What’s hiding in your mattress? The guide to toxin free sleep

March 29, 2015

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Tossing and turning and in the market for a new mattress? I’ve gotten a lot of questions from readers lately inquiring about “least toxic” mattress options and most have them have been plain confused about what mattress is legitimately green. The world of green claims is always a bit of a wild west, but mattress companies have been proficient at “padding” the truth, and even faking it altogether. I called up Sleep Country’s main phone number and asked them whether they had any mattresses with natural materials and the rep told me all their mattresses were “100% natural.” Really? What about your mattresses made of polyurethane foam? “Oh that’s illegal. We don’t use that.” Really? The guy must have either been enjoying making up random facts or just had a real desire to please his customers. Either way, he was full of shit. Conventional mattresses may now be free of chemical flame retardants in the foam (they use barrier fabrics instead, which may be embedded with flame retardants, see What’s In That Flame Retardant Barrier, below), but they are still made of run of the mill petroleum-derived polyurethane foam. I review a couple mainstream options (including Sealy/Serta/Simmons and Tempur-pedic) in my latest column on mattresses.  But what about the mattresses that are claiming to be green? There is so much BS out there, I couldn’t fit it all into one column, so I’m sharing all my extra research here.

KEETSA: You can accuse these guys of being greenwashy with their green tea-infused memory foams made of 12 per cent castor oil and a whopping 88% conventional polyurethane. But at least they disclose their contents, unlike many other pseudo natural mattress companies. Like, Simmons, Sealy and pretty much every major foam maker, their foam is certified by CertiPur (see label guide for more info), but where they differ is in offering a natural latex option (pricier, but it’s certified to higher VOC standards by Germany’s Eco Institute), as well as some ticking made of certified organic cotton ticking or a less impressive Hemp Blend (with just 12 per cent hemp, the rest is mostly polyester with conventional cotton). The latex mattress is flame retardant-free. Otherwise, mattresses do have added flame retardant chems just not PBDE and it’s tested by Oeko-Tex (see label guide below).

NATUREPEDIC: One of the pioneers of the natural/organic mattress movement. This Ohio company comes with a lot of good certifications. Their latex is certified organic by GOLS (see label guide) so it has to be 95% organic latex by weight. One of the rare brands offering mattresses that have been fully certified by the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) (rather than just certifying their cotton covers and whatnot).  I like that their beds use American grown certified organic cotton. All their mattresses are Greenguard certified, as well. Extensive certificates shown online. Update: they no longer ad baking soda/silica to their wool-free mattresses. All their mattresses are free of added flame retardants. 

NATURA: This Canadian company has changed ownership several times now and it’s been dwindling in retail presence. It offers a range of products, most of the more affordable ones are synthetic/natural blends, admits their customer service reps (70% natural, 30% synthetic). Only their “organic” line uses “all natural latex” with certified organic New Zealand wool toppers and certified organic cotton ticking. No mention of certification on that rubber. They don’t share full certificates online.

SLEEPTEK/OBASAN: This Ottawa-based company was my Ecoholic pick of the week in my NOW column. I like that their materials are straight forward and their organic rubber (from Sri Lanka), organic cotton (from Peruvian coops) and organic wool (from Argentina) are all well certified by respected certifiers (they even provide their full certificates online). I asked them about Essentia’s suggestion that all natural latex beds are made with styrene butadiene, phenol-urea, and more. Sleeptek stands by the statement that their latex is 96 to 97% organic rubber and 3 to 4 % zinc oxide, nothing else. Plus since it’s GOLS certified organic, it actually has to be 95% or more certified organic latex. The beds are made in Canada but they say they bake their GOLS certified organic latex on site in Sri Lanka to avoid having to add preserving chemicals. All certificates shown online.


Back in 2009, I praised this company as the world’s only natural latex company in my Ecoholic Home book. Alas, the Federal Trade Commission cracked down on mattress claims in 2013 and said these guys had to stop telling people they were zero-VOC, chemical-free and made with 100% natural materials. Now, the company makes a good point about how even zero-VOC paints are not totally VOC-free, but there is an agreed upon standard for paint, which doesn’t really exist for bedding. Essentia posts lab tests that show its emissions are lower than Greenguard or CertiPur allows. However, only the glues in its mattresses are Greenguard certified. Actually, pretty much everything but its “natural” memory foam is certified in some way or another (ie their cotton covers are certified organic and latex cores are certified by Eurolatex – see label guide). Why not their signature memory foam? They tell me the costs of certification are too high, that they can’t afford $30,000 a year for Greenguard certification. Fair enough. But Naturepedic has nearly a dozen Greenguard certifications for their mattresses and accessories (costing them about $15,000). And if that’s too expensive Eco Institut has even tougher VOC standards and only charges 300 to 3000 Euros, depending on company sales. Shouldn’t be an excuse in this high priced product category. Essentia isn’t making bars of soap in its living room and charging $4 a bar.

Essentia says it posts the chemical ingredients of its mattresses on its website for all to see, although it’s kind of hard to find so here’s a direct link. Besides latex sap, there are a lot of surprising ingredients listed for a company that used to claim it’s “chemical-free” – stuff like styene butadiene copolymers (aka synthetic rubber, ahem) and diphenyl diisocyanate (used to produce polyurethane foams). Essentia says other “natural latex” foam (not just their latex memory foam) also uses these ingredients. In truth, one mattress (non-Essentia) salesman told me lots of brands claim to use natural latex when they’re using synthetic/natural blends. Some will tell you, like Ikea and Natura. Others, maybe not. Essentia won’t actually disclose what percentage of their latex is actually natural. They say it’s proprietary.  But come on. At least the Keetsa mattress company tells you it’s only 12% castor oil. And Ikea discloses whether their latex is 70% natural or totally synthetic. I think Essentia makes a high performance bed but it’s clear they do play fast and loose with their natural claims. Until they get third party certification of their memory foam or their mattresses as a whole, my reservations remain: if their cotton, glues and latex core can be certified, why not their “natural” memory foam?


The label guide

There are so many certifiers out there, and each brand claims it has the toughest certification proving it’s the greenest. But is it?

CertiPUR-US: This European foam industry-run body certifies polyurethane foam (including memory foam mattress) so that total air-polluting VOCs fall below .5 mg/m³ (or milligrams per cubic metre), and only allows .1 mg/m³ formaldehyde. That’s pretty good, but let’s be honest here, virtually every North American mattress company now passes this standard. It’s not the most stringent on the block. However, CertiPUR did tell me they spot test brands and regularly reject products for failing emissions. It also tests for a handful of flame retardants, phthalates, butadiene and heavy metals.

GREENGUARDThis third party seal only regulates VOCs, like formaldehyde. It doesn’t apply to heavy metals, flame retardants or any other contaminant. Still, it’s pretty good. It caps total VOCs so they fall below .25 mg/m³. Some mattress companies have their whole beds certified by Greenguard (ie Naturepedic) but others only use Greenguard certified glues (ie Essentia).

EUROLATEX: This is another seal, run by the European latex companies. It caps total VOCs at .5mg/m³ like CertiPUT, but higher than Greenguard. However, it tests for a few more things, including a number of pesticides, vinyl chloride, heavy metals, and butadiene.

ECO INSTITUT: This independent German certifier has the toughest standard for total VOC emissions in mattresses at .2 mg/m³ (or 20 µg/m³). It also tests for pesticides, heavy metals, triclosan, phthalates and the most extensive list of flame retardants.

G.O.L.S. (Global Organic Latex Standard): This means your the latex used to make your mattress is from certified organic sources, with some fair labour provisions. Child labour and forced labour are banned and workers can’t work more than 48 hours a week and have the right to form a union.

G.O.T.S (Global Organic Textile Standard): This means the cotton or some other material used to make your mattress is certified organic by what’s considered by many to be the world’s best organic textile certifier. Goes beyond just making sure the cotton is organic, workers have to be treated well too.



Unlike sofas, mattresses haven’t had to add pounds of flame retardants to their easily ignitable plastic foams for quite some time. They’ve been allowed to create flame retardancy with physical barriers. How exactly do they do this? There are a few options. Many use rayon or other cellulose-based textiles treated with silica. There’s also cotton treated with boric acid (less desirable now that boric acid is being investigated for hormone disrupting potential in the EU) or modacrylic fibre (said to contain carcinogenic antimony oxide) or melamine resin (which technically contains formaldehyde). Some use kevlar (yes, that bulletproof material). The most natural ones just wrap their beds in wool.