Choosing the right mattress makes all the difference. If it's not comfortable, sleeping soundly and feeling well rested is a no-go. But, did you know that mattresses are also one of the items in your home that can expose you to the most chemicals? Partly because you spend so much time around them. The average person spends a third of their life asleep in bed. Or, if you're like me and find any excuse to stay cuddled up in the comforter and have people bring you food, then it's probably more like half your life! With this huge fraction of our lives spent on mattresses, there is ample opportunity to breathe in any fumes or teeny particles it may be releasing as you toss and turn.
When it comes to choosing a non-toxic mattress, the multitude of options can be a little overwhelming. Our basic advice is to look for two things. First, no added chemicals such as flame retardants and antimicrobials. Second, as many natural materials as possible. By looking for these two things, you've got your bases covered on indoor air quality, not causing future health problems, and being good for the planet. You can also check out our mattress roundup where we helped you out by doing some of the research for you.
No added chemicals
The main chemicals that are added to mattresses are flame retardants. No one wants their mattress to light on fire, but there are now other ways to meet flammability standards without chemicals. Using raw materials like wool that are naturally flame resistant, and other materials like silica are non-toxic ways to prevent your mattress from going up in flames.
"[Flame retardants] are not chemically bound, they are just added. They evaporate from products and can pass right through fabric," explained Dr. Courtney Carignan, Assistant Professor at Michigan State University. As they escape from products, "they stick to our hands and get into our bodies."
Because they are able to get into your body, that is how they start to impact your health.
"In adults, some flame retardants have been associated with changes in thyroid function... There are also a number of studies showing flame retardant exposure prenatally can affect child neurodevelopment…. In my study, I found declining trends with exposure to organophosphate flame retardants and measures of female fertility…. Some flame retardants can also act as obesogens," shared Dr. Carignan.
This list is not exhaustive, but it does give a pretty good idea of why we recommend avoiding flame retardants when you can.
Even though know all of this, flame retardants are still added to some mattresses. Because we all spend so much time sleeping on mattresses, and in rooms around them, they are one of the most common ways we introduce flame retardant chemicals into the dust throughout our homes. By choosing a mattress without added flame retardants, you can easily reduce the amount of these chemicals in your everyday environment.
Antimicrobials are another chemical thing that sounds good, but just aren't. While we know some microbes can make people sick, antimicrobials that are added to things like mattresses and mattress covers often don't really do much. We are living in a world where everyone is over-sanitizing and actually getting to a point where we are only breeding stronger bad bugs. It is better just to clean your mattress (you can sprinkle it with baking soda and vacuum it easily) and make sure it is aired out and fully dry. This is healthier for everyone, and actually works!
Look for mattresses that are made of organic materials. Wool is actually flame resistant naturally, and both wool and cotton have wicking properties that will help keep them from holding any moisture if you get warm at night. These are better options for fillers than the standard polyurethane foam. Polyurethane foam is used in a lot of mattresses and is also used to make memory foam. You want to avoid polyurethane foam, if you can, for two reasons. The first is that this is usually where the flame retardant chemicals are added and escape from. Second is that the foam itself can release gases known as volatile organic compounds (also known as VOCs). You end up breathing these in, and they can irritate your airways and cause other problems similar to those caused by flame retardants.
Latex also comes in a few different types. Natural latex comes from the sap of rubber trees, sort of like maple syrup comes from maple trees. If minimally processed, latex foam is renewable and doesn't emit VOCs like polyurethane foam does. This is a safer option for squishy fillings in your mattresses. Be aware though, not all mattresses with natural latex are free of synthetic foam. Some use a mixture of both natural latex and other foam to reduce cost or get the desired firmness more easily. Bottom line, read the tag all the way through and don't just assume that if it says natural latex you're in the clear. Look explicitly for it to say 100% natural latex.
To help you figure all of this out, there are a lot of different third-party certifications for mattresses. The best certifications to look for to help you find a mattress without chemicals and with as much natural material as possible are GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard), GOLS (Global Organic Latex Standard), or OEKO-TEX. All of these certify the products that are used in making the mattresses and mean they meet a third-party standard of high quality. You can learn more about what these certification mean, and others to look for, in our mattress label education piece.
Good luck in your mattress search! May you have many sweet (and healthy) dreams.