I was diagnosed with an autoimmune condition called vitiligo. When my doctor prescribed a cream that treats the condition by suppressing the immune system AND carries a warning for leukemia, I decided it was time to take my health into my own hands.
If you’re just getting started on this journey, I suggest starting where I did – with some free info from Steve and Jordan. This article helped me understand that it wasn’t any one thing, but likely a combination of my genetics, my gut health, and my environment, that had caused autoimmunity to develop in my body.
I can’t do much about my genetics (thanks Mom and Dad!) but tackling the health of my gut and my environment are both in my control…
Which is why I’ve spent the last several years focusing on improving my diet and healing my gut using diet and some key supplements. I also realized that getting good quality sleep has also been critical to healing my body.
However, in the Last Year, My Sleep Quality Began to Decline
That’s when I started rotating my mattress and turned to some other fixes: sleep masks, blue light-blocking glasses, oil diffusing, nighttime baths, and a strict sleep schedule. Despite all my best efforts, though, I was tossing and turning and waking up bleary-eyed when my alarm went off.
A few months ago, I knew… it was officially time to buy a new mattress and get back the rest I needed to continue healing.
I wasn’t just your average mattress consumer though; I wanted my new mattress to pass the same tests I put any other product – be it food, cleaning product, or toothpaste – through, to know it was safe for me.
I knew the mattress I purchased couldn’t be produced with the use of dangerous chemicals, like formaldehyde, or contain high levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that could compromise my health. But I also had to be able to afford it, which ruled out a lot of the obvious eco-friendly options.
I wanted to sleep soundly on my mattress – not just because it was comfortable, but because it was safe for me and for everyone else who came into my home.
I set out to find – is it possible to get a non-toxic, green mattress that doesn’t cost $2,000?
Are You Sleeping on a Cloud of Chemicals?
While my mattress was over 10 years old and getting uncomfortable, a worn out mattress isn’t the only reason you should think about upgrading. Even if your mattress is old but comfortable, it likely contains very dangerous chemicals that could be harming your health.
Most mattresses are made primarily of several different layers of polyurethane or latex foam, along with springs and cotton batting. These materials contain many harmful ingredients on their own (like VOCs, flame retardants, heavy metals, pesticide residues, and more). These chemicals get into our bodies when we breathe them in (off-gassing), through dust, and by contact. They can impact the indoor air quality of your entire home. This means you don’t have to be touching or even sleeping on the bed to be affected by the chemicals if you’re in the same area.
The longer you own a mattress, the less it will off-gas (as most of these chemicals have been released). Think of the way a new car loses that famous smell – the same thing happens with a mattress over time.
But every time you disturb your mattress (by moving it, vacuuming it, changing the sheets, letting your kids jump on it) more chemicals and dangerous dust particles can be released (too small to see or smell). And in older mattresses this can include a dangerous class of chemical-fire retardants called PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers) that are not typically used in new mattresses (much more on PBDEs to come).
However, a new strict law for flammability was passed on July 1, 2007 – called the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s standard for mattress flammability – that ensures new mattresses contain even HIGHER levels of fire retardants, especially close to the surface of the mattress (as this law was designed to help prevent fires caused from things like candles and lighters being used near mattresses).
The even stricter California Technical Bulletin 117 was also enacted in 2007 and requires an even higher level of fire retardancy in foam products. This means you can’t just buy any new mattress and expect it to be safer than your old one.
And because mattress and other foam products are not required to state what fire retardant they use, you have no way of knowing what material was used, be it PBDE, formaldehyde, boric acid, or something else entirely.
If you think you’re safe from off-gassing by keeping around an old mattress, consider what year it was manufactured and look for a tag on your mattress stating that it meets California Technical Bulletin 117 (TB 117) – unless you know specifically it was made using alternative fire-retardant methods, this means it almost certainly contains a chemical-fire retardant in addition to other harmful chemicals.
Spring Mattresses Are Likely the Most Toxic
While I’m no expert, when I started researching I hypothesized the two most dangerous things in a mattress were likely the synthetic foam and the fire retardants.
However, what really shocked me when researching the safety of foam was that it is actually the GLUE used to hold the materials in a mattress together that contains the most harmful compounds.
I found this chart, provided by foam maker Essentia, that shows chemicals and VOCs found in common mattress materials. While latex and memory foam had worrisome ingredients, it was glue that contained almost all the listed VOCs.
The dangerous chemicals in these glues include lead, acetone, and chlorofluorocarbons. One type of glue, methylene chloride (used commonly into the 1990s as a “safe alternative” to ozone-depleting glues used previously) caused up to 30 deaths a year in factory workers and was commonly called “methyl ethyl bad stuff.”
“Methyl ethyl bad stuff” was replaced with another “safe alternative” – n-propyl bromide (nPB). But as you can probably guess, nPB wasn’t really safe either. Now, thousands of people who work with these chemicals in the U.S. in the production of foam are suffering permanent physical and neurological symptoms.
Chemical glues are obviously toxic – fortunately, water-based glues exist as an alternative. And while water-based glue does sound better than solvent-based – resulting in many companies claiming to use it instead – even water-based glues contain many of these chemicals. The VOCs in them can pollute the air indoors and cause symptoms ranging from asthma to cancer.
The sad truth is that the glue used in manufacturing mattresses and other furniture is dangerous – it is ruining the health of real people.
This helped me decide that I wanted to seek out simplicity in a mattress – fewer components meant less dangerous glue. A spring mattress is composed of several layers of foam and cotton batting surrounding a spring core – this requires a lot of glue to hold all the components together.
While foam might seem more dangerous at first, it has less glue and fewer components overall – meaning fewer places for dangerous chemicals to lurk.
There would still inevitably be SOME glue in my mattress. With my health as my primary concern, I wanted the glue used in my mattress to be certified safe for indoor use by a third party I felt I could trust – like GreenGuard – not just claim to be water-based or approved by the Environmental Protection Agency.
PBDEs: The Dangerous Chemical You’re Sleeping, Standing, and Sitting on Right Now
Based on my glue research, I knew I wanted to go with a foam mattress instead of a spring one. However, there are still many different kinds of foam to consider and all the chemicals and potential hazards inherent to foam.
One easy decision was to rule out memory foam. Memory foam contains the most harmful chemicals (things like methyl benzene), which narrowed my search to natural latex or a synthetic foam.
Foam, however, requires flame retardants to meet safety laws mentioned above. And while these laws were put in place to protect Americans, they have had unintended health consequences.
Chemical-fire retardants used in foam are associated with reduced IQ, male and female infertility, and thyroid and endocrine disruption, among numerous other health issues – not exactly what I want to promote while I sleep. Californians have some of the highest levels of PBDEs in our house dust in the WORLD due to TB 117.
PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers), the long-time, most-used fire retardant, are very dangerous to human and animal health – so dangerous they’ve been phased out of use in new materials. However, there are many loopholes that ensure you’re still being exposed – either through older materials (PBDEs were still legally manufactured in the U.S. until 2005 and their use is not illegal) or through imported items from places like China.
Upon researching their dangers, I found they’ve even been linked with thyroid disease in cats – that is how widespread their dangers are. When I thought of the amount of time my cat spends snoozing on my bed per day (23 hours by my estimates) – as well as my ever-sleepy golden retriever – I knew I had to have a mattress free of these dangerous fire retardants… and not just for myself, but for the health of everyone else who I have in my home.
While PBDEs are being phased out, the new industry replacement, Firemaster 550, isn’t much better. No proven-safe chemical alternative has been found to date. Firemaster 550, in a 2012 study, was shown to be an endocrine disruptor in lab animals, causing early-onset puberty and extreme weight gain.
And while all this might be a bit scary, what’s even worse is not knowing.
Big Brand Chemical Cover Up?
Even more frightening, according to the site Mattress Inquirer, is big brands like Sealy and Tempur-Pedic won’t even disclose what fire retardants they DO use instead of PBDEs – calling them “trade secrets.” This means inquiring consumers like myself cannot even make an informed decision about what they bring into their home. In doing my own research for information about fire retardants or any of the chemicals or ingredients in Tempur-Pedic mattresses, I came up empty handed.
Replacement chemical-fire retardants for PBDEs (whatever they are!) might be better, but the reality is that understanding the long-term implications of widespread chemical use is impossible before its implementation in a population leads to disaster. PBDEs stand as an example as to why it is better to be safe than sorry and avoid as many unnecessary chemicals as one can.
Reading this might have left you feeling frustrated and scared – I know that is how I felt when I started researching these chemicals. However, you can find alternative foam products that do NOT contain either PBDEs or other chemical-fire retardants – you just have to look farther and ask questions.
If you’re concerned about PBDE exposure (a real danger for all Americans), I encourage you to check out Green Science Alliance’s site for more info on where you may be exposed and what you can do to mitigate the effects – as well as more information on the dangers.
When you do purchase items that contain foam – like a new mattress, a couch, or carpet pad – you can look for items that have a third-party certification for no PBDEs or chemical-fire retardants, as well as other VOCs, formaldehyde, and more. And typically this means you’ll be avoiding all the “Big Brand” mattress manufactures as they currently won’t disclose what chemicals they are using.
How Much Do You Need to Spend to Protect Your Health?
A big name comes with a big price tag – but what else does it mean?
The average cost of a traditional (not “green” or “eco-friendly”) queen size mattress is $1,500-$1,600.
For the big-name brands, like Tempur-Pedic, the price jumps up to $1,999 for the lowest price model and the mid-range beds, which I preferred, were around $3,500.
I already knew from my own research, however, that there was NO information readily available about any of the chemicals excluded or included in Tempur-Pedic mattresses – all I could find were lots of reports of years of off-gassing smells. Clearly, that price didn’t buy me safety.
I also found some amazing companies, like Astrabeds – they make safe, organic beds out of natural latex with exactly the kinds of certifications I wanted. However, starting at $1,800, their prices were a bit higher than what I wanted to pay.
At this point, I knew I wanted a mattress that was simple in design, made of foam and a water-based glue with third-party certifications for both – just like an Astrabed – but it had to be one I could afford now.
My New Mattress – The Tuft & Needle
Fortunately, I found it from Tuft & Needle.
Tuft & Needle mattresses are made of synthetic foam with the third-party CertiPUR certification.
Synthetic foam means they are more affordable than the natural latex Astrabed (a queen size mattress is just $600!). But the CertiPur label means it has no known harmful chemicals (including formaldehyde), carcinogens, or heavy metals. It also guarantees it has low VOCs for good indoor air quality. Although it is a synthetic foam, this certification gives me peace of mind.
The mattress itself is made of only TWO layers of foam, which means only ONE layer of glue is needed to hold those together (and that glue is made of rubber and water). The glue is also independently GreenGuard certified for low VOCs.
Tuft & Needle’s biggest competitors, like Casper, use 3 or more layers – meaning multiple layers of glue. And while Tuft & Needle points out that the more glue there is, the less air circulation can occur (meaning a hotter night’s sleep), for me the importance of less glue was less chemicals under my pillow.
Most importantly, Tuft & Needle does not use PBDEs or other chemical-fire retardants.
Instead, my whole mattress is bundled up in a fire sock. This fire sock (literally like a sock for your mattress, it is an extra case that goes under the cover but over the mattress) stands in the place of dangerous chemical-fire retardants. The flame-resistant fire sock (made of polyester-rayon blend fabric infused with silica instead of chemicals) encases the foam, and is TB 117 compliant.
On top of the fire sock is a silky-smooth cover made of rayon and polyester and certified by Oeko-Tex 100 Standard – again meaning it is free of known and suspected harmful chemicals.
The best part – no “new car” smell – no plasticky, toxic fumes emanating from my new mattress – I slept soundly the first night with zero off-gassing.
According to Tuft & Needle, it off-gasses less than 0.05 parts per million of CO2. While they couldn’t provide comparison numbers for the amounts other mattresses off-gas, we all know that “new” smell – my mattress did not have it at all (in fact, the new pillows I purchased to go with my new mattress actually had a far stronger smell!).
Note: CertiPUR confirms that no mattress can be completely free of off-gassing (even people off-gas!) but Tuft & Needle gets pretty close.
It May Be Safe, but Is Tuft & Needle Actually Comfortable?
I’m not just sleeping like a baby because I’m no longer worried about breathing in PBDEs all night long – my new mattress is so much more comfortable than I ever expected.
Foam mattresses, of course, have a very different feel than spring mattresses. Compared to a traditional memory foam mattress (like a Tempur-Pedic), however, my Tuft & Needle mattress is more “springy” and responsive – it has more bounce when I flop down on it. I think it is softer and it DEFINITELY smells far better than a traditional memory foam mattress, which, in my opinion, never loses the chemical smell, even after years of ownership.
Compared to other new-style foam mattresses, like a Casper mattress (which my sister owns and I’ve had the chance to sleep on and test out extensively), I think the Tuft & Needle mattress is softer, springier, and more comfortable. It has more “give” when you lay down but it never feels like you’re sinking in.
The bottom layer is 7 inches of support foam and the top layer is three inches of Tuft & Needle’s proprietary foam, which has more give and provides the “springiness.” I would describe it as firm, but as a stomach sleeper I don’t feel it is too firm for me to be comfortable. (My dog Gus, a back sleeper, says it’s comfortable for him too 😉 )
Tuft & Needle doesn’t sell in traditional mattress stores and they only have one showroom in Phoenix and one in San Francisco. Instead of focusing on brick-and-mortar stores, they sell online.
Having a mattress shipped might seem costly and inefficient, but my mattress came straight to my house in one big giant box rolled up and compressed – shipped free and delivered less than one business week later. (There is something about being delivered a GIANT box that just can’t be beat.)
You can use it on the floor, on a slatted bed frame, or with a box spring you already own (they don’t sell box springs). I opted for a slatted bed frame.
Tuft & Needle also offers a 100-night home trial. If you purchase, you can sleep on your new mattress for 100 nights to decide if you like it. If you don’t, all you have to do is donate the mattress to a charity in your area and provide proof of donation to Tuft & Needle to be refunded. If a mattress can’t be donated for any reason, it can be recycled into carpet pads and other broken foam products by Tuft & Needle.
I’m not interested in donating my mattress though – I want to keep this thing for a LONG time 🙂
I love everything about it (less toxins and deeper sleep) and I’m excited to share how much I love it with the SCD Lifestyle community.
My only sincere complaint is that when I sit on the edge of my bed to put my shoes on or take them off, I do sink down a bit more. I’ve decided to start sitting on the floor to take my shoes on and off – it is better for my health anyway!
I hope this helps you on your search for a non-toxic mattress that support your health, let me know what questions you have in the comments below.