To understand what to look for with vinyl flooring, it is useful to first understand how it is constructed. Most modern vinyl is technically “composite” vinyl, meaning it is a combination of vinyl, plasticizers, and print films. The product typically comes with a core structure, which is a mix of vinyl and plasticizer or fiberglass. That material is then covered with a paper print-film, which has the desired color pattern.

On top of the print-film, a clear layer of virgin or recycled PVC (vinyl) is layered as the main protection to the floor. This top layer of pure vinyl is called the “wear-layer”, and is the most expensive part of the flooring, since it is the only thing protecting the paper print film.

Typically the wear-layer is given some level of texture or “embossing”, to better compliment the look of the print film being used. Finally, a coating of urethane is applied to the wear-layer, to further protect wear and provide the desired sheen for the pattern. The whole product is then cut up into smaller planks or tiles, depending on the pattern.

At the end of the day, once you understand how vinyl is constructed, it becomes clear there is only one spec that really matters: the wear-layer. Once the wear-layer wears through, the paper pattern will damage, and the floor will need to be replaced. The thicker the wear-layer, the longer your floors will last and look great. Wear-layers are measured in mils (not to be confused with millimeter). Here is a chart of a range of wear-layers, listed in both mm and mil:
Wear-layer (mm) Wear-layer (mil) Typical Commercial Warranty
0.1mm 4 mil None - 3 year "light" use
0.3mm 12 mil 5 year or "light" use
0.5mm 20 mil 10 year
0.7mm 28 mil 15 year
1.0mm 40 mil 20+ year
As you can quickly see, the amount of use you get out of a vinyl floor can range dramatically. This is why it is important to consider the application of your project, and take into account the “true” life-cycle cost. Every time you have to replace your floor, you have to consider not just the material cost, but also the cost of installation, baseboards, and any other related expenses. For example, in a typical commercial space:
Wear-layer (mm) Cost of Product/SF Cost of Install/SF Replacements over 20 years
(heavy use space)
Total Cost over 20 years/SF
0.1mm $0.99 $2.50 7 $24.45
0.3mm $1.89 $2.50 4 $17.56
0.5mm $2.79 $2.50 2 $10.58
1.0mm $3.49 $2.50 0 $5.99
Add in other indirect costs related to floor replacement (not to mention the general inconvenience), and it becomes readily apparent that the smart decision is virtually always to go for the thickest wear-layer you can afford.