Does Water-Based Polyurethane Yellow?

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As the saying goes, “time reveals all things” and one common concern DIYers and homeowners raise is if water-based polyurethane yellows over time.

While many homeowners opt for water-based polyurethane over oil-based for its clarity, the fear of yellowing remains a concern. Here, our pro woodworkers share our experience with water-based poly and if it’s a viable option for a clear, non-yellowing finish.

How Come Water-Based Polyurethane Does Not Turn Yellow?

Water-based polyurethane doesn’t turn yellow because its chemical composition doesn’t oxidize when exposed to direct sunlight’s UV rays.

Because solvents and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are known to cause yellowing in some finishes, the decreased presence of these components in water-based polyurethane helps to maintain the product’s original color over a longer period.

Due to its ability to maintain clarity and resist yellowing over time, water-based polyurethane has become a popular choice for those seeking a wood finish.

Varathane 200241H Water-Based Ultimate Polyurethane

In addition, this option is also preferred by many people who want to preserve their wood’s natural beauty and color without the worry of discoloration over time.

However, if you want to avoid wood finishes that take on a slight yellow color as time passes, it is crucial to choose water-based polyurethane, which is a high-quality product, as some cheaper options may not be up to par.

What Causes Polyurethane to Turn Yellow?

Water-based polyurethane is distinguished from oil-based polyurethane by its lack of yellowing over time. In oil-based polyurethane, yellowing is caused by oxidation over time, with a molecule called chromophores responsible for the yellow color on the surface.

Exposure to UV light in direct sunlight quickens the oxidation process of oil-based polyurethane, leading to the polymer undergoing oxidation and eventually developing a yellowish appearance.

However, water-based polyurethane has no chromophores, making it less likely to undergo yellowing. In addition, its chemical makeup is resistant to oxidation under the influence of UV rays from sunlight [1], further reducing its possibility of yellowing.

staining wood exterior

What Type of Polyurethane Does Not Turn Yellow Over Time?

Regarding polyurethane coatings, water-based options are highly preferred over their oil-based counterparts. In particular, water-based polyurethane is regarded as the top choice for achieving a clear finish that does not yellow over time.

This is due to its unique formulation, which utilizes water as a solvent instead of harsh chemicals that can cause discoloration.

Regardless of how well-crafted oil-based polyurethane products may be, they will inevitably yellow as time pass by, even with proper maintenance. This is due to oil-based polyurethane’s natural amber or yellow color, which becomes more prominent as it ages.

However, low-priced water-based polyurethane may turn yellow as time passes. This occurrence is often due to their low-quality chemical composition, which is nothing compared to more expensive options.

In addition, it can also result in a less durable finish and prone to discoloration, ultimately diminishing the appearance of the surface.

polyurethane oil based

Thus, to avoid such a problem of yellowing caused by polyurethane, below are several polyurethane products that can resist yellowing over time.

Methods to Fix Polyurethane That Has Yellowed

Why did my water-based polyurethane turn yellow?

Water-based polyurethane may gradually turn yellow due to several factors, including direct exposure to sunlight, elevated humidity levels, indoor humidity, or tannins in materials like leather or wood used in the vicinity.

Exposure to sunlight results in discoloration or a yellowish tint, which increased humidity levels can hasten. This can be a concern for homeowners who want to maintain their surfaces’ natural color and appearance.

using polyurethane

Moreover, polyurethane mixed with tannins, organic compounds naturally found in materials like leather and wood, can produce a yellow stain and further enhance the yellowing process.

Regularly applying a UV sealant and maintaining a controlled indoor environment can prevent the fading or yellowing of wood and leather materials. Moreover, using water-based polyurethane products that contain ultraviolet inhibitors can aid in preventing fading and discoloration.

Do All Polyurethane Types Turn Yellow Over Time?

Polyurethane products are not universally subject to yellowing. In particular, oil-based polyurethane may develop a yellowish tint as time passes, while water-based ones are not prone to yellowing. This is because the composition of the two products differs.

The presence of oil-based chromophores in polyurethane renders it susceptible to yellowing when exposed to light. Ultraviolet (UV) light exposure, in particular, can hasten the yellowing process, leading to a yellowish tint on the surface of the cured coat as time passes.

Nevertheless, using high-quality products is crucial when using water-based polyurethane for finishing. Lower-quality and inexpensive water-based polyurethane products may exhibit some yellowing over time due to inadequate chemical composition.

applying polyurethane

What Are the Ways to Prevent Polyurethane from Yellowing?

To prevent the yellowing of polyurethane, minimize the exposure of ultraviolet light to woodwork or furniture that polyurethane-coated.

It is recommended to place woodwork or furniture indoors, away from direct sunlight, or use ultraviolet filters for windows blocking UV rays from entering your home.

Moreover, applying a thin layer of polyurethane and then sanding between every application can help avoid yellowing. In addition, by avoiding common mistakes during the application, you can keep your polyurethane clear and prevent it from yellowing.

Thus, it is important to be cautious and fix any issues that arise during the application process. The methods mentioned above can help protect the polyurethane finish from discoloration and maintain its original appearance for longer.

What Is the Lifespan of Water-Based Polyurethane?

The lifespan of oil-based polyurethane is approximately ten years, whereas lower-quality of water-based polyurethane usually has a shorter lifespan of about five to six years.

applying polyurethane on wood

Thus, the quality of polyurethane is an essential factor in determining its durability, and high-quality water-based polyurethane may last longer than those lower-quality ones.

However, the lifespan of water-based polyurethane on wooden furniture can be affected by multiple factors, such as the application method and the environmental conditions where the furniture is placed.

The type of wood and the thickness of the polyurethane coating are also significant factors that can impact the durability of the finish. In addition, proper maintenance of the furniture is also crucial to preserve the quality and durability of the polyurethane coat.

It is necessary to grease regularly and remove any built-up dust or debris to ensure the polyurethane coat lasts longer. Simple cleaning techniques like wiping with a clean cloth or vacuum cleaner can effectively remove these particles.

Is It Possible to Paint Over Polyurethane That Has Turned Yellow?

It is okay to apply a fresh coat of paint on yellowed polyurethane, you can do so by first cleaning the surface thoroughly to remove any dust, dirt, or debris. Following this, use fine-grit sandpaper to sand the surface evenly and make it ready for the paint to adhere to.

pouring paint

To enhance the adhesion of the paint and prevent chipping or peeling, apply a primer coat to the area before painting. Finally, apply your desired paint color and finish, allowing each coat to dry completely before applying the next.

These steps will help you paint over yellowed polyurethane effectively and guarantee your furniture or surface a fresh and new look.

However, keep in mind that to avoid any discoloration and achieve the desired paint color, it is necessary to eliminate the layer of yellowed polyurethane before painting. This is because yellow can seep through the paint layer, especially if you paint white.

Is It True That Polyurethane Causes White Paint to Yellow?

Polyurethane has been known to cause white paint to turn yellow. However, it is crucial to avoid using oil-based polyurethane to avoid the yellowing of white paint caused by UV exposure.

This is because oil-based polyurethane has a natural amber or yellow hue that can taint the white paint and cause it to turn yellow as time passes. To maintain the original white color of the paint, it is advisable to opt for water-based polyurethane instead of oil-based.

painted cedar wood to white

This way, the white-painted surfaces will remain bright and beautiful for an extended period. By taking this precaution, you can prevent discoloration and preserve the pristine look of your white-painted surfaces.


Water-based polyurethane can turn yellow as time passes. However, water-based polyurethane is more resistant to yellowing than oil-based polyurethane and tends to maintain its clarity and color for a more extended period.

The yellowing of water-based polyurethane may occur due to various factors. However, proper maintenance, avoidance of direct sunlight and extreme temperatures, and using a high-quality product from a trusted manufacturer can prevent yellowing.

Robert Johnson is a woodworker who takes joy in sharing his passion for creating to the rest of the world. His brainchild, Sawinery, allowed him to do so as well as connect with other craftsmen. He has since built an enviable workshop for himself and an equally impressive online accomplishment: an extensive resource site serving old timers and novices alike.
Robert Johnson
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