Written by Maia, President, and John, Home Health Director
UPDATED: May 2017
Finding a non-toxic mattress is super important but also super confusing to work through. If your head hurts just looking at the length of this page, please feel free to reach out to our Home Health Director, John, or his administrative assistant, Tracy, for individualized help. You can also call 717-869-6968 to speak with John.
And, here’s a video summarizing what’s in this new guide:
NOTE: After we shot this video we found one more company that makes a mattress with top-level certifications. See below, under The Best Stuff tab.
Okay, so those are some shortcuts. Now for the rest of you, here’s my story of finding the right mattresses, what to look for, the confusing world of certifications, and of course, our lists of Best, Good, Okay, Bad, and Sneaky Stuff!
My Own Non-Toxic Mattress Choices
When I was pregnant for the first time, we decided to upgrade to a king-sized bed in anticipation of co-sleeping with our newborn.
Of course, I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t agonize and research before making any purchase…and there was plenty to agonize over when it came to finding a safe mattress!
At the time of writing this updated post, I have a 3-year-old and a 7-year-old, both of whom still spend a lot of time in our bed, and I’m so glad I feel comfortable with (and comfortable on!) the mattresses we chose: a Savvy Rest for us in 2009, followed by White Lotus futons for the boys, and now we’ve just upgraded to a Soaring Heart Zoned for our bedroom.
Why did I swap out my Savvy Rest for a Soaring Heart? Well, thanks to my dad’s even more intensive research, the updated version of this Guide breaks mattresses into even more categories, and we really separate the Best Stuff from even the Very Good Stuff. (For the master bedroom of our nontoxic retreat space, we also chose a Soaring Heart Mattress.)
As you’ll see below, there are only three mattress brands that qualify as the Best Stuff, thanks to their super legit certifications.
We are both (Maia and John) now sleeping on Soaring Heart mattresses, which happen to also be the most comfortable, luxurious mattresses we’ve found.
Sick Beds: Why a Safe Mattress Matters
I often tell my private consulting clients that their mattress is the very first thing they should upgrade when detoxing their homes. This is particularly true when it comes to a crib mattress. The reason I feel so strongly about sleeping on a non-toxic mattress? Well, for one thing, babies and kids spend a lot of time sleeping, and even busy, night-owl grownups spend at least 25% of their lives in bed. Moreover, there is evidence that your immune system works hardest at night, so it seems reasonable to make your sleep environment as clean as possible. Unfortunately, mattresses are loaded with noxious chemicals, including:
Various petrochemicals. Indeed, MOST of what makes up a conventional mattress are petroleum-based.
Plastics or vinyls.
Flame retardant chemicals (although there is good news on this front–more on that in a minute).
Synthetic latex, which usually made from styrene, a human carcinogen.
This chemical cocktail releases VOCs (volatile organic compounds), which are linked to a host of health problems, from respiratory irritation to cancer.
A Myth About Off-Gassing
Many of my clients think that their mattresses are okay if they are old because they have “already off-gassed.” Unfortunately, this is not true in the case of foam mattresses. In fact, as the foam degrades, more PBDEs (hormone-disrupting flame retardants) may be released.
Crib mattresses are often covered in vinyl for waterproofing, which often contains phthalates. In 2009, Congress passed a law that forbids the use of three types of phthalates in products for young children, including mattresses. Of course, other plasticizers are likely used in place of phthalates, and they may be just as bad.
Fire “Safety”: The Most Dangerous Part of Your Mattress
Mattresses are required by the Consumer Product Safety Commission to meet flammability laws, which previously meant that they were almost always treated with bromated or chlorinated flame retardant chemicals, typically one of the first three on this list:
Polybrominated diphenyl ethers. PBDEs are associated with hormone disruption, hyperactivity, and neurodevelopmental delays, including lowered IQ . The European Union has banned the use of PBDEs in electronic devices. Studies show that children in the United States have higher levels of PBDEs than adults do. Oh, and here’s the kicker: they don’t even work very well at stopping fires.
Firemaster 550. This nasty chemical cocktail is made with bis(2-ethylhexyl) tetrabromophthalate (TBPH). Yes, you saw that word in there: phthalate. TBPH is nearly idential to DEHP, the phthalate banned in children’s products (including mattresses!!) due to evidence of carcinogenicity and developmental toxicity.
Chlorinated tris. This is the notorious chemical that was removed from children’s pajamas in the 1970s because it was shown to cause cancer.
Halogen-free flame retardants. This newer class of chemicals (such as ammonium polyphosphate, aluminium diethyl phosphinate, and melamine polyphosphate) is believed to be much less likely to bioaccumulate than bromated flame retardants, but I still prefer my mattresses to be free of even these.
Great news came in 2014: Newer flammability standards can be met WITHOUT the use of these toxic chemicals. The new law does not ban the use of the chemicals; it just renders them unnecessary. Wool or other batting is now sufficient. Unfortunately, we can’t always know for sure which companies are still using treated foam and which have switched over to safer materials. One clue: Look for the TB117-2013 label on new mattresses, which suggests that the item meets the standards without fire retardants.
Why Coils May Be Bad Stuff
Most mattresses contain spring coils in the box spring and within a mattress. From a toxicity perspective, steel coil springs are pretty inert and safe. But from an electromagnetic perspective, these springs may present problems. Dr. Douglas Fields, of the National Institute of Child Health & Human Development, said this in a Scientific American article:
“…as we sleep on our coil-spring mattresses, we are in effect sleeping on an antenna that amplifies the intensity of the broadcast FM/TV radiation. Asleep on these antennas, our bodies are exposed to the amplified electromagnetic radiation for a third of our life spans. As we slumber on a metal coil-spring mattress, a wave of electromagnetic radiation envelops our bodies so that the maximum strength of the field develops 75 centimeters above the mattress in the middle of our bodies.”
There have been very few studies done to further examine this issue, but if electro-magnetic fields concern you, sleeping on something that has no springs should be something to consider.
Great Ingredients: What to Look for in a Mattress
Now that you know some of what can make a mattress toxic, let me tell you some of the materials and certifications that you DO want in and on your mattress. They include:
Organic wool (untreated) is naturally flame and mildew/dust mite resistant.
100% natural latex (made from rubber trees) is safer than latex blends, which may contain petroleum-based polyurethane.
Organic cotton (grown in untreated soil, without pesticides) can be used for batting or mattress wrapping. There is a robust debate about whether or not the herbicides and pesticides used on cotton crops will wash/bleach out as the cotton is processed. Most studies show that it does, but some folks believe that a residue remains. We believe that the risk of sleeping on a mattress or sheets made from conventionally grown cotton are tiny (especially when you consider that none of us is walking around in only organic cotton clothes, right?). Still, for the good of the planet, we should all choose organically grown cotton whenever possible. (Sadly, certified organic cotton is costly…about two times the cost of conventional.)
Trusted certifications, from third-party certifying bodies, mean that some ingredients in the mattress have been vetted by organizations committed to improving air quality, which means a safer sleeping surface for you. However, all certifications are not created equally!
The Best Organic Mattress Certifications
Sorting through mattress certifications is maddening. Here’s just some of why that is:
First of all, not all certifications are created equal–some offer great assurance that your new mattress will be non-toxic, while otherwise are essentially meaningless.
What’s more, just because a company shows a certification doesn’t mean all of the material in that mattress are certified, or even that all of THAT material is certified. One of our readers wrote to us about a mattress that contained Oeko-Tex 100 certified wool, but the company wouldn’t confirm that they solelypurchases the wool from this source. Thus, in this case it would be impossible to know if the mattress you’re purchasing contains the certified wool or not (to say nothing of the other materials in this mattress).
Sometimes, a mattress will claim to have a certification that they don’t really have. One of the of the most common deceptive practices is when a manufacturer claims to have GOLS certification for their latex mattress, and they even display the GOLS logo on their website. They might even show an actual copy of it on their website, complete with date and signatures. If, however, the certificate is not written to the same name as the manufacturer, it is not particularly meaningful. They are commonly written to a latex supplier out of Sri Lanka or India or South America. A certification written to an entity or person in Sri Lanka shows only that the latex was certified up to that point on its journey to becoming someone’s bed. Between Sri Lanka and your bedroom all sorts of things can (and do) happen to the latex to cause it to be more toxic than the certification implies. (Only three companies have the best certifications written directly to the company: Soaring Heart, LifeKind, and Naturepedic.)
Best Mattress Certifications:
GOLS (for latex) and GOTS (for textiles). To obtain a GOTS certification, at least 95% of the mattress must be made of certified organic materials, and certain chemistries are prohibited entirely (even for that other 5%); these include polyurethane foam and the fire retardants listed above. A GOLS certification means that the mattress is made of at least 95% organic latex, and again, the other 5% of the materials are also restricted in important ways.
Good Mattress Certifications:
Oeko-Tex Standard 100. While this certification doesn’t require any organic materials to be used in a mattress, it does set limits for VOC emissions (such as formaldehyde). It also prohibits the use of dangerous flame retardants and dyes.
Okay Mattress Certifications:
Greenguard-certified mattresses have been tested (and are within limits) of certain VOCS, such as formaldehyde, and Greenguard Gold has stricter standards than plain old Greenguard. Organic Content Standard 100 just means that some of the ingredients are organic, but doesn’t ban flame retardants or other harmful chemicals.
Sneaky Mattress Certifications:
NAOMI (National Association of Organic Mattress Industry) and CertiPUR. NAOMI was created by Pure Rest Organics (a mattress company!), and CertiPUR was developed “by members of the global foam industry,” although it does ban the use of some chemicals, such as PBDE flame retardants).
Bottom Line on Certifications:
Most certifications are of SOME value, but they can be used sneakily by mattress manufacturers. Manufacturers may claim to have a certification that they don’t actually have. So you really need to ask to see the actual signed certification, keeping in mind that if it’s out of date, it’s worthless. Only three companies have the best certifications written directly to the company: Soaring Heart, LifeKind, and Naturepedic.
Less Expensive Ways to Sleep Safely:
If you want to co-sleep with your baby but don’t want to buy a new mattress, consider futons as an alternative to expensive mattresses. They are much more comfortable than they were in your childhood, and I love the ones by Soaring Heart in particular. Note that conventional or Sneaky futons will be loaded with all the same scary chemicals as mattresses, so you’ll have to do your homework for these as well.
Here’s where I explain the difference between a mattress and a futon:
And if you’re really adventurous…Make your own mattress. Get some tips from Lynn Cimino, who sells starter kits of organic materials on Etsy. She also has a blog called the “Make Your Own Mattress Forum.”