- Babies, children and adults spend a lot of time on and near their mattresses.
- Mattresses can be a significant source of toxic chemical exposure.
- You can reduce contact with flame retardants, volatile organic compounds and other chemicals that might be in your bed.
On average, Americans spend almost nine hours a day sleeping – a huge amount of time. When you also factor in time just relaxing in bed, maybe reading or scrolling on a phone, it adds up to a significant portion of our lives.
But most mattresses contain and release chemicals that contaminate the air in our homes – and expose us to those chemicals and numerous health harms.
The problems with most mattresses
Manufacturers aren’t required to disclose all the materials used in their mattresses. While the inner filling, often made with polyurethane foam, is typically listed on the tag, there is no requirement to disclose the specific type of flame retardant used.
So consumers may be unsure of what’s in their mattresses. It’s likely that some of the chemicals can be harmful to health and the environment, including:
Volatile organic compounds
The polyurethane foam in many mattresses emits potentially harmful volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, sometimes for years. Exposure to some VOCs can cause respiratory irritation, trigger asthma symptoms and, over the long term, increase the risk of cancer.
“Memory foam” may sound better, but it’s just another type of polyurethane foam. It’s typically made with a small percentage of soybean or castor oil mixed with industrial chemicals, which emit VOCs. More chemicals are added for density and “feel.” “Plant based” foam is also composed mostly of polyurethane.
Solvent-based glue often binds the layers of a mattress, and it too releases VOCs.
Mattresses often release “fragrance,” a mystery blend of any of more than thousands of chemicals. It’s used to camouflage odors created during production. Added fragrance can cause allergic reactions and sometimes contain hormone-disrupting phthalates.
Some states have begun to ban chemical flame retardants because of the potential harm they pose to reproductive and nervous systems. But mattresses treated with harmful flame retardants, like antimony, a cancer-causing heavy metal, can still be purchased in many places.
Unlike VOCs, flame retardants can’t be aired out of a product. They leach slowly over time, making them a more persistent problem in the long run.
Fiberglass is sometimes used as a flame retardant. Exposure to fiberglass could cause rashes, respiratory irritation and even property damage.
California may soon ban fiberglass and flame retardants from mattresses and upholstered furniture, as well as prohibit upholsterers from using fiberglass to repair or reupholster mattresses and furniture.
PVC or vinyl
These are used in mattress protectors and in crib mattress covers. PVC can contain phthalates and additives, which can emit dangerous VOCs. Vinyl also contains phthalates, which can disrupt the hormone system and lead to asthma.
What to look for in mattresses
You may find some mattresses that claim to be organic, natural or eco-friendly. But many of these are marketing claims, with no meaningful certifications to back the claims. Some mattresses use certifications that apply to certain parts of the mattress only. So they can still contain harmful chemicals.
Here’s what to look for in a healthier mattress:
Opt for adult mattresses made with natural materials like cotton, wool and natural latex. Whatever you choose, steer clear of treatments like chemical flame retardants and added fragrances.
Choosing a mattress made according to the Global Organic Textile Standard is another way to avoid harmful chemicals, but there are only a few certified brands. This standard requires at least 70 percent organic-certified materials.
For waterproof covers, try to find those made of polyurethane laminate fabric, or polyethylene, both of which are better choices than PVC. A tightly woven cotton cover, laundered frequently, will also help keep dust and dust mites at bay.
Mattresses for babies and kids: Even more important
Babies sleep around the clock, and young children typically get their shut-eye 12 to 14 hours a day. Because of all that time in bed, and because their bodies are still developing, they’re especially vulnerable to the chemicals in their mattress.
When buying a new crib or toddler-size mattress, look for the same qualities you would in an adult-size one, including better materials for fire-proofing, such as wool or PLA batting, which is derived from plant starch. And look for a waterproof cover that doesn’t contain PVC or vinyl.
Chemical flame retardants are being phased out of crib mattresses, but some brands still contain them. Look for brands that disclose fire-proofing materials and use better alternatives like wool or PLA. Make sure to avoid mattresses with fiberglass.
Finding a better crib mattress
Look for a crib mattress certified organic according to the Global Organic Textile Standard, if possible.
If that’s out of reach, here are other ways to avoid harsh chemicals in the mattress:
- Look for materials that reduce chemical emissions. Cotton and steel springs are two examples.
- Make sure to air out any new crib mattress you buy.
- If you decide to use a hand-me-down mattress, find out everything you can about the manufacturer and the particular product. It could contain flame retardants or toxic phthalates, or be a breeding ground for mold.
- Steer clear of imports – they could contain flame retardants banned in the U.S.
- Find out more about buying a healthy mattress here and about crib mattresses here.