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Cork Underlayment - Best Choice For the Environment

Updated on April 21, 2011

Cork vs Foam Underlayment

If you are installing hardwood, bamboo, coconut or laminate flooring you are going to need underlayment. Underlayment or underlay performs three important roles. Firstly, it rectifies the minor imperfections of the subfloor. Secondly, it helps to deaden the sound of footsteps on the flooring; and thirdly, to very slightly soften the feel of the flooring when it is walked on. The most environmentally friendly choice for underlayment is cork since it is the only option of underlayment that doesn’t use foam made from petrochemical processes.

Cork has been used for underlayment for many years. It is only recently with the boom in the foam industry that foam underlayment has become more widely used. Foam can do a good job as underlayment but it is a carbon intensive material since it is made from chemicals extracted during oil refinement. The process is also polluting. And finally, foam like plastic cannot be easily recycled and usually ends up in a landfill site when it is thrown out.

In contrast cork is a renewable resource that comes from the bark of the cork oak. It is a great green material because the bark of the cork oak can be removed without damaging the tree. The cork oak grows back its bark in only nine years. With every re-growth of the bark the quality of the cork improves. Also cork can easily be recycled. Unlike foam, cork biodegrades and doesn’t pollute.

Advantages of Cork Underlayment

Not only does cork make great flooring it also makes great underlayment for a variety of flooring types. The reason why cork makes good underlayment is that it is a flexible and strong material that nicely corrects any imperfections in the sub-floor.

Also cork is made of many millions of tiny cells that trap air. These cells give cork an elastic quality that softens the feel of the hardwood flooring above (ever so slightly). The honeycomb structure of cork also makes cork underlayment excellent at absorbing the sound of people walking on the floor. Cork underlayment is ideal for upstairs flooring where the sound of people walking around can irritate people living downstairs.

Furthermore, the tiny pockets of air in cork trap heat and provide a small R-value to the flooring. In other words cork underlayment helps to insulate a room and in combination with other insulating measures can help to reduce heating costs.

Unlike foam cork naturally breathes and so does not trap moisture between the underlayment and the flooring. Cork is also mildew and water resistant. These qualities help protect the flooring. It is recommended, however, that you lay down a 6mm plastic moisture barrier if the underlayment is used on a concrete subfloor, especially a basement subfloor.

Another advantage of cork underlayment is that cork contains a waxy substance called suberin that makes cork antibacterial and anti-fungal. In combination with a good anti-allergenic flooring type such as strand woven bamboo flooring cork underlayment is ideal for allergy and asthma sufferers.

Closing Words

Cork underlayment can be used for carpet, tiles, hardwood and laminate flooring. It is suitable for floating installations as well as glue down and stapling installations. Cork underlayment may cost slightly more than foam underlayment but this extra cost gives you environmentally friendly underlayment that cannot be beat for quality, sound reduction and strength.


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