Our beds should be safe, comforting havens where we can drift off to dreamland without worry. But unfortunately, many mattresses, sheets and blankets are made from synthetic, petroleum-derived materials that have been doused in flame retardants and treated with formaldehyde finishes. Sounds like a chemical nightmare, right? It doesn’t have to be. Our guide to natural and organic bedding materials offers healthy alternatives that are good for you and the planet.
Organic Bedding: Wool
Wool is a remarkable fiber. It regulates body temperature, keeping us warm in winter and cool in summer. It wicks away moisture and dries quickly, which deters mold, mildew and dust mites. It’s also naturally flame-, wrinkle- and stain-resistant; static-free; 100 percent biodegradable; and extremely durable.
Natural mattresses that include enough wool can pass stringent flammability standards without the use of potentially toxic flame retardants (see “Chemicals of Concern” later in this article). Wool mattress pads keep mattresses dry and clean without the use of plastic. Wool comforters provide loft and warmth without overheating, and wool pillows are a humane and healthy alternative to down, which can trap moisture and harbor dust mites.
Certifications: Products labeled “Pure Grow Wool” (also known as Premium Eco-Wool) are made with wool sourced from small farms in the U.S. where sheep are raised organically and treated humanely. Only long fibers are used to make Pure Grow Wool products, maximizing resilience and longevity.
You can also trust wool products certified by the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), the world’s leading standard for textiles made from organic fibers. GOTS-certified products contain a minimum of 70 percent organic fibers. The use of toxic heavy metals, formaldehyde and chlorine bleach are prohibited, and manufacturing chemicals, including dyes, must meet stringent safety requirements.
Tips: Regular sunning and airing is the best way to care for most wool bedding, which is not machine washable. Protect comforters with a removable, washable duvet cover and use zippered pillow protectors. To boost the loft of a wool pillow, put it in the dryer with two tennis balls and run it on low for 20 minutes.
Organic Bedding: Organic Cotton
Organic cotton tends to be more affordable than wool, and it is machine washable, making it ideal for sheets and duvet covers. As a mattress stuffing, cotton provides a healthier alternative to synthetic foams, but it is not inherently fire-resistant and must be wrapped in wool or treated with flame retardants to comply with flammability standards. Cotton compresses over time, making it a poor choice for pillow batting.
Certifications: Conventional cotton can be heavily laden with the residues of pesticides and insecticides. It is typically bleached with chlorine and dyed with toxic heavy metals that are harmful to humans and contaminate water and soil. It may also be treated with formaldehyde (a probable human carcinogen) to help prevent shrinking and wrinkles. GOTS-certified bedding is made with organic cotton grown without pesticides, insecticides or GMOs and finished without toxic chemicals. Oeko-Tex is another reputable third-party certification system that screens for harmful substances in the finished product. It does not require the raw material to be grown organically.
Tips: If you wish to avoid chemicals, consider organic cotton bed linens in natural shades of cream that have not been bleached or dyed. Wash new bedding to rinse away manufacturing residues.
Organic Bedding: Natural Latex
If you like the feel of foam mattresses and pillows, seek out products made of natural latex rather than petroleum-based polyurethane foam, which is highly flammable and may be treated with toxic flame-retardant chemicals. Natural latex foam is a renewable resource derived from the sap of rubber trees. It is naturally resistant to mold, mildew and dust mites. Natural latex foam mattresses come in a variety of firmness levels, and they help reduce motion transfer—great for light sleepers who share the bed with someone who tosses and turns.
Certifications: To ensure the product is actually natural latex—not a synthetic blend—look for Global Organic Latex Standard (GOLS) certification, which sets guidelines for materials as well as manufacturing methods. Oeko-Tex also certifies natural latex.
Tips: There are two processes for creating natural latex foam: the simpler, less-expensive Dunlop method and the more complex Talalay method. Products made with the Talalay method generally cost more but provide more suppleness and consistency.
Other Natural Fibers
Some other natural fiber choices include linen, hemp and silk. Linen and hemp are highly breathable and lend beautiful texture to bed linens, but they can be expensive and relatively difficult to find; they also take several washings to soften and wrinkle when laundered. Silk sheets are luxuriously soft, but they are expensive, not always machine washable, and can snag and wrinkle easily.
Bamboo is a prevalent, purportedly “green” bedding option, but most bamboo textiles are no better than synthetic fabrics. To turn bamboo into a fiber, the plant must undergo the same chemical process used to make rayon, which releases hazardous air pollutants and may leave harmful manufacturing residues on the fabric. According to the Federal Trade Commission, there’s no evidence that bamboo fabric retains the antimicrobial properties of the bamboo plant, as some manufacturers claim.
Certifications: If you do choose bamboo, Oeko-Tex provides certification for bamboo textiles that are free from harmful substances, and the Forest Stewardship Council certifies sustainable bamboo forestry practices. Linen, hemp and silk are less likely to carry third-party certification, so check labels and confirm with manufacturers and retailers that the fabric is free of chemical treatments. Choose “peace silk,” which allows the silkworm to live.
Tips: Linen, hemp and silk bedding is not measured by thread count, which, as it turns out, is not a very accurate indicator of quality. Although a higher thread count can mean better sheets, the integrity of the yarn and the weave is more important.
Chemicals of Concern
Avoid sheets and other linens labeled “permanent press,” “easy-care” or “no-iron,” which indicates they have been treated with formaldehyde to provide wrinkle resistance and stain proofing. Formaldehyde may cause contact dermatitis—a skin condition characterized by itchiness, rashes and blisters. Formaldehyde may also be present in glues used in mattresses and box springs.
Mattresses, mattress pads and other bedding marketing antibacterial properties may be treated with triclosan. According to the Environmental Working Group, triclosan is linked to liver and inhalation toxicity, and low levels of triclosan may disrupt thyroid function.
If you purchased your mattress before 2005, the foam may have been treated with the toxic flame-retardant chemical pentaBDE, says Veena Singla, a senior scientist at Green Science Policy Institute, a watchdog for emerging flame-retardant standards. PentaBDE belongs to a toxic class of fire retardants known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), which accumulate in human tissues and interfere with the thyroid gland.
Minimal exposure to pentaBDE during critical points in development may damage reproductive systems and cause deficits in motor skills, hearing, learning, memory and behavior. Most exposure occurs after the chemicals migrate out of the foam and settle into household dust, which then enters our bodies through hand-to-mouth contact. If you can’t replace your mattress, wash your and your children’s hands frequently; use a HEPA-filter vacuum and wet mop on floors; and dust other surfaces with a damp cloth regularly.
Mattress manufacturers no longer use PBDEs, but they may use other potentially harmful flame retardants including decaBDE, another PBDE not phased out until January 1, 2014. If possible, choose manufacturers that disclose which fire retardants are used. Some use boric acid, a relatively benign substance. The easiest way to avoid flame retardants is to choose certified organic products.
Conventional textile dyes may contain toxic heavy metals such as cadmium, lead and chromium, all classified as carcinogens. Dyes may be absorbed through the skin with prolonged contact and cause allergic reactions. Once absorbed, heavy metals tend to accumulate in soft tissues; large amounts may result in damaged or reduced central nervous function, lower energy levels, and damage to vital organs. Avoid azo dyes, which are restricted in the European textile market because of associated cancer risks. Conventional dyes also pollute waterways and contaminate soil. Look for bedding made with natural or low-impact dyes and inks, which do not contain heavy metals or other known toxic substances. Products certified by the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) are made without toxic dyes.
Toxic pesticides are used in conventional cotton cultivation. They can be absorbed by the fibers and might remain in the final product, which may be absorbed through the skin. Pesticide poisoning is not uncommon among agricultural workers. Symptoms include headaches, vomiting, lack of coordination, difficulty breathing, loss of consciousness, seizures and death. Hazardous pesticides also contaminate soil and water resources.
PFCs provide grease-, water- and stain-resistance to textiles and mattresses. They are highly bioaccumulative and associated with smaller birth weight in babies, elevated cholesterol, abnormal thyroid hormone levels, liver inflammation and weaker immune defense.
Our Favorite Organic Bedding Products
We spend roughly one-third of our lives asleep, so choosing nontoxic bedding is a worthwhile investment.
Naturepedic’s Quartet model is made with certified organic latex, wool and cotton, and contains no flame-retardant chemicals. Made in the U.S., mattresses come with a 20-year warranty. Queen, $3,000
Wool mattress pads are naturally water-repellant, and they help regulate body temperature. Naturally Safer Pure Wool Moisture Protector Pad in queen, $289 from LifeKind
Amenity Home offers a medium-weight, machine washable wool comforter made from Premium
Eco-Wool. Queen, $385