The rivalry of cork vs. linoleum pits two of the greener products in the flooring world against one another. Both are sustainable, look great, and both are comfortable under your feet. So, how on earth are you going to choose one over the other?
As with most design or decor choices, the answer depends on the use of your space and your interior design needs in terms of color, texture, pattern, etc. There are differences between these two environmentally friendly products and matching the right product to your requirements is easy if you know a little about each flooring product.
In this guide, we’ll explore:
- How It’s Made
- Water Resistance
- The Verdict
|Composition||Cork, some binder added||Linoleum (oxidized linseed oil with cork or sawdust on a burlap or canvas backing)|
|Thickness||Glue down 3/16 - 5/16 in.|
floating 1/2 in.
|2-6 mm or 1.5-6 mm|
|Material Cost||$1-7 per square foot installed ($4-8 for floating floor)||$2-5
$4-6 adhered, $7-9 floating, Add $2-4 (or $5-7) for installation
sheet/roll 2 - 2.5
commercial 3.50 - 5.00
add 3 - 10 for labor
|Use||Playrooms, comfortable walking and standing surface||Kitchens and baths (with sealer), kids' rooms and halls|
|Installation||Glue down or tongue and groove,|
Peel and stick
|Laborious because of thickness and is stiff
There is a floating floor option
|Cleaning||Easy to keep clean|
Suberin - naturally mold-resistant, rot-resistant,
|Easy and cost-effective to clean
Need to wax (strip twice a year)
|Fire||Fire-resistant, but finish may burn||Fire-resistant|
|Radiant Flooring?||Yes||Yes, may have to break in slowly (70 at first, and never over 85)|
|Subfloor||Can go over uneven surfaces, can go over other flooring like wood or linoleum|
Can serve as underlayment for wood, ceramic or stone
|Sand concrete with 60 grit|
|Footfall||Is warm underfoot naturally||Soft, not as cold underfoot|
|Look and Finish||Limited colors, color will vary and may look uneven|
Sealant, wax, polyurethane, and commercial grade
|Multitude of colors and patterns available, can also do an inlay with different styles mixed and matched
Some have preinstalled finish
|Water-Resistance||Must seal and reseal every 3-5 years|
Water can warp and discolor, or curl or plump
But can be refinished too
|Yes, but does rely on coatings, sealers and wax|
|Stains||Stains easily (oil, spills) may not be best choice in busy kitchen||Stain-resistant|
|Misc.||Cork extraction does not harm trees|
Hides minor scratches
|Durability||Punctures easily, NOT pet-friendly|
Dead loads can dent (e.g. cabinets in kitchen), should use felt pads with furniture and chairs
|Should put pads under furniture feet|
|Flooring Guide||Cork Flooring Guide||Linoleum Flooring Guide|
Similarities: Long Lost Brothers
Both of these materials boast a number of desirable traits for a flooring material and if you did not know better, you would say they are long lost brothers since they share a number of properties and qualities.
For example, they are both green products. The natural products these are made from also offer hypoallergenic and antimicrobial properties. And then there is the feeling underfoot from both, a welcoming, plush feeling when you walk across the floor.
What does that mean? Well, it means that both flooring materials will prevent mold and mildew growth, repel insects and pests, and deter bacteria colonies. This all contributes to a healthier space and both materials are friendly to those with allergies.
Cork and linoleum can both also offer a floor that is visually striking. Cork and linoleum come in a variety of colors and patterns and they can be mixed and matched to create inlays or “pictures.” The look is unique and memorable, making both a favorite of many interior designers.
How It’s Made
Real linoleum is a natural product made with sustainable materials like solidified (“oxidized”) linseed oil, pine resin, cork or sawdust, and a canvas or burlap backer (the backer is made from hemp, jute, cotton, or a linen made from flax). The word “real” is the first word of this paragraph because vinyl flooring (made of PVC, a type of plastic) is often mistaken for linoleum.
Linoleum in some cases does incorporate limestone as a filler, a mined material that is not sustainable. Manufacturers use limestone to achieve better hardness and durability.
To make linoleum, linseed oil and pine resin oxidize into a hard, plastic-like material that acts as the binder for the linoleum. Depending on the formula, manufacturers add wood flour, ground limestone, or pigments directly into the mixture, so the final color and pattern are present all the way through the body of the linoleum. The thickness of the final product generally ranges from 1.5 to 6 mm.
Cork is a natural material. People hand-peel it from the bark of cork oaks in the Mediterranean basin. Harvesting does not harm the tree which regrows new bark that people can gather every nine or ten years. They first punch wine corks and then recycle the waste cork to manufacture other products, like flooring. That way, they don’t waste anything.
To recycle the wine stopper left-over into a flooring product, the waste cork is boiled then ground, after which it is mixed with some binder/adhesive. Then, pressure is applied to make an anti-fatigue, insulating, durable flooring material. Some products get a finish as part of the production process, while other products are uncoated.
You will find cork supplied in a few common “forms,” which include peel-and-stick, tongue and groove floating floor, and a bareback tile designed for glue down with contact cement. The floating cork floor product is a composite with a cork wear surface on a fiberboard backer and underlayment. The tile thicknesses range from 3/16 to 5/16 in., and the floating version is ½ in. thick in total with 1/16 to 1/8 in. of cork as a top layer.
If you are installing a traditional linoleum, you will need to apply wax, a coating, or sealer once you have installed it. This is to add some gloss, but its real purpose is to add some protection against standing water.
However, some manufacturers now apply coatings like polyurethane at the factory to protect the surface. Prefinished linoleum allows you to install a floor and put it into service immediately. But it does not eliminate the need to maintain and protect your linoleum and you still need to diligently follow the manufacturer’s maintenance instructions.
If you installed a traditional linoleum and applied a wax or sealer as part of the install, you should expect to wax or seal a linoleum floor on a semi-annual basis. You may need to strip old wax when the floor looks dull, even after cleaning and waxing.
For prefinished linoleum, your finish maintenance may vary. It depends on the variety of linoleum you installed. Make sure to become familiar with the use and care instructions for the product you selected.
Originally, cork floors were almost always finished with a wax or oil, but today, you will find finishes preinstalled at the factory, too. These are high-tech coatings that are UV-cured in the manufacturing plant and are hard and durable. However, some do not like the “harder” feel of these preinstalled industrial coatings.
The use of a “harder” preinstalled coating makes sense if you want a cork floor with improved abrasion resistance and traffic wear. But if you want that soft, comfortable feeling underfoot that only cork can provide, you need to install a flexible finish as part of the installation or be careful when picking a prefinished version of cork. On site, you can finish cork with wax, sealant, or polyurethane, to protect the cork and keep the soft but firm feeling underfoot.
Proprietary, commercial grade finishes are also available which impart stain resistance and high-traffic capabilities, but installers often apply these finishes on site and they may be out of the realm of the DIY’er.
And as with linoleum, expect to maintain your cork floor’s finish. Cork can plump and curl if water is allowed to sit on it, so clean spills immediately, avoid getting the floor wet, and follow the manufacturer’s cleaning and maintenance instructions.
Since both linoleum and cork are natural products, you should acclimate them to the job site before installation. The required time may vary by product and you need to follow the manufacturer’s suggestions.
This involves opening the packaging and letting the flooring products sit at ambient conditions in the space in which you will install it. This allows the flooring to equalize with the temperature and humidity at the site.
When first introduced, linoleum was glued down and different color sheets or tiles were often mixed and matched to create interesting inlay patterns. And the new linoleum flooring could stand up to heavy traffic.
Today, we still install sheet or modular tile linoleum as a glue down floor, and linoleum is still inlaid, but there is now also a click-together floating floor version on the market.
Linoleum is thicker and stiffer than cork and its doppelganger vinyl flooring that it is often confused with. And because it is more rigid, linoleum is a little more difficult to install than cork.
An advanced DIYer may be able to lay a glue down sheet linoleum floor. However, most will find the linoleum modular tiles are more DIY-friendly. Many recommend leaving the sheet linoleum install to the professionals.
As we mentioned, you can create large patterns and graceful, flowing curves by inlaying different colors. People often use this architectural freedom to create visually striking floors.
For creative inlaid patterns, or other large shapes, linoleum is a good choice. But it is probably a professional project.
The floating floor version of linoleum is easy to install since it snaps together. However, you need to properly prepare the subfloor. The floating linoleum product is a composite, made with laminated layers of different materials with the linoleum on top.
You will not be able to refinish a floating linoleum floor as many times. The linoleum layer on top is thinner. It is also more expensive than the sheet or modular tile linoleum.
Cork comes in a peel-and-stick version which is easy and very DIY. However, for wet areas like bathrooms, or below grade basements, the self-adhering tiles may not be robust enough, so you should install a floating cork floor, or even better, glue down cork tiles with an appropriate adhesive.
You can easily cut cork with a utility knife or with most saws people use to cut wood. It requires no special tools, which is music to a DIYer’s ears. That makes the peel and stick and floating cork floor a good choice for the homeowner handyman. And with a little imagination, mixing and matching of different products can create visually impressive floors.
Also, it is common to apply a sealer or coating to finish to cork. Construction workers often do that on sites. This also helps to “fill” and seal the butt joints in the cork. (See the finish section above for more information on the types of finished most commonly used on cork.)
When companies first introduced linoleum, its ability to withstand traffic became a hallmark of the material. For that reason, it became the material of choice for halls and corridors after manufacturers introduced it to the market in the 1860’s.
But linoleum has some disadvantages, too. For example, lengthy exposure to water will stain it as well as cause the adhesive to fail. And sharp objects can puncture the material.
Over the years, manufacturers added coatings and sealers. They also tweaked some formulas. That improved its water resistance. Linoleum eventually found its way into bathrooms and kitchen floors.
The surface coating and the linoleum itself can scratch, but the integral color makes scratches less visible than with other flooring materials. And you can refinish linoleum if the scratching and other damage make the surface look old, extending the life of the floor.
Another linoleum durability issue is that sunlight tends to yellow it. So in bright sunny areas, the floor may develop a yellowish patina over time. That is called ambering.
One last issue with linoleum is creep. That is the ability of some materials to form a dent if you place a heavy load on a small footprint (e.g. a foot or leg for a piece of furniture). It is a good idea to place pads under chairs and furniture on linoleum to prevent dimpling.
Cork is surprisingly durable. It offers advantages over most other forms of flooring. That is because of its cushioning properties, which means better safety in children playrooms, or sound deadening of wheels people are pushing around the office.
But linoleum is also cushioned underfoot, too, right? Well, not as much as cork which has an advantage when it comes to comfort and that cushiony feel, especially under bare feet.
In rooms like kitchens, the soft feel underfoot allows cooks to comfortably stand for the long periods necessary to prepare meals. And that dropped can of veggies will not shatter cork, however, cork is susceptible to punctures from sharp objects, so dropped knives or other sharp objects will damage cork.
There are a few other cork durability issues to consider. It can experience creep, too, and heavy furniture with feet can leave dents or imprints after a while.
As we already mentioned, pets can scratch the surface. Also, the sun can fade cork, so sunlight drenched areas may not be the best place to install cork. It is also not great in basements. When you use it below grade, you will need to employ special procedures to deal with moisture issues presented by a concrete slab.
You should not expose either material to standing or ponding water because it can damage both cork and linoleum. Clean spills up immediately and take other precautions when it comes to water or wet areas for both of these otherwise versatile materials.
The use of linoleum in “wet” areas like kitchens and bathrooms requires some special attention. First, there are different grades of linoleum and you should pick a grade specifically for use in bathrooms or kitchens. The same goes for the adhesive, many manufacturers will recommend a special adhesive in “wet” areas.
Seams let water through that can degrade the adhesive of a glue down floor, so install a sheet product to minimize the seams needed and heat weld the seams to make them watertight. Also, you should form a cove at the wall by running the sheet slightly up the wall to prevent water from getting under the linoleum edges. Finally, you should install a special water-resistant coating to the installed linoleum floor.
It is important to clean water up immediately. Do not let it sit on the floor longer than necessary. Water absorbing mats at areas where you expect drips can also help.
When cleaning, it is important to not let the floor become wet. Use a damp, not wet, tile mop and never soak or immerse the floor in water.
Cork being a woody product from a tree reacts much like a hardwood floor when wet. If water sits for a prolonged period of time, stains you can expect stains. Also, adhesives and subfloors can deteriorate if wet for extended periods. And the cork can swell, causing it to press on the seams until the cork buckles and lifts.
Opinions are split and some experts caution against using cork in bathrooms, while some installers and manufacturers do recommend using cork there. They sometimes suggest using the thicker 5/16 version along with the adhesive the manufacturer recommended for wet areas to install a glue down floor. After installing the floor, seal it with polyurethane coating (or whatever the manufacturer recommends in wet areas).
Some may question why people would even bother with cork in the bathroom, but there is no denying that it is beautiful and creates a one-of-a-kind floor that makes a bathroom shine. And the most important quality of cork is that the material is warm and comfortable all on its own with no radiant floor needed.
Linoleum is not as plush and it cannot provide the warm feel like cork, which is about eighty-five percent air, allowing it to provide insulation properties and make it warm to the touch.
Linoleum is fairly easy to clean. Keep the floor free of dirt and debris with regular sweeping and dry or damp mop as necessary using a product recommended to clean linoleum. Take care to use a damp mop only and avoid making the floor wet.
Every once in a while, depending on the traffic, you will notice the gloss beginning to dull. That means it is time to wax or polish and use a product recommended for linoleum.
We have a couple of tips with regard to linoleum. Do not apply a second coat until the first has dried completely per the instructions. Minimize the number of movements with the wax applicator over the floor to reduce streaking.
Prefinished linoleum may require a special cleaner be used. Some of the factory-installed coatings are pH-sensitive and require specific products and care when cleaning. Be sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions or you could damage the preinstalled coating.
Finished cork is easy to clean. It is important to keep it free of dirt and debris. You can do that by routine sweeping or hardwood vacuuming. That will help to prevent scratching and excess wear. It is easy to also clean with a dry or damp mop, but avoid using excess water.
A bonus, cork is hypoallergenic. It contains a chemical called suberin that prevents mold growth and repels insects. Therefore, you will not need to perform mold removal or disinfect with harsh chemicals.
However, if you must use a cleaner, select a product that is pH-balanced. Make sure it is safe for cleaning wood or cork. Avoid ammonia or harsh, abrasive cleaners when washing cork.
Uncoated cork is susceptible to stains by oily substances and spills should be cleaned immediately. In areas where spills are common, consider a polyurethane, or another coating, to improve stain the cork’s resistance.
Linoleum pricing varies quite a bit, depending on the style and thickness you select. And as we have mentioned, fancy inlays are also possible but intricate work adds to the labor costs. Overall, a linoleum floor compares in price to an engineered wood floor.
The sheet and modular tile versions of linoleum cost about 20% less than the floating floor version. And when it comes to the cost match-up of linoleum vs. cork, linoleum on average is slightly more expensive, but prices will vary depending on the specific products compared and the intricacy of the floor pattern.
Cork is easier to install than sheet linoleum, so it may be slightly less for labor in some comparisons. And the floating cork floor will cost a dollar or two more a square foot versus glue down cork tiles.
If you have heavy traffic or pets but want a good-looking comfortable floor, linoleum is a great choice. It is on average a little more expensive than cork (depending on the products picked). You can also install it to suit any interior design. The colors and designs of linoleum floors are almost limitless.
Cork is best for a warm, plush, cushioned floor. It is one of the quietest flat surfaces you can put into a room. It is a very unique looking material and comes in many colors and patterns. Therefore, homeowners can create intricate and impressive floor designs.