Does Water Based Polyurethane Yellow? Here’s The Truth!

Wondering if that crystal-clear polyurethane finish will hold its pristine look over time? Let’s uncover the reality of yellowing and how to keep it at bay.

Does Water Based Polyurethane Yellow

Polyurethane protects wood from dents, scratches, and water damage. It is one of the best finishes for wood, suitable for any furniture to shield it from environmental factors.

I typically use oil-based polyurethane for most of my woodworking projects.

However, a wood finishing expert recently recommended water-based polyurethane as a better alternative due to its lack of odor and quicker drying time.

Despite this, I was hesitant to switch because I often had to remedy the yellowing of oil-based polyurethane at least once a year.

To resolve my doubts, I conducted research to compare the yellowing effects of oil-based and water-based polyurethanes over time.

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    I am ready to share my findings, complete with practical, tested examples.

    Let’s find out, Does water based polyurethane yellow?

    Water based polyurethane does not yellow over time since it does not oxidize when exposed to UV light. Water-based polyurethane is clear and holds the natural color of the wood without yellowing. Use quality water based polyurethane products that are formulated well to avoid a yellowing finish.

    But there are a lot more tips to get into this.

    So, in this post, I’ll dive deep into find does water based polyurethane yellow, what makes polyurethane yellow, what are the best non-yellowing polyurethane and how to fix yellowed polyurethane, and more.

    Furthermore, I’ll answer some frequently asked questions as well.

    Let’s get started!

    Did you know fact about yellowing of polyurethane
    Did you know fact about yellowing of polyurethane

    Why Water-Based Polyurethane Does Not Yellow?

    Water-based polyurethane does not yellow because the chemical components of water-based polyurethane do not oxidize under exposure to UV rays in direct sunlight.

    Unlike oil-based polyurethane, water-based polyurethane does not change its color over time.

    Water-based polyurethane contains less VOC, paint chemicals, and solvents than oil-based polyurethane which makes it less likely to yellow over time.

    The natural color of the wood remains the same with water-based polyurethane and you’ll be able to keep the same color for so long with proper maintenance with no discoloration.

    Benefits of using water-based polyurethane
    Benefits of using water-based polyurethane

    Oil-based polyurethane turns yellow because when it cures oxidation reaction happens.

    Due to the oxidation reaction oil-based polyurethane turns yellow and the rate of yellowing increases over time with exposure to direct sunlight.

    Some people love the warm color oil-based polyurethane provides with yellowing. But some don’t.

    If you love the natural color of your wood furniture, better to apply water-based polyurethane since it doesn’t change the color under any circumstance.

    But you should use quality water-based polyurethane products for finishing the wood. Because some cheap low-quality water-based polyurethane finishes tend to yellow slightly over time.

    Always go for quality products when wood finishing since, using low-quality product decrease the lifetime of your furniture.

    does water based polyurethane yellow
    Water-based polyurethane on wooden floor

    What Makes Polyurethane Yellow?

    Water-based polyurethane does not yellow. Oil-based polyurethane is yellow over time due to oxidation.

    There’s a molecule known as chromophores in the oil-based polyurethane that cause the yellow color on polyurethane.

    Chromophores activate when they stay in dark. They will break down under light and sunlight conditions and fade the yellow color back to the original color of the wood.

    This is surprising since polyurethane turns more yellow when it stays in the dark. But because of the UV rays it accelerates the oxidation process and turns polyurethane yellow.

    UV light makes polyurethane yellow as it cures over time.

    When the oil-based polyurethane cures over time its chemical components go through an oxidation reaction to form a polymerized coating over the wood.

    This polymerized layer is what protects wood from outdoor elements like moisture, humidity, water damage, rotting, insect attacks, and more.

    This oxidation reaction is triggered by antioxidants. UV light in direct sunlight accelerates the oxidation reaction of oil-based polyurethane.

    As a result, the polymer will oxidize and turns a yellow color.

    As a summary, here are some possible reasons that make polyurethane yellow,

    • Ultraviolet light
    • High-temperature levels
    • Reaction with nitrogen oxide gases that occur from motor emissions
    • Due to butylated hydroxytoluene as an antioxidant

    Among the above reasons, UV light is the cause of the yellowing of polyurethane.

    does water based polyurethane yellow
    UV rays in direct sunlight cause yellowing of polyurethane

    Let’s identify the best non-yellowing polyurethane types to stay away from yellowing forever.

    What Is The Best Non-Yellowing Polyurethane?

    Water-based polyurethane is the best non-yellowing polyurethane. Even the best commercial products of Oil-based polyurethane are yellow over time no matter what you do.

    It’s only a matter of time. But quality oil-based polyurethane takes longer to yellow than cheap, low-quality ones. However, one day all the oil-based polyurethane coats will turn yellow.

    Factors to consider before using polyurethane on wood
    Factors to consider before using polyurethane on wood

    Surprisingly some low-quality cheap water-based polyurethane products turn yellow. That’s because of the poor-quality chemical compositions.

    Therefore, even though you have selected water-based polyurethane to stay away from yellowing, it still follows you like a nightmare if you go with a low-quality product.

    Some quality water-based polyurethane products don’t yellow over time.

    You just have to clean the surface at least once per few months to remove dust and debris to get it back to its original color. The natural clear color will remain constant over time.

    Here are the best non-yellowing polyurethane products,

    • Minwax Polycrylic
    • Varathane Ultimate Water-Based Polyurethane
    • Bona Traffic HD Polyurethane
    • StreetShoe Polyurethane
    • Loba WS 2K Supra

    All the above water-based polyurethane products do not yellow over time. they are easy to apply and dry faster than oil-based polyurethane products.

    Reapply water-based polyurethane on wooden surfaces at least once per two years to keep the wood protected for so long with excellent durability.

    Water-based polyurethane products
    Water-based polyurethane products

    Polyurethane Yellowing Fix

    You can fix the yellowing of polyurethane with some simple methods. But there’s no quick and permanent fix since oil-based polyurethane does yellow over time and nothing can stop it from happening.

    Here are some proven fixes for the yellowing of polyurethane,

    1. Rub the yellowed polyurethane areas with mineral spirits using a rag
    2. Use artificial light to fade the yellow tint of polyurethane by deactivating the chromophores
    3. Strip the polyurethane finish and start over with a quality water-based polyurethane product

    Using the above methods, you’ll be able to fix yellowed polyurethane areas.

    If none of the first two methods worked, unfortunately, you’ll have to strip down the existing polyurethane finish and start over with a non-yellowing water-based finish.

    How to keep Polyurethane from yellowing
    How to keep Polyurethane from yellowing

    That’s it, folks! Use water-based polyurethane made with a quality formula by a branded manufacturer to keep your polyurethane-coated furniture and woodwork from yellowing.

    Does All Polyurethane Turn Yellow?

    No, not all polyurethane turns yellow. Oil-based polyurethane does yellow and water-based polyurethane does not.

    Water based polyurethane contains fewer VOC compounds, paint chemicals, and other chemicals which makes it less likely to yellow over time.

    Oil-based polyurethane contains chromophores which are sensitive to light and cause yellowing.

    UV light accelerates the yellowing process of polyurethane which makes the coat yellow upon curing over time.

    You can fix yellowed polyurethane by rubbing it with mineral spirits, fading the yellow tint away using artificial light, or scraping the existing finish and starting over with a new coat of water-based polyurethane.

    Always use quality products even when finishing with water-based polyurethane since low-quality, cheap water-based polyurethane products are also may slightly yellow over time due to poor chemical compositions.

    does water based polyurethane yellow
    Finishing wooden desk with polyurethane

    Why Did My Water-Based Polyurethane Turn Yellow?

    While water-based polyurethane is touted for its clear finish and resistance to yellowing, there are instances where it can still turn yellow.

    Understanding the factors that contribute to this discoloration can help in both prevention and remedy.

    Chemical Reaction and Environmental Factors: Water-based polyurethane may contain certain chemicals that, despite their typically clear nature, can react over time and under specific conditions.

    For instance, direct exposure to sunlight’s UV rays can cause a chemical reaction in the polyurethane that leads to yellowing.

    Similarly, high humidity levels and indoor pollutants can accelerate this process.

    Tip for keeping polyurethane from yellowing
    Tip for keeping polyurethane from yellowing

    Material Interaction: The interaction between water-based polyurethane and the wood itself or the stain beneath it can also lead to yellowing.

    Woods with high tannin content, such as oak or mahogany, can react with the finish and alter its color.

    If water-based polyurethane is applied over an oil-based stain or paint, the drying oils might seep through, lending a yellow hue to the clear polyurethane.

    Quality of the Product: The formulation and quality of the water-based polyurethane play a significant role in its propensity to yellow.

    Cheaper or lower-quality products may not have the same UV inhibitors and stabilizers that high-end products do, making them more susceptible to discoloration.

    Age and Wear: Over time, even the best water-based polyurethane can begin to show signs of aging.

    This is not necessarily a yellowing of the product itself but could be due to dirt, grease, and other environmental contaminants that build up on the surface, creating a yellowish appearance.

    It’s important to note that while water-based polyurethane is less likely to yellow compared to oil-based variants, no product is entirely immune to the effects of time, environment, and materials it interacts with.

    Selecting a high-quality polyurethane designed with UV blockers, ensuring proper application, and maintaining the finished surfaces can help minimize the risk of yellowing.

    Tip to fix yellowed polyurethane
    Tip to fix yellowed polyurethane

    How To Keep Polyurethane From Yellowing?

    You can keep polyurethane from yellowing by preventing the exposure of polyurethane-coated furniture and woodwork to the UV light, and apply thin coats of polyurethane and sand between each coat of polyurethane during the application.

    UV light accelerates the yellowing process upon the curing process of polyurethane.

    Or you can place your furniture and woodwork inside of the house or use UV filters for windows to prevent UV light from coming inside.

    However, your main mission is stopping the UV light from hitting the wood surface.

    Apart from that you can keep polyurethane from yellowing by preventing it from happening mistakes during the application of polyurethane.

    Try to avoid and fix polyurethane mistakes when applying.

    Apply thin coats of polyurethane all over the surface evenly without forming a blotchy or splotchy surface.

    Make sure to sand lightly between coats of polyurethane to improve the adhesions and smoothness between the surface.

    Following the methods above, you’ll be able to keep polyurethane from yellowing.

    does water based polyurethane yellow
    Water-based polyurethane on a cabinet

    How Long Does Water-Based Polyurethane Last?

    Water-based polyurethane lasts for around 10 years. Low-quality water-based polyurethane lasts for around 5 to 6 years.

    But this can vary upon the type of application and where you place the wood furniture.

    If it is outdoor furniture, water-based polyurethane won’t last 10 years since the furniture will get frequent impacts from weather elements such as UV light, moisture, water damage, and more.

    Read to know the Best Exterior Polyurethane (Tested & Reviewed!)

    Plus, you need to maintain the furniture properly by removing dust, debris, and grease on the polyurethane coat to keep it as fresh as new and to increase its durability.

    As a woodworker, I highly recommend you apply water-based polyurethane at eats once per two years to keep the furniture protected for so long and stop polyurethane coats from fading away.

    As soon as the polyurethane coat is faded, the furniture will expose to the outside and moisture will find a way to penetrate the wood and start wood rot.

    Read to know, Is Polyurethane Waterproof? Here’s the Truth!

    Can You Paint Over Yellowed Polyurethane?

    Yes, you can paint over yellowed polyurethane. First, you need to do a light sanding and remove the glossy yellowed layer on the polyurethane finish.

    Then apply any color of paint you like over the polyurethane surface.

    Finally, apply a stain-blocking primer like shellac on wood to seal the surface.

    Removing the yellow color polyurethane layer is a must before painting since the yellow color may bleed through the paint layer especially when the paint color is white.

    Applying sealer helps to block UV rays from hitting the paint coat and stops the paint color from fading.

    If the sealant turns yellow over time, do a light sanding and remove the sealant and apply a new coat to give the paint its life back.

    Does Polyurethane Make White Paint Yellow?

     Yes, polyurethane makes white paint yellow over time when it gets exposed to UV rays. to prevent that never apply oil-based polyurethane over white paint.

    Apply water-based polyurethane over white paint to keep the same white color for so long with no discoloration or yellowing.

    You should clean the polyurethane coat from time to time to remove dust and debris and it’ll give back its natural clear finish. Not like an oil-based polyurethane finish.

    Let’s answer some frequently asked questions.


    Does the quality of water-based polyurethane affect its tendency to yellow?

    Yes, higher quality water-based polyurethanes typically contain UV inhibitors that help prevent yellowing, while lower quality ones may lack these additives and yellow more readily.

    Can environmental factors cause water-based polyurethane to yellow?

    Environmental factors such as exposure to sunlight, humidity, and indoor pollutants can contribute to the yellowing of water-based polyurethane over time.

    Is it possible to prevent water-based polyurethane from yellowing?

    While no finish is completely immune to yellowing, using a high-quality water-based polyurethane with UV blockers and applying it properly can significantly reduce the risk of yellowing.

    Will water-based polyurethane yellow over an oil-based stain?

    Applying water-based polyurethane over oil-based stains can lead to yellowing as the oils may migrate through the finish over time.

    How does the age of water-based polyurethane impact its color and clarity?

    As water-based polyurethane ages, it can accumulate dirt and environmental contaminants that may give it a yellowish appearance, aside from any potential yellowing of the product itself.

    Are there any specific brands of water-based polyurethane known for not yellowing?

    Brands that are often recommended for their non-yellowing properties include Minwax Polycrylic and Varathane Water-Based Polyurethane, both reputed for their clarity and UV resistance.

    Did I cover all you wanted to know about: Does Water Based Polyurethane Yellow?

    In this article, I deeply discussed, does water based polyurethane yellow and why oil-based polyurethane yellow while water based doesn’t.

    I have discussed what makes polyurethane yellow and how to stop yellowing with some practical fixes.

    Water-based polyurethane is less likely to yellow than oil-based variants, as it lacks the oils that can cause ambering. However, it can still yellow over time when exposed to direct UV light, environmental factors, or when applied over certain stains or woods with high tannin content.

    Furthermore, I’ve answered some frequently asked questions as well.

    Hope you learned everything you wanted to know about why does water based polyurethane yellow while oil-based does.

    Apply water-based polyurethane over popular oil-based polyurethane for woodwork that you need to stay fresh and the same as new for so long.

    Happy wood finishing!

    Walter Parker is a woodworking enthusiast. He is passionate about woodworking projects & plays with woodworking tools having spent over 2 decades as a leader for Woodworking Planet. He wants to make people love woodworking! Read More About Him! Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin.

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