LILA S. IN MICHIGAN ASKS: My child is ready to graduate from her crib. What are the safest options for a twin mattress? I read about flame retardants when I was pregnant, but our crib mattress was a gift. This time I’m choosing the mattress and want to buy the healthiest one. Also, any thoughts on safe guest mattresses for visiting grandparents? Thanks.
MOM DETECTIVE ANSWERS:
Hi Lila, Great question. Mattresses can be confusing and, unfortunately, require some sleuthing to find the safest option. They can be made of various materials. Some, like foam, are more likely than others to contain flame retardants and other chemicals that you might not want in your home. These chemicals have been linked to a variety of health concerns, including endocrine disruption, hyperactivity, altered sexual development, fertility issues, thyroid dysfunction, and cancer.
We spend almost a third of our lives in bed. Kids sleep more than adults and their bodies are still developing, so they’re especially vulnerable to potentially harmful chemicals in their mattress. It’s good common sense to create the healthiest sleep environment possible. This means a safe mattress plus bedding like mattress pads and sheets. These are frequently treated with stain-proofing, water-proofing, and anti-wrinkle chemicals worth avoiding.
Here’s some background information on mattresses before we tackle what to look for when shopping.
Most modern mattresses are made of polyurethane foam, which is derived from fossil fuels and highly combustible. Even foams marketed as “memory” or “plant-based” are mostly made of polyurethane. Mattresses can also be made from natural materials like wool and cotton plus metal coils. A springy option that’s fossil-fuel free is natural latex. These are less flammable than foam, and therefore less likely to require flame retardant chemicals to meet flammability standards. Still, foam can lurk even in “natural” mattresses where it’s often used as core padding. Wool batting is preferable.
Foam releases potentially harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into your home. You know that new mattress smell? Even if you air out a new mattress and the odor dies down (that’s called off-gassing), VOCs from foam can actually still be emitting for years. Some VOCs have been linked to respiratory issues, including asthma. Others can increase the risk of cancer. One typical component of foam is isocyanate, which can cause headaches and respiratory irritation.
Mattresses can also contain chemicals of concern in the glues that bind them as well as in antimicrobial or stain-proof additives. Some mattresses—especially ones marketed for kids—are encased with waterproof polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Keep in mind that glues, PVC, and other chemicals can release VOCs into your home. They don’t just stay put in a bedroom.
When you researched crib mattresses, you likely learned that they’re required to conform to federal flammability standards. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is in charge of regulating chemicals in consumer products, including mattresses and mattress pads.
Flammability standards were enacted when smoking was more prevalent than it is today, an effort to prevent cigarette embers from leading to deadly fires while people slept. Today, flammability testing involves exposing mattresses to open flames much larger than embers for an extended period.
Some of the ways manufacturers can meet flammability standards are safer for human health than others. Flame retardant chemicals are frequently used, some say unnecessarily. Over the years, the types of flame retardants predominantly used have shifted as studies question their safety. PBDE, for example, builds up in fat tissue, blood, and breast milk. Today, many flame retardant chemicals are being scrutinized. Firefighters have demanded bans on flame retardants in consumer products and multiple states have started to phase flame retardants out of various items, especially those marketed for babies.
Despite this and the fact that nontoxic fireproof barrier materials, including wool, are available, many mattresses are still treated with harmful flame retardants. These include antimony, a heavy metal linked to cancer, and fiberglass, which is a respiratory and skin irritant.
Finding the Safest Mattress
Okay, now for what you really want: shopping advice. Here’s what to buy:
YES: Natural materials like cotton, wool, and natural latex, which do not emit VOCs.
NO: Avoid flame retardants and PVC plus antimicrobial and stain- proofing chemicals.
To find a safe mattress, give yourself time. Rushing while shopping means you might wind up with something you don’t want. You’re going to have this mattress for many years!
While it may be tempting to purchase a safe mattress only for your child and not fret as much about your occasional guest, keep in mind that VOCs emitted from any mattress in your home, regardless of who sleeps on it or how often, will be in the air you breathe and in the household dust. Ditto flame retardants. So buy the safest version you can afford for all mattresses.
Here are five mattress-buying tips to help you shop:
- Don’t rely solely on labels. Manufacturers don’t have to disclose all the materials in a mattress. Some required information is listed on a tag, but specific flame retardants used won’t likely be spelled out. Ask questions! If a salesperson isn’t aware of what’s being used to meet flammability standards, contact a manufacturer directly.
- A solid budget option. Futons can be a well-priced option, especially for houseguests. Some are even made with organic cotton. Most futons have a core to keep them from becoming too flat and hard over time—seek out those with wool, not foam, cores.
- Watch for greenwashing. There’s a lot on the market being touted as “organic” and “natural.” Question these claims, as exaggeration and outright lying are disturbingly prevalent.
- Seek certification. If a marketing claim interests you, make sure the mattress company provides solid certification to back it up, like Global Organic Textile Standard, UL Greenguard Certification, and Oeko-Tex. Keep in mind that sometimes certification is only for one part of a mattress.
- Waterproof without plastic. Wool is an excellent waterproofing barrier for children transitioning from cribs. Simply spread a thin wool blanket over your new mattress instead of PVC, laminates, or any plastic.
Shopping for a safe twin mattress may feel daunting, but it’s doable once you know what to look for. There’s something empowering about knowing you can reduce exposure to flame retardants, VOCs, and other potentially harmful chemicals in your child’s bedroom and throughout your entire home. It’s well worth the effort. The good news is that conscious consumers like you have been asking for safer mattresses. Manufacturers have been and will continue to respond to this critical demand.