Buying an organic mattress

Buying an organic mattress

We have been in need of a new crib mattress. While we are expecting our third baby (and you’d think we already had a crib mattress), we have decided to keep our 2 year old on it in his crib for now. We bought a second hand crib from a neighbor but didn’t want to use the mattress. Conventional crib mattresses are filled with petroleum based polyurethane foam, which is highly flammable. This usually leads to the mattress being covered with flame retardant chemicals (PBDEs) that we are trying to avoid in our home when possible. Traditional mattresses can also have other chemicals in them, and many of these chemicals off-gas (see What’s the Problem with Conventional Mattresses below). This is really not something I want my newborn spending 2/3 of his life on. The crib mattress we used with my older two children is more than a decade old and I figured it had off-gassed most everything already. We wrapped it in an organic wool mattress pad and organic cotton sheets and felt good enough about it. But with this baby, I know more and am less comfortable using a traditional mattress. So I was on the market for a healthier alternative.

Buying a natural/organic mattress is a big deal. They are expensive. It’s something I almost did with my second child, but the cost deterred me. To off-set some of that this time, I ended up buying used furniture for the baby’s room so that I could spend my money on a better mattress instead. Parents don’t blink an eye when it comes time to buy a $400 crib, but then they skimp on the mattress. Well, I did the opposite–I spent $50 on a 3-year old used crib and was willing to spend up to $400 on a natural/organic mattress. If you’re looking for one, here’s what you can expect.

There are two types of mattresses available. The cheaper is an innerspring mattress, much like the one you probably sleep on. They tend to run $200-300. The steel coils are usually wrapped in organic cotton or wool, and then the mattress is covered in wool (which is fire resistant and provides a natural barrier to dust mites). Wool can also absorb up to 30 times its weight in moisture, so it’s great for sweaty sleepers. It also is breathable and good at regulating body temperature–keeping baby warm in the winter and cooler in the summer. There are some manufacturers (Naturepedic) that have opted not to use wool, as some people can be allergic to it. Instead, they wrap their mattresses in food-grade plastic (polyethelene). Their mattresses get good reviews on Amazon, but I wasn’t about to spend hundreds of dollars on an organic cotton mattress that was then wrapped in plastic. I don’t care if it is food grade. I also felt uncertain about how the mattress met flammability codes. Mattresses with wool are naturally flame resistant. Naturepedic wasn’t especially clear on their website about how their mattresses were flame resisent (“exclusive fire protection system features a non-toxic and naturally derived fire barrier system that is safe and effective”) and this made me nervous.

The second type of natural mattress is one made of natural latex. This is similar to the memory foam beds out there. They tend to be a bit more expensive ($400-600), but the entire mattress is latex, making it super comfy and easy to work with (no need to worry about exact measurements as you can squeeze a slightly larger mattress into the crib, and changing sheets is also easier as you can just bend the corners of the mattress to put them on). I found latex mattresses almost always came surrounded in wool, and then sometimes with a bamboo cover or organic cotton one. These mattresses were either 4″ or 6″ deep.

It was very hard to decide on what mattress to get. I spent weeks researching mattresses and was frustrated by how difficult it was to find information about the materials (was the wool organic or chemically treated, how was the latex processed, what were the sources for these materials, etc.). It was especially challenging shopping online when there are so few online reviews of natural and organic mattresses. Many companies make their own organic mattresses (Daxstores, Purerest) but without any consumer feedback, I just wasn’t certain. It’s not easy buying a mattress online without touching and feeling it, and being able to ask detailed questions. I almost bought one from Daxstores, a company I have bought bedding from before that has excellent customer service, but was worried about the cost of shipping the mattress back if I needed to return it.

We ended up getting one made by a local company from a local eco home goods store. It was a 6″ natural latex mattress with a wool/bamboo blend cover. It retailed for $475 and we had a 25% off coupon. Now we just need a mattress pad/protector and we are set. We plan on using this mattress for 3-4 years, putting it on a toddler bed to get more of our money’s worth. And we are considering getting our older two children natural rubber twin mattresses (which seem to run about $800-1000) in the future and possibly one for ourselves. We’ll see though. That is definitely a serious investment.

So what’s the problem with conventional mattresses?

According to Dr. Alan Greene, author of Raising Baby Green:

  • Conventional mattresses are often covered in the polyvinyl chloride (PVC), widely considered to be one of the most toxic and environmentally unfriendly plastics in use today.
  • Phthalates, associated with asthma, reproductive effects, and cancer, make up 30% by weight of the PVC surface of a typical crib mattress. The FDA and Consumer Product Safety Commission have issued general warnings regarding the use of phthalates, yet the PVC surfaces of baby mattresses still contain phthalates.
  • The surface of a typical mattress is also treated with toxic fire-retardant chemicals such as antimony, arsenic, and phosphorous. Various biocides are often added as well.
  • Polyurethane foam, the predominant filling material used in baby mattresses, typically contains various problematic ingredients, including chemical catalysts, surfactants, emulsifiers, pigments, and other chemical additives. These frequently include formaldehyde, benzene, toluene, and organotin compounds.
  • Polyurethane foam (essentially solid petroluem) is extremely flammable. To combat this hazard, toxic industrial fire retardants (PBDEs) are added.
  • There is some speculation that the off-gassing of mattresses may be a factor in SIDS, especially if baby’s placed on his stomach such that his face is close to the mattress.

Where can I buy a greener mattress?

  • Suite Sleep (make sure to read their page on how their mattresses are made)
  • Daxstores (they carry some of the best priced innerspring and latex mattresses)
  • Purerest (I have no personal experience with this store but Dr. Alan Greene recommends them)
  • Ecobedroom (also recommended by Dr. Greene)
  • Nontoxic (also recommended by Dr. Greene)
  • Natura (I have purchased other bedding products from them before and have been very pleased)

Are there other ways to make my bed healthier if I can’t afford a new mattress?

  • Consider buying a natural/organic mattress pad or topper. I have purchased several wool mattress pads that I hope create some of a barrier between a conventional mattress and the person sleeping on it. Wool mattress toppers can be bought several inches thick, providing a very plush sleeping experience.
  • Buy organic cotton sheets. Gaiam sells organic bedding for a very reasonable price. Many of the stores mentioned above for mattresses also sell organic bedding.
  • Buy a natural pillow. I have used a natural latex pillow from Natura for 4 years and love it! My children sleep on shredded natural latex pillows, which are more affordable than solid latex. I think that many organic wool filled pillows seem very nice.

Why choose organic?

  • While latex is not organic, other bedding materials like cotton and wool can be. Latex can be synthetic or natural though. See this site for more information about natural latex.
  • 25% of the world’s insecticides are used on cotton, making it the most insecticide-intensive crop in the world.
  • Chemicals used to grow cotton (pesticides, insecticides, and fertilizers) can end up in the cotton that your baby’s skin lies against. The porous nature of skin allows it to absorb what it comes into contact with. Organic cotton is not just good for the planet, but also for your baby.
  • According to Dr. Alan Greene, organic wool is produced without detergents, dyes, and other irritating substances. Organic wool also comes from sheep that weren’t dunked into a pool of toxic organophosphate “dip” to kill parasites, as are conventially raised sheep. Instead, beneficial insects and ntural repellents handle parasites.
  • Organic wool comes from herds of sheep that are carefully managed to protect the land from damage caused by overgrazing.

I’ll try to post an update after our baby is born to report on how we like our mattress.