Killing Me Softly with Carpet

If you have dust allergies, carpet is a killer! Carpet can also be problematic for those with chemical sensitivities. Because they play on the floor, children may also develop reactions to chemicals in carpeting.

A silk rug from Persia

When I retrofitted my own home with the goal of eliminating the habitat it was providing for dust mites, the microscopic vermin that are the true cause of dust allergies, one of the most important steps I took was to remove the carpeting from both bedrooms.

Indeed, the choice of flooring is key to multiple aspects of your home’s comfort. In addition to the impact it has on the beauty of your rooms (or lack thereof), it affects the ease with which you can move around. Your carpet can quiet noise transmission and it can also help with heating and cooling your rooms.

But carpet can put a major dent on your budget. It also has an environmental footprint that can dig pretty deep — some carpeting will persist as long as 500 years in a landfill!

This post is going to be the first of several that talk about the pros and cons of different kinds of flooring. In this series, I will be discussing not only carpeting – the topic of most of this post – but also linoleum, synthetic vinyl sheet flooring, vinyl composition tile (VCT) and some healthier alternatives to VCT, plus wood, engineered wood and bamboo, and various types of tile, terrazzo and stone.

Let’s start with a magic carpet ride!

 To Carpet or Not to Carpet:
Now that is a Big Question!

Don’t get me wrong here, I’m not anti-carpet. Because of my particular health needs, I’m personally better off with hard flooring in my home, and it took a bit of time for me to get used to stepping out of bed or the shower onto a cold floor. I had to learn to put a throw rug next to the shower before I go in and to keep bedroom slippers beside my bed.

A Berber carpet similar to the one I bought in Morocco and later ruined
A Berber carpet similar to the one I bought in Morocco and later ruined in cleaning

But I still remember fondly the gray and white berber-style wall-to-wall carpeting in my Eddy Street house – not to mention the ivory, brown and russet hand-made Berber rugs I brought back from a trip to Morocco. They were warm and springy, sound absorbent and really beautiful.

A well-chosen carpet, one picked with an eye to your lifestyle, health needs, budget, cleaning habits and personal style, can be one of the bright spots in your décor.

But as I have alluded, there’s a dark side to carpeting. Most conventional carpeting is made with a stiff backing; the fibers are glued and/or woven into the backing. That backing commonly contains around 130 chemicals, 30 of which are known to cause cancer!

In addition, the stain-resistant and moth-resistant coatings that go onto the top of the carpeting also contain chemicals. The carpet’s backing and coatings can include benzene, styrene, toluene, xylene, and formaldehyde, which get into our lungs and bodies by “off-gassing.” The chemicals vaporize from off of our rugs, and we then inhale them or absorb them through our skin. While the chemicals are not there in huge amounts, they nonetheless are there – and that’s a problem if you are chemical-sensitive.

Sisal rug from Cost Plus World Market
Jute rug from Cost Plus World Market

For those who have “dust allergies”, there’s an additional problem: Carpeting and upholstery provide a great habitat for dust mites, microscopic creatures that like dark, warm places. Humans are not actually allergic to the dust mites, but rather to their lack of potty training. The nasty fact is that dust mites feast on bits of skin and hair that flake off of our bodies, and in return for providing them dinner, they pay us back by sh**ing on our furniture, in our beds and on our carpets! It’s actually the mite’s poo that makes it mighty hard to breathe.

There are a variety of products that can be used to mitigate dustmite dander, and it’s easy to find online at the National Allergy Supply. (I have had very good experiences in ordering all kinds of allergy-management products from this company, which was started by a couple who had a child with allergies.)

Tips on Common Carpet Problems:
First, Choose the Right Fiber

If you don’t have health problems that mitigate your choices and want to carpet a room (or rooms), what kind of carpet should you choose? The answer to that depends a lot on your lifestyle. Below are some carpet-choosing tips that will help solve common problems.

Kids, dogs, cats and accidents – the most durable, cleanable and dirt-hiding carpets are nylon, specifically the newer formulation of nylon that the fine print identifies as 6.6 nylon. (Nylon is a man-made fiber and the number designations refer to their molecular structure.) Nylon is also advantageous in that it repels mildew. If you’re sometimes clumsy like me, you might also want to avoid carpets that contain olefin, particularly in any area where you might spill something oily. Olefin is a man-made fiber that is durable and inexpensive, but “oleophilic.” What that means is that this fiber loves oils and just eats them up! I had to replace the wall-to-wall carpeting in my dining room after knocking over a bottle of salad dressing. The carpeting contained olefin and three different professional carpet cleaning firms were unable to persuade the carpet to let go of the vegetable oil in that salad dressing!

Another good fiber choice is polyester. It wears well, is easy to clean and repels water-based stains. Polyester is man-made and has been engineered to look and feel like wool, but it is much less expensive. Polyester also wears well.In high-traffic rooms, a good solution may be the choose carpet tile rather than wall-to-wall carpet, because if “sh** happens” or other spills occur, you can simply pull up and replace the damaged sections of the carpet. (It’s a good idea to order 10% more carpet than you actually need for the initial installation if you plan to do this. That way, you’re not in danger of being later unable to match the carpet tile that is installed on your floor.) Carpet tile comes in lots of beautiful colors and patterns; look around when you’re in a hotel, auditorium or restaurant, and you’re very likely to see carpet tile.

Warmth, softness and durability – I would definitely recommend choosing wool or a wool blend! Most synthetic fibers have been created to mimic wool, a fiber that is naturally buoyant, and contains lanolin, a natural oil that sheds dirt. Wool is also reasonably easy to clean, provided it’s done correctly. (I unfortunately destroyed my ivory-colored tribal Berber rug in the process of trying to remove a stain left after my cat deposited a hairball on it.) For some good tips on caring for a true Moroccan Berber rug, I recommend the information on the Building Materials 365 website. Because wool traps pollutants in its fibers, wool carpeting acts as a natural air filter and helps to keep indoor air free of contaminants. Wool is also a good choice for moisture areas because it discourages the growth of bacterial growth. Except for the problem of dust mites living in it, it is non-allergenic.

Avoiding toxics – Again, wool is a good choice, as is silk. Cotton is usually a bit too soft for carpeting, and it can be hard to get stains out of even all-cotton throw rugs. Of course, every natural and every man-made fiber has strengths and weaknesses, and often the best choice is a blend that combines the advantages of multiple fibers. Most of the toxics in carpet come from the backing and/or the glue used to secure the fiber to the backing. You can avoid the chemicals by choosing a carpet in which the soft fibers – which might be a combination of wool and nylon or another synthetic – are woven through the backing. The backing can be made of jute, or a blend such as jute and nylon. Carpets constructed in this way cost a bit more, but they are extremely durable and tend to last because they avoid the problems that sometimes occur when the glue breaks down and begins to flake off the backing. There are two brands of carpeting that are made in this way, without glue and without toxics in the back itself. They are Nature’s Carpet and Earthweave.

Bamboo, which is actually a kind of grass, is another fine, natural choice. Bamboo is eco-friendly because the plant grows quickly and thus quickly replaces itself after it is harvested. Fiber area rugs are also biodegradable, which means they won’t sit around in landfills for centuries.

Rugs made of sisal, seagrass, mountain rugs, jute and coir, though usually too scratchy for some life styles, are also used in making natural rugs that are durable and attractive. Although the fibers themselves are natural and non-toxic, watch out for the backing materials. Find out whether the top of the carpet is glued to the backing, and whether that glue contains toxic chemicals. Also note that rugs made from natural fibers can be damaged by water, and they may need some cleaning. This means that they are not good choices for moist rooms or areas where spills are likely.

A bamboo area rug; these rugs come with trim in many colors and bamboo that ranges from butter yellow to deep brown
A bamboo area rug; these rugs come with trim in many colors and bamboo that ranges from butter yellow to deep brown. Bamboo rugs can be very handsome; both the bamboo slats and borders come in a variety of colors.

Mitigating noise – As Paul Simon lamented, “one man’s ceiling is another man’s floor” and that can cause some hard feelings. A good carpet and carpet pad beneath it can definitely help to cut the noise transmitted through floors into ceilings if you choose wisely.

When choosing your carpet, you should buy the best-quality you can afford and also make sure to buy a high quality carpet pad. Indeed, the carpet pad that goes under the carpet and above your sub-flooring is as important as the carpet itself. The carpet pad will support the carpet and insulate the floor, as well as cutting down on foot traffic noise. Your carpet pad should feel thick and resilient, but it shouldn’t be thicker than 7/16 inch, because in some cases, too much cushion can actually void a manufacturer’s warranty.

Moisture-laden rooms or floors – If you are installing room in a basement or a room with high humidity, you need to pay particular attention to what is beneath the pad and the carpet – the subfloor. If the relative humidity is level is over 60 percent, your carpet and/or walls can develop mildew. Moisture vapor will also migrate from one part of the room to another, particularly when different temperatures on various sides of a wall, floor, or ceiling, produce vapor pressure. That vapor, unless prevented by vapor retarders or barriers, can move through floors, walls, and ceilings. If this is a problem in your house, it’s a very good idea – one that will save you money in the long run – to ask a contractor to install a vapor barrier on the floor. Several different types of moisture blocking “substrates” are available in difference price ranges.

Bright sunlight, the need to avoid fading – If your carpet is going to sit where it receives sunlight for long periods of time, it’s a good idea to pay attention to how it was dyed. A carpet that is in front of large sliding glass door in direct sun is going to fade unless you to install some type of sun shade or sunscreen on your windows. However, some carpets will fade less than others. “Yarn dyed” and “solution dyed” carpet fibers are apt to hold their color better than fibers that receive their color through what’s called “continuous dying.” The difference is that, in solution-dyed polyester or nylon fiber, the color is part of the soup that is extruded to make the fiber. In yarn dying, the fibers are colored after the wool is spun, but before it is woven into the carpet. In “continuous dyeing,” the color is applied after the carpet is tufted, and there is experience to indicate that carpets colored that way are less colorfast.

Budget considerations – When determining how much you want to spent on your carpet, you should factor in not just the initial cost of the carpet, but also “lifetime costs” for cleaning and for how long the carpet will last before you want to replace it. Conventional mid-range and high-end carpets will last and look good for 12 to 15 years. But that durability comes at a price: Mid-range carpets range from $25 to $35 per yard, while high-end carpet typically costs upwards of $45 per yard. (For this reason, the lifetime costs of wood, bamboo or linoleum flooring can actually be less than carpeting.) Toxic-free eco-alternative carpets range widely in price from the inexpensive Cost Plus jute rug shown here (under $50 for a 3×5 foot rug) to over $100 per square foot for high end designer carpets such as the Alicia Keshishian and Aga John carpets shown above.To extend the life of your carpeting, you should also carefully consider where it’s placed, particularly if it’s light in tone or single-colored. Experts have found that it takes at least eight steps to knock grit and dirt off the bottom of your shoes, and that means wear and dirt on rugs placed near entrances. If you do want your carpet to last and look good, and you don’t want to ask your guests to take off their shoes at the door oriental-style, then you should consider using area rugs or placing tile in the transitional areas that lead from the outside to carpeted areas.

Visit Nicolette’s Comfort and Joy Interior Design website


A Few Words to Ponder

About some words that were said
There’s been some hard feelings here
And what is more
There’s been a bloody purple nose
And some bloody purple clothes
That were messing up the lobby floor
It’s just apartment house rules
So all you ‘partment fools
Remember: one man’s ceiling
Is another man’s floor
Remember: one man’s ceiling
Is another man’s floor

-Paul Simon

16 thoughts on “Killing Me Softly with Carpet

  1. Wonderful post , You really hit the
    nail on the head, I just don’t understand why people quite get it.
    I’m not for sure how many people I’ve talked to concerning this very
    thing in the past , and they just can’t get it.

    I similar to you am associated with carpet cleaning and it is
    wonderful to see fellows associated this business with the same mentalities and thoughts
    Never the less, Excellent post! I plan to visit this blog from now on, on a regular basis

  2. carpet is part of your HVAC system- it’s an air filter that needs to be changed [aka cleaned] regularly. it keeps pollutants and dust particules from being airborn.
    therefore, carpet is better for those with allergies. myself included.

  3. Katherine:

    An allergist would actually tell you that’s a terrible idea! Cleaning does remove some of the allergens from the carpet, particularly if you use a treatment that kills dust mites. However, it doesn’t function at all well as a filter. Even carpets that have been regularly cleaned weigh far more when they are removed than when they are installed. The difference is all the dirt that doesn’t come out when cleaning. Every time you walk on the carpet, it’s going to release allergens and dust, not to mention particles of glue that are part of the backing and break off.

  4. Good night, Happy April Fool’s Day!!

    A dietician was once addressing a large audience in Chicago. “The material we put into our stomachs is enough to have killed most of us sitting here, years ago. Red meat is awful. Vegetables can be disastrous, and none of us realizes the germs in our drinking water. But there is one thing that is the most dangerous of all and we all eat it. Can anyone here tell me what lethal product I’m referring to? You, sir, in the first row, please give us your idea.”
    The man lowered his head and said, “Wedding cake.”

    Happy April Fool’s Day!

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