What's the Best Flooring for High-Traffic Areas?

Wood might look great, but other materials are better at resisting wear

Children and dogs make kitchen floors high-traffic areas.

For coziness in a living room, dining room, or den, nothing looks better than a shining hardwood floor graced with an area rug or two. 

But for practicality in a highly trafficked hallway or kitchen, hardwood takes a beating. It doesn't stand up terribly well to everyday assaults like dropped pots, dragged furniture, cleats, claws, and clonking clogs. The same can be said for engineered wood—that is, layers of plywood and other materials topped with a thin slice of real hardwood veneer and a protective coating.

When faced with the abrasion machine in Consumer Reports' surface-wear tests—a stand-in for the abuse flooring gets in high-traffic areas—most of the prefinished solid-wood and engineered-wood products in our recent evaluations receive Good or Fair results.

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The disappointing performance of prefinished solid wood has to do in part with the upper "wear layer"—polyurethane, for instance—that manufacturers apply to floor boards, says Joan Muratore, who tests flooring for Consumer Reports.

"Every flooring type has a wear layer," Muratore says. "When we test these two wood flooring types, the resulting wear is visible more quickly than for other types of flooring.

“Laminate and vinyl products are generally made of tougher stuff­,” she adds. Porcelain is even tougher for wear resistance, she notes, but more expensive and trickier to install.

Our top-performing flooring products in laminate and porcelain tile, and most top-performing vinyls, get Excellent ratings not just for resisting foot traffic but also stains and sunlight.

Here's what to know about each of these if you're planning to install flooring in a high-traffic area.

Laminate

Laminate flooring can resemble almost anything: stone, tile, even wood. That's because it's composed of a photograph sandwiched between a dense fiberboard base and a clear plastic protective top layer. The repetitive patterns of laminate boards, however, can betray their fakeness.

Laminate can be extremely tough stuff. But you’ll have to replace the flooring once its top layer has worn through, because it can’t be sanded like wood. 

This laminate flooring from Pergo is a CR Best Buy due to its Overall Score of Excellent and its competitive price per square foot. It performs extremely well against foot traffic, stains, and sunlight. It also earns Very Good ratings for its scratch- and dent-resistance.

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Pergo Outlast+ Vintage Pewter Oak LF000848 (Home Depot)

Price: $3

Resists foot traffic
Resists scratches
Resists dents
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Porcelain Tile

A classic flooring material, tile tends to resist wear, moisture, scratches, dents, and stains. But installing porcelain tiles can be challenging, so for most applications it might be best to hire a professional. Dropped cups and dishes break more easily on tile, and grout can stain. Replacing cracked tiles also can be a challenge.  

This porcelain tile earns an Overall Score of Excellent and performs superbly in resisting foot traffic, scratches, stains, and sunlight. Its performance resisting dents is average.

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SnapStone Beige 11-001-02-01

Price: $8

Resists foot traffic
Resists scratches
Resists dents
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Vinyl

This type of flooring is especially good at fending off wear, dents, scratches, discoloration from sunlight, and stains. So it's an appropriate flooring for high-traffic areas. It's relatively easy to install—particularly as tiles or planks—and has numerous color and design choices. Premium brands can resemble stone, tile, and even oak. But even the best of these products look fake up close. 

This vinyl flooring is rated Excellent overall. Its resistance to foot traffic, stains, dents, and sunlight is outstanding. It resists scratches very well. 

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Armstrong Pryzm Elements of Heritage Vintage Multi PC020

Price: $5

Resists foot traffic
Resists scratches
Resists dents
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Tips to Keep in Mind

Before you make your final choice, consider these key factors. 

• Prefinished solid wood, vinyl, and tile flooring are better choices when it comes to formaldehyde emissions. Just be sure to use glues that don’t contain the gas when installing those materials. Engineered wood and laminate flooring products are made with glues and resins that can emit formaldehyde.

• If you're worried that lower-cost laminate and vinyl will look fake, our experts say to mix up planks from di­fferent boxes as you lay them down. That helps to break up a repetitive pattern.

• When all is said and done, if you still want to choose wood flooring for a high-traffic area, opt for the real thing and not the engineered product. Many engineered woods can't be refinished, though some products can withstand refinishing once, Muratore explains. Real wood, on the other hand, can be refinished many times.

"If you love wood and are handy and can refinish it or are willing to pay a professional to do it, it's not a bad choice," Muratore says. "You just have to know what you're getting into."

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