Flooring 101: Vinyl vs. Laminate

by Sam Ferris
A visual comparison of vinyl and laminate flooring
Vinyl (left) and laminate (right) each have advantages and disadvantages.
?They may look the same at times, but boy, are vinyl and laminate two different animals. When you?re shopping for flooring, it?s important to know exactly how different these two flooring styles are. If you?ve narrowed it down to vinyl and laminate, this guide can help you make your final decision. Here?s an in-depth look at the durability, cost, maintenance, longevity and installation of each. ?
How they're made
Vinyl is a form of plastic. Laminate is a type of overlay that usually includes melamine, a form of plastic.
However, even though they both deal with plastic, vinyl and laminate are made from different materials. But before we talk about these differences, it?s important to know how each floor is manufactured.

According to the World Floor Covering Association (WFCA), laminate flooring is comprised of the following:
  • The balancing layer: located at the bottom of the laminate piece, it helps stabilize the floor.
  • The core layer: the core layer is a high density fiberboard soaked in resin to protect the floor against moisture.
  • The pattern layer: this paper thin layer has the wood or stone prints that you?ll see on the floors surface.?
  • The wear layer: a durable layer comprised of clear melamine resin, which protects the floor from scratches, stains, and moisture.?

Vinyl, on the other hand, has three primary layers. Here?s what the WFCA says these layers are made of:
  • The core layer: this features vinyl over felt or fiberglass, which serves as the floor?s backing.
  • The decorative layer: this layer rests over the core layer and has the stone or wood design printed on it.
  • The wear layer: this is comprised of vinyl that varies in thickness (we?ll discuss thickness under Durability).

So, what?s the difference between the two? Here are two things to be aware of:
  • Vinyl has a core layer of fiberglass or felt, while laminate has a core layer of fiberboard soaked in resin.
  • Laminate?s wear layer is melamine (a type of plastic), vinyl?s wear layer is, well, vinyl (also a type of plastic). However, vinyl is a stronger plastic than melamine. ?
  • Vinyl can be manufactured in sheets, planks, and tiles. Laminate is only made in a plank format.?
How they look
Laminate and vinyl can often look similar at first glance. It's hard to tell them apart when they both take on the appearance of hardwood.

?Where vinyl differs from laminate is that it can also mimic stone and tile.?

?Vinyl has three forms:
  • Vinyl tile: mimics individual ceramic and porcelain tile
  • Vinyl planks: mimics wood planks
  • Sheet vinyl: a large sheet that contains wood or stone patterns printed on the surface

Laminate has just one form: the plank. And it won't look like tile or stone - just hardwood.

When we're judging laminate and vinyl solely based on looks, ?it's clear that homeowners will have more to choose from with vinyl flooring.?
Vinyl tile installed in a bathroom
Vinyl doesn't just look like hardwood. It can also look like stone and tile. Photo courtesy of Mohawk Flooring.
Laminate flooring installed in a living room
Laminate flooring won't have the durability that vinyl flooring does. Photo courtesy of Mannington Residential.
Now that you know how vinyl and laminate are made, let?s talk about durability.

In general, vinyl is more durable than laminate.*

As we mentioned, vinyl is a stronger type of plastic than melamine is. Obviously this means that vinyl is typically the stronger product.??Durability is arguably vinyl's biggest advantage over laminate.?

Vinyl is more scratch resistant than laminate because of the way it?s constructed. Its surface is innately stronger than laminate?s surface.

This also means that vinyl is better equipped to handle moisture. Laminate can shrink and swell when wet.

But the way each floor is made isn?t the only method to determine durability. The product?s thickness can also affect durability.
You can find out the thickness of a vinyl or laminate in three ways: through your salesperson, on the product?s sample board, or on the manufacturer?s website. Thickness for both products is normally displayed in millimeters (mm).

Needless to say, the thicker the product, the more durable it is.?

You're probably wondering if there's any downside to vinyl in terms of durability. There are a two key disadvantages:
  • Since it's a softer material, furniture can leave imprints on vinyl.
  • Traffic patterns will emerge over time. In other words, you'll see exactly where people are stepping the most.??
*It's?possible for a laminate that has a higher thickness rating to be more durable than a vinyl that has a lower thickness rating. This is an exception to the rule.?

Laminate flooring installed in a bedroom in Corpus Christi, Texas
Laminate flooring tends to last 15-25 years. Photo courtesy of Mohawk Flooring.
Naturally, homeowners want the flooring they buy to last. The longer flooring lasts, the better the value.

Though both vinyl and laminate last decidedly longer than carpet, which has an average shelf life of around 10 years, they can be lower on the longevity totem pole.

Hardwood or tile can endure your entire residence in your home, but don?t expect this type of longevity from laminate.

Laminate tends to last anywhere from 15 to 25 years, according to SF Gate?s home guide section.

Realtor.com says vinyl can last more than 20 years when properly installed or maintained. It can last up to 50 years in some instances. In general, vinyl tends to last 15 to 30 years.

Whether or not vinyl lasts that long will depend on the quality you buy and how you take care of it. The same is true of laminate.

Bottom line: always take care of your floors, whether they?re laminate or vinyl. Follow proper maintenance guidelines. Make sure they?re installed properly. If you do, they?re more likely to last longer.??

?Good news: while vinyl and laminate may not rule the roost when it comes to longevity, they?re at the top of the flooring totem pole in terms of affordability.

The cost of both laminate and vinyl floors is economical compared to hardwood, quality tile, and natural stone.

Laminate floors typically cost $2-5 per square foot.

Vinyl floors cost $2-6 per square foot.

A fair share of laminate floors cost less than $3 per square foot ? and that?s for a quality floor.

Don?t be surprised to find vinyl or laminate for under $3 per square foot. On the other end of the spectrum, high-end laminate and vinyl can cost more than $5 per square foot.

Price is often tied to thickness. More thickness equals better durability, but it also equals higher production costs, which means your cost goes up too.

Other cost factors include finish, texture and style, which varies by manufacturer.?

So about cleaning. Vinyl is easy to clean. Laminate isn?t as easy.

It?s not that laminate is hard to clean, per se. It's just that it requires more work than vinyl.

You have to use a special cleaner for your laminate product. Avoid water. Check manufacturer guidelines to determine the best cleaning product for the laminate you buy.

You can clean vinyl with water and a rag. Just don?t use a product that will leave a residue ? it can permanently damage the surface of your vinyl floors. ?

If you?re a DIY-er, installing laminate and vinyl flooring may be one of your favorite projects. Both flooring types offer relatively easy installation methods.

Nearly all laminate floors have a floating click and lock system, where you piece the planks together like a puzzle. You also need to install a muffler to act as a moisture barrier since laminate can?t get wet for too long.

Vinyl flooring installation is also fairly simple. There are several ways to install vinyl flooring, among them click and lock, peel and stick, loose lay, and glue down. Vinyl doesn?t require a moisture barrier like laminate does.

Here are the installation options you have for each type of vinyl:
  • Vinyl tile: glue down, loose lay, click and lock, or peel and stick
  • Vinyl plank: loose lay, click and lock, or peel and stick
  • Sheet vinyl: glue down only

One thing you might want to consider for both laminate and vinyl installations is a cushion to reduce noise (when all is said and done, vinyl does tend to cause less noise than laminate).
If you?re planning to hire a contractor, laminate typically costs more to install than vinyl does.?

Where you can install them

Vinyl flooring installed in a kitchen
You won't have any problems with vinyl flooring in your kitchen. Photo courtesy of Mannington Residential.
You can install both vinyl and laminate just about anywhere in your home, excluding outdoor spaces:?
  • Kitchens
  • Bathrooms
  • Bedrooms
  • Living and dining rooms
  • Home offices
  • Laundry rooms

But just because you can doesn't mean you should.

Even though it?s possible to install laminate in kitchens, bathrooms, and other areas that are exposed to moisture, it?s not something we?d recommend.? ?

Laminate isn?t built to withstand long-term exposure to moisture. Its fiberboard backing is the determining factor in how much moisture it can withstand and remain stable.
Vinyl, however, is water proof. As a result, it performs better in the presence of moisture. In terms of versatility, it has the upper hand on laminate.?

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