I love it when mattress companies straight up tell you that there are chemicals leaching from their so-called “healthy” mattresses. But, you know, how bad could they really be?!
One top manufacturer, Amerisleep, says that “A small percentage of owners report difficulty breathing, headaches, nausea, eye and throat irritation, and asthma. The symptoms stop when the person is no longer near the mattress though, and go away once it airs out.”
They’re kidding, right? Is it me, or does it sound like they’re saying, “just don’t sleep on your mattress for a while and it’ll be fine“?
Simmons Beautyrest says their foams are “free of formaldehyde, flame retardants, prohibited phthalates, and heavy metals and also meet low-VOC standards for indoor air quality.”
First, notice they’re only free from prohibited phthalates. Tricksters! There are so many new chemicals entering the market each year, that regulators can’t keep up. So when a harmful chemical hasn’t been prohibited, there’s a good chance it’s because it hasn’t yet been tested and regulated. Read those labels carefully!
I will say that I’m happy Simmons is free from formaldehyde, flame retardants, and heavy metals. But low-VOC? That isn’t good enough in my book. We plant our faces on that bed for 6 to 8 hours a day — the equivalent of ¼ to ⅓ of our lives. It needs to be zero VOC and completely non-toxic or I’m not buyin’.
What I want to hear is, “Our mattresses are free from synthetic materials, heavy metals, and harmful chemicals.” Full stop.
This article covers:
- What to Look For in a Natural (Toxin-Free) Mattress
- Natural Mattress Toppers
- Protective Mattress Covers
- Mattress Certifications
Is it really that big of a deal?
The unfortunate truth is that we live in a plastic-wrapped, toxin-filled world and we are perpetually bombarded with toxins. We cannot control so many of the contaminants that surround us, so it’s become increasingly important to reduce or eliminate the ones we can. This is especially true when we sleep.
Our body repairs and restores itself most actively when we sleep. If we spend the night inhaling toxins, we’re essentially increasing our body’s workload and making it more difficult to do its job. Not only will this affect the quality of our sleep, but it can also affect our ability to heal.
What to look for in a natural (toxin-free) mattress
The natural mattress alternatives I’ve found are all made with natural latex rubber. There are two versions: 100% latex mattresses, which are a natural alternative to foam. And for those who, like me, prefer an extra firm mattress, spring mattresses are also an option. In this case, the natural latex covers the springs in place of conventional foam or some other synthetic material.
Both versions — full latex or latex-spring mattresses — are made with the following materials:
- natural latex (rubber), either as the core (for 100% latex) or covering a spring core
- organic cotton “batting”, which is the padded layer that sits on top of the latex
- a wool layer that acts as a natural fire protectant
- organic cotton “ticking”, which covers the entire mattress
One of the great benefits of using latex and wool is that both are naturally resistant to mold, mildew and dust mites, all of which are harmful allergens. In fact, the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America believes dust mites may be “the most common trigger of year-round allergies and asthma.”
Also, you’ve probably heard that the weight of our mattress and pillows actually increases by some crazy amount over time? Much of that added weight is from dead mites and their feces. Gross, I know.
How do mites get into your mattress?
We naturally exfoliate tiny bits of dead skin every day. The tiny skin particles apparently make their way into our mattresses, pillows, other upholstered furniture where mites like to live, and they feed on these dead skin cells. They lay eggs, feed, poop, and die. Rinse and repeat for a few years and you’re left with an awful lot of mites and mite poo.
On a related note, this is why it’s also important to wash your sheets weekly and your pillows every 3 to 6 months!
Natural latex rubber
Natural rubber latex is made entirely from the sap of the Hevea Brasiliensis (rubber) tree. By contrast, soy foam and other so-called “bio-foams” tend to be mostly petroleum-based and contain very little of the plant material pictured on the label. The synthetic latex and the chemical fillers found in some of these mattresses (including “latex blends”) can also emit a strong odor. Over time, these fumes can contribute to headaches, skin irritation, respiratory issues and more.
Dunlop vs. Talalay Latex
Natural latex mattresses are manufactured as “Dunlop latex” or “Talalay latex”. Both are naturally tapped from the rubber tree, whipped into a froth, and poured into a mold to form the mattress.
For the Dunlop process, natural sediments from the latex mixture settle to the bottom of the mold, resulting in a heavier mattress that is firmer at the bottom. For the Talalay process, the mold is flash frozen and then baked, resulting in a softer mattress or cushiony top layer.
Choosing which latex to buy is mostly a matter of sleeping preference – firm (Dunlop) or cushy (Talalay). That said, chemicals are sometimes used in the Talalay flash freezing process… and sometimes they are not. Be sure to check the company’s website or call them to find out how they manufacture their Talalay.
Choose organic cotton, whenever possible
Cotton is soft, cuddly, and breathable, making it a great top layer. It is also highly absorbent and it naturally wicks sweat and other moisture away from our body as we sleep. It’s worth noting, however, that not all cotton is created equal. As you can probably guess, organically grown cotton is preferred over conventional cotton.
Conventionally grown cotton is one of the dirtiest and most heavily sprayed crops in the US and this isn’t just bad for the environment. To be fair, most (maybe all?) of the cancer-causing pesticides are supposedly washed or bleached away in manufacturing and will not end up your mattress or bedding. However, conventionally processed cotton is also manufactured with a host of other chemicals that do leave behind harmful residue.
By contrast, organic cotton is grown without the use of chemical pesticides or other harmful inputs. But don’t stop there. For a truly non-toxic mattress, the cotton also needs to be manufactured without harmful chemicals or dyes.
Brands that manufacture healthier mattresses should be happy to share as much as possible about their manufacturing process, so if this information isn’t on their site, you might consider shopping elsewhere.
Wool as a natural fire retardant
Wool is typically used as the soft top padding in natural mattresses, for a few reasons.
First, wool acts as a natural flame barrier in healthy, non-toxic mattresses. In fact, I’m not sure why conventional mattress makers don’t use it. Wool passes legally required flame tests and strict government regulations without the need for toxic flame retardants found in most mattresses.
Like latex, wool is naturally resistant to mold, mildew, and dust mites. Wool is warm in the winter, cool in summer and, like cotton, it is also good at wicking moisture (sweat) from your body as you sleep.
Those who are sensitive to wool typically don’t have a problem with wool batting, because it is wrapped in a cotton ticking. The mattress is also covered in sheets, providing an extra layer of protection. If you’re still not sure, you can always add your own mattress protective barrier, which we’ll cover in a moment.
Toxin-free mattress toppers
If your new (or existing) mattress is too firm, you can add a topper for extra cushion. Like your mattress, a healthy topper is typically made with natural latex and covered in organic cotton.
Protective Mattress Covers
If you aren’t currently in the market for a new mattress, but want added protection — or you are looking for a new mattress, but don’t have the option of buying one that is all-natural — then it’s a good idea to use a protective mattress cover to provide a barrier between your body and any chemicals or dust mites on the mattress.
Mattress covers are often made from synthetic polyester (polyethylene / PET plastic), or vinyl (PVC / phthalates). By contrast, healthier alternatives include organic cotton, wool, or eucalyptus. (You may see the eucalyptus labeled as Eucalyptus Tencel, Tencel-Lyocell, or just Lyocell.)
These covers are naturally resistant to mildew, mold, bacteria, and dust mites. But if sweat, incontinence, and/or pet accidents are also a concern, you’ll want your cover to be waterproof to further prevent mold and mildew build-up over time.
Cotton, wool, and eucalyptus (Lyocell) are often waterproofed by adding a thin layer of thermo polyurethane (TPU) to the bottom of the mattress cover. If you go that route, look for TPU that is marketed as “food grade” or “biodegradable”. As an alternative, a brand called My Green Mattress uses a non-GMO corn-based moisture barrier to waterproof their protective mattress covers.
Healthy mattress certifications
Just because a company claims its mattresses are “natural” or “eco-friendly”, doesn’t mean they actually are. While these words don’t have any tangible definition or standards, there are certifications that can help to ensure you’re getting what you intended.
GOTS and GOLS define the Global Organic Standards for Textiles and Latex, respectively, and are generally considered the top mattress certifications.
GOTS certifies organic textiles such as cotton, hemp, and wool from the harvesting of raw materials through manufacturing and labeling. This certification also ensures a high level of environmental and social responsibility across the supply chain. A GOTS certification means that at least 95% of the mattress textiles are certified organic.
Similarly, GOLS certifies that at least 95% of the total weight of the mattress is organic latex. Both certifications also place tight restrictions on the remaining 5% of the mattress, such as restricting the use of chemical flame retardants and other harsh chemicals.
Since many natural mattresses contain both latex and textiles (cotton and/or wool), you might find a mattress labeled with both certifications.
Oeko-Tex tests for harmful substances at each stage of textile production. This certification sets strict limits/restrictions on the use of harmful chemicals (including formaldehyde, VOCs, and certain flame retardants), allergenic colorants, and heavy metals, even if these materials have not yet been legally regulated.
The Greenguard Certification ensures that brands meet strict limits for chemical emissions. Its Gold standard “offers stricter certification criteria, considers safety factors to account for sensitive individuals (such as children and the elderly) and ensures that a product is acceptable for use in environments such as schools and healthcare facilities.”
SUMMARY: The Ideal Mattress
In my humble opinion, the ideal mattress is made using GOLS certified natural latex — either 100% latex or layered atop springs. The mattress core would be wrapped in a GOTS certified cotton cover and padded with (naturally fire-resistant) wool batting. There would be no synthetic foam, toxic flame retardants, or chemicals of any kind. The mattress would also be certified by either Oeko-Tex or Greenguard Gold to ensure no harmful emissions.
If the ideal mattress isn’t in the cards right now, you can minimize your exposure with a natural latex mattress topper and/or a protective mattress cover. Overall, the more you’re able to eliminate chemicals from your bed, the better!