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Ask The Green Mama: How to find a safe mattress?

I’ve gotta get my son a new bed and mattress. Last time I spent a fortune on the mattress (as I didn’t want his face pressed up against poison and retardants, etc). Gonna have to get him a single now – what brands do you suggest? What should I look for? The store I’ve looked into sells primarily futons and they suggest a cotton and foam futon. What do you think?


Thank you Chris for being such a thoughtful green papa. I can relate to the difficult leap from going from a crib (or co-sleeper) sized mattress to a child (i.e. adult) size one and the corresponding price jump. In my experience, it is possible to find a truly natural (READ: nontoxic) crib mattress for around the same price as a conventional crib mattress, but that finding a natural adult-size mattress is more expensive than the conventional alternatives.

What are you looking for in a natural mattress?

1. Read the article about how & why to find a natural mattress.

It’s really useful. One of the important things to note is that there is no organic standard for mattresses so a mattress claiming to be organic may contain just as many toxic chemicals as any old conventional mattress. In other words, part of what knowing WHAT TO look for is knowing WHAT TO AVOID.

2. Look for natural materials that are naturally flame resistant such as wool and cotton.

Natural materials, densely packed, are extremely hard to catch on fire (try lighting a big, fat phone book on fire some time). Unfortunately, what’s easy to catch on fire is petroleum and petroleum by products which includes polyester foam. In order to keep typical foam from easily catching on fire, North America requires that it be dosed in chemical flame retardants. These flame retardants, as you already know, have been linked to a variety of health concerns including neurotoxic issues, obesity, and certain cancers.

3. Look for breathability

A mattress wrapped in PVC is both exposing a child (or an adult) to the plasticizers and fire retardants of PVC and is trapping in any moisture to which the mattress becomes exposed. I’ve seen studies that suggest this can lead to the development of mould and dangerous gasses. Instead, get a wool or cotton puddle pad of your own to protect your mattresses. (Plus sleeping on a vinyl cover is not comfortable. Just because their kids doesn’t mean they will fall for that.)

4. You can find comfort & affordability

The most affordable are beds that are likely to also be totally safe are the all cotton futons. Most North American adults will usually find a futon too hard (although young children don’t seem to mind) and will prefer a typical box spring and mattress set up or a “memory foam” style option. Both can be found made of natural materials, such as natural latex, cotton, wool, and horse-hair. Check out our review section for more ideas. Or, if you really can’t afford any of these (and we couldn’t for a long time), try making your own mattress.

5. Beds get “safer” over time but mattresses don’t. The bed matters less than and is a great place to look for hand-me-downs.

While mattresses don’t get safer over time (and can get more “dangerous” according to some research with mould and off-gassing increasing), furniture does. Thus, from a whole health perspective, the bed matters a lot less than the mattress. But it still matters. In fact, a lot. Because one stinky crib can pollute an entire home–primarily with formaldehyde–enough to significantly increase your child’s (and possibly your own) chances of developing asthma and possibly cancer. Ideally, you will find wooden furniture finished with a water-based finish. (Read about how to find health paints and finishes.) If you can’t find this ideal (new or used) and you don’t have to worry about your child chewing on the bed, then rest assured knowing that the bed or crib has finished off-gassing most of its formaldehyde by about seven years.

I hope this helps! Never be afraid to ask to see the Material & Safety Data Sheets on any purchase which will show all the ingredients that make it up. And always ask HOW they are meeting the flammability standards (and make sure the answer is through some natural material not a chemical addition.)

Learn more about how to green your home or life in the Green Mama book or by Asking the Green Mama a question. And, of course, don’t forget to sign up for our truly awesome newsletter for regular doses of good advice (or just a little inspiration).