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Pros and Cons of Plastic Laminate Countertops

By HHI Staff

Hard, 1/16"-thick high-pressure plastic laminate is still a popular countertop surface in the U.S. today. This isn’t surprising; this material is inexpensive, waterproof, attractive and relatively easy to install. Laminated countertops are also a cinch to keep clean and disinfect, and they require no added oils or finishes. Plastic laminate countertops are so common that they can be readily purchased at nearly all building centers and cabinet shops. One of the more familiar brands is Formica, but there are a number of others. Despite being plastic products, high-pressure plastic laminates are so hard and dense that they tend to release relatively few synthetic odors. Therefore, the laminate itself is often tolerable for most sensitive people.


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Unfortunately, plastic laminate sheets are much too thin (1/16") and brittle to serve as countertops as they are; they must have a supporting surface beneath them. Therefore, plastic laminates are always permanently glued to thick, smooth, stable, solid substrates (base materials). Generally, particleboard is used for this. Sadly, from a health standpoint, most particleboard emits formaldehyde from urea-formaldehyde (UF) glues. Particleboard will also outgas potentially bothersome softwood terpene odors. However, alternative particleboards made without formaldehyde, or construction-grade plywoods which use a less problematic phenol-formaldehyde glue (PF), can be substituted. (Note: these still will emit terpenes.)


What Exactly are Plastic Laminates?

Plastic laminates are actually made of several layers of Kraft paper bonded together with plastic resins under heat and very high pressure. The topmost layer of resin-impregnated paper is colored or patterned. This gives the laminate sheet its particular appearance. Modern plastic laminates now come in a wide variety of designs, colors, textures, sheens and grades. However, they’re all subject to scorching and chipping to some degree.

Some people are tempted to use plastic laminates over solid wood, but this generally doesn’t work very well because solid wood can warp and change dimensions too much as the humidity fluctuates with the seasons.

While it’s common practice to only apply plastic laminate to the top and front edge of the substrate, you might seriously consider covering all the sides — top, bottom and each of the four edges. This encasement approach is especially important for chemically sensitive individuals. If this is done, most of the formaldehyde, as well as the natural pine terpene odors are sealed in.

If you choose not to apply plastic laminate to all sides, you may want to coat the exposed plywood or particleboard surfaces with a sealant. You should be aware, though, that sealants can’t totally seal in formaldehyde emissions — even with multiple coats — and they can be very odorous in their own right.

For gluing plastic laminate to a substrate, a water-based, low-toxicity contact cement can be a good option, and it’s often available at local hardware stores and building centers. During the actual laminating process, there should be good ventilation and, of course, appropriate protective gear should be worn.

From Creating a Healthy Household: The Ultimate Guide For Healthier, Safer, Less-Toxic Living. © 2000 by Lynn Marie Bower.



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Pros and Cons of Plastic Laminate Countertops:  Created on February 9th, 2007.  Last Modified on February 28th, 2011


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