3 Days ago you clicked “add to cart” and just moments ago your familiar UPS driver delivered the goods. Whether it’s a new desk, book cases, kitchen cabinets or a fancy new TV stand, you can’t wait to put it all together and start using it. But, as you remove the components, screws, washers, and handy Allen wrench and handleless screwdriver conveniently included in the package, you notice this obnoxious odor. Unsure if it’s you, the dog, or your new project, you lift side A to your nose and.. P.U.! What the heck is that smell?
That smell is probably formaldehyde, a naturally-occurring chemical substance found in wood. Your new furniture components are likely made from MDF, Medium Density Fiberboard, also often called particle board. However, there are similarities and differences between MDF and particle board. They are both made from natural wood fibers, and both will give off or emit formaldehyde gas.
MDF vs. Particle Board
MDF and particle board are both practical solid wood substitutes. Both are considered composite woods and are sometimes referred to as engineered wood because a manufacturing process using synthetic binding materials together with other chemicals and heat and pressure are used to formulate the finished products. This process uses very small-size fibers from wood chips and shavings for MDF and larger, coarser size-fibers for particle board.
Formaldehyde Off-Gassing in MDF and Particle Board
Off-gassing happens when products made from MDF or particle board release volatile organic compounds or VOCs into the air from the organic compounds contained in and absorbed in the wood fibers and binding chemicals used during the manufacturing process.
Formaldehyde gas not only smells bad, but it can also be hazardous to human health. If formaldehyde is present at concentrations between 0.1 to 0.5 parts per million (ppm), most people will be able to smell it, and they will experience slight to moderate eyes, nose, and throat irritation. For comparison purposes, most people can begin to smell gasoline at 0.25 ppm.
In 2018, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began requiring all composite wood products such as MDF and particle board being sold in the US to meet third-part certification and formaldehyde emission testing requirements. Emission levels range from a maximum of 0.11 ppm for boards thicker than 8 mm, and 0.13 ppm for thin, less than 8 mm boards.
As a result of the new requirements, many manufacturers starting manufacturing and marketing ultra-low emitting formaldehyde (ULEF) and no added formaldehyde (NAF) products.
Getting Rid of the Smell of Particle Board MDF
Short of replacing your particle board furniture, cabinets, laminate flooring, and other composite wood products with solid wood, high-quality plywood, or plastic-laminated particle board, there are a few things you can do to help control the smell and maybe eventually eliminate it.
Indoor air quality experts generally agree it will take a long time (several years at least) for the smell, generated from the off-gassing of VOCs, to go away if the boards have not been sealed. You can help to temporarily reduce the odors by opening windows and using fans, but these are not permanent solutions. These solutions only dilute or exchange the air while they are in use.
Tip: Definitely assemble your new MDF/Particle Board product near an open window to reduce inhaling the off-gas.
Fixing Particle Board Smell Using Oil-Based Paints
Using oil-based paints to seal the MDF or particle board works well, but the process must be done methodically and carefully. It is essential not to use water-based or latex-based primers because these engineered boards will absorb moisture and water, and the wood will expand or warp.
The board surfaces and edges should be lightly sanded before applying primer and again between each coat of oil-based paint. Three layers of paint are recommended. Latex-based paint is okay to use, but only after a solvent-based primer or an MDF-specific based primer has been applied.
Always be sure to work in a well-ventilated room and wear eye and face protection while sanding and painting.
Dampen MDF Smell with Plastic Shelf Liners
The practice of using shelf liners to seal in the annoying new furniture smell is similar to sealing in the smell by using oil-based paints. The disadvantage of using this technique is that not all furniture pieces, cabinets, and so on, are amenable to the use of shelf paper and its appearance may not be esthetically appealing.
Certain Plants are Known for Absorbing Formaldehyde
In 1989 NASA studied which plants might be shot up to the moon in order to help with air quality. If you’re looking to add a plant to your scenery, may we suggest a spider plant or snake plant? Since what you’re smelling is formaldehyde seeping from the particle board, one of these plants might actually help.
Both spider plants and snake plants (mother-in-law’s tongue) have been proven to absorb formaldehyde gas-off and use it for food. Both require little skill to keep alive.
Using Air-Purifiers, Air-Filters or HRVs/ERVs to Help with Particle Board Smell
Other mechanical options for getting rid of the formaldehyde smell include using an air-purifier, air-filter, heat recovery ventilator (HRV), or energy recovery ventilator (ERV). But, these are more expensive options than just opening windows and using fans.
And, these while these appliances do help to supply fresh, filtered air, which improves indoor air quality, they will not prevent the continued off-gassing of formaldehyde.
Other Natural Options for Getting Rid of the Smell
There are a few natural options for getting rid of the smell, but they can be a bit messy and often need to be repeated because they will not work to eliminate the odor. These options are:
- Sprinkle baking soda on the surfaces and inside drawers, then vacuum or sweep up the baking soda.
- Rinse a clean cloth in a mixture of 1 cup of white vinegar and 1 gallon of water. Wring out the cloth well and use it to wipe the furniture surfaces
- Put charcoal briquettes in bowls or use charcoal sachets and place on surfaces and in drawers. Discard or replace when the odor fades.
- Spray a commercially available household odor neutralizer in the air in and around the source of the odor.
MDF and Particle board stink. Going forward, buy the laminated kind that only has exposed ends (or no exposed wood at all). But for now, you’ve got a smelly particle board piece of furniture to deal with.
Whichever technique you decide to try to get rid of the smell emanating from your MDF or particle board furniture, it’s usually best to try more than one strategy.
For instance, seal the wood and buy a plant. Or use baking soda then line the shelves.
If you decide to do nothing, the smell will usually leave after several months, depending on conditions.