Not All Linoleum is Created Equal

Linoleum is popular as an artist's material.   Photo: Kim Love/FlickrI may have mentioned recently that I'm in the process of getting ready to replace my bathroom floor, which is currently a mix of aging vinyl flooring and carpeting. The vinyl floor actually isn't in bad shape, although the dark pattern makes the bathroom feel positively cave-like in the winter, but the carpeting is completely disgusting, and it's long past time to go. Since I'm a renter, I'm working with my landlords on the project, and we had an interesting conversation about the best material to replace the floor with.

I'd love tile, of course, or possibly slate or natural fieldstone. The upkeep is higher, but these materials look nicer, and they hold up longer. Of course, they're also more expensive, and in addition, their weight might necessitate an evaluation of the existing subfloor to determine if it needs to be replaced or shored up, which is an issue you should consider if you're thinking of adding tile to a floor. I didn't even bother broaching the subject with my landlords, since I knew the response would be a suggestion that while I was more than welcome to pay for it, they definitely wouldn't! (And one of the few advantages of renting is that I get to remain blissfully free of responsibility for those bills from San Francisco tile companies. I would prefer to keep it that way!)

My landlord suggested linoleum, and my ears immediately perked up, because I actually really like linoleum. It's a very eco-friendly material, and it's extremely durable, with patterns that run all the way through so that as it wears down, it doesn't show age and scuffs as much as other flooring materials (like engineered wood flooring, which has a laminate veneer that can wear down). For your own home, it's a great choice, but it's a good one for rental properties too, because of the durability: your tenants have to work pretty hard to mess up a linoleum floor.

But then I realized the ugly truth: my landlord actually meant vinyl, not linoleum.

These terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but they actually refer to two different kinds of flooring. Here's what they have in common: they're both available in both sheet and tile forms in a range of patterns and styles that can be used in kitchens, bathrooms, and other rooms of the house. Both are great for high-traffic areas of the home, as well as areas where moisture and heat might cause cracking and damage to other types of flooring materials.

Here's where they differ. Linoleum, sometimes also called natural linoleum to reduce confusion, is made from organic materials like wood and cork dust and minerals with rosins for binders. It tends to have a rich, deep color, with flecks from the various materials it contains. It's incredibly durable; you can walk into homes that are a century old and see original linoleum on the floor. But you'll pay for it: linoleum can get expensive, even though many people would argue it's worth it.

Vinyl flooring, on the other hand, is made from polyvinyl chloride (shortened to PVC or just vinyl), which is a petroleum product. It contains a number of chemicals, including plasticizers for flexibility, that are designed to increase durability and performance, but can also pose human health risks. (Plasticizers, for example, have been linked with some reproductive cancers, though usually in the form of BPA added to drinking bottles and other containers that people eat or drink from.) Vinyl is, hands down, one of the cheapest flooring materials available, making it a popular choice in rental units and high traffic areas because it's easy to replace if needed, and it holds up well.

Over the years, "linoleum" has become a stand-in for "vinyl," much to the depression and confusion of us linoleum-lovers. So when you start talking about linoleum flooring, make sure you know what's actually under discussion. Are we talking natural linoleum, or vinyl? And have you considered asking your flooring specialist for a quote on both, to get an idea of how much it might cost to branch out?

Katie Marks writes for

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