Product Review

Countertops: Laminate, Composite, Solid Surface, or Natural?

The greenest countertop is the one you don't have to replace. So look for durability, but watch for toxic chemicals in these materials too.

Countertops and other horizontal surfaces are used in everything from residential kitchen counters to hospital desks. They have to stand up to damage caused by pens, accumulated dirt, hot pans, liquids that penetrate and stain, cleaning chemicals, nail-polish remover, and disinfectants—and we want them to look good, too. There is no perfect surface material for every use and budget, but we can learn a lot about the healthiest and most sustainable options by looking at the raw materials and how each type of surface is glued or melded together.


High-pressure laminates (HPLs), such as those from Formica or Wilsonart, are some of the most common—and cheapest—surface materials. They are made from kraft paper impregnated with melamine (MF) or phenol formaldehyde (PF) binders with a decorative layer placed on top; the entire sandwich is pressed under heat until it crosslinks and fuses together into a thin thermoset plastic. The HPL is then adhered to particleboard or MDF panels.

The paper and panels used in HPLs are usually high in recycled content and may have content certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), but formaldehyde, which is also found in some panel substrates, is a known carcinogen. The melamine and phenol formaldehyde, which offgas much less than urea formaldehyde, are purportedly transformed by the manufacturing process into an inert material, resulting in extremely low emissions from the final product—many HPLs meet CDPH Standard Method emissions requirements, and Wilsonart meets California’s more rigid residential standard—but some building projects are seeking to avoid
any use of formaldehyde in interior products.

Baltix’s BioSurf is an alternative to formaldehyde-based laminates. It uses a biobased polymer made from 100% soybean and corn adhered to no-added-formaldehyde MDF. The graphics, including faux wood designs, are printed onto the back of a thick, clear wear layer using a large-format printer. The wear layer provides more wear, scratch, impact, and stain resistance than standard HPLs, based on third-party testing, and the graphics can be custom designed to include logos or specific colors.

Published October 2, 2012

Ehrlich, B. (2012, October 2). Countertops: Laminate, Composite, Solid Surface, or Natural?. Retrieved from