Shopping for children’s furniture can be confusing—trust me, I know! And I’m pretty savvy when it comes to reading labels and seeing through the greenwashing of marketing claims. Furniture purchasing is nothing like going to the grocery store where everything has an ingredient label you can read, with recognizable certifications like “organic” and “non-GMO.” Unfortunately, most furniture doesn’t come with a full materials list or perhaps ANY materials listing, let alone a list of additives like toxic adhesives or flame retardants.
Luckily, there are ways to identify safer furniture. Sometimes even just by looking at it!
MATERIALS TO AVOID
Plastic furniture can seem like a good deal because it’s light, usually cheap, and seemingly indestructible. But the flip side is plastic will last longer than your and your child’s lifespan combined. And that’s not a good thing. As you’ve likely heard by now, plastic is loaded with toxic chemicals that can harm your health as well as the environment. These include phthalates, which are endocrine disruptors that are linked to reproductive malformations in baby boys, reduced fertility, developmental disorders, asthma, and increased allergic reactions; and Bisphenol-A, or BPA, which is a hormone disruptor linked to a whole host of health problems (its replacement BPS, another chemical in the Bisphenol family, may be toxic as well, showing some of the same hormone-disrupting effects as BPA).
Vinyl is a plastic made of the same material as polyvinyl chloride, which is widely known as one of the most toxic plastics on earth, with phthalates added to make it soft. It can be found in crib mattress covers, sofa covers, and other waterproof items. From production, use, and ultimately disposal, vinyl releases chemicals that have been linked to cancer, birth defects and other serious chronic diseases. There is no safe way to manufacture, use, or dispose of this toxic material.
Polyurethane foam is a common material used to make furniture, play mats, and mattresses. Because polyurethane foam is made from materials derived from fossil fuels and is therefore highly combustible, flame retardants are added to make it “safer.” Several scientific studies have linked flame retardants to many health impacts including the various effects of endocrine disruption, lower IQ, hyperactivity, altered sexual development, altered neurodevelopment, other adverse pregnancy outcomes, fertility issues, thyroid dysfunction, and cancer.
Wood furniture is generally a safer bet than plastic, especially if it’s “naked”, i.e. simply sanded without any finishes. Be sure that if it is painted, it’s been done with VOC-free paint, and shellacked with non-toxic material. Companies that aren’t using these toxic finishes will be proud to say so and usually list that on their website or somewhere on the product’s tag. Another option is to buy something naked and finish yourself with a VOC-free paint, which is widely available at every hardware store. When it comes to wood, it’s a good reminder to avoid particle board, which can emit toxic formaldehyde.
Sewn or Tongue & Groove Materials
Always examine how a piece of furniture is put together. Look for fabrics that have been stitched or wood that’s been joined with tongue and groove construction. These are both ways to avoid adhesives and glues, which are surprisingly common in fabrics and hard furniture. What’s in them is mostly kept secret as proprietary information, but a reason to avoid them is that they can contain numerous chemicals of harm. For example, one commonly-used chemical, nPB, is linked to irritation of the eyes and respiratory tract; neurological effects like dizziness, confusion, and headaches; and cancer.
Opting for metal furniture made from wrought iron or steel, preferable over aluminum, is another way to avoid toxic adhesives or construction materials that can off-gas once in your home. Make sure that the metal is pure and contains no other metals.
Natural Fabrics like Cotton, Wool and Jute
As natural material, cotton is much less flammable than foam, which means that mattresses made with cotton can meet federal flammability standards without the addition of toxic flame retardant chemicals. Opting for organic cotton ensures it’s non-GMO and grown without synthetic pesticides. Wool is also naturally flame-resistant, and when made to organic standards, doesn’t contain harmful residues. Other natural fibers like jute or seagrass can provide alternatives that are very durable for rugs and furniture as well.
A couple of other general tips to keep in mind:
- BEWARE of antiques. Many contain lead paint, especially if something is “distressed” in appearance. If you can’t identify what it is made from or coated with, think again.
- SKIP additional items such as rug pads which aren’t necessary considering the foam used for most contain harmful Fire Retardants. (Opt for heavy furniture, staples, or double sided tape when needed to hold carpeting in place.)
- PASS on the stain resistant items and treatments which use harmful chemicals that will ultimately end up in your home and likely on your hands and in your body.
- SNIFF test, while this isn’t scientific, if the item stinks in the store, you probably don’t want to bring it into your home.