Considering most people spend up to a third of their lifetimes asleep, you might want to think twice about what you’re laying your head on when you hit the hay.
We may worry about the chemicals in food, clothing or toys, but we often neglect mattresses, says Christopher Gavigan, CEO and executive director of Healthy Child Healthy World, whose new book (named after his organization) warns against the chemical contaminants found in conventional mattresses. “Traditional mattresses contain polyurethane foam and vinyl, which is essentially like sleeping on a bed of oil,” says Gavigan. “Additionally, the vinyl surfaces on many mattresses, especially crib mattresses, are made of polyvinyl chlorate (PVC), which has phthalate plasticizers.” Gavigan notes phthalates have been implicated as potential carcinogens and can cause endocrine and nervous system developmental problems.
Gavigan says another major mattress contaminant is synthetic fire-retardant coating of what are commonly known as PBDEs, or polybrominated diphenylethers. “These flame retardant chemicals have been linked to liver cancers, liver hyperactivities, thyroid problems, motor behavior problems and brain dysfunctions—it’s scary stuff.”
You could have trouble finding natural mattresses in most brick-and-mortar stores, but many are readily available online. If you have reservations about buying a mattress you haven’t tested, check to see if the retailer offers an unconditional 30-day (or longer) return policy.
Thinking about your sleeping surface is an important step toward positive overall health, says Gavigan. After all, “it’s the womb we all go back to every night.”
A popular fill for natural mattresses (especially for children), organic cotton is one of the gentlest, least allergenic choices you can make. It closely resembles a traditional innerspring mattress—soft yet firm.
Price Range: crib $200–$400; twin $500–$2,100; full $800–$2,400; queen $950–$2,800; king $1,350–$3,700.
Sleep on This: Barry Cik, founder of Naturepedic, started the company when he wanted a mattress for his grandson but could only find polyurethane foam and vinyl models. Now his company produces mattresses without the contamination hazards but with all the features parents want. Naturepedic mattresses have waterproof, PVC-free covers and flame-retardants from a blend of natural ingredients such as baking soda and silica.
Another popular fiber for mattresses, wool is both comfortable and inherently flame- and mildew-resistant. Wool mattresses are more supportive than you might think, due to the tightly-tufted, resilient fills they contain.
Price Range: crib $250–$800; twin $330–$1,050; full $390–$1,375; queen $475–$1,550; king $565–$1,950.
Sleep on This: Shepherd’s Dream offers a variety of wool options and recommends placing a mattress on a slatted base, which increases its longevity by providing optimal airflow.
If the word latex conjures up an image of chemical-laden synthetic foam, open your mind to natural latex. This popular substitute for conventional polyurethane foam comes from Pará rubber trees. Natural latex has anti-microbial properties, and it’s hypoallergenic and dust mite–resistant. These mattresses have a fair amount of cushion and give, and the latex core means you will be well supported.
Price Range: crib $300–$700; twin $700–$2,300; full $1,000–$3,400; queen $1,200–$3,400; king $1,350–$4,100.
Sleep on This: The Lifekind natural rubber latex mattress features a 6-inch rubber core surrounded by a double-stitched organic cotton cover. As an added bonus, the construction and materials provide an almost motion-free sleeping experience. Also check out Room & Board’s natural latex mattresses. They don’t require a box spring, contain no synthetic flame-retardant chemicals, and even have a soft side and a firm side, meaning you get two comfort choices. The mattresses, which are made in the United States, also feature organic cotton covers with wool padding.
Naturally mold- and mildew-resistant, a hemp mattress works well for people living in hot, humid climates. Expect hemp mattresses to feel denser and more solid than traditional options.
Price Range: twin: $850–$1,200; full: $1,000–$1,600; queen: $1,300–$2.000; king: $1,600–$2,500.
Sleep on This: The hemp mattresses from Vivetique come in three comfort levels—firm, extra firm and super firm—and offer a total “hemp experience” thanks to the hemp batting and hemp fabric that complete the mattress.
If you love the way memory foam molds to your body but hate the idea of synthetic chemicals underneath you when you’re catching Zs, consider natural foams. Soft and supportive, natural foam eliminates pressure points and contours to the body.
Price Range: crib $499; twin $1,100–$1,500; full $1,200–$2,000; queen $1,400–$2,400; king $1,500–$3,000.
Sleep on This: The Simmons Natural Care mattress from designer Danny Seo features a layer of natural, biodegradable materials (such as rubber-tree sap) and another layer of soy-based foam. The mattress, which has a 20-year warranty, is an affordable natural option that’s available at most JCPenney stores. Also consider Magniflex’s GeoEthics line, which features soy- and vegetable oil–based versions of the company’s popular Memoform foam.
Other Natural Fibers
Mattresses made from a combination of natural fibers such as coconut husks, mohair and lamb’s wool offer an affordable, safe sleepytime for your child. Fiber mattresses are generally firm but contain enough cushion to ensure a comfortable night’s rest.
Price Range: cradle $140; crib $375–$625; twin $580–$700.
Sleep on This: Perhaps you’ve never considered laying your child down on a bed of organic coconut husks, but that’s exactly what Natural Mat wants you to do. Its mattresses for babies and children are chemical-free, naturally fire-retardant and breathable. Each fiber has its own benefits, such as lamb’s wool’s natural antibacterial properties and mohair’s insulating power.
Alternatives to Buying a New Mattress
Not in the market for a new mattress? Gavigan says placing barriers like organic mattress pads and bedding between you and your sleep surface is still a good call. Some options:
These machine-washable wool felts can be used as mattress toppers, yoga pads or even baby blankets. ($170–$280, shepherdsdream.com)
Snugglemate Wool Topper
This layered cushion of thick wool batting is covered with organic cotton twill, creating a soft, breathable layer between you and your mattress. ($340–$675, shepherdsdream.com)
Natural Rubber Topper
The wavy, sculpted surface of the natural-latex topper provides pressure-point relief. ($656–$1,074, theorganicmattress.com)
Eco-Wool Mattress Pad
This water-repellant pad comes in a variety of sizes, from a “puddle pad” for a diaper station to California King. ($55–$255, theorganicmattress.com)
Kee-Ka Bumper Cover
If you choose to use a bumper in your baby’s crib, this organic cotton cover offers a budget-friendly alternative to conventional crib wraps. ($40, kee-ka.com)
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By Alyson McNutt English, Kiwi magazine