Guide to Bamboo Flooring in a Bathroom

A High-Maintenance Choice for Wet Environments

Bamboo flooring

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It can be argued that any type of flooring can be used in a bathroom—even carpet, laminate, and bamboo. But the real question is: how much do you want to worry about your floor?

A bathroom is very much like a kitchen, where water on the floor is an everyday occurrence (often many times a day), and the floor may require frequent, heavy cleaning. And bathrooms pose an additional challenge: high humidity. These are the reasons why most manufacturers of bamboo flooring steer you away from using it in high-moisture areas. Chances are, they will steer you toward a more suitable bathroom flooring material such as tile.

Still, there is some recent movement toward using bamboo in kitchens and bathrooms, partly due to the design virtues of using an unexpected material.

Use this guide to look at some of the many drawbacks, and a few of virtues, of bamboo flooring in a bathroom.

Bamboo Has Drawbacks Similar to Hardwood

Bamboo is indeed a woody grass, not a wood; and it's true that in its natural environment, bamboo grows in some humid, wet environments. But does that make bamboo flooring more moisture-resistant than hardwood? Not really.

Most bamboo flooring products are constructed in similar ways to hardwood flooring. Like hardwood, there are both solid-core and engineered (strand) versions available—products in which a surface layer of bamboo is bonded to underlying layers of other wood materials.

In either form, bamboo flooring comes in strips or planks just like wood flooring. No matter how tough the surface finish is on each strip or plank, water on the surface can (and often does) seep down between the pieces and affect the flooring's core, which usually is much less resistant to moisture than the surface veneer.

And like wood, bamboo planks expand and contract with heat and changes in moisture—another quality that can open up seams to infiltration by moisture.

Bamboo Has a Few Advantages Over Wood

Bamboo itself is somewhat more resistant to moisture than hardwood, and it is conceivable that under very careful installation and maintenance, it will hold up better than hardwood in moist environments. In kitchens, for example, bamboo is becoming more common although the use-and-care procedures must be considerably more careful than for vinyl or ceramic flooring.

If you are set on using bamboo for a bathroom, make sure to look into the construction of the product. Bamboo planks that are made of solid bamboo are more likely to hold up in this environment.

Bamboo is also a harder material than most hardwoods, meaning that it usually wears well under heavy use. By some reports, bamboo is up to three times harder than standard hardwoods.

Unique Disadvantages

Durability aside, the principal disadvantage of bamboo is that most products really cannot be refinished very easily if scratches or damage do appear. While this kind of wear may be less likely to occur in a bathroom than in a kitchen or other living space, you should still be aware that heavy damage will likely mean that you have to replace the flooring surface.

Recently, though some premium (and more expensive) products that have a thicker surface layer or may be solid bamboo from top to bottom. With these products, careful sanding and refinishing may be possible if the flooring becomes badly scratched.

Read the Fine Print

Be wary of decorating articles and "green ideas" tips that tout bamboo for every room in the house, and check out the installation and care manuals of major bamboo flooring manufacturers. These will give you a much more accurate picture of what makes a good environment for bamboo flooring. For example, look for disclaimers that might void warranties if you install the product in a wet environment.

Here are some common use-and-care disclaimers stipulated by some of the main bamboo flooring manufacturers:

  • Humidity: One of the nation's leading suppliers of bamboo flooring recommends maintaining a humidity level between 40 and 60 percent. That is a very low humidity level for a bathroom used for showers or baths.
  • Cleaning: The same manufacturer warns you never to wet-mop its bamboo floors because standing water damages them. It also says "no" to cleaners or treatments containing ammonia, abrasives, bleach, vinegar, oil (oil soap), or wax. Few people are comfortable not using water and some kind of cleaning material to cleanse a bathroom floor where cleanliness is so important.
  • Maintenance: Some manufacturers insist that any spills must be immediately wiped up with a dry towel. This certainly sounds like a questionable requirement in a bathroom.

Finishes Don't Seal Everything

Like hardwood flooring, bamboo comes prefinished or can be finished on-site, often with polyurethane or a similar surface-forming finish. These are indeed hard-wearing protective layers, but they can't seal all the seams between the floorboards. When the planks shrink, polyurethane and other topcoats can't bridge the gaps, leaving the seams exposed. Some prefinished flooring boards can be glued at the joints, but this does not provide a reliable seal against standing water.

If your bamboo flooring manufacturer has a statement that it will stand by with full warranty support, go for it. But otherwise, you're taking your chances.

If You Are Set on Bamboo

Reservations aside, you certainly can use bamboo flooring in a bathroom if you have to have it. Bamboo is a very nice material and can look particularly striking in a bathroom where it's not expected (much like a hardwood countertop in a kitchen can draw attention). But be prepared for some babying of the floor. If you have a private bathroom that's used by one or two adults or perhaps a half-bath, bamboo might make sense. But for a family bath, you are probably well advised to stick with tile or vinyl.