Conventional mattresses and pillows are made of petroleum-based products like polyurethane. They are also often treated with chemical flame retardants linked to an array of health problems ranging from neurological disorders to cancer. Some common flame retardants have proven to be so dangerous, they’ve been banned, but concerns remain about alternatives including boric acid and antimony.
Since we spend roughly a third of our lives in bed, it’s smart to make our bedrooms as free of these questionable materials as possible. Want healthier sleep? Seek out all natural materials for your mattress, bedding, and pillows.
Natural Mattress Options
As consumers have become better informed about the potential dangers of conventional mattress materials, the market in natural mattresses has exploded. Natural mattresses may be made of latex, cotton, wool, or a mix. Because wool is naturally flame resistant, many natural mattress manufacturers encase mattresses in this fluffy substance to comply with flame resistance guidelines.
But you need to do your homework when it comes to choosing healthier bedding options. “Latex,” for example, can actually refer to a synthetic material that feels like latex or is sometimes blended with natural latex. If you want natural bedding, you’ll need to confirm that the mattress in question is 100% the real thing. You’ll also need to ask for verification that your mattress contains no chemical fire retardants. New California labeling laws make this easy for residents of that state. Anything manufactured after January 1, 2015, and sold in California must contain a label stating whether or not the product was treated with fire retardants.
Here are some things to consider when shopping for natural mattresses:
- Cotton: Cotton is often found in lighter-weight mattresses like futons or combined with an inner spring. Cotton is hypoallergenic, but not as resistant to dust mites as other mattress materials.
- Wool: Naturally mould and mildew resistant, wool wicks away moisture and keeps sleepers at a comfortable temperature. One small study at the University of Sydney in Australia found that sleep quality improved with wool versus cotton or synthetics. Wool is also naturally flame resistant, so wool mattresses don’t need additional flame-retardant treatment. Though wool is considered hypoallergenic, those with sensitivity to lanolin should probably steer clear.
- Latex: Natural latex mattresses offer some pretty appealing benefits as long as you don’t have a latex allergy. Some are even certified organic. Latex mattresses retain their shape really well, so the compression that can happen over time with other materials is less of an issue. Some latex beds are guaranteed for 20 years or more. They’re also known for limiting the amount of vibration you feel when someone on the other side of bed moves or twitches.
A number of latex beds come with removable layers of varying firmness that you can rearrange to change the feel of the bed. I purchased a latex bed when I was pregnant — maybe not the smartest move, but the old one was driving me crazy and I wanted a nontoxic bed before the baby came. Unfortunately it was far too soft for me when I was 25 pounds lighter and my hormones had changed. Rather than needing to buy a new bed or suffer discomfort, I just rearranged the pieces till I found the right firmness level for my post-baby body.
Safer Mattress Toppers and Pads
Mattress toppers can be a somewhat green move if they help you extend the life of your current mattress, but they won’t protect you from the chemicals a conventional mattress emits. Many toppers contain memory foam and polyurethane, which will offgas VOCs and other unwanted chemicals in your bedroom.
If you need a mattress topper, a few inches of natural latex is an affordable option and can make a firm mattress more comfortable. You can also find toppers made of organic cotton and wool to make your mattress feel more plush.
Many mattress pads and covers are made of petroleum-based materials and may also be treated with flame retardants. Read those labels! Look for organic cotton or wool pads instead. And watch out for “waterproofing” on any bedding product. This is often achieved with vinyl, an especially harmful compound better kept out of your bedroom.
Like mattresses, most conventional pillows are made from petroleum-based polyester or polyurethane and are often treated with flame retardants. Each night your face is right up against the pillow, so with every breath you’re inhaling whatever offgases from these materials.
Alternative pillows are made from solid or chopped latex, wool, organic cotton, buckwheat, kapok, or a mix of materials. Here’s what you need to know when shopping for a new pillow:
- Latex: Like latex beds, shredded latex pillows equipped with a zipper can be customized to your comfort by removing filling to change the loft of the pillow. For a firmer surface, solid latex pillows resemble memory foam pillows. As with mattresses, be sure what you’re getting is natural rather than synthetic latex.
- Wool: Wool pillows help wick away moisture and keep you cool while you sleep. They tend to compress and become firmer over time.
- Cotton: Organic cotton pillows have become much easier to find, and some have zippers that allow for customizability of the fill.
- Buckwheat: A traditional pillow filling in Asia, buckwheat is gaining popularity elsewhere for its ability to conform to the sleeper’s neck and head. Buckwheat pillows often have a zipper to remove or add hulls according to the sleeper’s preference. However, some people find the rustling of the hulls noisy if they are side sleepers. If possible, try one out before you invest.
- Kapok: Kapok is a silky fiber harvested from the kapok tree. Kapok pillows are catching on because they’re soft and lofted like down without the allergy concerns. Kapok is also moisture-wicking and doesn’t tend to compress as much as cotton or wool.
If you want a healthier sleeping environment, look at more than patterns and colors when shopping for sheets, pillowcases, and blankets. “Permanent press” fabrics are typically treated with formaldehyde, which has been linked to cancer and other health problems. This treatment is embedded in the fabric and doesn’t wash out. Other chemicals used in processing that do wash out of bedding still wind up in waterways and affect aquatic life. It’s also reasonable to assume some of these make their way into our drinking water and food.
While it appears that most pesticide residues from cotton don’t linger in cotton fabric, there are still several good reasons to purchase organic cotton bedding when you can. First, cotton crops account for up to 25% of all pesticide use worldwide, and those chemicals wind up in our water and in animals fed cotton waste. So even if your fabric lacks pesticide residues, by supporting conventional cotton production, you’re indirectly contributing to a global exposure problem that likely affects you, too. Second, only organic fabric certified with the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) guarantees that no harmful chemicals were used in the production of the fabric. Conventionally-produced fabrics use a number of chemicals in processing that you’re better off avoiding, though they vary according to the material they’re made from.
Buying Tips for Natural and Organic Bedding Materials
Be aware that furniture can be a source of chemical exposure. The glues and finishes of your bedroom furniture may offgas harmful VOCs and formaldehyde. Avoid furniture made with particle board, which is often held together with formaldehyde-based binders. When possible, look for solid wood construction with non-toxic finishes, or consider buying unfinished wood and finishing it yourself with a non-toxic sealer or paint.
It’s always best to try out a bed when you can, as everyone’s body responds differently to different surfaces. But finding a local vendor for natural bedding isn’t always possible, so many online mattress suppliers have trial periods so you can decide if the bed is right for you.
Don’t forget the crib! Babies and toddlers spend even more time in bed than their parents, and because they’re developing so rapidly and are so small, they’re even more susceptible to the effects of chemicals found in mattresses and bedding. There are some terrific manufacturers making organic crib mattresses that are waterproofed without the use of toxic vinyl.
Watch out for “natural” bedding sold in conventional stores. Some mattresses made by big manufacturers may be labeled as latex but actually contain polyurethane and may be treated with chemical flame retardants. If you want a non-toxic mattress, do your homework, ask questions, and get verification. Chain mattress stores and department stores are responding to consumer demand for safer products and may stock more truly natural options, but they usually stock more made from conventional (and less safe) materials. If there’s a natural home store in your area, they may have mattresses and bedding you can try as well as informed staff to guide you in your choices.
Rest easy sleeping on healthier bedding choices!
“Flame Retardant Use in Some Products Declining,” by Joanna Congleton, Environmental Working Group, September 2016.
“The Exposure to and Health Effects of Antimony,” Ross G. Cooper and Adrian P. Harrison, Indian Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, April 2009.
“The effect on sleep of fabric for sleeping apparel and bedding,” Mirim Shin, University of Sydney, Faculty of Health Sciences, August 2014.