You’ve heard it said that a third or more of your life is spent sleeping - 8 out of every 24 hours. So it’s only natural you should be concerned about the materials your head and body rest on, night after night.
Off-gassing, indoor pollution, and other related health issues are prominent topics these days for many good reasons.
Starting in the mid-to-late ’60s, most mattresses were made of petroleum based polyurethane foam, and sometimes users ended up with skin issues or respiratory problems as a result.
While you may just want a satisfying night’s sleep, you do need to protect the health of yourself and your family. Conventional mattress materials, typically synthetics, may be neutral at best and potentially toxic at worst.
Terms like “green,” “natural,” “organic” and “eco-friendly” get tossed around constantly, but unfortunately these buzz words don’t mean exactly the same thing to everyone.
It’s important to know exactly what’s being referred to when you’re looking to acquire a new mattress.
- WHY WE LIKE IT
- PROS & CONS
A certified organic mattress that is non-toxic and handmade mattress.
- GOLS Certified
- Isolates movement of partner
- Some noise potential
- Heavy to move
Gel Memory Foam
- WHY WE LIKE IT
- PROS & CONS
A memory foam mattress at an exceptional value made with high quality materials.
- Sleeps cool
- CertiPUR-US certified foam
- Great edge support
- Mattress is heavy
- May be too firm
- WHY WE LIKE IT
- PROS & CONS
Affordable luxury mattresses with that classic innerspring feel.
- Chiropractor approved
- Free delivery and setup
- Extra edge support
- Shorter trial period
- Heavy to move or rotate
Toxicology and risk experts at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) explain that
“Possible toxic substances can be found in building materials, cookware, cleaning products, shower curtains, furniture, carpet, and other common items.”
But they also point out that “Not all chemicals are harmful. In fact, most substances in our environment are likely safe.”
But which substances are the safe ones? Don’t be discouraged. You don’t need to be an expert. It can sound confusing, but there are ways to determine just exactly what you’re purchasing.
Below, we’ll take a close look at the pluses and minuses of materials used in the core and the layers of mattresses. Then you can get familiar with the certifications that will bring you peace of mind when selecting your next bed. But first...
The dilemma of fire prevention
At one time there were many deaths every year related to fires in bed, primarily due to the practice some people had of smoking cigarettes before bed.
The Department of Commerce, and later the Consumer Product Safety Commission CPSC passed flammability standards for mattresses beginning in the 1970’s.
But a secondary problem developed alongside these standards that were supposed to protect people. Flame retardants themselves aren’t safe!
Studies have found that almost all commonly used flame retardants should be deemed to be harmful.
These chemicals don’t break down easily and they can end up in the air, soil, and water. They can also bio-accumulate (build up) in people and animals.
Children especially may be the most vulnerable to the effects. Thankfully, many flame retardants have been removed from the market or they are no longer being produced.
But mattresses for sale in the U.S. are still required to be both flame resistant and fire resistant.
So what is the solution? One innovative way that mattresses can be made flame resistant without chemical fire retardants is through the use of “fire socks.”
A fire sock is simply a barrier that suppresses the oxygen necessary for a fire to grow. It’s used in many polyurethane foam mattresses.
This is the type of flame barrier often included in many green mattresses. It’s a much healthier choice than flame retardants made of harmful chemicals.
Other mattresses may have a barrier of a natural material like wool instead. Since wool has a high lanolin and moisture content, it’s naturally resistant to burning and so it’s able to meet the flammability standard.
Organic wool batting (not just the inclusion of some wool fibers) is a flame barrier that smolders and burns slowly, thus preventing rapid spread.
Materials used to create mattresses
This type of foam, also called polyfoam, is used in many mattresses as well as upholstered furniture and related bedding products. It’s less expensive than many other mattress materials. When these foams were first developed, they were all petroleum based.
Fully reacted polyurethane is inert - which means it’s not going to undergo further chemical reactions. It’s not so much the polyurethane itself that was often unhealthy, but whether anything else that’s harmful had been added to it - those aforementioned flame retardants in particular.
Polyurethane foam by itself can be flammable when exposed to open flame, so either flame retardants or nonflammable layers to prevent fire hazards are typically added to make it safer for the sleep environment.
On the positive side, since interest in “green” and sustainable materials continues to increase, polyurethane foams have been developed that use vegetable oils instead of petroleum based oils.
These foams are not considered 100% natural materials because of the process they undergo, but when oils like soybean, cottonseed, neem seed, and castor oil are utilized, it’s a definite improvement over the earlier petroleum products.
Switching from petrobased to biobased ingredients leads to a lower environmental footprint that’s better for everyone.
If you choose a mattress containing polyurethane foam, at the very least you should look for the CertiPUR-US certification. CertiPUR-US applies only to the polyurethane foam in a mattress, not the other materials that may be present.
You can read more about CertiPUR and other certifications later in this article.
Latex is a milky fluid that’s found naturally in many plants. The fluid is secreted when the plant is cut, and it thickens when exposed to the air. The latex of the rubber tree, for example, is the chief source of natural rubber.
Two manufacturing processes known as Talalay and Dunlop are used in the creation of natural latex products. Both processes produce mattress materials that meet certifications, and both have little off-gassing (the release of gases, chemicals, and VOCs (volatile organic compounds) into the air.)
However, Talalay latex has other non-natural chemicals added, so that means Dunlop latex is the greener choice.
Latex mattresses are naturally cool, so they don’t produce the challenge of overheating that is often associated with other mattress materials like memory foam. Natural latex mattresses are generally quite a bit pricier than polyurethane mattresses.
Synthetic latex is similar to natural latex in its overall physical properties. However, the petrochemicals produced when imitating the properties of natural latex can lead to strong off-gassing. Synthetic latex tears more easily than natural latex, and it’s a bit less durable also.
Some manufacturers add only a minimal amount of natural latex yet will still brand their product as “made with 100% natural latex” or “contains natural latex.” While those are true statements, the way it’s worded can be misleading.
A small percentage of people have latex allergies. Depending on the severity of their allergy, these folks may still be able to use a latex mattress, as long as the latex portion is covered up by other layers of materials.
If that’s you, please consult your doctor before purchasing a latex mattress.
Wool was mentioned earlier due to its natural flame resistance. Wool is also durable and sustainable, and it’s completely biodegradable so it won’t add to landfill problems.
Although most of the time we think of wool as a means of adding warmth, the wool fiber self-regulates temperature, and actually has the ability to keep you cool in the summer and warm in the winter.
Since it wicks away moisture, the wool fiber allows moisture to pass through, so it reduces the probability of mold and mildew in a mattress.
Wool is hypoallergenic and also dust mite resistant. Organic wool can be pretty pricey, whether it’s being used as a layer in the mattress, or as a mattress topper.
Those suffering from chronic pain such as arthritis, fibromyalgia, and bed-sores may find that bedding made of wool can be more comfortable than other materials.
Organic cotton is another fiber that’s sustainable, breathable, and won’t irritate the skin like synthetics can. Organic cotton doesn’t contain toxic chemicals or pesticides.
It’s a relatively low-cost material that can be used to create soft comfortable surfaces.
Sometimes cotton and wool are combined in an organic mattress. One such mattress has a 100% organic cotton core (and no springs) with a single layer of pure wool - it’s described as firm and solid, and it’s definitely “green.”
TENCEL™ branded fibers are produced by “environmentally responsible processes from the sustainably sourced natural raw material wood.”
Tencel is very soft, comfortable and flexible, and can be used alone or with other fibers. It can be used as a breathable soft top layer.
Innersprings are steel coils used in the support (core) portion of the mattress. They can be either an integrated system or individually wrapped coils.
Coils are not likely to be a health hazard. Their main drawback is on the sustainability front, at the end of the mattress’s lifespan, when one wants to dispose of it responsibly.
Mattresses are bulky and hard to recycle no matter which kind is purchased, but innersprings present specific issues. They are hard to compress and can jam up compression equipment.
Steel coils could be melted down for re-use if the mattress is dismantled. Both polyfoam and latex can be chipped up for carpet insulation, so those may be easier to recycle.
A combination or hybrid mattress is built with two or more types of support constructions.
One common type of hybrid includes a set of multiple top foam layers over an innerspring or individually wrapped pocket coils, or foam layers encasing both innerspring system and individual coils.
Some feel the hybrid mattress is the best of both worlds - the pressure relieving advantage of memory foam but with the classic feel of support from an innerspring mattress.
You’ll soon discover there are many configurations of layers in any single mattress, each brand claiming to be the best choice.
Hemp, coconut coir, and bamboo are three other natural but less common materials that can be found in some mattresses.
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Certifications for mattresses focus on two specific areas - (1) the effects of a mattress on human health and (2) the impact of mattress materials on the environment.Consumer Reports tells us that only two mattress label certifications meet the most stringent qualifications: the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and, for mattresses that contain latex, the Global Organic Latex Standard (GOLS)
GOTS The Global Organic Textile Standard is the worldwide leading textile processing standard for organic fibers. Independent certification backs up the entire succession of textile production.
Their standards also include ecological and social principles.
GOTS certified organic cotton assures buyers that no harmful chemicals or pesticides have been used. The standard requires that textile products contain a minimum of 70% organic fibers to become certified.
A textile product carrying the GOTS label grade 'organic' must contain a minimum of 95% certified organic fibres whereas a product with the label grade 'made with organic' must contain a minimum of 70% certified organic fibres.
Dyes and other chemicals used have to be approved to satisfy their strict toxicological and environmental guidelines.
GOLS ensures that a mattress with latex is made of at least 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.
A number of other certifications below have value and it’s likely you will come across them as you sift through websites and labelling for information on mattresses.
But be aware that these additional certifications don’t specifically address the sourcing of raw materials, just the finished product.
For example, the Department of Agriculture allows the use of the term “organic” in descriptions about mattresses even if only a portion of the components is certified organic.
You might see the phrase “made with organic cotton” on a label. It may not be primarily made of organic materials the way an item must be in order to earn the GOTS certification.
It’s possible other components are not only not organic but could have been processed using potentially harmful chemicals.
Even though they don’t adhere to the stricter requirements, you may find some of these lesser certifications address a particular concern you have, such as the use of chemical flame retardants or how socially responsible a company is.
In that case, they’re still worth your consideration.
Oeko-Tex’s Standard 100 certification is given to raw, semi-finished, and finished textile products worldwide if they meet the qualifications of Oeko-Tex’s independent testing system.
The Standard 100 designation doesn’t guarantee that a mattress’s fiber is produced organically, but it does set limits for emissions of harmful chemicals and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) linked to ozone issues, respiratory illnesses, and memory impairment, and the presence of allergenic dyes.
The criteria includes checking for flame retardants, allergenic or banned colorants, formaldehyde, pentachlorophenol, cadmium, nickel, as well as numerous harmful chemicals, “even if they are not yet legally regulated.”
They also advocate for “globally sustainable awareness of the responsible use of chemicals.”
Okeo-Tex® Made In Green is an independent textile label for consumer products and components. To meet their standards, the item must be made from materials that were:
- tested for harmful substances
- manufactured by using environmentally friendly processes
- manufactured under safe and socially responsible working conditions.
CertiPUR-US is a “not for profit” organization that evaluates materials. It doesn’t sell any products, so their findings can be considered independent and reliable. They run tests yearly and also do random checks for content, emissions, and durability.
Their standards prohibit certain substances that have been commonly used in foam, such as PBDE - polybrominated diphenyl ether - and TDCPP or TCEP (”Tris”) flame retardants. CertiPUR-US requires testing for formaldehyde, heavy metals and phthalates.
To meet CertiPUR standards, the VOC emissions (Volatile Organic Compound) for indoor air quality have to be less than 0.5 parts per million.
Greenguard certification “helps manufacturers create--and helps buyers identify--interior products and materials that have low chemical emissions, improving the quality of the air in which the products are used.”
They require testing of a finished mattress for specific emission limits of formaldehyde and other volatile organic compounds.
Greenguard Gold certification has more stringent emission limits on the above mentioned VOCs.
Items carrying this label “are scientifically proven to meet some of the world's most rigorous, third-party chemical emissions standards—helping reduce indoor air pollution and the risk of chemical exposure while aiding in the creation of healthier indoor environments.”
Organic Content Standard 100 refers only to the percentage of certified-organic materials, not to the presence of flame retardants, VOCs, colorants, or dyes.
Cradle to Cradle certification rates products on health of materials, re-utilization of materials, renewable energy and carbon management, water stewardship, and social fairness criteria.
The Global Recycle Standard (GRS) is an international, voluntary, full product standard that sets requirements for third-party certification of recycled content, chain of custody, social and environmental practices and chemical restrictions.
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There’s lots more to consider
Now that you’re familiar with fire safety issues, the various materials used in mattresses, and the standards and certifications related to each component, you may think you’re ready to choose your new mattress.
You’re actually only part way there! There are many other aspects of mattress choices you need to be aware of and consider before purchasing.
Working through these decisions in a systematic way will help you to eliminate many of the choices so there’s less indecision. It’ll save you time in the long run, so that you truly end up with the mattress that’s best for you and your particular sleep needs.
- Depth of profile of the mattress. Standard mattress sizes can range from 8 to 12” in height, but there are some that are as high as 18 to 20 inches! If you already have a bed you’re planning to keep, make sure the new mattress isn’t going to dwarf the headboard and footboard, or be low enough that it looks strange. Changing mattress size may mean getting all new sheets and a mattress cover, too. There’s nothing more frustrating than trying to put a fitted sheet on a mattress that’s too thick!
- Is a base needed, such as box springs, or can it stand alone? Many foam or latex or hybrid mattresses are perfect for platform style bed frames and don’t require any base. If you like a taller bed, you can add a base to get it up to the height you prefer.
- What type of frame is needed under the mattress (or box springs)? Some people actually just put their foam or latex mattress right on the floor, but that can make getting in bed and getting out of bed challenging. You also may not care for the look of a low bed. If there are slats on your bed frame, they must be close if you’re not using box springs.
- Firm or soft support, or something in between. Some manufacturers offer choices and specify how firm each is, but others have only one firmness level. Do you want a “pillow top” mattress because you enjoy a cushy feel, or one without the additional cushioning layer?
- “Edge” strength. Do you like to sit on the edge of your bed to put your shoes on, or sit there to chat on the phone? If so, you need a mattress that isn’t going to give underneath your weight. Some mattresses clearly point out the strength of their edge. Mattresses that have less than ideal edge strength will “give” when you roll close to the side, and can even end up sagging downward on the sides.
- Is it “flippable”? (Pillow top mattresses are not.) Some, not many, mattresses can be flipped, but manufacturers usually recommend rotating mattresses regularly to prevent getting low spots from the heavier portions of your body. Very heavy mattresses can be hard to rotate.
- Pain and pressure relief should be listed in the mattress description if it’s a good choice for people with fibromyalgia, arthritis, shoulder problems, hip problems, bed sores, or other issues.
- Temperature matters! If you sleep “hot” you’ll want to get a mattress that specifically states it has cooling qualities, is breathable, and has good airflow. Memory foam in particular has had a reputation of creating heat, so make sure that’s not the top layer if you tend to get overheated at night.
- What is the trial period for the mattress? With this size of an investment, you want to have plenty of time to decide if it’s really the right mattress for you. Some companies are very liberal, up to a year to see if it’s a good fit. Others have shorter periods to try it out, but a few weeks will likely give you a good idea of the comfort. Make sure to read ALL the details, since some brands may charge you or deduct money from the original purchase price when and if you decide to return it. Read to find out how easy a return is likely to be.
- Size of mattress. This is a great time to make the change to a bigger or smaller mattress, but weigh the decision carefully. Bigger mattresses always cost more, and the bedding you’ll need is priced higher also. Use this guide to figure out what size is best for you.
- Cost. Know your budget limits ahead of time. You can definitely get financing through many mattress brands, and some even offer 0% APR.
- Should I wait for sales or online specials? Online specials seem to be available for mattresses all the time. There’s often a sizeable discount of $100 to $125 or more, no matter which brand you choose. What might save you even more money is to find someone who purchased a mattress recently. Customers often receive coupons or referral savings to pass along to others, and the company depends on word of mouth to increase their sales.
- Warranties on the mattress. It’s not unusual to be given a lifetime warranty on an organic or green mattress. Usually it’s limited to defects in the mattress. Some may only have a 15 to 20 year warranty, but since replacing a mattress eery 8 to 10 years is recommended, those are fine too.
- Shipping cost. So many mattress companies offer free shipping now that it almost seems wrong to have to pay for it. (You might have to for some brands.) You will most likely pay extra if you want “white glove” service - set-up and taking away the old mattress. Decide if the additional cost is worth it for the convenience.
- Cleaning of the mattress. Can the mattress be cleaned in a particular way if something gets spilled on it? None of these mattresses can be doused with liquid, but you can generally spot clean them with a gentle soap. Vacuuming is another good idea. Read the suggested cleaning methods closely.
- Extras or freebies. It’s common to offered items to sweeten the deal and convince you to choose one particular brand over another.. A set of pillows, mattress cover, or other bedding may come with the mattress. Check to make sure you’re not paying additional shipping in order to get them.
- Comfort: The comfort and quality of your sleep experience depends a lot on these aspects:
- Layers. Nearly all mattresses have a support layer and other comfort layers
- Firmness options from soft to extra firm. Most people end up somewhere in the middle but if you have pain or pressure points you may want to go towrd the softer end of the scale.
- Coils or no coils. Some brands have individually pocketed coils while others have a continuous coil system. Look for the type of sleeper the mattress is recommended for - side, back, front or combo.
- Other type of core. Is there a solid layer of foam or latex that provides the core support for the mattress? Will that be enough for your sleep style, your weight and height?
- Bounce vs. no-bounce. A low bounce mattress can isolate and minimize the movements of your partner so that you sleep more deeply all night long. But too little bounce will make turning and getting out of bed feel awkward.
Top 5 Best Organic Mattress Brands
An Avocado Green Mattress is naturally non-toxic. It’s made with natural and organic materials, including 100% GOLS organic certified latex, 100% GOTS organic certified wool and 100% GOTS organic certified cotton.
No petroleum-based polyurethane foams, memory foams, chemical flame retardants, or adhesives are used between the comfort layers.
An internal, zoned pressure-point support system gives back support under the cushioning latex to keep shoulders, back and hips in alignment.
Works for side, back and stomach sleepers. Standard profile is 11 inches, with the addition of pillow top it’s 13 inches.
The Awara Mattress is considered a great choice for shoppers looking for environmentally friendly options.
It meets all the criteria needed to receive the Global Organic Latex Standard GOLS certification and the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) for the organic-cotton cover component.
The profile is 13 inches, which is thicker than average. Constructed with a 4 inch organic natural Dunlop latex, with a certified organic cotton and wool cover, it contains no polyurethane foam and there is no use of fire retardants.
The pocketed coil support core and zoned body support add up to soft support and a little bounce, making it ideal for side, back, and stomach sleepers. It’s considered a medium firm mattress.
Nectar’s mattress is constructed of four super-premium and medical grade performance layers, with a unique cooling cover. The profile is 11 inches in height.
A layer of memory foam plus another layer of gel memory foam for loft provide plush support for side, back and front sleepers. The support base of this mattress is a high-density foam and a high core memory gel layer, not coils or innersprings.
The Nectar mattress gives firm support yet the top layers cradle the sleeper for cushioned comfort. It’s certified to be free from harmful gases and chemicals.
The type of foams used in the mattress along with the breathable top cover made of Tencel helps air to circulate and prevent a sleep that’s too warm.
Saatva makes a hybrid innerspring mattress which combines a coil-on-coil innerspring support system with memory foam layers.
Saatva is handcrafted in the USA with eco-friendly materials: organic cotton outer cover, inner springs constructed from recycled steel, CertiPUR-US certification for the memory foam layer, and a botanical antimicrobial fabric treatment that inhibits bacteria.
A primary emphasis is on back support, and their lumbar zone technology. It comes in plush-soft, luxury firm, or firm, depending on the level of firmness you prefer. They say that firm is ideal for heavier body types or stomach sleepers.
Although the trial period is shorter than some (120 nights), they offer a free white glove delivery and setup, along with removal of your old mattress. Many others charge for this service.
The Intellibed is a hybrid mattress with pocketed or continuous coils and a unique gel layer. The company’s goal is to give you the deepest, most healthy and restorative sleep possible.
They assert that you can have the benefits of both firm and soft comfort when you buy theirs - back-supporting benefits of a firm mattress and the comfortable sleep of a soft one. It’s a cushiony, pressure-relieving mattress.
Medical-grade cushioning technology, which they call Gel Matrix™ is three times firmer than typical foam mattresses, yet still is soft and relieves pressure. The balance of firmness supports the back and is comfortable for hips and shoulders.
The Gel Matrix™ layer is a grid of hollow columns that progressively buckle under increasing pressure. Gel Matrix™ is non-toxic, not liquid, and it won’t crumble or leak. This mattress may be a good choice for fibromyalgia and arthritis sufferers.
The Intellibed is hypoallergenic and free of chemicals, synthetic materials, or pesticide residue. No fire retardants; they use a silica-based fire blocker.
Picking The Right Organic Mattress for You!
Whichever mattress you buy, it’s best to air it out for 48 to 72 hours before using it. This is advised for a few good reasons - to reduce possible exposure to any chemicals, to give odors a chance to dissipate, and to allow the mattress reach its full height before using it.
Some mattresses are vacuum packed into incredibly small packaging.
Even if there’s no harmful off-gassing, almost everyone notices some level of odor, kind of like the way a new car has a distinctive smell, when the mattress is first opened up.
It may not bother you, but for some people the odor can produce slight nausea. If possible, open a window or two and let a fan blow over top of the mattress to speed up the process.
This might mean you’ll have to dispose of the old mattress yourself instead of having the delivery people take it away for you.
If that’s not appealing, here’s a thought - let them haul it away, and sleep on the floor or couch for a couple of days while your new mattress breathes.
After two nights you’ll really appreciate the comfort of your new bed, and realize that you made a fabulous choice!