Spending thousands of dollars on a new mattress only to find that it off-gasses harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCs) or is contaminated with mold really is the stuff of nightmares.
Look at any list of so-called eco-friendly mattresses online and you’re likely to find mattresses made with a range of unsustainable materials that off-gas, pollute the environment and are certainly not eco-friendly or good for your health.
Indeed, the ubiquity of toxic chemicals in mattresses claiming to be green, safe, and eco-friendly is one of the most surprising things I’ve learnt while wading through marketing hype, industry reports, and scientific research articles.
So, what should you look out for when buying a truly eco-friendly mattress, and how can you best protect yourself, your family, factory workers, and the planet from exposure to toxic chemicals?
The first thing to ask is whether you need to buy a new mattress at all. The answer to this question will clearly depend on your individual circumstances, but it also depends on the materials that make up your mattress.
Many manufacturers suggest replacing your mattress at least every 8 years and data suggests that most of us are actually beginning to follow that advice. One report found that in 2017, consumers reported keeping their mattresses for an average of 10.3 years, compared to just 8.9 years in 2019. Why the 8-year lifecycle? Well, in part because the materials used in standard foam mattresses have been shown to lose more than half their weight within 10 years. Where does all that mass go? It becomes dust – toxic, synthetic, polyurethane foam dust.
If your mattress is made with more robust natural materials and you treat it well, keeping it protected against mold and other types of damage, chances are you won’t need to replace it anywhere near as frequently.
Assuming that you are in the market for a new mattress, however, how best to go about finding one that is comfortable, safe, and eco-friendly?
When choosing a new mattress, you’ll want to consider who will be sleeping on it, how firm you like your mattress to be, the size, and the following factors:
- What is the mattress made from? Not just the cover, the mattress as a whole.
- Are the materials used recycled and/or recyclable?
- Has the mattress been treated with toxic chemicals?
- Is it naturally flame retardant and/or resistant to mildew and mold?
- What’s the expected lifespan of the mattress and does the company have a takeback program?
- Does the manufacturing of the mattress harm humans, other animals, and/or the environment?
The materials used to make a mattress determine whether it is naturally flame retardant, will start to degrade and sag in short order, and whether it is cruelty-free, hypoallergenic, and likely to off-gas. It’s also important to look at how a mattress is designed because, when it comes to comfort, the top 5 inches of a mattress make all the difference. If there’s no way to customize that top layer or switch it out if it starts to show its age, you may be stuck with having to replace the whole mattress, which is both costly to you and the environment.
Let’s look more closely at the materials used to make conventional mattresses and the problems these materials pose for your health and the environment as a whole.
Our top picks for eco-friendly Mattresses
|Product||Highlights||Leaf Score||Product Link|
PlushBeds Latex Botanical Bliss and Natural Bliss (Vegan) MattressesRead the Review
Savvy Rest Organic Non-Toxic Latex MattressesRead the Review
Savvy Rest Organic Non-Toxic Innerspring MattressesRead the Review
Avocado Green and Avocado Vegan MattressesRead the Review
Eco Terra Latex MattressRead the Review
Things to consider in Mattresses
Mattresses – What to Watch out for
In times gone by, mattresses were stuffed with feathers, horsehair, wool, and cotton batting, as well as other natural materials. With the introduction of synthetics, everything changed. Now, most mattresses are made with a mix of polyurethane foam, synthetic latex, and conventional cotton.
One industry leader, Walter Bader, was so troubled by the toxic slew of chemicals used in mattress manufacture that he sent several mattresses to an Atlanta-based lab for testing. One memory foam model was found to emit 61 volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including known carcinogens benzene and naphthalene.
In his book, Sleep Safe in a Toxic World, Bader compares the lack of regulations around mattresses to that of cigarettes in the 1930s: ‘Completely unregulated and everyone thinks they’re safe.” Bader went on to found Organic Mattresses Inc. (OMI), a company making handcrafted mattresses from cruelty-free wool, certified organic cotton, and 100 percent natural rubber latex in a facility where no one is allowed to smoke, wear fragrances, or even use fabric softeners.
Happily, OMI are not the only companies making mattresses with quality natural materials (although they’re arguably the best). Look around a little and you’ll find many mattresses made with 100 percent natural latex, organic cotton, organic wool, silk, bamboo, hemp, and other materials.
Before we dive into product recommendations, we’ll first take a look at mattress materials to avoid, safer mattress materials, and other considerations when buying an eco-friendly mattress. Let’s start with foams.
Also known as “Polyfoam”, polyurethane foam has been the standard fill for many mattresses since the 1960s. It is mass produced and cheap, and the North America polyurethane market is dominated by four chemical giants: BASF, Bayer Material Science, The Dow Chemical Company and Huntsman Corporation, who account for more than 75 percent of total production. Personally, I’d rather not give these huge corporations my money, especially given their track records for transparency around the safety of their products and processes.
The market for polyurethane foam mattresses has, unfortunately, expanded even more in recent years thanks to the direct-to-consumer bed-in-a-box phenomenon. Sure, these mattresses are cheaper to produce and ship and reduce energy expenditure associated with transportation, but at what cost to the environment and your health overall? (Happily, there are eco-friendly bed-in-a-box options such as Avocado!)
Interestingly, current politics may affect the seemingly exponential growth of this industry. That’s because in June 2018, the U.S. announced a 25 percent tariff on polyurethanes, PVC and lubricating oils. While it’s unlikely environmental considerations played a role in this decision, it may help in some small way to nudge companies to use more sustainable and eco-friendly materials available in the U.S. itself.
Why am I so against polyurethane mattresses? For a number of reasons. First, polyurethane foam is produced through the same energy-hungry process used to make petroleum from crude oil. This process involves two main ingredients: polyols and diisocyanates, which are reacted together using a variety of catalysts, including dibutylin (DBT, more on this below).
Polyols themselves are substances created through a chemical reaction using propylene oxide (methyloxirane). As for diisocyanates, toluene diisocyanate (TDI) is the most common isocyanate involved in the manufacture of polyurethane.
Both methyloxirane and TDI are recognized as carcinogens by the State of California and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. They’re known to cause tumors (mostly mammary and brain tumors for methyloxirane and TDI respectively) and are both listed on the List of Toxic Substances under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. “Studies in animals have demonstrated that propylene oxide is a direct-acting carcinogen” (R).
You know things are bad when even the somewhat beleaguered US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – whose inspections have fallen to an all-time low under the Trump presidency – has issues with the chemicals used in polyurethane manufacture. Indeed, the EPA considers the manufacturing plants producing polyurethane foam to be major sources of myriad hazardous air pollutants. Such pollutants include:
- Methylene chloride
- Toluene diisocyanate (TDI) itself
- Hydrogen cyanide.
Part of being a conscious consumer is understanding the impact of our choices on those producing the things we buy. This is driven home by the numerous cases of occupational exposure in factories to the chemicals just mentioned. According to the CDC, such exposure can result in isocyanate-induced asthma, respiratory disease, and death. While safety has improved greatly in U.S. factories in recent years, there remains the potential for health problems related to accidental exposure to high levels of TDI as well as to cumulative exposure.
We also need to consider the wellbeing of those living close to manufacturing plants, who often have limited income and little opportunity to move away. Again, this is highlighted by a case where the State of North Carolina forced the closure of a polyurethane manufacturing plant because tests revealed that local residents were being exposed to potentially dangerous levels of TDI.
How about in our own homes, though? Unfortunately, the United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has not established exposure limits on carcinogenicity for polyurethane foam from end-use products. This is largely due to a lack of data and does not mean that we’re not exposed to hazardous air pollutants when we sleep on a polyurethane mattress, sit on a couch made with the stuff, or breathe in dust from carpet underlay and other polyurethane products.
As with all chemicals, it’s the dose that makes the poison. And, unfortunately, it’s very difficult to quantify cumulative exposure to VOCs and other chemicals from all of the products we come into contact with each day. Testing just one product and finding low VOC emissions does not, therefore, offer much assurance of safety if this is just one of the sources in a household, daycare, school, or work environment. Attributing specific health conditions to chronic exposure to chemicals found in mattresses is also difficult as it would be impossible to design a study controlling for ever variable throughout a person’s life. Instead, we largely have to go on evidence from laboratory studies demonstrating the effects of short-term exposure to chemicals such as benzene, propylene oxide, and other chemicals in foam.
Polyurethane foam also poses a risk of exposure to the neurotoxin toluene, and dust from polyurethane may contain organotins, high concentrations of which are associated with growth abnormalities in mussels and oysters and mass mortalities of marine mammals. Dibutylin (a catalyst used in the manufacture of polyurethane foam) is a source of organotins, and has been found to cross the placenta in mammals and to accumulate in the brain, where it acts as a potent neurotoxin, killing brain cells. Organotins in general have been linked to disruption of behavioral functions, neurotransmitters, and neuroendocrine pathways.
Polyurethane foam can also contain chemicals including styrene, antimony, formaldehyde, and others, all of which could end up in the dust produced when the foam breaks down, which it does, and quite quickly. This, in spite of the industry claiming that polyurethane is durable. So, polyurethane foam is produced from a non-renewable resource (oil), requires the involvement of numerous problematic chemicals, off-gasses those chemicals when it breaks down, and breaks down so quickly that you’ll have a lumpy and uncomfortable mattress to get rid of every few years. Any other issues? Yes!
Polyfoam mattresses are also quite porous, meaning that they can accumulate moisture and tend to harbor mold and mildew. And, as polyurethane is highly flammable (it’s basically solid gasoline), safety regulations mean that mattresses are drenched in toxic flame retardants in order to make them ‘safe’.
It’s plain to see, then, that the smart move is to avoid polyurethane foam in our mattresses and in our homes as a whole.
Are there any good things to be said about polyurethane foam? Perhaps. At a stretch, you might say that polyurethane is recyclable, with manufacturing scraps often reused to create carpet backing. However, end user products, such as mattresses, are very difficult to recycle and mostly end up in landfill where they break down and release toxins into the ground, air, and water.
Some other things to consider about foam mattresses include, and I’m not joking, the potential effects on your sex life, and the kind of climate where you live. Foam mattresses don’t wick away moisture or do much for breathability, so you’re liable to sweat a lot unless you use a mattress topper made with organic wool or cotton. The support many enjoy from a foam mattress, can also have unintended consequences if you rely on a little ‘bounce’ in the bedroom. Consider yourself warned!
Fun Fact: If you lived in Canada and bought a polyurethane foam mattress or other foam product between 1999 and 2012, you may have been overcharged! Foam manufacturers were recently found to have formed a price-fixing cartel and consumers were given the opportunity to file claims for compensation. If you didn’t file a claim, you’ve missed out, sadly, but you can still read all Canada’s biggest ever price-fixing scandal here!
What About CertiPur Foam Mattresses?
Foam mattresses continue to be popular as they can (initially) offer good support regardless of your body size and shape. Unfortunately, even the most expensive foam mattresses are made with polyurethane which, as we’ve seen, breaks down quickly, is sweaty, and is bad for factory workers, the environment, and for the end user (i.e. you and your family).
Many eco-friendly mattress round-ups feature mattresses made with CertiPur certified foam. CertiPur is a certification dreamt up by manufacturers with a vested interest in trying to greenwash polyurethane foam. Sure, some foam products are less problematic than others, but if you’re looking for a truly safe and eco-friendly mattress, avoiding foam is not a decision you need to sleep on.
The CertiPur-US™ logo does offer some assurance that the foam component of the pillow is free from polybrominated diphenyl ether (PDBE) and some of the most egregious flame retardants, and that levels of formaldehyde and other chemicals including ozone depleting substances, mercury, lead, and other heavy metals, and hormone-disrupting phthalates are low. However, foam is still resource-hungry, synthetic, and emits VOCs, so it is best avoided.
Indeed, CertiPur standards are much lower than the Ecolabel requirements used in the EU (for certain substances). Products certified by CertiPur are only tested for 72 hours, compared to 7 or 28 days for Ecolabel. Emission standards for VOCs, including formaldehyde, toluene, styrene and other chemicals are also significantly more robust for Ecolabel compared to CertiPur.
If the difference in emissions levels doesn’t phase you much, consider this: research shows that VOC emissions from polyurethane foam mattresses are higher than those of polyester foam and that even minimal VOC emissions in pregnancy and in the postnatal period can be harmful for infants’ neurological development, growth, immune and respiratory function (including an increased risk of asthma and allergy), and overall health and well-being. Now consider that you may spend some time co-sleeping with your infant in your own bed.
Research has also found that certain ‘nesting’ behaviors in the late stage of pregnancy can increase the level of VOCs in the house and, in turn, increase the risk of respiratory wheezing in infants and the development of atopic dermatitis by more than three times. So, if you’re thinking of installing new carpet, painting the nursery, or buying new furniture while pregnant, you’ll want to, as much as possible, choose products that don’t off-gas VOCs.
Top tip – Watch out for companies marketing their foam mattresses as ‘plant-based’. These often contain just a tiny amount of plant-derived oils alongside polyurethane foam, making no great difference to the product’s eco-friendliness.
Flame Retardants and Other VOCs in Mattresses
Have you ever wondered what that weird smell is when you unroll or uncover a new mattress? Most likely, that is the lovely aroma of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including a heady mix of flame retardants and other chemicals.
VOCs, many of which are classed as carcinogens, are emitted as a breathable gas from mattresses, carpets, furnishings, paint, cleaning supplies, printer ink, and other household products. Concentrations inside the house can be ten-fold higher than outdoors and, consider this, you spend a good 7-9 hours a night with your face smushed into your mattress. If you’re an infant, you may spend more than 12 hours a day in close contact to a source of VOCs, with studies showing increased concentrations of VOCs in incubators due to mattresses off-gassing, especially when the air is hot and humid.
Even though manufacturers claim that the polyols and isocyanates in mattress foam have reacted and are no longer volatile, older polyurethane foam mattresses are especially bad for off-gassing as the mattress breaks down into dust. VOCs in mattresses also include a variety of chemicals used as stain and soil repellents, antimicrobial treatments (which are necessary for porous polyurethane foam), adhesives, and flame retardants.
VOCs can cause headaches, nausea and dizziness, nasal irritation, allergic reactions, neurological problems, liver and kidney damage, cancer, and possible even fertility problems and miscarriage. As if that wasn’t bad enough, some VOC’s are greenhouse gases, meaning that they contribute to climate change (which has its own negative effects on health, such as increasing air pollution from wildfires/climate fires and causing soil erosion, flooding, increasingly deadly tornadoes and more).
Ironically, the state that now seems intent on leading the way in terms of eco-friendly regulations is the one we can blame for the presence of toxic flame retardants in mattresses. Back in 1975, the State of California passed legislation (TB117) requiring manufacturers to treat mattresses and furniture to make them safe from cigarettes that could smolder and start a fire. This legislation did not, however, offer guidance as to how to make these products safe, meaning that manufacturers began dousing everything in Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PDBEs).
Researchers found PDBEs in the majority of dust samples collected from homes in California in 2015, even though the state updated TB117 in 2014 to enable manufacturers to transition from the open flame test process adopted and mandated in 1975 to the new methods for smolder resistance. This revision does not explicitly call for the elimination of flame retardants such as PDBEs, however, and many manufacturers continue to use these dangerous chemicals in their products.
Unsurprisingly, then, levels of PBDE in North America are reported to be higher than those in Europe and Asia, and the body burden of PBDEs is three- to nine-fold higher in infants and toddlers than in adults (R). This is likely because of exposure to maternal milk and dust.
The most common PBDE isomers found in humans are Tetra-, Penta-, and Hexa-BDEs. PBDEs have a long half-life, meaning that they persist in the environment. Studies suggest that these chemicals may cause (R, R):
- Disruption to thyroid function
- Neurodevelopmental deficits and long-lasting behavioral and motor activity anomalies
- An increased risk of cancer.
Antimony, Boric Acid, and Halogenated Flame Retardants (HFRs) are some other commonly used chemicals found in mattresses. Antimony is a toxic heavy metal which can cause eye, heart, and lung problems. Boric Acid can cause eye and respiratory irritation.
Bromine, chlorine, fluorine and iodine are elements known as halogens. Halogenated flame retardants act directly on flames, interfering with the chemistry of the flame to prevent fire. Chlorine (chlorinated) and bromine (brominated) are both used as flame retardants, but brominated retardants are the most effective.
HFRs have been linked to a raft of health concerns, including (R):
- Abnormal reproductive development and delayed puberty
- Neurobehavioral changes, damage to brain and nerve function
- Thyroid disruption
In Europe, pan-European Union legislation such as REACH and RoHS, as well as the Stockholm Convention (to which the USA is not a signatory) effectively mean that the use of brominated fire retardants is being phased out for good. In the U.S., however, bans on the use of HFRs vary from state to state.
As noted, flame retardants are found at increasing levels in household dust. And, because many halogenated flame retardants are persistent and bioaccumalative, they are increasingly present in human blood and breast milk, and in wild animals, with widespread environmental contamination and the highest concentrations in the Arctic and marine mammals (R). Natural materials such as hemp, wool, and flax offer alternatives to chemical flame retardants.
In one article, Arlene Blum, a biophysical chemist and visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, suggested that, “Instead of adding new fire retardant chemicals that ultimately may be shown to cause health problems, we should be asking whether we need to use these chemicals or if there are other ways to achieve equivalent fire safety, so many of the chemicals we have banned in the past were flame retardants—think about asbestos, polychlorinated biphenyls, polybrominated biphenyls, tris(2,3-dibromopropyl) phosphate, PBDEs—[and] they all ended up in the environment and in people. We need to think carefully about adding these sorts of chemicals to consumer products before there is adequate health information.”
Some companies are investigating novel strategies to make mattresses fire-resistant, such as using nanomaterials to coat fibers. Unfortunately, there is limited safety data on nanoparticles (and what there is has caused some concern) and some of the chemicals used to disperse nanoparticles in treated fibers may themselves be toxic (R). Other researchers are investigating the use of tartaric acid derivatives as a natural flame retardant (R). This chemical looks promising as an eco-friendly treatment and is produced in large quantities in the normal course of making wine.
While some fire retardant chemicals have been banned, other potentially problematic chemicals continue to be used in children’s products, including Firemaster 550, a toxic phthalate-containing cocktail. Children’s mattresses and crib mattresses are also commonly treated to make them waterproof. It’s a tragic irony, then, that infants and children are also more vulnerable to the negative effects of the chemicals used in waterproof covers, such as the phthalates found in vinyl. Indeed, a law was passed in 2009 in the U.S. House of Congress forbidding the use of three types of phthalates often found in mattresses.
If, despite all of this, you’re still in the market for a foam mattress that has, by necessity, been treated with chemical flame retardants and other toxins, there are some questions you’ll want to ask before making a final decision.
First, check where a company sources their foam. If it is made in the U.S. or EU it is subject to stricter safety regulations than foam made in many other regions and countries.
Second, look at how dense the foam is. Foam can range from around 2.5 lbs to more than 5.5 lbs per cubic foot. Foam under around 3 lbs is considered low density and can feel soft while still being comfortable. The other benefit of lower-density foam is that it contains lower amounts of polymers and, thus, uses fewer resources and has less to off-gas.
Finally, you’ll want to check how the mattress meets safety requirements for flammability. If a product is coated in chemical fire retardants, avoid it and look for one that has an outer cover made with something like Rayon, silica and Kevlar (check that this doesn’t just apply to mattress seams). These materials are far from eco-friendly, but they can help reduce the amount of chemicals that need to be applied for a mattress to meet fire safety standards.
If a company claims that their mattresses are VOC-free, make sure this is not just marketing hype. Mattress companies have been fined over and over again for making false claims over VOCs. The Federal Trade Commission sued and fined Essentia, Relief-Mart/Temp-Flow, and Ecobaby Organics for claiming that their products were VOC-free without the evidence to back up such claims.
One of your best options is Tuft and Needle’s CertiPur mattress. This was the first complete mattress to be certified STANDARD 100 by OEKO-TEX® and is also GreenGuard Gold certified and CertiPUR-US® certified as emitting fewer than 0.5 parts per million VOCs. Casper, Leesa, and Purple all sell CertiPur foam mattresses, but none of these have OEKO-TEX® or GreenGuard Gold certification and Tuft and Needle’s mattresses are less expensive than the competition, ranging from $350 to $750 depending on mattress size. The company also offers a 10-year limited warranty and has a decent return/refund policy as well as a 100-night free trial.
Plush Beds also offer a Memory Foam mattress collection, Eco Bliss collection, Sofa Bed Mattresses and RV Mattresses, all made with Plush Beds’ proprietary CertiPUR-US® certified PlushFoam™. These mattresses have low VOC emissions and are free from:
- Ozone-depleting chemicals
- PBDE flame retardant
- Prohibited phthalates
- Mercury, heavy metal and lead
There’s also the option of biofoam mattresses, although these are nowhere near as eco-friendly as manufacturers would like us to think.
Soy Foam Mattresses
Beware companies advertising their foam mattresses as ‘green’ and ‘plant-based’. Bio-based foam made with soybeans might seem like a great innovation, but the truth is that these mattresses are still almost 100 percent polyurethane foam. Yes, including some soy-based foam does reduce the greenhouse gas emissions associated with foam mattresses, but when you look at the actual math (not the numbers claimed in advertising), the reduction is very small.
For instance, if you see a mattress being advertised as made with 20 percent bio-based foam, you might, quite reasonably, expect a fifth of the total mattress to be plant-based. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Instead, the 20 percent claim only applies to the polyol portion of the foam in the mattress, and, as we’ve seen, polyols and isocyanates are combined in almost equal amounts to make polyurethane foam. So, in a mattress with 20 percent soy-based foam, this actually translates to around 10 percent of the foam being bio-based. The other 90 percent is exactly the same as other polyurethane foam mattresses not claiming to be ‘green’.
How about the resource use question? Can soy-based biofoams reduce energy input for a mattress? Again, the math isn’t as good as manufacturers want us to think. Soy-based polyols may use around 23 percent less energy to produce than traditional petroleum-based polyols, but if a product only uses 20 percent soy polyols, the energy saving amounts to less than 5 percent overall. It’s better than nothing, but it’s hardly something on which to base your whole marketing campaign.
Then there’s the consideration over the environmental toll of soy grown for anything other than human consumption. Most soy crops are grown to feed livestock and most (more than 90 percent) are genetically modified crops that increase farmers’ reliance on pesticides and herbicides. To grow more soy for the purposes of fattening up cattle and producing foam for furniture means that companies destroy yet more of the Amazon rainforest. This has a huge negative impact on biodiversity and local communities, and itself contributes to climate change, but none of this is included in energy cost calculations.
It is a mistake, then, to assume that soy-based biofoams are better for the environment than regular polyurethane. Instead, I would be wary of any company trying to use such claims to greenwash their products and overall company image. Polyurethane foam mattresses, whether they contain a modicum of soy or not, continue to negatively affect human health and the environment, and soy foam is not even readily biodegradable, so will end up in landfill with the rest of those toxic foam mattresses.
Top Tip – Think of ‘biofoam’ as akin to someone trying to sell you ‘safe’ cigarettes made with 10 percent organic tobacco.
For a truly eco-friendly mattress, check out Plush Beds Botanical Bliss Organic Latex Mattress which is handcrafted with GOLS certified organic latex latex; GOTS certified organic cotton and GOTS certified organic wool. This mattress is also Oeko-Tex Standard 100 and GreenGuard Gold certified for purity. Why choose GOLS latex? Well, to avoid the problems of synthetic latex for a start.
Natural latex is an excellent eco-friendly and safe material from which to make mattresses. Unfortunately, many latex mattresses are made with synthetic latex, which is, essentially, a petroleum product chock-full of toxic chemicals that off-gas VOCs. As such, you’ll want to check the nature of any latex in any mattress you’re considering purchasing.
Synthetic latex is made using styrene and butadiene, two petroleum-based products and VOCs. It may also be called styrene-butadiene rubber (SBR). When SBR is mixed with 100 percent natural latex, some manufacturers disingenuously refer to the final product as natural latex. Natural latex may also be used to describe a combination of polyurethane and 100 percent natural latex.
Look, then, for products that specifically state that they are made with 100 percent natural latex, ideally with Global Organic Latex Standard (GOLS) certification.
Why would you want to avoid synthetic latex?
- Styrene is toxic to the lungs, liver, and brain and may increase the risk of leukemia and lymphoma (R)
- Butadiene is harmful to the nervous system, may be carcinogenic, and irritates eyes and skin (R)
- Synthetic latex, as a petroleum product, is unsustainable and resource hungry
- Synthetic additives (many of which are themselves toxic) are used to make this latex stable
- Synthetic latex is not biodegradable, but is also not durable or recyclable
- Synthetic latex is not resistant to mold, mildew, or dust mites (100 percent natural latex is somewhat resistant)
- Synthetic latex is not fire-resistant, so must be treated with flame retardants (typically toxic chemicals).
Because 100 percent natural latex requires the cultivation of Hevea-Brasiliensis trees and the processing of the rubber tree sap, it is more time-consuming and currently costs more than creating petroleum-based synthetic latex which can be made quickly in a laboratory. Expect, then, to pay more for latex that is 100 percent natural, but know that the true cost is much lower when you factor in your health, your family’s health, worker health, and the wider environment.
Mold, Dust, and Mildew
Mold, dust, and mildew are legitimate concerns when choosing a new mattress. Some materials are far more prone to these issues than others, and the health and cost consequences can be significant.
Dust mites feed off the hair and skin we and our family members shed every day. The mites then defecate, and their feces accumulate inside mattresses, couches, and other soft furnishings. Rather than being allergic to dust itself, approximately 10 percent of people in the U.S. are thought to allergic to dust mite feces and fragments of dust mites (R). As an adult human can shed enough skin every day to feed a million dust mites and dust mites poop a lot (R), it’s not surprising that an old mattress can be especially bad news if you have a dust mite allergy.
Thankfully, dust mite covers work well to protect your mattress from dust mites as well as from bed bugs and other critters. Some mattress materials also have their own in-built protection against dust mites, such as 100 percent natural latex, which is unattractive to dust mites. Wool is also naturally resistant to mold and mildew, has natural flame-retardant and antimicrobial qualities, and is resistant to dust mites, making it a great option for allergy sufferers.
Other types of bedding are like a teeming metropolis for dust mites, however, including down bedding, soft pillowtops, innerspring coil mattresses, and old foam mattresses, especially those that sleep hot. Mites gravitate towards warm, moist environments, meaning that the inside of a mattress is sheer bliss for dust mites.
To keep dust mite allergens to a minimum in your bedroom, take the following steps:
- Cover mattresses, pillows, and duvets in zippered, dust-proof covers made with material woven so tightly that dust mites and their feces can’t get through. Look for ‘allergen-impermeable’ covers such as this cotton mattress cover certified by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.
- Wash bedding once a week in hot water (130 F at least) to kill mites.
- Avoid wall-to-wall carpeting, curtains, down pillows and comforters, upholstered furniture, and other items in your bedroom that can harbor mites.
- Get a certified filter vacuum cleaner that can help keep mites and waste out of the air.
If you are prone to allergies, or are disinclined to use a mattress cover, it’s advisable to avoid innerspring mattresses as the inner cavities allow skin, hair, dust mites and their waste to accumulate. Condensation can also form on the metal coils in these mattresses, caused by body heat, and this can lead to mold and mildew developing, creating other potential allergens in your bedroom.
Mold and Mildew
The most common reason mattresses develop mold is due to the accumulation of moisture from sweat. A breathable, but tightly woven waterproof bed cover, such as the allergen cover recommended above, can help minimize how much sweat makes it through to your mattress. A washable cover or mattress topper can also help prevent mold from taking hold in a mattress.
There are other ways to minimize the risk of developing mold in a mattress: use a slatted bedframe and flip your mattress or air it out regularly. If a mattress sits for years on a solid board or box spring this means that moisture has no opportunity to evaporate. Also, never get into bed straight out of the shower or pool, be sure to dry your hair before bed, and keep damp towels and clothes off your mattress.
Almost all mattresses are susceptible to mold, although some are worse than others. Mold spores are especially fond of finding homes in open cell foam mattresses and older foam mattresses that have begun to disintegrate. This is why mattress manufacturers often douse foam mattresses in toxic antifungal chemicals. Kapok, 100 percent natural latex, and wool are better options for mattress materials as they have at least some mold-resistant properties.
Even if you take precautions after the mattress reaches you, a mattress that has sat around in a warehouse for a long period of time may already be infested with mold before it arrives at your door. Buying from a company that makes mattresses to order helps to minimize this risk.
Why does it matter? Well, children who sleep on mattresses that test positive for mold spores were shown in one study to be three times more likely to have asthma. In another paper, Mudarri and Fisk (2007) estimated that more than a fifth (21 percent) of cases of asthma in the U.S. could be attributable to dampness and mold in housing.
Mold allergy has also been associated with symptoms such as headaches, fatigue, nausea, eye irritation, runny nose, and insomnia, although evidence supporting this association is limited.
Mold has proven such a problem with some foam mattresses that it has led to class action lawsuits, such as the one filed in California in 2008 against Sleep Country. Interestingly, the company making the mattresses, Select Comfort, claimed that mold cannot be considered a defect because it is present in many products and the air. A company spokesperson is also alleged to have said that, “The only difference with a Sleep Number bed is you have the ability to open it up and take a look at it. … You cannot do that with an innerspring bed or other upholstered product. It’s not a product defect, because mold can occur in any upholstered product.”
Happily, many 100 percent natural latex, wool, and cotton mattresses come in a layered construction that means they can be examined fairly closely for mold. And, in contrast to foam mattresses, complaints are few and far between for these natural materials.
Some mattresses come with a waterproof and antibacterial cover. Typically, this is made with vinyl, a material made using toxic chemicals and additives associated with serious health concerns. As vinyl is exposed to heat, moisture, and air (as in normal mattress use), it breaks down and leaches out chemicals.
Some of the chemicals in vinyl include phthalates and heavy metals like antimony. These can have adverse effects on reproductive health and development (R), may trigger asthma and allergies (R), and can have effects on childhood development and behavior (R).
Vinyl production also releases dioxins, which I’ve written about extensively here as these chemicals can cause cancer, birth defects, and changes in neurological development.
All of these effects are very worrying, especially given that vinyl is most commonly found in crib and children’s mattresses. So, even if most of your chosen mattress is ‘natural’, the cover may be made of synthetic latex (a suspected carcinogen) or vinyl, urethane, 4-phenylcylclohexene, or polyvinyl chloride (PVC). As manufacturers are not legally required to list vinyl on labels, be sure to ask if it is present when buying any new mattress.
What Not to Watch Out For – Metal Coils
Metal coils have had a bad rap in recent years, seemingly thanks to an unsupported, unscientific, guest article published online in Scientific American. The writer of the article misinterpreted the results and conclusions of a single poor-quality study and claimed a connection between the metal coils in mattresses and an increased risk of cancer on one side of the body.
Put simply, the writer confused the terms ‘attenuated’ and ‘amplified’, which have opposite meanings. Despite being explained many times, this confusion has since been, well, amplified, by folks such as Joseph Mercola (who has been roundly criticized by the FDA and FTC for making false statements about health on numerous occasions).
Unfortunately, the persistent confusion about this purported connection between coil mattresses and adverse health effects is, itself, damaging to health. That’s because such claims cause unnecessary stress and anxiety in consumers looking, quite rightly, to make informed healthy choices over what they sleep on every night.
So, what’s all the furor about? In short, the writer of the original article, who isn’t a scientist, claimed that the coils in mattresses act as an antenna to boost electromagnetic radiation which, in turn, increases your risk of cancer.
There are several things wrong with this theory. First, for an antenna to boost an electromagnetic field to any significant degree, it needs to have current traveling through it. This is not the case with metal coils packed inside a mattress. And, even if it were the case that a network of coils in a mattress could function as an antenna, most coil mattresses these days feature individually wrapped coils, meaning that the coils are padded and insulated from each other and incapable of forming a single continuous metal coil network.
Second, while it’s not disputed that EMFs above certain levels can have an effect on biological systems, typical environmental exposure levels have not been linked to any detrimental effects on health. How do we know this? Because, more than two decades ago, in 1996, the World Health Organization established The International EMF Project to look into whether long-term low-level EMF exposure can ‘evoke biological responses and influence people’s well being’.
In the past 30 years, around 25,000 articles have been published looking at the biological effects and medical applications of non-ionizing radiation (the kind of EMF that doesn’t carry enough energy to break bonds between molecules). This means that there is now more knowledge about EMF than there is about most chemicals, including those we regularly recommend avoiding based on an abundance of precaution.
Indeed, national and international guidelines restrict exposure to higher level EMFs that could, potentially, cause health effects. This is evidence-based, science-based policy created after careful study and examination of substantial amounts of data. Sure, more research can always be done and there are some gaps in knowledge, but there is a sound basis for the conclusion that there are no adverse health effects from exposure to low level electromagnetic fields. Instead, symptoms often attributed to EMF exposure may be related to noise or other factors in the environment or by the anxiety mentioned above, which is propagated by those such as Mercola.
Indeed, national and international guidelines restrict exposure to higher level EMFs that could, potentially, cause health effects. This is evidence-based, science-based policy created after careful study and examination of substantial amounts of data.
So, for clarity:
- Ionizing radiation includes cosmic rays and x-rays, as well as gamma rays given off by radioactive materials. These are damaging as they can break bonds between molecules. Thus, it’s smart to minimize exposure to them.
- EMFs from electricity, microwaves, and radios used as intended have a long wavelength, low frequency, and are non-ionizing. They are unable to break chemical bonds and pose no risk to health unless used improperly (such as putting your fingers in a socket or a metal can in the microwave!).
In conclusion, as long as you don’t hook the metal coils in your mattress up to a power supply, those coils are extremely unlikely to pose any risk to your health. In contrast, worrying about this persistent myth, to the extent that you buy a foam mattress to avoid coils, could have real and significant adverse effects on your health and happiness.
Eco-Friendly Mattress Materials
Now we’ve gotten all the negative stuff out of the way, let’s revel in how many good options there are available for natural, eco-friendly mattresses. These mattresses are made with materials that don’t off-gas, have a lower carbon footprint (typically) than synthetic mattresses, and are more easily recycled, or able to break down naturally. Some eco-friendly mattress materials to look out for include:
- Organic wool
- Organic cotton
- 100 percent natural latex
Regardless of how firm or soft you like your mattress, choosing a model made with natural materials is better for breathability, comfort, durability, and all-round health. A quality mattress can easily last for several decades without needing to be replaced, if well cared for. And, if more people choose an eco-friendly mattress, this could help to keep millions of tons of material out of landfill and vastly reduce consumption of petroleum products and related greenhouse gas emissions.
A Quick Word on Kapok in Mattresses
Kapok remains rather underused in mattresses, but is present in some mattresses as a soft, comfortable pillowtop layer. It is lightweight, soft, and sustainable and makes a good alternative to down, which is known to harbor dust mites and has some ethical considerations besides. Kapok is an excellent material for pillowtops as it can help with temperature regulation (just like wool).
We’re seeing more companies using kapok as an eco-friendly pillow fill, so it seems likely they’ll also catch on to using it in mattresses. Kapok is not, however, proven to be fire resistant, unlike wool, which means it would likely be paired with wool or have to be treated with chemicals to make it pass regulations.
Pros and Cons of Wool Mattresses
Wool naturally wicks moisture away from your skin and is flame-resistant and antimicrobial. A wool pillowtop is excellent, then, for maintaining a constant temperature without off-gassing nasty chemicals. A breathable, organic wool covered mattress can help you stay cool on summer nights while keeping you warm and cozy in winter. Wool is also naturally resistant to mold and mildew and is resistant to dust mites, making it a great option for allergy sufferers.
Wool is a little firmer than kapok and some other materials, so it’s best suited to those looking for a slightly firmer mattress. It can also feel quite flat and dense and doesn’t conform to your body as other mattress toppers might. Fortunately, most mattresses using a wool cover have a good layer of more ‘bouncy’ latex underneath, providing a good combination of materials for comfort, coziness, breathability, and safety.
As noted, the downsides of wool include its relative lack of ‘bounce’ compared to latex (or foam). If a mattress is made mostly of wool, this would require a lot of material, which makes for a heavy product and greater resource use. Although not a synthetic product, wool production does have an impact on the environment and wool that isn’t organic may be produced with chemical pesticide and fertilizer inputs and other chemicals such as bleach.
Wool is also not vegan-friendly, although some sources of wool are considerably better in terms of animal welfare. In the US, wool marked with the PureGrow™ label comes from Californian farms that practice sustainable sheep ranching. EcoWool is similar, and both are arguably preferable to New Zealand wool in terms of animal welfare. Wool certified USDA Organic is also a decent option as is any wool product with GOTS certification. To really up your eco game, look for organic wool that carries the European kfB certificate awarded to products made with wool sourced with minimal animal exploitation.
Bear in mind that if you want an eco-friendly mattress free from chemical flame retardants, chances are that this will mean a mattress encased in a thin layer of wool. To get a mattress thicker than 5” without the wool barrier requires a doctor’s note stating that you have an allergy to wool. If a mattress company sells you a mattress thicker than 5” without wool, and claims their mattress is free from chemical flame retardants, they are contravening federal fire safety regulations and are either misleading you about what’s actually in the mattress or are deliberately or unwittingly flouting the law and putting your safety at risk.
Pros and Cons of Organic Cotton Mattresses
Conventionally grown cotton is resource-hungry and involves the use of pesticides and other chemicals that damage the environment and are bad for human health. Organic cotton is grown and processed without pesticides, formaldehyde, or other harmful chemicals and is very soft, making it an excellent option for the top layer of mattresses.
Many eco-friendly mattresses have organic cotton covers and include cotton-wrapped coils and cotton batting. Mattresses that contain a lot of cotton tend to be heavier and feel firmer than foam mattresses. They can flatten over time, however, so cotton is usually combined with other materials, such as 100 percent natural latex, to help maintain shape.
Pros and Cons of 100 Percent Natural Latex
Latex (natural rubber) is a renewable and recyclable resource increasingly used to make eco-friendly mattresses. Rubber trees can provide rubber serum for up to 30 years and the resulting latex is firm, bouncy, and durable. Although it isn’t as biodegradable as wool or cotton, natural latex can be recycled for use as underfloor insulation or other fill. And, eventually, it will biodegrade without releasing toxins into the environment, unlike polyurethane foam.
Latex mattresses typically use molded latex foam, which is chemical-free and slightly firmer than most polyurethane foam mattresses. Latex is particularly good if you’re a warm sleeper, as the material is porous and disperses heat. Latex is naturally antimicrobial, resists mildew, and doesn’t harbor dust mites, so it’s good for people with asthma or non-latex allergies. It is also easy to care for as you can wipe down latex with warm soapy water, dab dry with a towel and let it air dry.
Latex mattresses are a little more expensive than some other mattresses made with natural materials, with the cost usually dependent on certifications. Relevant certifications include GOLS – the Global Organic Latex Standard – and FairRubber, which indicate that the product is made using certified organic rubber sourced in a sustainable way by workers who are well treated and properly paid.
Latex mattresses can have a rubbery smell at first, so it’s best to air them out for a few days before sleeping on them. This is not a sign that the mattress is off-gassing toxic chemicals, it is simply the natural smell of rubber and will dissipate within a few days.
When looking at mattresses, it’s important to determine if the latex is Dunlop or Talalay (I’m assuming you’ve already checked that it is 100 percent natural latex and not a ‘natural’ latex blend).
Talalay is so-called because of Joseph Talalay, who invented the Talalay production process. The latex mixture is filled with air, injected in a mold and expanded through a vacuum before being flash frozen at -30°C (-(22°F). This process enables the round, open cells to retain their shape and creates a smoother, more consistent rubber than Dunlop, which tends to be denser at the bottom than the top. Talalay latex is baked or “vulcanized” at 115°C (235°F) before being washed, dried and tested for quality control.
Dunlop tends to be firmer feeling than Talalay which provides softer support and pressure relief. Savvy Rest offer an amazing mattress, the Serenity, made with organic Dunlop latex, Cradle to Cradle Gold Certified Talalay latex, GOTS certified wool and GOTS certified cotton. With this mattress, you can customize each layer and side (picking between different densities of both types of latex in each of three layers), so you and your partner can get the support you need for good sleep.
Pros and Cons of Hemp Mattresses
Hemp is a wonderfully sustainable, renewable resource with myriad applications across multiple industries. Hemp mattresses are few and far between, however, but may be a good option if you live in a hot and humid climate (or are concerned that climate change will make that the case soon).
Hemp is one of the most breathable materials available. It helps you stay cool even in hot and humid temperatures and helps wick moisture away from your skin. This means it’s good for keeping your mattress feeling fresh, especially as hemp is naturally anti-microbial and anti-bacterial. Hemp is resistant to mold and mildew and doesn’t hold onto odors.
As mentioned, hemp mattresses are hard to track down and, when you do, they tend to be on the more expensive side. Hemp is also not the softest material. So, if you’re prone to back pain, a hemp mattress may be the best or worst mattress for you to sleep on. Only you can tell! Your best bet is to get in touch with the Canadian company Natural Mattress. They make a variety of mattresses using hemp, latex, and wool. I particularly like the Flippable Marshall Mattress which is made with two layers of GOTS latex sandwiching a layer of wool, hemp, and coils to minimize motion transfer but allow the mattress to be rotated and flipped to extend its life.
Hemp is also a very environmentally friendly fiber as the crop is naturally resistant to pests and grows so thick that it prevents the growth of weeds around the plants. This means that you don’t typically need to use pesticides or herbicides when growing hemp, nor do you need fertilizers as hemp actually enriches the quality of soil. Because hemp roots grow deep, they are good at using groundwater and help reduce soil erosion.
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
Landfills are teeming with toxic mattresses made from memory foam, synthetic latex, and even more natural materials treated with undesirable chemicals that leach into the soil and water supply. Many of these mattresses still had life left in them and could have been donated to a local shelter or passed down through a community network. Of course, if the mattress is truly toxic, it’s best not to subject anyone else to sleeping on it. In such cases, recycling programs can take mattresses and strip away reusable components, such as metal coils and some fabrics, batting, and metal zippers.
Even if your mattress is said to be ‘biodegradable’, this may be meaningless as the term is not regulated in the U.S., which means that the mattress may simply break down (eventually) into other harmful chemicals when exposed to air, light, moisture, and heat. Proper disposal is important for all mattresses, therefore, whether natural or not.
Some mattress companies have a removal program where they take away your old mattress upon delivering your new mattress. Check what happens to the old mattress in such cases. Does the company have a dedicated recycling and safe disposal protocol, or will it just end up in local landfill?
If you need to dispose of a mattress yourself, contact your local recycling depot or waste management department for advice. They should be able to tell you where best to take your old mattress, or if you can request pick-up for safe disposal.
As always, organic latex, cotton, wool, hemp, kapok, and other natural plant-based materials are the best options for truly biodegradable, eco-friendly mattresses.
Green Certifications for Mattresses
As with almost every ecoHome category, ‘green’ mattress certification are a slippery thing. Not all are created equal, with some offering significant assurance that the finished product is free from toxic chemicals, while others offer meaningless platitudes that could apply to something as tiny as the cotton used on a label.
When it comes to mattresses, however, you may need to be even more careful than usual as this is an expensive product you’ll probably (hopefully!) only buy once a decade or so, meaning that if you get stuck with a dud, you’re stuck with it for a while.
In addition, mattress companies may boast certain certifications but fail to mention that these certificates are awarded only to the manufacturer of a specific mattress component, not to the company you’re buying from and not to the end product as a whole. This can help to keep costs down for the end product by avoiding redundant doubling up on certifications if those certified materials are not subjected to any chemical processes or treatments. However, it’s also possible that a company proudly displays a GOTS logo that applies to cotton or wool at the point it leaves the factory, but then treats that material with toxic chemicals such as flame retardants. Such certificates may also be out of date.
Other sneaky tactics to look out for include where a company boasts that their mattresses contain Oeko-Tex 100 certified cotton, for example, but can’t claim that all of the cotton they use in their mattresses is certified as such. It may be a matter of random chance as to whether your particular mattress is made with certified cotton in such as case.
As always, then, it’s best to contact any company you’re hoping to buy a mattress from and check their certifications. If they evade the questions, it’s not normally a good sign. If they’re responsive and understand the ins and outs of certifications and the materials they use, that’s reassuring. Such was the case when I contacted Swiss Dream Beds.
The owner of Swiss Dream Beds, Hendrik, got back to me very quickly to explain why their certifications are supplier based; because they don’t subject certified materials to any additional treatments and want to make their products affordable. He also explained that they use Eco Institut instead of GOTS to certify their wool because it’s a much more robust standard, saying, “the fact that it is self-cleaning wool means that the wool must be 100% organic (in the real sense of the word) wool and can never have been treated with anything but cold water washes in order to be still self-cleaning. On the other hand, for GOTS it only needs to be 95% organic [and] certain treatments are allowed. You will also see that with the Eco-Institute the testing guidelines are much more stringent (baby’s touch, respiration, etc.).”
As a counter example, I was considering including Zenhaven in the ecoHome directory, but upon talking to two company representatives (and going around in some circles), I found out that the company does not hold the GOTS certification claimed for their wool or cotton, the supplier does. And, again, the Oeko-Tex 100 standard only applies to the latex in the mattress, not to the mattress as a whole. While this doesn’t mean that anything nefarious necessarily happens to the materials as they’re put together to form the mattress, the possibility is there and they didn’t offer any reassurance to the contrary, which isn’t great.
One of the few companies with consistently good certification practices is OMI (Organic Mattress Inc.). They themselves hold robust certifications right across the board and they proudly display these, so you don’t even need to dig around or spend time asking questions. Other good companies include Soaring Heart and Naturepedic. The mattresses sold by these companies are high quality and close in price point to those sold by other companies with no legitimate third-party certifications.
All this said, which certifications should you ask about and look out for to help you figure out the right eco-friendly product for a good night’s rest? The best certifications typically assess the materials used in the end product, or the product as a whole, providing reassurance of quality and environmental and ethical standards right to the point of sale.
Some certifications go beyond the material construct of the final product, covering growing conditions for raw materials, manufacturing processes, worker conditions, non-human animal welfare, and social and environmental impact overall.
One of the most important logos to look out for when buying a mattress is Eco-Institut.
The Eco Institute, located in Cologne, Germany, is an independent organization that has more than 25 years of experience testing products for the presence of pollutants and emissions, even in trace amounts. If a product is Eco-INSTITUT certified, you can be assured that it does not contain even trace amounts of hazardous chemicals and will not off-gas undesirable chemicals and odors into your home. Some of the chemicals the Eco-Institute certification rules out include volatile organic compounds (VOCs), phthalates, formaldehyde, pesticides, heavy metals, and persistent organic pollutants.
Eco-Institut is a more robust and stringent certification than GOTS and many others, so if a product carries this, it’s a good sign.
Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)
GOTS requires that at least 95 percent of the materials in a mattress be certified organic, and it prohibits outright the use of certain substances even for the other 5 percent, such as chemical flame retardants and polyurethane.
Global Organic Latex Standard (GOLS)
GOLS ensures that a mattress made with latex is made of 95 percent organic latex, with restrictions on the other 5 percent of the mattress’s components. Natural-latex mattresses may have both the GOTS and GOLS labels.
There is still no USDA organic standard for manufactured mattress cores but USDA/NOP certification does provide a third-party raw-material assurance for latex sap. This is awarded under the National Organics Program (NOP).
American-Grown NOP-Certified Organic Cotton and Oregon Tilth (OTCO)
Certified organic cotton may be certified by GOTS, Oregon Tilth (as OTCO), or by another member of the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) such as the Texas Department of Agriculture. This certification offers assurance that cotton production compies with organic growing and handling standards.
OCS100 Organic Content Standard
The Organic Exchange Certification Program ensures proper tracking of organic material from its source to the finished product. A legitimate, up to date certificate demonstrates that the organic fiber in a product has been independently verified.
MADE SAFE certification means a product has been made with ingredients not known or suspected to cause human health harm. Materials are scrutinized by scientists to ensure they do not contain harmful ingredients or release vapors, gases, or by-products that could impact human health.
While you’re hopefully not eating your mattress, it is still a good idea to check that it is made with non-GMO materials as GMO agriculture can have significant negative effects on farmers’ livelihoods, the use of pesticides, and on biodiversity. Organic cotton and wool is necessarily non-GMO, but if a product contains soy-based foam, for example, it’s worth asking about this certification as most soy in the U.S. is genetically modified. Product with this certificate are made without genetically engineered ingredients and are verified non-GMO through independent review.
Greenguard and Greenguard Gold
Greenguard is one of the most common green certifications and requires testing of a finished mattress for specific emission limits of formaldehyde and other volatile organic compounds. The related Greenguard Gold has more stringent emission limits for VOCs. Both were developed by UL Environment and Greenguard worked with ANSI to become an official standard-setting organization. Neither certification offers reassurance that a product is free from toxins, however, nor do they include a social or animal ethics component.
As an example of things done right, OMI’s mattresses are Greenguard Gold certified and qualify under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s LEED indoor-air-quality program. They offer a printout of their mattress emissions on the UL/Greenguard website here.
Green America certifies businesses that actively use their business as a tool for positive social change. To be certified with Green America a business must also:
- Operate a “values-driven” enterprise according to principles of social justice AND environmental sustainability;
- Demonstrate environmentally responsible practices in the way they source, manufacture, and market their products and run their operations and facilities;
- Be socially equitable and committed to extraordinary practices that benefit workers, customers, communities, and the environment; and
- Be accountable for their work by continually improving and tracking their progress and operating with transparency in every facet of their business.
Green America has been evaluating and certifying small businesses since 1982 and has worked with companies such as Plush Beds, who are listed in the ecoHome directory for mattresses.
There is also a Green America Gold certification that is reserved for companies who are industry leaders for responsible, sustainable business practices.
Oeko-Tex Standard 100
Oeko-Tex Standard 100 lays out limits for the emission of harmful chemicals such as formaldehyde and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs). It also outright bans the use of certain chemical flame retardants, colorants, and allergenic dyes, but it doesn’t offer any guidance on whether materials are organic or sustainably sourced and it’s not always clear if an entire product or just a single component is certified.
The certification process for the OEKO TEX Certification is fairly robust and includes testing for a variety of hazardous chemicals, pesticides, phthalates, lead, arsenic, and other heavy metals. If a mattress carries this certification, it has been tested and found to contain no:
- Chlorinated phenols
- Carcinogenic dyes
- AZO dyes
- Allergy inducing dyes
The OEKO TEX Standard 100 Certification is voluntary and must be updated each year in order to remain active. Many companies are slow to update certificates on their websites, so if you see a certificate that’s out of date, don’t dismiss the company out of hand. Instead, ask if an updated certificate is available.
Cradle to Cradle Certification
Cradle to Cradle is one of the best eco certification programs around but is yet to gain traction in the pillow and bedding industry. Cradle to Cradle is both independent and fairly robust, offering various levels of certification for products. The Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute is a non-profit organization, making this a third-party certification program.
Cradle to Cradle demonstrate that good green credentials are not the only considerations when buying bedding. Their ‘social fairness’ component means that you can rest assured that you’re sleeping soundly on bedding that wasn’t made using child labor or other exploitative working practices, for instance.
The Cradle to Cradle Certified™ Product Standard is awarded to products that are sustainable and eco-friendly and created by manufacturers who demonstrate continual improvement in environmentally friendly industry practices. For example, products are assessed in terms of the amount of water and sustainable energy involved in their manufacture, rather than just the presence of VOCs in the final product.
Cradle to Cradle have developed a Material Assessment Rating System called ABC-X:
- A – The material is ideal from a Cradle to Cradle perspective for the product in question.
- B – The material supports largely Cradle to Cradle objectives for the product.
- C – Moderately problematic properties of the material. The material is still acceptable for use.
- X – Highly problematic properties of the material. Should be phased out.
Cradle to Cradle certification levels comprise:
At the Gold and Platinum levels, products are certified as free from X materials. Platinum level also requires that the product has a Material Reutilization Score of 100, and that the product is actively being recovered and cycled in a technical or biological metabolism. In addition, Platinum certification requires that:
Renewable Energy and Carbon Management
- For the final manufacturing stage of the product, >100% of purchased electricity is renewably sourced or offset with renewable energy projects, and >100% of direct on-site emissions are offset.
- The embodied energy associated with the product from Cradle to Gate is characterized and quantified, and a strategy to optimize is developed. At re-application, progress on the optimization plan is demonstrated.
- ≥ 5% of the embodied energy associated with the product from Cradle to Gate is covered by offsets or otherwise addressed (e.g., through projects with suppliers, product re-design, savings during the use phase, etc.).
- All water leaving the manufacturing facility meets drinking water quality standards.
- A facility-level audit is completed by a third party against an internationally recognized social responsibility program (e.g., SA8000 standard or B-Corp).
- All Silver-Level requirements are complete.
So far, just two companies claim c2c Gold certification for mattresses, Vita Talalay and Roewa, a German company that uses Vita Talalay latex. Vita Talalay began making latex as far back as 1932 in Maastricht and now makes latex pillows, mattress toppers, and mattresses. The company’s products carry a wealth of eco certifications, including c2c, Rainforest Alliance, Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), essent (Green Energy), and eco Institut, and publicly state that they are, “committed to Cradle to Cradle values. Inspired by nature’s continuous cycle, this concept requires companies to use materials and design products in such a way that they will be positive to the environment and human health.”
The company Swiss Dream Beds also uses Vita Talalay latex in their mattresses, in addition to carrying a whole host of other eco-certifications.
Formaldehyde Free Verified
Some mattress products have been validated by the Underwriters Laboratories (UL) Environment Certification Program to meet the UL formaldehyde-free standard. UL develops a variety of standards to measure and validate performance, environmental health and sustainability. Naturepedic is one of the few companies to attain this certification.
kbA and kbT
Products made and/or sold in Europe may carry kbA and/or kbT certifications. The former certifies that the product is made with organic cotton and the second translates roughly to ‘controlled organic livestock’, meaning that materials are sourced from suppliers using organic farming methods ‘optimally adapted to the climatic and living conditions of the region’ and using ‘species-appropriate animal husbandry in harmony with nature’ (R). The kbT certification means that no genetically modified foods or fattening aids are allowed in the rearing of animals, no forced reproduction of the animals is allowed, and practices such as tail docking or mulesing are prohibited. kbT virgin wool also has to be free from pesticides and insecticides, a practice that applies both to the animals and to the soil on which the animals graze.
Check out the ecoHome directory for conscientious options for eco-friendly mattresses.
Companies to Consider for Eco-Friendly Mattresses
As I keep mentioning, it’s shocking how many foam products make it onto lists like ‘top ten eco-friendly mattresses’. At best, it seems that folks haven’t done their research. At worst, it seems that affiliate commissions dictate what ends up on these lists. Not here.
Sure, if you click on and buy some of the products in the ecoHome directory, we may earn a commission, but that’s not my motivation for listing the product and never will be. In fact, many of the products in the ecoHome directory are only available from small suppliers who don’t have affiliate programs.
So, how do I choose what’s listed? First and foremost, the products included in the ecoHome directory are there because they are made with safe, natural (predominantly certified organic) materials, without toxic chemicals. Second, the products are offered by companies with a record of transparency and a commitment to environmental, labor, and social ethics. I take a wider view of eco-friendliness to encompass more than just the end product. I heavily favor brands that:
- Employ eco-friendly construction practices that are safe for workers and the local community
- Are made in the U.S. or Canada using local materials (thereby minimizing transportation for most of our readers)
- Use recycled and recyclable packaging and minimize packaging where possible
- Actively find ways to minimize their carbon footprint
- Give back to their communities through legitimate charitable initiatives
- Are responsive to their customers
- Are transparent about what’s actually in their products
- Have third-party certifications that mean something
- Offer a decent warranty, not just 5 or 10 years.
Maybe this seems like a tall order, but some brands manage it, so why don’t they all?
A huge number of companies, small and large, have popped up in recent years offering mattresses that sound eco-friendly, at least at first glance. Upon closer inspection, a lot of the hype from these companies is revealed as simple greenwashing.
As far as possible, the companies and products included in the eco directory are there because they not only produce safe products from natural materials, but also show a commitment to environmentally friendly manufacturing practices and charitable enterprise.
Who are these companies? The top contenders are:
- OMI – Organic Mattress inc. (also known as LifeKind)
- Soaring Heart
- Swiss Dream Beds
- Savvy Rest
- My Green Mattress
I have also included Eco Terra, but be sure to read the caveats in the review.
Mountain Air Organic Beds also offer the Heavenly Harmony mattress, which is an excellent quality eco-friendly mattress made with organic Dunlop latex, GOTS cotton, and ethically sourced eco-friendly wool. Their prices are a little higher than most, however, ranging from $2,899 for a Twin to $5,299 for a Cali King.
If you want a foam mattress, John covers the best options in his post, reviewing a range of companies who are arguably the best at minimizing the inherent environmental impact and toxicity of these products. Haven is another option that he doesn’t include there but that’s also worth looking into, particularly if you’re in Canada.
As very few companies make hemp mattresses, I’m holding off on a full round-up until the market is a bit richer. The best option at the moment appears to be the Kon-Tiki Coir Mattress from Natural Mattress. This features hemp, coconut, and wool around a natural latex core and is ideal for those wanting a firmer mattress without coils. Natural Mattress offer several eco-friendly mattress options and are definitely worth checking out, especially if you’re in Canada and if you want to talk shop with two guys who really know their mattresses.
Another option to consider is this hemp mattress from EcoChoices, although very little information is offered in terms of construction and materials. The Reveresse Hemp Mattress from Vivetique may be a better option and is available through All Organic Home.