Natural Rugs & Carpets vs. the Usual Chemical Sh*t Storm

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5 min read

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You know that strong smell you get when you unroll a new rug or carpet? Some folks call that the “new carpet” smell and don’t think much more of it. I call it a “chemical shit storm” and start waving my arms around like I just tripped over a hornet’s nest.

I really don’t know how folks can stay in the room before the rug’s been aired out. Maybe they would if they knew what that stink really was. I’ve actually experienced the making of that stink first hand.

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My childhood visits to the textile factory

Growing up, my father ran a knitting mill that manufactured all sorts of polyester and poly-blends for the fashion industry. I used to love watching the knitting machines pull yarn from dozens of reels at a time, feeding it all up to mechanical arms that spun around and around, making the fabric come to life. It was magical.

Magical… and a bit smelly. But I’d get used to it after a while and watching the process was so cool, it was worth it.

Manufacturing toxins in the knitting mill (factory knitting machine)

Elkagye [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

But then we’d head into the dye house. Or maybe it was the finishing department, I forget, but aaaagggghhhh!! It was beyond awful. I always felt so badly for the guys working there, though they didn’t seem to be bothered in the least.

I remember walking through a darker part of the factory to get there and I’d know when we were getting close because my eyes would start to burn like crazy. I’d pinch my nose, hold my breath, and take in little gasps of air through my sweatshirt. Meanwhile, the guys who ran the machines would just sit there, smoking their cigarettes and laughing at me, like it was cute.

I mean, I was definitely cute, I’ll admit. (Seriously cute.) But this? This was not cute.

Toxic textiles

This, my friends, is the reality of making polyester and other synthetic textiles. It’s chemical after chemical from yarn to dye to finishing. It is toxic. It is gnarly. We wear it on our bodies, we walk on it daily, and we lay down on it when we’re watching tv. And if you have kids – especially babies and toddlers – they’re breathing in those fumes from close range all day long.

Yep, there are fumes… long after you’ve stopped smelling them, I’m afraid.

Also read:

Baby laying on a chemical-filled carpet

What’s in your rug?

The vast majority of today’s rugs and carpets are made from polyester, polypropylene, acrylic, nylon, or other synthetic materials that are laden with toxins. They are typically dyed with chemical colorants and backed with synthetic rubber, PVC, and chemical adhesives. And most are treated with formaldehyde, pesticides, and other chemicals to make them stain proof, moth repellent, fire retardant, and water repellent.

Like I said… it’s a chemical shit storm.

We’ll talk about the healthier rug alternatives in just a sec, but just so you know… even cotton, wool, and other natural materials can be grown organically, but then manufactured with chemicals at any stage. From the yarn fibers to the finished rug or carpet, it all matters.

Whether the original fibers were natural or synthetic, the manufacturing counts because the fumes may only smell awful for the first few days, but they can continue to leach into your home and pollute your indoor air for years.

Non-toxic rugs

Natural, non-toxic rugs

Ideally, you want your family walking and laying on rugs or carpets that have been made from natural materials, whose fibers were grown (or raised, if we’re talking about sheep’s wool) without pesticides, herbicides, and other chemical inputs. You’d also want to make sure the yarn, fabric, and finished products were manufactured without harsh chemicals.

Examples of healthier rug and carpet materials include (chemical-free) cotton, wool, seagrass, mohair, jute, and sisal. These materials are beautiful in their natural state (undyed) or dyed naturally, using plant-based colorants such as indigo, henna, and root bark.

Also, when possible, choose rugs that are free from glues (usually found on rugs with trim). And look for natural rug and carpet backings that are made from hemp, cotton, or natural latex, instead of PVC or petroleum-based latex.

How do you know it’s safe?

Natural rugs and carpets that are certified organic offer some peace of mind in this respect, as they do cover every stage from fiber to finishing. The big names in certified textiles include OEKO-TEX, Greenguard, and the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS).

Nice to know: While Greenguard and OEKO-TEX are focused solely on production, GOTS goes even further to cover the social aspects of manufacturing, such as worker safety, fair wages, and child-free labor.

That said, it is worth noting that the organic certification is unfortunately expensive. As a result, so are the rugs, carpets, and other textiles that carry this certification.

To keep costs (and prices) down, some brands will mindfully source their fibers and fabrics from partners that follow organic practices but do not hold the organic certification. These thoughtful brands also go on to manufacture the textiles into rugs and carpet without the use of harmful chemicals.

Check their ‘about’ page

I always check the ‘about’ page on the brand’s website to read about their sourcing and to learn about their manufacturing process. Certified or not, if the brand makes a specific claim about where their materials come from and how they have been produced, their statements have to hold up to FTC scrutiny. So if they are transparent enough to share this detailed information — especially when they are accompanied by photos or video of their partners and processes — then I am apt to believe them.

To be clear, if the brand dances around their sourcing and manufacturing by just saying it’s “ethical” or uses other vague language that they do not clarify or back up with details, then I am suspicious. The word “ethical” alone isn’t enough for the FTC to enforce. You have to make specific claims.

I want to support brands that are doing things the right way – thoughtfully and truly ethically – whether they are paying for certification or not.

Brands offering non-toxic rugs

Hook & Loom offers a beautiful selection of non-toxic rugs made from either wool or eco-cotton — all without chemicals, dyes, or glues. Their wool rugs are undyed, using only the sheep’s natural colors. And their cotton rugs use a unique, chemical-free process to recycle old rugs into new.

Organic Weave offers GOTS certified rugs and carpet. Their wool is sourced from organically farmed sheep that are never dipped in chemicals. Their cotton is farmed organically without the use of insecticides and pesticides. And their silk is hand-twisted and weaved the traditional way, without the usual chemical baths or synthetic additives that are typically used to create and soften silk textiles.

Rug & carpet care

We track a lot of stuff into our homes. Be sure to vacuum your rugs and carpets at least once a week and wash them regularly to minimize any contaminants from dust, mites, and whatever the cat (or kids) drag in.

It’s worth noting that vacuum cleaners with a sealed HEPA filter do a better job of maintaining your indoor air quality by trapping dust particles inside the machine vs. blowing dust around the room, as non-HEPA vacuums often do.

Also, for removing stains naturally, try vinegar, baking soda, or good ol’ club soda. Enzyme-based stain removers are also great. Just check the label to make sure they do not also contain unwanted chemicals.

Healthy alternatives don’t have a new carpet smell

You probably didn’t grow up around knitting machines and all those awful fumes, as I did. But take it from me, a healthy new rug or carpet shouldn’t smell like anything at all. Stick to non-toxic rugs, keep them clean, and avoid the chemical shit storm for good.

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