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.
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.
Organic cotton and wool are also good natural alternatives to polyurethane foam. Sleeping on a mattress wrapped in organic cotton or wool ensures you won’t breathe in chemicals or pesticides while you sleep. Air flows easily through wool and cotton, wicking away moisture and discouraging dust mites from settling in.
Many pillows are made out of polyurethane foam, so they release VOCs. Synthetic fibers also trap moisture and create a haven for dust mites.
Many of the same materials used in natural mattresses work well in pillows. Wool’s moisture-resistant qualities make it a good pillow filling. Hypoallergenic organic cotton is a good choice for people with allergies. Natural latex is another healthy pillow material that conforms to the body and holds its shape over time, providing continued support for your neck and head.
Buckwheat is another eco-friendly pillow filling alternative. Buckwheat hulls form to the shape of your head. Manufacturers say that, unlike other fillings such as foam and feathers, buckwheat hulls don’t compress over time so a buckwheat pillow will keep its shape. The hulls’ shape also allows air to pass through freely, keeping dust mites and pollen from getting trapped.
Between the sheets
Nontoxic and eco-friendly sheets are available in a variety of materials and colors, and from mainstream retailers such as Target and Bed, Bath & Beyond. Organic cotton is the most popular material for eco-friendly sheets. In 2006, organic fiber linens and clothing sales in the U.S. grew by 26 percent from the previous year, to reach $203 million, according to the Organic Trade Association’s 2007 Manufacturer Survey. Organic cotton is grown without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides and federal regulations prohibit the use of genetically modified seed in cotton labeled organic by the FDA.
Bamboo sheets are popular thanks to their silky texture and "breathability." Rapidly renewable bamboo grows without pesticides. Though environmental issues exist—bamboo farms are replacing old-growth forests in parts of the world; converting bamboo stalks to fiber is energy-intensive; and the Federal Trade Commission recently charged several companies with selling rayon labeled as bamboo—it is still a better option than synthetic fibers, which are often made with toxic chemicals, or energy- and pesticide-intensive conventional cotton.
Like bamboo, hemp requires few resources or pesticides to grow, making it a good fiber for sheets. Hemp sheets are stronger and more durable than cotton and require less processing to produce.
Susan Melgren is a Natural Home editorial intern and a 2009 University of Kansas graduate.