The High-Performance MVPs
Take a closer look at Vinyl, Polyurethane and Silicone.
May 01, 2018
Even inside the contract furniture world, it’s easy to think that vinyl, polyurethane and silicone are virtually interchangeable. And in truth, the three materials have a lot in common. But there are some key differences that make each of them best suited for specific needs, budgets and environments.
You’ll find all three textiles used frequently in high-traffic areas, from healthcare spaces and laboratories to higher education environments. In addition, all three of these materials are:
• inherently water-repellent
• easy to clean and maintain (especially compared to woven fabrics)
• printable with a wide variety designs and textures
LIFE SPAN: Long
STARTING GRADE: FG 2
Vinyl upholstery (sometimes called Polyvinyl Chloride resin or PVC) is basically any textile covered with a synthetic, plastic coating that creates a ‘laminated’ effect and feel. Thanks to this durable coating, vinyl is able to withstand some of the harshest, most spill-heavy environments out there because it offers excellent resistance to abrasion, moisture and most chemicals found in popular cleaning products. It also does well under long-range UV exposure. Vinyl is commonly used in automotive, marine and RV products as well as residential and commercial furniture.
TO SUM UP: Need something that’s budget-friendly and super durable? Vinyl’s your best bet.
PRO TIP: Because of its long history in the market, vinyl has more printed pattern options than either Silicone or Polyurethane (a great choice if you’re looking into pieces with multiple upholstery designs).
CLEANING TIP: Easily cleanable using mild soap and water, vinyl can also be disinfected with harsher cleaners including diluted bleach solutions.
SAFETY TIP: Vinyl is not biodegradable and may omit dioxin if burnt at low temperatures.
LIFE SPAN: Moderate
STARTING GRADE: FG 2
Polyurethane is any soft, supple performance fabric that is made by coating a textile substrate with a polyurethane resin. This resin acts as a natural, built-in moisture barrier and offers excellent abrasion resistance. Crafted from multiple layers that add varying levels of dimension and depth, polyurethane can come in many styles and textures—some can simulate the grain of leather while others can mimic woven fabrics. This combination of versatility and variety makes this material a popular choice for other consumer products and industries including apparel, footwear, handbags and accessories.
TO SUM UP: This is the PVC-free, eco-friendly alternative to vinyl. Compared to stiffer textiles like vinyl, it’s more lightweight and supple to the touch. In addition, polyurethane’s micro-porous surface acts more like woven upholstery—which means it ‘breathes’ and remains cooler during use.
PRO TIP: Not all polyurethanes are created equal! For every polyurethane option, be sure to check its hydrolysis test results before specifying for environments where harsh cleaners could be used. (For high-traffic environments, we recommend choosing one with hydrolysis test results of at least 6.)
CLEANING TIP: Most polyurethanes can be easily cleaned with mild soap and water, though some higher-performance patterns can withstand diluted bleach solutions as well.
GO GREEN: Because it eventually decomposes naturally in landfills after its full life cycle, polyurethane is a great, eco-friendly option (it's often referred to as the environment-friendly version of vinyl). When burnt, polyurethane does not emit toxins.
LIFE SPAN: Extremely long
STARTING GRADE: FG 4
Silicone is a highly durable, completely sustainable and environment-friendly synthetic compound. Thanks to its extreme longevity and non-toxicity (it is an inherently anti-microbial material made using zero solvents or PVC), silicone is a highly-sought after alternative to polyurethane and vinyl.
TO SUM UP: Silicone is a completely worry-free solution, in every sense of the word. It’s a premium surface material that’s safe (it’s even used on baby products like teething toys and pacifiers!) and incredibly easy to clean—all of life’s toughest stains can be easily cleaned off without the use of harsh chemicals.
PRO TIP: Silicone is a heavy designer favorite because it qualifies for all the most popular green building requirements including LEED v4, BREEAM, Well Building and Living Building Challenge.
CLEANING TIP: Silicone is bleach-cleanable, denim-dye resistant and ink-erasable (including permanent marker!).
GO GREEN: At the end of its life, silicone is converted back into inorganic, harmless ingredients like amorphous silica, carbon dioxide and water vapor.