The number one email question I get from readers is “What wood finishes are non-toxic?” And I get why. Toxicity and food safety is danced around by manufacturers, because they don’t want to get sued. Unfortunately, that makes things pretty confusing for woodworkers.
Most wood finishes emit toxic fumes during the application and drying processes. Once fully cured, most wood finishes are non-toxic, and even formulated to be food safe. However, most wood finishes have not been tested for food safety, and therefore cannot be labeled “food safe” due to FDA regulations.
Some wood finishes are less-toxic than others, though, so lets dive into the details!
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When Wood Finish Is Toxic
Wood finishes typically contain common harmful solvents that bind the product together and keep it in liquid form until it’s applied to the piece. Once the product is thinly applied to the wood, these solvents evaporate into the air, leaving the hardened finish behind.
This is why wood finish is toxic during the application and drying processes, but not afterward. The dangerous solvents evaporate during that time, emitting toxic fumes that are dangerous for consumers. If you’re using any oil-based wood finish, it’s recommended that you apply the finish in a well-ventilated space for this reason.
However, after the finish has fully cured, those solvents are gone, because they’ve evaporated. What’s left is the non-toxic ingredients that are not dangerous to humans.
Most wood finishes work this way, although there are non-toxic and “low VOC” products on the market. VOC stands for Volatile Organic Compounds, and it’s a catch-all phrase for the dangerous solvents found in some paints and wood finishing products.
“Low VOC” products still contain some of those dangerous solvents, but not as many as the normal versions that are also available.
Non-Toxic Wood Finishes
Now for some good news: non-toxic wood finishes do exist! Natural oils are some of the most commonly listed non-toxic wood finishes. These include linseed oil, tung oil, walnut oil, and hemp oil. Additionally, some waxes such as beeswax and carnaubu wax are also non-toxic.
Don’t get too excited yet. These are actually terrible options for finishing wood.
Waxes are actually terrible at protecting wood. While they might offer a little extra protection on top of paint, they’re basically worthless on top of bare wood.
100% Oils are expensive and difficult to find. You might disagree, saying that you see “danish oil” and “tung oil” on the shelves of your local Home Depot. Unfortunately, those aren’t 100% oils, and are actually oil/varnish blends, which contain toxic solvents.
Linseed oil is the only 100% oil that is mass produced and readily available. It offers almost no additional protection to the wood, and I don’t recommend it as a finish.
But luckily, water-based polyurethane is non-toxic, accessible, and provides great protection for you wood. It’s what I recommend if you’re looking for a finish that’s non-toxic during the application and drying processes. We’ll talk more about this option in the next section.
In general though, if there’s another finish you think might be non-toxic, check the Safety Data Sheet of the finish you intend to buy. You can find a link to this somewhere on the product page, typically labeled “SDS” and close to the product description. Here’s where you’ll find it on Home Depot’s product pages.
While this is probably more information than you need, you can compare toxic finishes with finishes you think are non-toxic, and see if there’s a big difference. As an example, below I’ll link to two SDS sheets for you to take a look at:
- Varathane’s Oil-Based Polyurethane (Toxic Example)
- Varathane’s Water-Based Polyurethane (Non-Toxic Example)
You’ll note that the oil-based polyurethane comes with three danger warnings and 47% of the mixture has an acute toxicity warning. Comparably, the water-based polyurethane doesn’t have any danger warnings, and only 7% of the mixture has an acute toxicity warning.
You don’t have to be a chemical engineer to figure out which is the safer option.
One More Note: Shellac is also often recommended as a non-toxic finish. I absolutely love Zinsser’s Shellac Sealcoat, and recommend it on just about every finishing post I write. It’s the only wax-free, premixed Shellac on the market, and it will bond to just about anything. However, when I checked the SDS, the one posted on Home Depot’s website was significantly different from the one posted on Rustoleum’s website, which makes me hesitate to recommend it as a non-toxic finish.
The Best Non Toxic Wood Finish
Water-based polyurethane is the best non-toxic wood finish. It’s affordable, easily accessible at your local home improvement store, dries quickly, and and unlike wax and oil options, provides a durable finish for your wood.
There are a couple of brand options for you to choose from, including the following:
- Varathane’s Water-Based Polyurethane (Home Depot)
- Minwax’s Polycrylic (Lowes)
- General Finishes Water-Based Top Coat (Rockler)
The only one of these I’ve tried is Minwax’s Polycrylic. I had a really difficult time with it until I realized you need to apply in super thin coats. After that epiphany though, it was great!
This knowledge applies to all water-based polyurethanes – thin coats is the way to go, else they’ll never fully dry properly.
Also note – I would not apply a water-based polyurethane on top of an oil-based stain. If you’re going to apply a water-based polyurethane for toxicity’s sake, apply a water-based stain as well.
Food Safe Wood Finishes
So first, lets talk a little bit about what it means to be “food safe.” Food safe is a designation from the FDA indicating the finish is approved for contact with food.
In order for manufacturers to claim their product is food safe, they need to A) formulate it using FDA approved ingredients (see the list here,) B) test every batch of the product to ensure only appropriately small amounts of the product leech into food, and C) file a petition with the FDA to get the “food safe” designation.
As you might expect, this is incredibly expensive. Because of this, while most modern finishes are formulated using FDA approved ingredients, few manufacturers bother with testing and getting the food safe designation from the FDA.
Therefore, very few manufactured wood finishes can label their products as food safe. In fact, I can’t name a single one.
As a result, if you search “food safe wood finishes,” you’ll get a list of naturally occurring products that might even be edible. If you’re wondering what wood finishes are also edible, its things like walnut oil, beeswax, and shellac (which is made by bugs.)
And while these things are certainly food-safe, they’re typically not that good at protecting wood.
So what next? You have a few options.
Option 1: Commercially Available Finishes
First off, you can go ahead and use a normal wood finish, like polyurethane, polycrylic, or “tung oil finish.”
(Which, FYI, Tung oil finish is not 100% Tung oil. In fact, there’s barely any Tung oil in there at all. Don’t be fooled.)
The FDA hasn’t labeled these finishes as food safe, but these products are formulated to be food safe after a 30-day cure time. The manufacturers can’t label them as such, because they haven’t officially tested them to FDA standards, but they’re generally accepted in the woodworking community as food safe enough.
In fact, you’re probably already using kitchen products finished with a commercially available, but not technically food safe finish. That $2 store bought wooden spoon? Definitely not coated in an officially food safe finish.
A few safety notes, though. First, this applies to any modern finish. If you’re pulling something that’s 50 years old out of Great Aunt Elsie’s garage, use caution. Back in the day, wood finishes contained lead, which is dangerous and not at all food safe. Lead stopped being used in consumer products in the 70s, so it’s not an issue today.
Secondly, in order to be food safe (enough,) finishes need to cure for at least 30 days. The finish will seem dry after 2 days, I know, but in order to be fully cured and therefore as food safe as it will be, give it 30 days to dry.
Third, be aware of temperature constraints. If you’re planning to use your finished piece on the stove or in the oven, be sure the finish you use can handle those temperatures without melting. Obviously, the finish melting off your wood is something to be avoided.
Option 2: Shellac
Shellac is a substance created by beetles that also happens to make a great wood finish. It is edible, and therefore absolutely food safe. Unlike the 100% oils that are also edible and food safe, it actually does protect the wood to a significant degree.
However, shellac does not stand up to alcohol, which is it’s main drawback, particularly if you’re looking to use shellac in a kitchen setting.
Shellac is available in both flake form at specialty woodworking stores, and premixed form at your local home improvement store. I usually recommend Zinsser’s Shellac Sealcoat, which is the only premixed shellac that is also wax-free.
However, as I mentioned in a section above, the Safety Data Sheets of this product were conflicting, and I therefore hesitate to recommend it to someone who is looking for an unequivocally food safe product.
As a result, if you’re looking for something absolutely food safe, you’re better off purchasing dried flakes from a woodworking store. These will need to be mixed with denatured alcohol in order to apply to your piece. I recommend a 1 lb cut, aka, 1 ounce of shellac flakes mixed with 8 fluid ounces of denatured alcohol.
Option 3: Pure Oils
Now, for the most part I don’t recommend 100% oils as a finish because they do a poor job of protecting the wood. There is one exception to that rule, though. Cutting boards.
If you’re making a cutting board, natural oils are the way to go. Both shellac and most traditional wood finishes will create a film on top of the wood. That is great for protecting the wood! But in the case of cutting boards, that film is constantly sliced by your knife.
This causes a few things to happen. First off, little pieces of film will be cut off, and guess where they’ll end up? Your food. That’s not great at all.
Secondly, the film prevents the sliced wood from drying properly if/when water gets into it. That’s not good either.
Therefore, cutting boards are pretty much the one and only time I’ll recommend using a pure oil.
Mineral oil and Tung oil are both great options. One word of caution, though, be sure you purchase 100% oil. As I’ve mentioned a few times in this article, the “Tung Oil Finish” available at many home improvement stores is not pure oil.
You’ll probably need to go to a woodworking specialty store to get pure oils. This 100% Tung Oil and this Pure Mineral Oil are both great choices and available from Rockler.
What I Would Use
If you were my BFF, and you asked me what I would use if I was finishing a wooden bowl, I’d probably tell you Zinsser’s Shellac Sealcoat.
Despite my hesitations above, I think it’s a nice happy medium between commercially available wood finishes, and shellac that you have to mix yourself. And I expect that whatever is left after evaporation is actually shellac, not a mix of shellac and some other stuff, and therefore edible and not just food safe.
I’m not going to bet my life on it, and I think it’s weird that their SDS sheets are so inconsistent, but the convivence of the product vs. the risk of not being 100% edible is a tradeoff I’m willing to make.
Plus, the Shellac Sealcoat is basically foolproof – it adheres to pretty much anything, and is therefore impossible to screw up. It is probably a poor choice if you’re making a wine goblet, since it won’t hold up to alcohol, but other than that, it’s the option I’d go with.
Wood Finish Toxicity FAQs
What is the best natural wood finish?
Shellac is the best natural wood finish on the market, as it is the most protective, readily available, and affordable.
While pure oils are another natural choice, they’re difficult to find and are not as protective as shellac.
Are all wood finishes food safe?
All modern wood finishes are formulated with FDA approved food safe ingredients. However, most have not undergone rigorous food-safety testing, and therefore cannot be designated as food safe by the FDA.
Is General Finishes Wood Bowl Finish food safe?
Like most wood finishes, General Finishes Wood Bowl Finish is formulated with FDA approved food safe ingredients. However, it has not been formally tested for food safety, and therefore cannot advertise a food safe designation.
What is the best food safe epoxy?
Epoxy has to be concerned with BPA amounts, since it’s a plastic. This Total Boat epoxy is BPA free after curing. Like most wood finishes, it doesn’t have a food safe designation due to the expense of the FDA testing process, however it is formulated with FDA-approved food safe ingredients.