I love when mattress companies tell you that the chemicals leaching from their mattresses aren’t that bad and if you just air them out for a few days, it’ll be fine.
One top manufacturer, Amerisleep, even brags that fewer than 5% of their customers complain about the smell of their foam mattresses, compared to 18-20% for other leading brands. Hmmm, only 5%? We’re talking about chemicals here, so 5% sounds like a lot to me.
And that doesn’t even count the customers who pull the mattress from the bag and go, “oooph, that’s terrible!”, yet don’t take the time to contact Amerisleep to let them know. If there was some magic way to count those folks, I imagine it would not be something to brag about.
Their website also 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? And is it me, or is that a really strange use of “though”? It sounds like they’re saying, “just don’t sleep on your mattress and it’ll be fine.” Krikey.
Amerisleep isn’t the only leading brand with chemicals in their mattresses. They’re just the only ones I found that are trying (and failing miserably) to convince you their toxins aren’t “that bad”. Other big names are a bit more clever.
Simmons Beautyrest says “Breathe easy. We use only CertiPUR-US® certified foams in every product we make, which means they’re free of formaldehyde, flame retardants, prohibited phthalates and heavy metals and also meet low-VOC standards for indoor air quality.”
Well, I’m glad they’re only free from prohibited phthalates. For the record, we have 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 only because it hasn’t been tested and regulated yet.
I will say that I’m happy that Simmons free from formaldehyde, flame retardants, and heavy metals. But low-VOC isn’t good enough in my book. My face is planted on that bed for 6 to 8 hours a day. That’s ¼ to ⅓ of my life. I don’t care what regulators say are “safe levels” of chemicals to inhale every night. I don’t want any. Period.
Plus, they’re only talking about the chemicals that anyone who’s ever Googled “safe mattress” knows to avoid. They do NOT make the broader claim that I want to hear, which is, “Our mattresses are free from synthetic materials and chemicals.”
Is it really that big of a deal?
Well, I guess if my mattress was the only thing in my environment that had toxins in it and I suppose if the mattress contaminants didn’t mess with my sleep, then maybe (mayyyyybe) I wouldn’t make too big a deal of it. But you know, I do like to feel rested in the morning!
And let’s face it — we live in a plastic-wrapped, toxin-filled world. We are constantly bombarded by so many contaminants we cannot control, that we have to make an effort to reduce or eliminate the ones we can control.
Personally, a healthy bed with healthy sheets, blankets, and pillows is a big deal to me. A very big deal.
What to look for in a non-toxic mattress
Healthier mattresses are typically made from natural rubber latex, cotton, and wool. Some also use coconut coir (coconut husk), which is pretty cool.
100% natural rubber latex
Natural rubber latex is made from the sap of the Hevea Brasiliensis (rubber) tree and is used as the core of the mattress or layered on top of their steel springs. Thoughtful brands use natural latex in place of synthetic latex, soy, and so-called ‘bio-foams’, which are made with petrochemicals and other harmful toxins.
True latex rubber is naturally resistant to mold, mildew and dust mites. This natural resistance is important, because mold, mildew and dust mites are all 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.
Here’s what happens….
We naturally exfoliate tiny bits of dead skin every day. The tiny skin particles apparently make their 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 pooh.
The good news it that mites cannot live in natural rubber latex and neither can mold and mildew.
One thing to note… you’ll want to make sure the label or website specifically says 100% natural latex, so that you don’t end up with a synthetic or blended latex mattress. I’m not sure how these blends do with regards to mites, mold and mildew, but I do know that synthetic latex and the chemical fillers found in some blends can emit a strong odor. Depending on the chemicals they use, their fumes can contribute to headaches, skin irritation, respiratory issues and more, over time.
Cotton is typically used as the mattress “ticking” (the overall cover or wrap) and sometimes as the “batting”, which is the padded layer that sits between the latex core and the ticking. (Wool is more commonly used for batting, as we’ll discuss in a moment; cotton batting offers a vegan option.)
Cotton is soft, cuddly, and breathable, making it a great top layer. It is also highly absorbent and naturally wicks sweat and other moisture away from our bodies 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. Here’s why.
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 is 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.
According to the Organic Consumers Association, these chemicals can be a major trigger for the chemically sensitive.
By contrast, organic cotton is grown without the use of chemical pesticides or other harmful inputs. But it can’t stop there. For a non-toxic mattress, the cotton also needs to be manufactured cleanly 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 is typically used as batting (the soft top padding) in natural mattresses, for a few reasons.
First, it acts as a natural flame barrier. 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 also naturally resistant to mold, mildew, and dust mites. It 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.
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.
Here are the big names in mattress certifications and what they mean.
GOTS & GOLS
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. In fact, I look for this combo in any mattress I purchase or personally recommend.
Oeko-Tex Standard 100
Oeko-Tex Standard 100 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. It’s 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.“
If you aren’t currently in the market for a new mattress, but want added protection — or you are looking for an new mattress, but don’t have the option of buying one that is all-natural — then it’s a good idea to buy a 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.
SUMMARY: The Ideal Mattress
In my humble opinion, the ideal mattress is made using GOLS certified natural latex (Dunlop process is preferable to Talayay), wrapped in a GOTS certified cotton cover, and padded with wool batting. There would be no synthetic foam, 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.