My Non-Toxic Tribe: Guide To Choosing A Safe, Non-Toxic Mattress
With her baby brother due in February, the time had come to transition Isabella gently from the cot beside our bed (and often in our bed!) to her own ‘big girl’ bed in her own room.
Until Isabella was 4 months old, whilst I tried to make good decisions on the products I was buying, I didn’t properly do my research and I often just went along with what clever marketing told me was ‘the best’. This has meant that until recently, I hadn’t researched mattresses and Isabella has been sleeping on a spring and foam mattress which we bought for her while I was pregnant.
During my research, I’ve felt more than a bit shocked at discovering what toxins were in not only Isabella’s mattress, but also the whole family’s mattresses. It turns out that there is very little regulation in Australia and around the world about what materials and chemicals are allowed to be put into mattresses – both for adults and children. These toxins (flame retardants, formaldehyde, phthalates and other volatile organic compounds) unfortunately aren’t bound into the mattress and get released over time, being inhaled and accumulating in the dust on our floors. Given our faces are so close to a mattress for such long periods cumulatively night after night, breathing in these fumes can make for a pretty unhealthy sleep and bedroom environment.
It’s always a bitter pill to swallow when you realise something that you thought was safe isn’t that way at all. Along this journey, I’ve regularly had to remind myself of my favourite, often used quote ‘Do the best you can until you know better. Then, when you know better, do better.’
I’ve had to work hard to redirect my focus on getting excited and finding out about safe, non-toxic mattress options instead of dwelling on the past. It’s been a huge few weeks and what began as an article about choosing a new mattress for Isabella has become an article about how I changed every mattress in our home!
Why is it important to choose a non-toxic mattress?
A mattress is a really important purchase given that we spend so many hours on it… Isabella still has a 2 hour sleep most days and is asleep from about 8pm-7am. That’s 13 hours in bed! As an adult, I too spend 8 hours a day in bed. With our faces so close to a mattress’s surface for so many hours, we can’t help but have a large cumulative exposure to any volatile gaseous output our mattress emits.
Quality of sleep and comfort are very important too given that sleep is just as important as food and water to our wellbeing and long term health. (Links have recently been found between poor sleep and Alzheimers.) However, even if a mattress’s toxin output didn’t immediately affect our sleep (though many experience respiratory irritation from the initial off-gassing odours), breathing in chemical fumes which are emitted from flame retardants, glues and petrochemical foams can potentially have detrimental long term health effects.
Unfortunately, it is not just new mattresses which “off-gas”. Although the ‘new smell’ odour does decrease over the first few weeks, it has been shown that over time as foams break down, they also release toxins such as flame retardants into the air for us to unwittingly breathe in.
It is really important to me that I’m choosing the healthiest sleep environment for Isabella and also the family. Being pregnant, I’m more than aware that I also have to prioritise my own chemical exposure too as it can directly affect my growing baby.
What are the chemicals we want to avoid in mattresses and why?
The most concerning toxins which are commonly in mattresses include volatile organic compounds (VOCs), flame retardants, formaldehyde and phthalates. The reason why exposure to these chemicals matter is that they have been linked to a whole host of negative health effects from respiratory irritation to endocrine (hormone) disruption and cancer.
Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs):
EDCs are thought to have a bigger impact when exposure occurs at certain developmental stages of life such as foetal development and puberty. Exposure when a tissue is developing can cause permanent changes that lead to increased incidence of diseases throughout life, even though they are not evident as birth defects. So for a baby, exposure can lead to irreversible effects whereas the effects of adult exposure seem to go away when the EDC is removed. This means that it is really important that we lessen exposure to unnecessary chemicals as much as possible for babies, children and teenagers.
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are chemicals which are used in the manufacturing process of a product which can easily escape into the air. Higher concentrations of VOCs in mattresses are emitted from synthetic materials such as polyurethane foam as well as from glues and flame retardants.
Glues: Manufacturers often use glues to hold different layers of a mattress together and keep the fabrics in place. Both solvent and water based glues release VOCs into the air. The problem is that these are the fumes from a whole range of toxic chemicals from acetone to chlorofluorocarbons, formaldehyde and more. These chemicals have been linked with endocrine disruption, breathing difficulties and even cancer.
Flame retardants have been used in polyurethane based foams as well as furniture fabrics, padded carpets and electrical casings since the early 1970s. As they are not chemically bound into the material and just dissolved into the product, they leach and evaporate easily into the air as well as accumulate in dust. As a foam ages, it degrades and more flame retardants continue to enter the surrounding environment. They not only accumulate in our bodies but also have entered our environment and food chain.
Companies do not have to disclose which flame retardant chemicals they use in products as it is seen and protected as a ‘trade secret.’ Unfortunately, different types of flame retardants have been linked to a whole host of negative health effects from being carcinogenic or endocrine disrupting to being associated with lower IQ, poor attention and motor coordination.
Historically, the most commonly used group of flame retardants are polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PDBEs). A study of Australian mothers in 2002 found levels of PBDEs in breastmilk to be about double those found in European countries. The highest levels of PBDEs are detected in young children between 0-4 years of age. Infants in particular are thought to have higher levels because they spend more time on and closer to the floor and have much more hand to mouth activity.
This finding is particularly concerning because the studies that have been done about the health effects of PBDEs mostly impact children’s neurodevelopment.
–A 2013 study found in utero and childhood exposure to be associated with poorer attention, fine motor coordination and cognition of children.
– A 2010 study found that children with higher concentrations of PBDE’s in their umbilical cord blood at birth scored lower on tests of mental and physical development between the ages of one and six.
-Animal studies have also found that early exposure to some PBDEs caused permanent impaired motor behaviour in adult mice.
PBDEs have also been linked to endocrine disruption and carcinogenic potential.
The EU has banned three of the most worrisome types of brominated flame retardants and Australia has put a ban on the import and use of two. There are however approximately 80 different types of brominated flame retardants in commercial use as well as other flame retardant chemicals. The concern is that we are just swapping like for like as little research has been done on the substituting chemicals.
It is possible however for a mattress to be made with naturally flame retardant materials such as natural latex and wool in which case additional chemicals are not needed.
Phthalates are plasticisers which are endocrine disrupting chemicals. They have been strongly linked with asthma as well as low testosterone, undescended testes and reduced sperm quality, amongst other negative health effects.
Phthalates are found in the PVC waterproofing covers of mattresses (particularly cot and bassinet mattresses) and also in added fragrances. Up to 30% of PVC by weight can be made up of phthalates. As they are not chemically bound into the PVC, they leach easily into their surrounds and so it is very important to avoid it.
What are mattresses made from? What is in a ‘normal’ mattress?
A conventional mattress usually consists of a core layer made from inner springs, foam or a combination of the two. This is then surrounded by an upholstery layer which provides cushioning.
Polyurethane foam is a petrochemical foam and is the most commonly used foam in mattresses. It can emit high levels of VOC’s and needs to be treated with some type of flame retardant because it is highly flammable.
Memory foam is a conforming visco-elastic foam over a firmer polyurethane foam base. It varies widely in quality and VOC emissions.
Plant Based Foam:
Plant-based foam is normally made from a small percentage of castor or soybean oil mixed with petroleum chemicals. It is often marketed as “environmentally friendly,” but plant-based foams emit VOCs just like polyurethane foam.
Natural latex is a renewable material gathered from the sap of a rubber tree. Unlike petrochemical based foams, latex is less likely to emit high levels of VOCs. It is also highly resistant to mould and dust mites, and is very durable.
To have these properties, it is very important for a product to be made from 100% natural latex.
Synthetic latex is a synthetically produced petroleum based compound, most commonly styrene-butadiene rubber, which is made to have similar properties to natural latex. Synthetic latex can emit high levels of VOCs.
Some mattresses are made from a blend of synthetic latex and natural latex to save on costs. Unfortunately, these are frequently falsely marketed as being made from ‘natural latex’, so it is very important to purchase your mattress from a trusted company who can show certifications of purity and quality.
Polyethylene foam can be made from petroleum based or bio based ingredients. It can contain fewer contaminants compared to polyurethane foam. It would be important to ask the manufacturer about the source of the ingredients and relevant contaminant test results.
Other Core Layers
Rubberised Coconut Fibres (Coir):
Coir is a natural fibre extracted from coconut husk. The loose fibres are covered with very hot raw latex and then compressed, cut, washed and packaged. Coir has very little need for the use of chemicals in its growing and undergoes extensive soaking and washing before it is dried and sprayed in liquid latex.
The quality of the rubberised coir depends on its latex content and density. Higher latex content makes the coir more resilient, durable and prevents it from sagging. The industry best is considered 25-30% latex. The higher the density of the coir, the more durable it is. The industry best is considered 100kg/m3.
Pure wool has natural fire resistant properties as well as being a material which breathes and enables air circulation through the mattress. As it allows air flow, it is both an excellent insulator and heat regulator. Pure wool wicks moisture away from the body and can absorb and disperse it into the atmosphere.
As it has not been chemically cleaned with sulphuric acid, some residual lanolin remains which acts to protect the wool and helps to inhibit dust mites. (It can have a mild lanolin odour which is inoffensive to most people.)
Poor quality wool:
Poorer quality wools can be held together by a synthetic resin. This reduces its dust mite resistance and also its ability to regulate heat. Poor quality wool can also potentially emit VOCs.
More chemical pesticides are used for cotton than any other crop. Most studies do show that the processing of the cotton should wash or bleach out the chemical residues from conventionally grown cotton, but a question mark does remain.
The most non-toxic choice is organic cotton which is grown without pesticides in untreated soil. It is also much better for the environment, however it can be much more expensive.
Dust mites do love to live in cotton which is one of the big weaknesses of choosing a 100% cotton mattress.
Most mattresses contain steel spring coils which are safe and inert unto themselves. It has however been proposed that mattress springs due to their length may be able to amplify FM/TV radiation. There are no solid scientific studies about this that I could find, however, if EMF radiation is something that concerns you, choosing a mattress with no springs is something to consider.
What are we wanting to look for in a safe, non-toxic mattress?
- Low-VOC certification
- No added chemical flame retardants
- No added fragrances or antimicrobials
- No glues
- No polyurethane foam
- No PVC or vinyl
Great Non-Toxic Mattress Ingredients:
- 100% Natural Latex – Ideally organic to ensure purity
- Rubberised Coconut Coir
- Chemical free, untreated pure wool
- Organic cotton
- Natural flame retardants: 100% natural latex or untreated pure wool
- Dust mite resistant materials: Rubberised coir or latex. Pure wool is also somewhat dust mite resistant
- Covers: organic cotton, organic hemp, organic bamboo lyocell
How do I actually know how non-toxic a mattress is given they have no ingredients list?
Mattresses don’t come with an ingredients list and not surprisingly every company wants you to believe that their mattress is the best. Companies will often use the words ‘natural’ and ‘eco-friendly’ etc. but these terms can be purely clever marketing. The only way to truly know whether a mattress is non-toxic is to have a look at its independent certifications.
Certified mattresses have been reviewed by third party independent organisations whose logo assures consumers that the product meets their quality criteria. The criteria however can vary widely and some certifications are meaningless whereas others demonstrate that a product passes stringent testing. It is therefore important to know which certifications to look for.
The best non-toxic certifications:
–GOLS (for latex) means that a mattress is made of at least 95% organic latex with the other ingredients being restricted in important ways and certain ingredients prohibited.
–GOTS Organic (for textiles) means that at least 95% of the mattress must be made from certified organic materials with certain chemicals prohibited entirely. (On the prohibited list are polyurethane foam, fire retardants and phthalates). A GOTS certified product will be verified to have the least potential for VOC emission.
–Oeko-Tex Standard 100: This certification sets limits for VOC emissions (such as formaldehyde) and also prohibits the use of flame retardants and dyes. It does not require the materials used in the mattress to be organic.
-Eco Institut: This certification shows that a product has been tested for the presence of VOCs, flame retardants, heavy metals, pesticides, phthalates and formaldehyde. It requires very strict criteria to be met.
Unfortunately some mattress companies may even claim to have a certification that they don’t actually have. The only way you’d really know is to actually see the actual signed certification.
What mattress materials I’ve chosen for the family and why:
There are some great non-toxic mattress materials available, but some do have benefits over others. I found the best solution was to find a mattress which has a combination of different materials so I got the best of both worlds! The mattresses that I chose to purchase for my family contain all the following materials.
–Organic Latex: Is extremely durable (lasting 20+ years!), doesn’t sag or lose shape. It’s also highly resistant to mould and dust mites as well as being fire retardant.
–Rubberised Coconut Coir: Is also highly resistant to mould and dust mites as it is covered with natural latex. If it is made with a high enough % of latex, it is also extremely durable and doesn’t sag. (It is important that it is made of at least 30% latex.) Due to its latex content, coir is also fire retardant.
Coir provides a firm core to a mattress which is perfect for children’s mattresses given SIDS recommendations advise the need of a firm sleep surface. It is also great for those who like myself and my husband (who gets back pain from being in a bent over posture at work) like a firm mattress.
–Pure, Untreated Wool: Is great for heat regulation, breathes well and absorbs moisture from the body. It can be a dust mite deterrent and also provides a wonderful cushioning layer. Wool also has natural fire retardant properties.
Some non-toxic mattresses are made from 100% pure wool. The issue with this is that wool settles over time and so a pure wool mattress doesn’t have the longevity of latex or coir. If you wanted to have a 100% wool mattress, it is necessary to buy mattress filler pads over time to fill in the gaps created by the settling.
–Organic Cotton: Has great breathability and excellent moisture wicking properties. It is a wonderful cover for a mattress. In regards to a 100% cotton mattress however, there are some disadvantages as dust mites like to live in cotton and it is also not fire retardant.
Choosing the right company isn’t that easy:
Once I’d identified what I wanted, finding the right company to buy a mattress from still took quite a bit of research. On recommendation from friends and bloggers such as Sarah Wilson, I first checked out the Comfort Shop’s mattresses. They claim to be made from 100% natural latex… however when you go to the site of who makes their mattresses in Italy, Stella Rubino, it turns out their mattresses have 96% natural latex and 4% synthetic latex. I realised then that I’d really have to investigate carefully.
Even then, if a company had 100% natural organic latex in their mattresses, it is also important that the other mattress ingredients such as covers etc. are non-toxic too and that the mattress is made without glues.
For mattresses made overseas, there is unfortunately a lack of full understanding (and a lot of trust) by the company selling it here that the ingredients in the mattress are what the manufacturer is stating. Overseas imports also have to go through a fumigation process at customs, particularly if they are entering Australia from Asia.
I therefore decided I wanted to find a company which made their mattresses in Australia. The raw ingredients such as latex and coir obviously aren’t made in Australia, but there is a lot of wrapping and protecting a company can do of raw ingredients in shipping which I still imagine would be much easier than protecting a whole pre-made mattress from fumigation.
As I was concerned about the purity of the materials, I chose to buy from a company who had the following certifications: GOLS (organic latex), GOTS (organic textiles), Oeko-Tex 100 (low VOCs) and Eco Institut (low VOCs and no flame retardants, heavy metals, pesticides, phthalates and formaldehyde).
After much looking and sometimes admittedly feeling a bit defeated as I couldn’t quite meet all my criteria, I stumbled upon the Natural Bedding Co. website. After receiving prompt and transparent replies to my copious emailed questions, I knew it was what I had been looking for.
The Natural Bedding Co. is a small Australian family business which was founded in Sydney 33 years ago. Each mattress is handmade to order in Marrickville. This means that the company knows exactly what goes into each and every mattress and can vouch honestly for its purity.
Andrew the owner has made creating the most natural, non-toxic mattresses his passion. His constant researching of materials and improvement of sources has led to his mattresses being made from the purest and highest quality components I could find. They also have the best independent third party certifications to prove it. (GOLS, GOTS, Oeko-Tex Standard 100 and Eco Institut)
The latex used by the Natural Bedding Co. is certified organic and the coverings of the mattresses are certified organic cotton and hemp. The wool used is pure and chemical free and the coir is premium quality made using a very high percentage of natural latex (40%). They also use no glues as everything is hand sewn together.
Whilst the Natural Bedding Co. ships mattresses around Australia, they only have one shopfront; in Stanmore, Sydney. (They do have distributors in Melbourne and Hobart.) By having only one shop and a small factory where the products are handmade and not using large budgets on television advertising, the Natural Bedding Co. is also able to keep their prices in the middle to lower range of latex mattress production even though their quality is premium. Luckily for me, I was able to visit the shop and to see and feel the mattresses for myself. I was so pleased that I did because all the doubt and hesitation about whether I was choosing the right mattresses and making the right investment evaporated immediately.
The mattresses are a beautiful quality and made to last with 10 year warranties. There are 7 mattress types to choose from, offering different amounts of support by using differing quantities of latex and coir. I felt like Goldilocks lying on the different mattresses- some I found much too soft and one too firm (which I knew my husband Bez would adore for the nights he needs to get a good sleep for work and his back is feeling sore.) I also found the mattress which for me was ‘just right.’
The Natural Bedding Co. Mattresses that I chose for the family and my reviews, 2 weeks in:
SIDS guidelines recommend that young children sleep on a firm sleep surface. Isabella’s cot mattress had been firm and given she has a low body weight, whether her new mattress is firm or soft wouldn’t actually bother her either way.
I however, feel happier to maintain her firm sleep surface and so opted for ‘The Deluxe’ mattress in a single. It has a core of coir surrounded by two layers of latex and wrapped in wool. For me, it’s the perfect mix of firm and supportive but not hard.
So how did she find it? Isabella loves her new mattress. It’s slightly softer than the very firm cot mattress she’d been used to, but definitely not too soft… Transitioning into a big bed was never going to be a complete walk in the park, but she’s as comfy as comfy could be. I also feel so relieved to know that her sleep environment is now as healthy as possible and that she isn’t breathing in unwanted toxins.
The family king bed mattress:
I found myself co-sleeping with Isabella every night from about 5 months out of necessity due to regular breastfeeds. I’m now all too aware that our new arrival in February may well end up sharing our bed when he gets a bit older too! It was therefore important to me to have a firm mattress for our family bed as well, given it is recommended in the safe sleeping guidelines.
The perfect mix for me of firm but not too hard was ‘The Deluxe’ mattress with a core of Coir surrounded by two layers of latex and wrapped in wool.
I hadn’t quite taken into account how awkward a time third trimester of pregnancy was to do a mattress review. My body is sporadically uncomfortable in general when not lying down, let alone when I’m restricted to lying solely on my left side, with my growing tummy pulling me over onto my hip bone. Due to this posture, which is more exaggerated as the days go past, I found the firmness of the mattress pressing against my hip to cause aching on that side. It was solved easily using a folded pure wool blanket under the area I sleep (ie. under the mattress protector) and I’ve been sleeping so comfortably ever since!
Mattresses can always be made softer by adding a latex and/or wool topper to them. They can’t however be made more firm. Due to this, I’m very happy with my choice of a firm mattress as I know I have the ability to tailor it exactly to my liking. Isabella and my husband Bez have been sleeping so well on this mattress! I do think I’ll invest in a latex topper for our mattress sometime, but maybe just in a single size so that one side of the bed is still the original firmness. Then it’ll be perfect for all!
I’ve often heard about latex mattresses ‘sleeping hot’. I haven’t felt hot as a result of this mattress at all – despite warm summer nights and being heavily pregnant! From what I’ve read, it is the synthetic latex mattresses which actually feel hot to sleep on rather than the pure organic latex. Coir and wool also aid the air circulation making for an extremely comfortable sleep.
Our spare mattress/ my husband’s mattress:
Nights can be a bit of a circus and bed swap in our house. As my husband Bez has early starts and long days at work sometimes, it’s important he has somewhere quiet to sleep when he needs it. He also suffers from mild back pain as a result of his constant bent over posture at work (he’s a Dentist.)
Bez has never found a mattress that he likes and finds every mattress not firm and supportive enough. So, I took the chance and ordered him ‘The Supreme’ mattress in a single. This is the firmest mattress of the range and is made up of one layer of latex either side of coir, wrapped in wool.
How did he find it? Bez loves this mattress. He finds it super supportive and just what he had always wanted for his back. As he is more of a back sleeper with occasional times on his side, the extra firm mattress is a great fit for him. He’s thrilled.
Cot and Bassinet mattresses for baby #2:
SIDS research recommends ideally that a new mattress be bought for every new baby, so I had been expecting to purchase a new cot and bassinet mattress even before I decided to change every mattress in our house. Luckily though, each of the Natural Bedding Co. cot and bassinet mattresses are made to measure and so will fit our existing cot and bassinet frames. (SIDS guidelines also specify that a mattress has to be a good, close fit inside the frame.)
The guidelines also specify that the mattress has to be of a certain firmness. There is now a voluntary Australia/NZ safety standard for testing the firmness of infant sleep surfaces. The Natural Bedding Co. takes the responsibility of providing a safe mattress so seriously that they actually had a machine made so that every single cot and bassinet mattress they make can be tested.
The mattresses themselves are made from coir and chemical free wool. This means that they are not only firm, but breathable, aid temperature regulation and are also dust mite resistant as well as being naturally anti-fungal and anti-bacterial.
These mattresses do feel firm when you press on them – exactly what the guidelines suggest. They are beautifully made and stitched with an organic cotton and hemp cover. As they are custom made to order, they fit exactly into my existing cot and bassinet frames. I just wish I knew about them earlier so Isabella could have had them too!
Looking after a natural mattress:
If moisture gathers at the bottom of a mattress it can possibly attract mould. As these mattresses haven’t been sprayed with anti-fungal and anti-bacterial sprays, it is important that they are adequately aerated by using a slat bed frame base and also regular turning.
The amount you have to turn a mattress varies from once every two weeks to once every three months depending on whether you have a damp room and adequate aeration from the bottom of the bed and also if you have a mattress protector. I’ve started with turning the mattress every time I change the sheets, however given the rooms and beds are well aerated, I may well swap to every second sheet change soon!
I am so delighted and relieved with the change we have made to our whole family’s sleeping and bedroom environments. It wasn’t an easy realisation to make and it was definitely a very big investment. However, not only are we all sleeping comfortably and soundly, but it is something that will make a huge impact on our cumulative chemical exposure ongoing.
If you’re like me and just coming to this realisation now, try to not get overwhelmed and just focus on doing whatever you can to keep moving forward. If you’re not in the position to purchase new mattresses, focus on keeping fresh air in the bedrooms and dust and vacuum regularly, to reduce the chemical load in the air and surrounding environment. This too will make a large impact on your family’s chemical exposure.
And finally, buying new mattresses often means disposing of old ones which is definitely not a wonderfully environmentally friendly thing to do unfortunately. There are however companies like Soft Landing, who I recently had collect our mattresses, which recycle mattresses to divert waste from landfill. If you are throwing away an old mattress, I highly recommend you find a way to recycle it instead.
I hope you found this helpful!
Love Em x
(DISCLOSURE: This is not a sponsored post. All the opinions in this article are my own. I found the Natural Bedding Co. through extensive research and made contact with them myself. They did give me a small discount on my purchase.)