Is it safe to laser cut MDF?

Are you looking for a good laser cutting material? MDF (medium-density fiberboard) might be a good candidate. It cuts nice and smoothly, and it is a type of wood (wood is an excellent material). But is it safe to use? I investigated this question, and here is what I found.

Is it safe to laser cut MDF?

MDF seems like an excellent laser cutting material, but there is one thing that makes it potentially unsafe – formaldehyde. Since it is an engineered wood, it is bound together using glue, usually urea-formaldehyde.  The high temperature of the laser beam vaporizes the resin, releasing toxic formaldehyde fumes. So it may not be safe to laser cut MDF without taking some precautions.

Does all MDF contain formaldehyde?

Does all MDF contain formaldehyde?

MDF is made from wood fibers acquired from broken-down hard and softwoods. The fibers are then combined with wax and a resin binder (glue) before being treated with temperature and pressure.

More often than not, the resin binder used by most manufacturers is urea-formaldehyde. To make the MDF boards even stronger, some manufacturers use extra UF binding. The issue with UF is that it releases formaldehyde gas, even if the board is resting. The more the UF resin is used, the more toxic fumes are released.

That being said, some countries and regions have regulations on how much formaldehyde can be used. For example, the USA has a formaldehyde limit of 0.11 parts per million when it comes to composite woods. In Europe, the limit is 0.07 parts per million.

Furthermore, some manufacturers use UF alternatives that release less formaldehyde, for example, phenol-formaldehyde. Others use resins with no formaldehyde, such as polyvinyl acetate. However, some might still release some harmful VOCs (volatile organic compounds).

On the positive side, however, some environmentally conscious companies make eco-friendly MDF boards. A good example is CalPlant, a Californian-based company that makes rice-stalks MDF without formaldehyde or toxic VOCs. However, the list of such companies is very few.

So, if you are wondering whether all MDF contains formaldehyde, the answer is probably yes. The only difference is the amount of the toxic chemical contained, which depends on the country or region of manufacture. Only in a few cases will you find MDF boards that don’t contain formaldehyde.

What level of formaldehyde is dangerous?

What level of formaldehyde is dangerous

According to Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) agency, the formaldehyde exposure limit is 0.75 ppm (up to eight hours). For short-term exposure (no more than 15 minutes) the limit is set to 2 ppm.

Does Home Depot MDF have Formaldehyde?

One of the top places to purchase MDF boards in the USA is in consumer goods stores such as Home Depot. But are the boards carried by the retailer safe, or do they contain formaldehyde?

Around 2017, Home Depot announced several measures to cut down on products with harmful chemicals such as formaldehyde. To “Go Green” the retailer started working with suppliers and eco-friendly groups to find safer alternatives to such products.

If there were any products containing formaldehyde, the store would notify the customers. Furthermore, they set a limit of 0.0073 parts per million, which is lower than EPA’s 0.11 ppm, or California’s strict 0.05 ppm limit. 

Therefore, if you are looking to purchase MDF boards in Home Depot, chances are you will come across several formaldehyde-free options. If not, you can check the product information for how much of the toxic substance it contains.

Does using MDF in your home pose a health risk?

Unless you are using an eco-friendly MDF containing no toxic materials, you can experience some health issues.

As already mentioned, most MDF boards are made using formaldehyde-based resin binders. Even in small quantities, the boards release formaldehyde gases into the surrounding, which can continue for years. 

Formaldehyde is a toxic gas that can cause a range of health effects, even in small amounts. Examples of possible effects include skin irritation, eye, ear, and throat irritation, coughing, sneezing, and more.

In large concentrations, formaldehyde is a potentially fatal chemical substance. However, even if you are not exposed to large quantities, long-term exposure to the small amounts of the gas can still lead to complications. According to several organizations, such as the American Cancer Society, long-term exposure to formaldehyde can cause cancer-related health problems.

Do you need a mask to cut MDF?

What if you still want to go ahead and laser cut MDF? Can you safely cut it or do you need protective gear?

If the MDF board you are using contains formaldehyde, cutting it with a laser will release toxic fumes. Depending on where the board was manufactured, the gas fumes (and other VOCs) released could be quite substantial and toxic.

Therefore, when cutting MDF boards, it is always a great idea to wear a mask. The fumes might not reach dangerous levels, but it is better to be safe. On top of that, you should take extra precautions such as installing a fume extractor and an air filtration system.

More information on the best fume extractors for laser engravers can be found here.

Is MDF banned in the United States?

There have been several rumors about the ban or looming ban of MDF in the United States. Such action is yet to happen, and neither is it likely to anytime soon. However, there are emission levels of formaldehyde in MDF in the country.

Furthermore, there has been a widespread campaign by various organizations to warn people of the dangers posed by MDF. For example, the Californian Building Industry Association puts warning signs on buildings constructed using MDF. Several retail stores such as Target, Walmart, and Home Depot also refuse to carry MDF products with formaldehyde. In the event they do, they warn customers of their chemical composition.

Is MDF banned in the UK?

Just like in the USA, MDF is also not banned in the UK. A while back, there was an investigation conducted by the Health and Safety Executive on the dangers of MDF. However, did not find it necessary to ban the product, but advised caution when working with it. The UK also has regulations that limit exposure to formaldehyde, but the allowed levels are too high – at 2 parts per million.

What other materials can I use instead of MDF?

Worried about laser cutting MDF? You are right to be cautious. But what other alternative is there? Well, several materials offer an excellent substitute to MDF. They include:

  • Formaldehyde and toxic-free eco-MDF such as the rice-stalk MDF produced in California
  • Solid, natural wood
  • Formaldehyde-free plywood
  • Other composite woods made from agricultural fibers, for example, Ecoboard
Aside from wood materials, there are several other laser cutting materials you can consider. They include acrylic, paper, leather (natural), cardboard, etc. More information on the best materials for laser cutting and engraving can be found here.

Final thoughts

If you are looking to use MDF for your laser cutting project, you might want to reconsider your decision. While a great candidate due to its smooth and easy cut, the material poses health risks due to formaldehyde emission. If you take some precautions, you can still use it. However, several safer alternatives can offer similar or better results without putting your health at risk.