"If you sleep for eight hours a night, then you spend at least one third of your life in bed," says Walt Bader, president of organic bedding brand Lifekind and author of Toxic Bedrooms: Your Guide to a Safe Night's Sleep. "But while we are aware of the chemicals that surround us out in the world, how often do we look into what's in what we're sleeping on?" As Bader explains, there are no laws about what can be put in a mattress-or how much manufacturers have to disclose-so, as a result, some traditional models are packed with chemicals, and even carcinogens. "We're in the same position with mattresses as we were with cigarettes in the 1930's," Bader believes. Luckily, these days we can do something about it. "Instead of asking just whether a mattress is firm or comfortable," Bader stresses, "ask 'Is it safe?'"
Laura Wallace, marketing director for Savvy Rest Organic Mattresses, recommends also asking if it’s hypoallergenic, since most mattresses and pillows—even most organic ones—are welcoming habitats for allergens. “A nontoxic organic mattress should also be hypoallergenic, or you’ll just be trading one problem for another,” Wallace says.
To find out how to best do that, we asked Bader, Wallace and eco-mattress designer Danny Seo for their mattress-buying tips:
GET UNDER THE COVERS. When looking for a natural or organic mattress, make sure those certifications apply to the whole item and not just certain components, caution both experts. "You don't want something with just an organic cotton cover that then labels itself 'natural,'" cautions Seo, while Bader says you should not be afraid to "ask questions about the additives, the raw materials, even the production facility. It's a question of purity." At the OMI mattress factory, for example, employees are not allowed to smoke, wear fragrance, or use a fabric softener on their clothes to help keep the facility chemical-free-a big plus for customers with allergies or sensitivities.
KNOW YOUR MATERIALS. Once you've got the list of materials, what should you look for? In general, avoid mattresses made with chemical-based fire retardants, formaldehydes, pesticide-treated cottons, anti-fungicides, or other harsh chemicals. Also skip those "memory foam" mattresses, which are typically made with polyurethane foam-a derivative of petroleum that may be carcinogenic. Instead, look for naturally derived ingredients like rubber tree-based latex, soy-enhanced base foam, organic cotton, and sustainably harvested woods. These components are not only healthy-most are hypoallergenic, help keep dust mites, mold, and bacteria at bay and help regulate body temperature-but are also comfortable, working to cradle the body and support pressure points. Many of the leading natural mattress brands have also earned certification from governing boards like the USDA, GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard), Greenguard and Oeko-Tex, so look for those credentials, too. And don’t be afraid to ask what the labels “all-natural,” “pure” or other commonly used “green-washing” terms mean to determine if the manufacturer is trying sell you something that’s not as green as it seems, warns Wallace.
TAKE YOUR TIME. According to Lifekind, studies show that the average customer spends as little as two minutes laying on a mattress at the store-far too short for something so important. Instead, don't be afraid to take your time and test out a variety of sleeping positions to ensure compatibility. If you are ordering over the Internet, give the company a call: a well-trained expert should be able to make appropriate recommendations based on your height, weight, and sleeping habits. Many companies will also send a sample of their mattress material to you first to ensure there are no allergies, so just ask.
OUR MATTRESS PICKS:
Savvy Rest: www.savvyrest.com
Natural Care: www.naturalcare.com
Anatomical Global: www.ecomemoryfoam.com