A Better Bed: Eco-friendly Mattresses, Sheets and Pillows

You don't have to sleep with chemicals. Healthy, eco-friendly options for mattresses, sheets and pillows abound.

| November/December 2009

  • Amenity's organic throw pillows and duvets are beautiful and nontoxic.
  • Amenity's organic throw pillows and duvets are beautiful and nontoxic.
    Photo By Povy Kendal Atchison
  • Top to bottom: West Elm organic cotton pillowcase, Under the Canopy silk pillowcase, West Elm white linens and organic cotton blanket, Under the Canopy organic cotton quilt.
    Photo By Povy Kendal Atchison

We spend up to a third of our lives in bed—and in extremely close contact with our sheets, pillows and mattress. The bedroom should be a place for relaxation and restoration, but many mattresses are made and treated with toxins that could outgas.

In 2007, the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) began requiring all mattresses sold in the United States to resist open flames. Although the regulation was enacted with safety in mind, the chemicals used to make products flame retardant are dangerous. Manufacturers phased out a highly toxic flame retardant, polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE), in 2004, but the alternatives aren’t much better. Some of the most common flame retardants include boric acid, antimony (which could damage the heart and liver), melamine (used in pesticides) and formaldehyde. These chemicals can accumulate in our bodies over time and can leach out in landfills.

Since the 1960s, most mattresses—and many mattress-related products such as memory foam—have been made from polyurethane, a petroleum product. In addition to being nonbiodegradable, new polyurethane foam outgases volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air and can cause respiratory problems, irritate skin and weaken and damage the immune and nervous systems. The adhesives used to hold mattresses together also contain formaldehyde and have been linked to asthma, allergies and even cancer.

Healthy mattresses 

Because mattress companies aren’t legally required to disclose their products’ chemical makeup, finding a healthy mattress requires some sleuthing.

Mattress cores are typically made of either springs or polyurethane foam. If you prefer a foam core, opt for a mattress that uses natural latex, a renewable source derived from rubber trees. The cell structure of latex allows air to pass through it easily, meaning moisture won’t accumulate while you sleep and you’ll stay cool, dry and comfortable at night. Latex is also naturally antibacterial, so it’s a good choice for people with allergies.

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