you can afterwards so the odor can continue to dissipate as the product dries and cures.
Turning on ceiling fans or having floor fans that blow towards an open window or door can help as well.
Avoid Your House or Room For as Long as Possible
Consult a professional or the manufacturer’s instructions for specific critical avoidance times. It can be as little as 24 hours or as long as 1 week. If this is not an option for you, use good judgment regarding fume exposure.
If you only applied finish in one room, try to close that room off from the rest of the house while still ventilating it to the best of your ability. If you applied polyurethane on furniture, move that furniture to your garage or a room that is not used as often.
Can You Sleep in the House Afterwards?
While sleeping in your house after applying polyurethane to any wood surface is not recommended, following the proper precautions before and after application can help to minimize the risk of any potential harmful effects.
If possible, avoid sleeping in your house for a minimum of 48 hours post-application.
Refinishing your floors, cabinets, or furniture can be an exciting task! While it is not advised you sleep in a house that had polyurethane used within the last 48 hours, it is always recommended that you take appropriate safety measures to reduce the chance of being exposed to toxic fumes.