Our home should be our sanctuary. A safe and peaceful place to retreat from the day’s stresses and to spend quality time with family. You shouldn’t have worry about crazy things like breathing invisible fumes from the furniture or the kids rolling around on a chemically-coated rug.
But the scary and unfortunate reality is that most of today’s furniture and flooring are manufactured with harmful contaminants that pollute our homes and our bodies. From the formaldehyde in our particle wood shelving and the glue vapors from the carpet to the stain-proofing chemicals that protect our couch and flame retardants that coat our mattresses — our sanctuary becomes a toxic minefield.
These contaminated particulates can rub onto our skin, release into our air, and coat our floors. As they do, we inadvertently breathe their fumes, ingest their particles, and absorb them into our skin. They can make us drowsy and dizzy, give us headaches and rashes, and irritate our eyes, throat and lungs. They can also trigger allergies, mess with our hormones, and contribute to variety of serious health issues over time.
While it would be nearly impossible in today’s world to eliminate chemicals from our homes entirely, there are plenty of ways we can significantly reduce exposure. In this article, we’ll cover easy ways to avoid common toxins in our furniture and healthier alternatives to look for in their place.
Buying new furniture
As a good rule of thumb when buying new furniture and décor is to stick to raw, natural materials whenever possible.
Usually when we think of natural furniture materials, we think of wood. So it’s worth noting here that while pressed wood is mostly wood, it is typically not a healthy option. This is because makers usually glue it together with a resin made from formaldehyde, a dangerous toxin which is known to release into the air over time. If you do choose pressed wood, look for those using formaldehyde-free adhesives, if you can find them.
A healthy alternative to pressed wood is furniture made from solid wood such as birch, teak, walnut, oak, or bamboo (technically a grass). You will also want to make sure the wood is either untreated or that it’s finished with natural stains or paints, in place of solvent-based varnishes or other toxic coatings.
Please note that if you’re chemically sensitive, you may want to avoid pine furniture. While most enjoy its scent, pine does emits natural VOCs that can be quite strong and may trigger symptoms for the acutely sensitive.
Upholstery made from polyester or nylon can cause itching and other unpleasantries. Upholstery made from natural textiles includes from wool, cotton, and hemp… ideally grown without the use of pesticides and manufactured without harmful toxins. You’ll also want to avoid upholstery that has been treated for stain, moth, or fire resistance.
Also, try to avoid furniture stuffed with synthetic foam, polystyrene, and other materials made with harmful petrochemicals. Natural alternatives include fillings made from cotton, kapok, natural latex (not synthetic latex), and coconut coir.
Offgas furniture made from synthetic materials
If you do buy new furniture or décor made from synthetic materials or coated with chemical solvents, be sure to offgas them for several weeks before using them. This is especially important for anything that will be in the bedroom / sleeping areas.
It’s best to leave these products outdoors while they offgas, if that option is available to you. Otherwise, set them in the room you use the least and open the windows. After sealing any vents in the room, turn on a fan to better circulate the air. Then close the door behind you and put a towel under the door to keep the fumes from flowing back into the house.
Common furniture materials to avoid or to offgas prior to use:
- Pressed wood / MDF / chipboard
- Furniture stuffed with foam, polystyrene, synthetic latex, or other synthetic fills
- Upholstery that has been treated for stain, moth, or fire resistance
- Furniture made from or coated with PVC (also known as vinyl)
Choose these healthier furniture materials whenever possible:
- Natural wood or bamboo
- Stainless steel and other metals
- Glass or ceramic
- Pesticide-free wool, cotton, and hemp exteriors
- Fillings made from cotton, kapok, natural latex, or coconut coir
Natural materials can often be more expensive than synthetics, so hardwood furniture or bamboo accessories, for example, may not be in the budget. If that’s the case, second-hand furniture may be a more viable option.
Buying / acquiring second hand furniture
You typically don’t have to be as concerned with the manufacturing materials when buying second-hand furniture, as you would with new furniture. This is because any vapors would likely have off-gassed before making their way to your home.
However, that doesn’t mean these new-to-you items won’t smell musty, smoky, or otherwise funky. And on the off-chance they don’t smell at all, it’s still a good idea to clean any second-hand items thoroughly before using them.
You’ll likely find that white vinegar and baking soda will clean, disinfect, and deodorize most items well enough. However stubborn smells will need a bit more oomph.
Here are a few tips to get the stink out.
Sanding is a great way to remove foul odors from second-hand wood furniture, as most (if not all) of the smell will be at the surface. Do be careful if the furniture is musty, stained, or is coated with old paint, as you don’t want to inhale any contaminants. Even if the wood is clean and raw, it’s still not safe to inhale wood dust. (Read about safely removing old paint.)
All sanding should happen outdoors, when possible, and with your windows closed, so the dust can’t get in. The further away you are from the house while sanding, the better. And always wear safety glasses, gloves, and a vapor mask with a P100 rating.
Note that to remove the smell entirely, you may also need to sand the inside spaces of any drawers or cabinets.
Protecting yourself with a vapor mask
It’s always a smart idea to protect yourself with a vapor mask, whether sanding you’re sanding your second-hand furniture or just cleaning it for the first time. A mask with a P100 rating is the highest for personal respiratory protection and can block at least 99.97% of airborne particles. Always be sure your mask fits properly and consider using a vapor cartridge that also blocks gas, if what you’re sanding (or cleaning) is covered in paint or solvents. If you start to smell odors through the mask or it becomes difficult to take a breath, it is time to replace the cartridge and/or the filter.
Deodorizing thrift store smellsThere’s a company, called EnviroKlenz, that uses a completely non-toxic, earth mineral technology to neutralizes odors, where other products have failed. Their products are specifically formulated for the chemically sensitive and are highly effective.
Use their Everyday Odor Eliminator to spray down musty thrift store furniture and washable fabrics, such as throw pillows, rugs, and upholstery. Their Odor Eliminating Pads are also great for getting the funk out of enclosed spaces, such as dresser drawers and cabinets.
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Choosing easier-to-clean materials
When you’re shopping for second hand furniture and décor, you can minimize the risk of bringing contaminants into your home by choosing materials that are relatively easy to clean.
Examples of easier-to-clean materials include:
- Real wood or metal dressers, bookshelves, and desks
- Glass, mirrors
- Lamps (but not the lamp shade)
- Real wood dining table and non-upholstered chairs
- Sculptures and non-porous art
- Easily washable fabrics such as curtains, small rugs, and small throw pillows
Consider buying the more difficult-to-clean materials as new, when possible. Off-gassing chemicals from new items tends to be far easier than trying to remove bed bugs and long-standing mold and mustiness.
Materials that tend to be more difficult to clean and better to purchase new include:
- Mattresses and pillows
- Upholstered items (sofas, armchairs)
- Leather and suede