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Organic Mattress: What Is It & How to Choose One

The 21st century is a chemical world; everything we touch, sit on, sleep on or eat on has some type of chemical process done to it. We live in a plastic world. We may even sleep on plastic, especially if we are an infant or toddler.

New studies are being conducted to determine just how low levels of chemicals affect us. In the past, studies just focused on extreme exposure (how much can we give rats at one time to cause cancer). We are now discovering that these chemicals are everywhere and that we are now continuously exposed to low levels of these chemicals every day. Our indoor air may be more polluted than the outdoor air we breathe.

The two big players of harmful chemicals in mattresses and bedding are Flame Retardants, and "Phthalates".

Phthalates are chemical compounds widely used to make plastics soft and easy to work with (among other uses). It is that ‘New Car' smell. These Phthalates out gas and are believed by some to migrate to our bodies. These chemicals are believed to affect our reproductive development, especially in developing fetuses.

In July of 2007 the Federal Government passed a law stating that all mattresses must be flame retardant. Now, after three years of experience, we are discovering the flame retardants are as harmful as the flames. The chemicals used in Flame Retardants are many, but the worst one is Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE). This chemical has been linked to many health hazards such as liver, thyroid and neuro developmental toxicity. It may also reduce fertility in humans at levels found in common households.

People are now moving away from traditional synthetic products and deciding on more organically grown and sustainable products. If you eat organic, wear natural or organic clothes you now have the opportunity to purchase natural and organic mattresses and bedding. According to the Specialty Sleep Association, seventy-nine percent (79%) of consumers surveyed stated they would choose a mattress with an environmentally friendly claim that they could understand and trust to be complete and truthful. But how do you know what the truth is? If you look on the internet, there is an overwhelming amount of information and misinformation out there. Who can you believe and trust. When we choose natural and organic products for our home, they not only benefit the environment, they benefit us more directly.

What Makes a Mattress Natural or Organic

It should be constructed with at least 95% all natural and/or organic materials. It is difficult to have all organic materials as some items such as metal zippers, Steel Springs, Kevlar tapes and/or threads may have some non-natural materials in them. However, many organic mattresses contain up to 99% natural materials in them.

Organic and Natural mattresses are made of the following materials:

Natural or Organic CottonNatural or Organic WoolNatural or Organic Silk, Hemp, Bamboo, or Horse HairNatural or Organic Latex Rubber (from the rubber tree (Hevea brasiliensis)Coir Fiber (Shredded Coconut Shells)Metal (Steel) for InnerspringsWood for foundations

All natural and organic mattresses use nontoxic materials for flame retardants. The most commonly used materials are wool, rayon and a mechanical cloth usually made with baking soda and hydrated silica.

Wool is an excellent natural flame retardant. It is difficult to ignite due to a higher ignition temperature. It has a low flame-spread and self extinguishes. It does not melt or drip and it does not emit toxic smoke (compared to chemical fibers).

The mechanical cloth is also an excellent non-toxic fire barrier. Silica can also be used with rayon which is a cellulose material (usually made from wood pulp) or with a cotton material. Many also use baking soda in addition to the silica.

If the retailer does not know what flame retardant is in the mattress, or if they say it is ‘proprietary' ask for a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS). This will have all the pertinent information as to the hazards of the material. If they will not disclose the flame retardant, the mattress is not organic or natural.

How Can I Tell If a Mattress Is Organic or Natural

Many Organic manufacturers say they have ‘the only real organic or natural' mattress on the market. Beware of manufacturers and retailers that tell you they are the only ‘true' organic mattress on the market. This is marketing hype as there are a number of reputable manufacturers selling in this market.

On the flip side, there are many conventional mattress manufacturers jumping on the natural and organic bandwagon. Just because a manufacturer puts an organic cotton cover on the mattress doesn't make it an organic mattress. Also, be aware of ‘bio foams'. They are not organic and natural. They contain only a fraction (up to 20% of soy or caster bean oil), and the balance is petroleum based. I am not stating that these are ‘bad' mattresses, just that they are not ‘organic' or ‘100% natural'.

Also, not all latex is natural or organic. Synthetic latex is 100% petroleum based and synthetic blended latex is usually 60% or 70% petroleum based. Natural latex is 100% latex from the rubber tree with some sulfur, zinc, clays and soaps used in manufacturing. Latex mattresses with synthetic or blended latex are not considered natural or organic. Also, don't be confused by Talalay vs. Dunlop latex. These are processes of manufacture. Dunlop is the original process using a heated mold and Talalay is a newer process using vacuum technology along with freezing and heating.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is now jumping into the fray and announced its long-awaited proposed changes to the "Green Guides" have been released. According to the FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz "The proposed updates to the Green Guides will help business better align their product claims with consumer expectations."

However, the proposed changes will not address the use of the terms ‘sustainable,' natural,' and ‘organic.' Only the USDA has defined the use of ‘natural' as it pertains to food. "Organic' is defined by the USDA as it is applied to crops. Only crops can be certified as organic by the USDA. When it comes to textiles, the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certifies. (Source: USDA, Global Organic Textile Standard).

In order to be ‘Organic' 95% or more of the fibers must be of certified organic origin. The remaining balance up to 5% may be made of non-organic fibers including defined regenerated and synthetic fibers. Blending is not permitted. (Source: Specialty Sleep Association: Global Organic Textile Standard).

Natural is the tough one, as this phrase is not governed by any federal agency or any other agency at this time. According to the Specialty Sleep Association the USDA guidance recommends a minimum of 12% biobased (biological products, forestry materials, or renewable domestic agricultural materials, including plant, animal, or marine materials). So many retailers are passing off blended latex or bio-foams as natural. They are not 100% natural only a percentage (usually only 40% maximum) natural.

Many mattress manufacturers say they are ‘Greenguard' certified. This certification is not a natural or organic certification. The Greenguard certification signifies that the product has been tested by a third-party for emissions. This is used to certify low volatile organic compound emissions (VOC's). Many chemicals have low VOC's. In mattresses, these chemicals are the glues that they use to keep the mattress sections together. This is not necessarily a bad thing however; being Greenguard certified just means that the mattress has low VOC's.

The best way to tell what is in a mattress is to look at the law label. This white label (usually with the words ‘Do Not Remove Under Penalty of Law') is attached to the head, foot or bottom of the mattress. The law label will show what the mattress is made of. Do not assume that the latex is 100% natural latex unless it states 100% natural latex. If the outside cover says 100% organic on it the law label should also say 100% organic cotton on it (there should be no polyester blended with the cotton). Also, there should be no ‘Quilt Flex' (a non natural material) quilted to the organic cover. The wool should not be bleached (bleaching takes out the natural lanolin in the wool). Organic wool should be USDA certified.

Unfortunately the law label will not show what flame retardant was used. You must ask the retailer what it is.


Some manufacturers and retailers will stretch the ‘green', ‘natural' and ‘organic' story to sell more mattresses. As a consumer you are justified in asking the tough questions necessary to receive the best mattress available. It's good to ask questions, don't feel bad about this.

Your all natural organic mattress will cost a bit more than a conventional mattress however; in the long run it is a good investment in your health. We spend at least one third of our lives on our mattress, let's make sure that time is not hurting us, but giving us the best healthful sleep possible. Do the research and find the best mattress for your health and budget.

To find out more about organic/natural bedding solutions, visit The Sleep Store.


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