I’ve written before about toxic bedding and how to choose the right pillow (is your pillow toxic?), but now I want to share how to choose the right mattress.
Getting sufficient, high-quality sleep is one of the best things you can do for your health. Sleep allows the body to reset after a long day, balances hormones and helps control stress. Lack of sleep can mean weight gain, impaired functioning, and even a higher risk for chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes. The first step to getting a good night’s sleep? Buying a great mattress.
Did you know that over 90 percent of mattresses contain toxic chemicals that are linked with a growing number of health concerns? For example, some common chemicals found in mattresses include: polybrominated diphenyl ethers, boric acid, formaldehyde and antimony. By switching to an organic mattress — made without the use of things like GMO fibers, dyes, perfumes, and synthetic pesticides — you’ll experience benefits including:
- improved posture and better comfort while you sleep
- “motionless” transfer, meaning you’re less disturbed from others tossing and turning in bed
- protection from toxins tied to cancer, lung and heart problems
- supporting the use of eco-friendly crops and manufacturing
- reduced risk for sleep problems like snoring and sleep apnea
- protecting livestock from being raised inhumanly in order to obtain certain fabrics
- natural body temperature control and fewer episodes of “sleeping hot”
- reduced risk for allergic reactions due to phthalates, harsh perfumes and dyes
- reduced risk for other problems tied to poor quality mattresses and chemical exposure such as neck pain, lower back pain, fertility problems, developmental problems in infants or children, and SIDS
Harmful Chemicals Within Today’s Mattresses
There are certain substances I believe should do not belong in anyone’s mattress− and they’re not used in some of my favorite organic brands. These chemicals include:
1. Flame Retardants
In 1975, California passed law TB 117 which required all foam used in the manufacturing of furniture and mattresses to be flame retardant in order to prevent common household fires caused by things like candles and cigarettes. Manufacturers have applied this policy to furniture sold in all 50 states in the U.S. All traditional mattresses, therefore, are treated with flame-retardant chemicals to prevent household fires from spreading.
Polyurethane foam is widely used in conventional mattresses and other products like computer monitors, TV sets and printers. The problem is that it breaks down into different VOC’s (volatile organic compounds) that are released into the air, which one would then breathe in at night. As polyurethane begins to break down, it can release polybrominated-biphenyl-ethers (PBDEs), which are very toxic chemicals that can linger in someone’s system for a long time.
- According to the University of Texas Health Science Center, “their use is permitted in the United States but is banned in some European countries because of presumed toxicity, demonstrated persistence, and bioaccumulation”. (1)
- The European Commission considers PBDEs to be “Persistent organic pollutants” (POPs), which are chemical substances that persist in the environment, bioaccumulate through the food web, and pose a risk of causing adverse effects to human health and the environment. (2)
- These chemicals can stay in the environment for a long time and have been shown to cause neurological, thyroid and other developmental problems, which is why they are especially a risk for infants. Ninety-seven percent of people in the U.S. have been found to have PBDEs in their blood — it’s even found in the breast milk of new mothers! After researchers of University of Texas tested the breast milk of 47 nursing mothers for 13 different kinds of PBDEs, they found that levels in mothers from Texas, California and Indiana were 10–100 times greater than those living in Europe where PBDE is banned. (3)
- Research shows that people living in California are amongst those with the highest levels, due to the TB 117 policy combined with other factors.
Efforts are now being made in the U.S to ban PBDEs or cut down on their use, since research shows that even after their original source is gone, they still present an ongoing health concern. Several states have begun to pass laws banning certain types of PBDEs from being used in household products, including Washington, Maine and California which are now requiring manufacturers to use “smolder resistance” fabrics and materials rather than these chemicals. (4)
However, upholstered furniture (such as mattresses, comforters, mattress pads, bed pillows) are not subject to TB117 revisions, and therefore can still contain these chemicals for the time being.
2. Boric Acid
Boric acid is a toxic chemical frequently used as an insecticide and roach killer, and also in some lotions, paints and antiseptic products. Many mattress companies use boric acid in the lining of their mattress to prevent bacteria, bed bugs and other pests from lingering.
According to researchers from Virginia Mason Medical Center, boric acid is a “dangerous poison” that can cause both acute or chronic poisoning and other health problems. Acute boric acid poisoning usually occurs when someone swallows products containing the chemical (such as powdered roach-killer), while chronic poisoning occurs in those who are repeatedly exposed to low levels of boric acid. (5)
Symptoms of acute exposure are deadly, especially for young babies, and can include convulsions, blistering of the skin, and even coma. Long-term exposure has been known to cause developmental and neurological problems in infants, and in adults inhalation of boric acid may result in damage of the upper respiratory tract.
Formaldehyde is a colorless, strong-smelling chemical that is commonly used in a variety of building materials and household products, including mattresses. Other products that contain formaldehyde include car emissions (the biggest threat to the public), cigarettes, glues, pressed wood products and insulation.
Exposure occurs primarily from inhaling formaldehyde fumes or vapors from the air, or from absorbing liquids containing formaldehyde through the skin. Most people come into contact with small amounts of formaldehyde everyday, however risk factors like smoking, working in construction, being in the medical field and using products made with formaldehyde increase your risk for exposure side effects.
The National Cancer Institute reports that high levels of formaldehyde in the air can head to burning sensation in the eyes and nose, coughing, nausea, and skin problems. (6) Long-term exposure can cause even more serious problems like neurotoxicity, cancer, damage to the lymphatic system or liver toxicity.
Antimony is a poisonous chemical similar to arsenic, however the difference is that antimony is a metal whereas arsenic is more of a powder. Because it doesn’t carry heat well, antimony compounds are used to make flame-proofing materials, paints, ceramic enamels, glass and pottery. Antimony exposure has been shown to contribute to reproductive problems, including problems with fertility and miscarriage. Exposure to relatively high concentrations of antimony is also known to cause irritation of the eyes, skin and lungs, and in high amounts can damage the liver and the heart when people are exposed long-term. (7)
Another area where antimony is now being researched is its relation to sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS):
- There is now a compilation of research showing that SIDS is likely related to toxic chemicals sound within crib bedding that can breathed in by sleeping infants, including antimony, arsenic and phosphorus.
- According to an article published in Midwifery Today, these three chemicals of concern are added to crib mattresses as preservatives and fire retardants, however they are also consumed by a common household fungus called Scopulariopsis brevicaulis which gets established in crib mattresses from babies’s sweating and spitting up. (8)
- The fungus begins to consume these three chemicals and produces three nerve gasses (phosphine, arsine and stibin), all of which can be very deadly, especially to infants.
- Other studies have found similar findings, that levels of antimony can be detected the blood of babies who had died from SIDS. (9)
5. Synthetic Latex
Latex is commonly used in mattresses, even organic ones, however the jury is still out regarding its safety. It’s a major component of mattresses because it molds to the body, helping to relieve pressure points. Latex is produced from trees using either the Talalay process, which uses more harmful, carcinogenic VOC’s (Volatile Organic Compounds), or the Dunlop process, which produces mattresses that are considered too firm for many consumers.
Both types are chemical processes needed to turn rubber sap from tress into mattress-friendly latex rubber, and both use VOCs by necessity. While some of these compounds are washed out once the rubber is solidly formed, some toxic VOC’s remain and can be released into the air.
Therefore, I hesitate to recommend latex mattresses that are “blended” — a combination of pure and synthetic latex. There are also “Natural” mattresses, which contain a higher concentration (up to 95 percent of pure rubber), however there is NO such thing as a 100 percent pure latex mattress. 100 percent Natural Latex is sometimes advertised because products containing 95 percent or more organic ingredients can be called “100% Natural”. (10) In general, the purer and more natural/organic the better, but more research is needed to show the effects of even blended latex mattresses types long-term.
The Benefits of Buying An “Organic” Mattress
As you can see, traditional mattresses are made with a variety of toxic chemicals. Not only are you putting your health at risk by exposing yourself regularly to these chemicals, but like many people you might find that synthetic mattresses cause you to feel hot when you sleep and to toss and turn often. Contrary to what you might expect, organic mattress made with natural, organic fibers can be very comfortable. That’s right — certain studies have even shown that those who sleep on natural fiber mattresses such as wool tend to toss and turn less, resulting in a better night’s sleep. (11)
Here are several compelling reasons to consider purchasing an organic mattress:
1. Organic Wool Is Eco-Friendly & Free From Chemicals
The most popular options for non-toxic materials in organic mattresses are wool and cotton. Organic wool is a sustainable and environmentally friendly resource because sheep are not killed to gather the wool. Organic wool, specifically, is produced without the use of any hormones, chemicals or pesticides.
Federal requirements for organic livestock production including wool require that: Livestock feed and forage be certified organic; synthetic hormones and genetic engineering are prohibited; use of synthetic pesticides (internal, external and on pastures) are prohibited, and producers must practice good cultural and management practices when feeding handling livestock. (12)
What’s more is that wool mattresses have been shown to reduce back pain and help those who suffer to get a better night sleep. One study published in the Journal of the Canadian Chiropractic Association found that participants who slept on a natural-fiber wool mattress were reported decreased low back pain after four weeks. (13)
Wool is also great at regulating your body temperature, which makes sense since it serves the same role for sheep! Since wool is a natural fiber, it actually absorbs sweat during the night, allowing you to stay cooler in the summer, but at the same time it helps keep you warm during the winter.
2. Organic Cotton Doesn’t Contain Pesticides & Supports Organic Farming
Farmers in the U.S. apply a significant amount of chemicals and pesticides to their cotton plants to yield higher results. Cotton is also flammable, which is why products made with it are commonly sprayed with flame-resistant chemicals. Many farmers use genetically modified cotton that is resistant to pests and fungus; in fact, American farmers use about 12 pounds of chemicals per acre, making it one of the most toxic crops grown in America.
Non-organic cotton sheets may also be treated with formaldehyde to prevent wrinkles. Therefore, it is vital to look for products made with 100 percent organic cotton, which does not contain any pesticides or added chemicals. Farmers of organic cotton use natural fertilizers, such as legumes instead of fertilizer in their fields. (14)
3. Organic Mattresses Work Well With Other Beneficial Products, Such as Earthing Sheets
Have you heard of earthing? It turns out that our body runs through a type of electrical current. As the Journal of Environmental and Public Health states, “the Earth’s surface possesses a limitless and continuously renewed supply of free or mobile electrons … which may be important for setting the biological clock, regulating circadian rhythms, and balancing cortisol levels.” (15)
In other words, our body is naturally able to absorb electrical charges from the earth since our skin acts like a “conductor.” Hence, walking on the grass with bare feet can help us get these beneficial electrical charges, and it turns out so can sleeping on something called an “earthing sheet”. Earthing sheets are a type of sheet that helps ground you to the earth and transmits natural electrical charges, helping you to get the benefits of earthing while you sleep. You can now find fitted sheets online that are naturally-colored, 100 percent cotton, and available in different sizes to fit most mattresses.
4. You’re Likely to Sleep Better
If you’ve ever woken up with back pain due to getting poor sleeping, you’ve experienced first hand how a high-quality mattress can help with proper posture, orthopedic support and spinal alignment. Research shows that 45 percent of adult Americans are believed to be suffering from a lack of sleep, and one of the leading reasons is because of aches and pains. (16)
- People sleep best on mattresses with varying levels of “support” or cushion. Keep in mind that when you’re discussing firm or plush mattresses with retailers, it is important to note that these terms only relate to the comfort layers of a mattress, but not the actual support layers which are located deeper below the mattress’s surface.
- A high quality mattress will make sure the support layers have the right amount of strength and also “give,” in order to allow proper orthopedic support of your body while you sleep. The comfort layers work with the support layers to give you the level of bounce and cushion that you desire.
- Keep in mind that many mattresses made with “memory foam” contain polyurethane, a petroleum based material that emits volatile organic compounds. Polyurethane-based products also tend to retain body heat and can cause over-heating or skin irritation.
- The goal is to find a mattress, plus a sleeping position, that will keep your body and spine straight while you sleep. You also want your head and neck to be supported to prevent chronic neck pains. There should be no sagging in the middle of the mattress, which can cause pressure to be misplaced on your spine. That can lead to waking up with a stiff neck or lower back pain− and no one appreciates that!
- It can also be really helpful to master the best sleeping positions if you frequently deal with aches and pains. Although everyone is different, most adults sleep best in a side position (think the “fetal position”) with their legs curled up and perhaps a pillow between their legs. This reduces the chance for back pains, stiffness, snoring and digestive discomforts. It’s also important to keep your head propped up enough too so that your neck is mostly level with the mattress and not being strained.
5. Your Mattress Will Still Be Flame Resistant
If you’re concerned about your mattress being flame-resistant, you’ll be happy to know that wool is naturally flame resistant. Therefore, look for a mattress made with a wool covering. Organic mattresses can be used with various covers, slips or sheets that are also made with organic materials and serve the same purpose as harsh flame-resistant chemicals.
The Mattress That I Recommend Most
Switching out your traditional mattress for an organic one is a great way to reduce your exposure to toxic chemicals, support organic farming and humane livestock breeding, get a better night sleep overall, and prevent nagging back or neck pains.
Here are key tips related to buying a mattress:
- Try to look for a mattress without any fire retardant chemicals, ideally one made of wool or organic cotton.
- Make sure to ask your retailer about purchasing a mattress that does NOT contain PBDEs, formaldehyde or boric acid.
- Mattress manufacturers are not required to disclose the chemicals used in their beds, but you can do a quick internet search to find the best brands or go to a store that specializes in organic, natural bedding.
- If possible seek out a custom mattress that allows you to tailor the support and comfort layers to your need.
My favorite organic mattress brand is Naturepedic.*
What makes Naturepedic organic mattresses unique and worth purchasing? Some of the benefits of Naturepedic Organic Mattresses, which are made without the use of the chemicals described above, include different comfort and firmness levels as well as meeting high-level environmental standards.
Getting a good night’s sleep is one of the best things you can do for your health, why not make your mattress healthy too?
*Naturepedic gifted me their organic mattresses to try. I was impressed by its superior quality and chose to recommend it.