What to Avoid When Buying a Non-toxic Mattress

non-toxic matress

I often tell my private consulting clients that their mattress should be the first thing they replace if they want a non-toxic home. I feel so strongly about this because of the fact that a) we spend such a large portion of our lives in our beds, and b) most mattresses contain a range of chemical components, linked with everything from nervous system disorders to cancer.

If you’re in the market for a new mattress–whether it’s for a crib or a California king–here is what I suggest you avoid:

  • Conventional memory foam. Made of polyurethane, most foam mattresses emit VOCs, which are linked to everything from skin irritation to respiratory problems. Beware of “soy foams” or “eco foams,” as these often contain very small amounts of plant-based materials and are still primarily made of petroleum products. A better bet is a mattress made of 100% natural latex, cotton, or wool. (Note that synthetic latex is usually made from styrene, a human carcinogen, so be sure to confirm that the latex in your bed it is natural.)
  • Bogus certifications. First- and second-party certifications are made by either the mattress manufacturer itself or trade associations (such as CertiPUR, from the Alliance for Flexible Polyurethane Foam). You’ll see lots of these types of certifications when shopping for a non-toxic mattress, and it’s greenwashing at its worst. What you want to look for is a third-party certification, which are generated by nonprofit organizations with no financial conflict of interest. Examples of reputable third-party certifications for mattresses include GreenGuard, Oeko-Tex, and Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS).
  • Chemical fire retardants. There is good news on this front: New flammability standards can be met without the use of some of worst chemical fire retardants (which are linked to hormone disruptionhyperactivity, and  “lowered IQ”. Unfortunately, the new law does not ban the use of the chemicals, and it’s hard to know for sure which companies are still using treated foam. Look for the TB117-2013 label on new mattresses, which suggests that the item meets the standards without chemical flame retardants. Better yet, ask the manufacturer what they use, and beware of the “it’s proprietary” answer.

  • Waterproof surfaces. Most crib mattresses are advertised as being waterproof, and you should avoid any that contain a PVC/vinyl coating, as it is a probable carcinogen. Other plastics used to render a mattress waterproof are not as toxic as vinyl, but even better is a cotton mattress protector pad.
  • Innerspring coils. Most mattresses contain spring coils in both the box spring and within a mattress itself. While steel coils are non-toxic, evidence suggests that they serve as antenna that concentrate electromagnetic radiation. Although more research is needed in this area, choosing a mattress without innersprings makes sense–unless you live off the grid and away from electricity and WiFi!

For a more comprehensive discussion of non-toxic mattresses, including the brands I recommend, you can check out my recently updated Safe Mattress Guide.