I'm shopping for a new mattress, preferably natural/organic if it's affordable. Any advice?

Asked by Cathy
Philadelphia, PA

My husband and I have needed to replace our 15-year-old queen-sized mattress for several years now. However, the prices on natural mattresses are out of our price range. When our current mattress was new, we were unable to sleep on it for two weeks due to the chemical outgassing. This odor caused severe headaches and nausea. So this time around we wanted to purchase a mattress made from organic materials. However, we have been unable to find an affordable natural mattress. The prices are over the top. Are there any "standard" mattresses that are preferable over others as far as being chemically treated? I understand that even more chemicals are now used in mattress manufacturing than were used back when our current mattress was purchased, so I am doubly concerned. Any advice on the best possible solution would be much appreciated!


Kirsten Flynn

Answered by Kirsten Flynn

Palo Alto, CA

Sustainable Home

May 23, 2011

Mattresses are a very difficult product to research.

  • Like most upholstered home furnishings, they contain multiple materials.
  • Additionally, many of those components are proprietary.
  • Often, when you start shopping, your salesperson will not know what materials are in the mattress you are considering. 

To select a natural or healthy mattress you need to know what all the components are in the mattress, so you can evaluate each one. Mattresses tend to have:

  • a core, padding,
  • a fireproof layer, and
  • a cover or ticking.  

Get samples

You also need to decide what materials commonly found in mattresses are of concern to you, and what materials you’d prefer to avoid.

In your case, I would strongly suggest you research some mattress options, then ask if you can get samples of all the materials in the mattress you are thinking of purchasing in separate bags.

  • Unwrap each one, one at a time, and expose yourself to it.
  • Touch it, smell it, put it in a pillowcase and sleep with it.
  • Try to isolate what material is causing a reaction. 

You may have an allergy to latex; you may have sensitivity to a particular chemical; some people are even sensitive to cotton or wool. If you can isolate what material in the mattress causes you to react, you can seek out a product that does not have that component. I know that both Lifekind and McRoskey will send you samples of their materials.

Meeting fire standards with a fire barrier cloth

One reason people buy an organic mattress is because they are trying to avoid fire-retardant chemicals. Many have heard of PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers) and how they are found in mothers’ milk and in the bodies of sea mammals around the world. These chemicals, and the chemicals that have replaced them since their phase-out, are a very valid concern and should be avoided.

However, fire-retardant chemicals are not used in mattresses. The current fire safety standard for mattresses requires that the product withstand open flame without igniting. Fire retardant chemicals do not delay fire enough to meet this standard.

Mattresses use a fire barrier cloth rather than chlorinated or brominated fire retardant chemicals.  There are several types of fire barrier cloths. They are usually located below the surface quilt of a mattress, so they are not next to the sleepers’ skin. The fire barrier is wrapped around the entire filling and core. 

I spoke to Ryan Trainer, President of the International Sleep Products Association, to find out the most common ones used.

  • Most fire barrier cloths are either cotton or rayon or a blend, which is treated with boric acid, silica, or phosphates to make it fireproof.
  • It might be useful for you to research these three treatments to see if one of them would be well tolerated, and whether you would feel comfortable bringing these chemicals into your home.

Wool is used in many natural mattresses because it is naturally fire-retardant without chemicals. If you know you are not allergic to wool, this is a good, but expensive, choice.

  • Imported wool must be fumigated to eliminate pests, thus domestic wool is used by many manufacturers.
  • McRoskey Mattresses uses wool from Northern California in their wool batting to avoid the issues with fumigation.

The core – the bouncy, springy part of the mattress

Many mattresses use an innerspring to make them long-lasting and resilient. There are no health concerns with this part of the mattress. Although steel does have a high carbon footprint, most steel products now have recycled content. I would suggest that this core would not trigger any kind of chemical reaction.

Other mattresses use natural latex as the core. This is a renewable option, but again, it is expensive! Latex is confusing because there is both natural latex, made from the sap of a rubber tree plant, and manmade latex. Very often the two are mixed, to increase the durability of the natural latex.

  • Latex foam that is made without synthetic latex is called Talalay-process latex.
  • Latex rubber pads do need to be on a slatted base, as they need to be well ventilated to avoid humidity building up in the foam.  

Some natural mattresses use plant oil foams. These foams are made using sunflower, castor bean or soy oil as a component.

  • The plant-based portion of the foam usually ranges between 10% and 20%; the rest would be conventional foam.
  • One mattress company, Spaldin, uses this foam in a distinctive honeycomb shape that wicks humidity away from the sleeper.  

The outer layer, the ticking

The mattress is then wrapped in a quilted ticking. It is possible to purchase mattresses with organic cotton ticking, and even cotton ticking fabric certified by GOTS (the Global Organic Textile Standard), which certifies that the fabric processing is safe.

Some children's mattresses have a vinyl coating to make the ticking waterproof. I believe this should be avoided, as sheet vinyl uses phthalate plasticizers to make it flexible, and these are known to offgas.

The most economical choice

But of course you mentioned being concerned about the price. This is very valid, as each of these "more natural" options add cost to the basic mattress:

  • organic, natural rubber,
  • wool from the USA,
  • high-quality innerspring.

I think the most economical choice would be a well-made natural futon. You can get a futon made of organic cotton, organic cotton and wool, natural wool, organic cotton, or wool with a latex core.

  • I am partial to Shepherd's Dream, because they are a local California business.
  • However, I know there is a wool industry in Vermont; you might check if the wool futon from Heart of Vermont contains wool from the East Coast.

A cotton futon would require a doctor's prescription, stating that you are allergic or chemically sensitive, as they do not meet fire safety standards.

However, the cotton futons wrapped with wool are fire safe.  

Good luck with your selection, and I do suggest that you test the component parts of a mattress or futon to try and gain knowledge of what chemicals are bothering you. It might help you with future purchases of other items.



For more information:

You should also read Mary Cordaro's Ask A Pro Q&A, "What do you think of memory foam mattresses and toppers? Are they safe?"

Tagged In: organic mattress, chemically sensitive

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