Decades ago, our parents and grandparents slept on mattresses stuffed with natural materials, such as feathers, natural latex from rubber trees, straw and wool. While modern polyurethane foam may add a certain bounce to our beds, it comes with trade-offs. Specifically, the chemicals used to improve foam performance or to make it flame retardant.
Jackie Cuddy, a 35-year employee of Wallingford’s Bedrooms and More, which sells natural alternatives to polyurethane mattresses, says many customers visit the store after having a bad experience—in particular, with memory foam products. People complain to her about odors, teary eyes and shortness of breath after being exposed to polyurethane products. “Memory foam…is polyurethane foam that’s been tweaked so it’s even more toxic,” she says.
Erika Schreder, science director at Seattle’s nonprofit Washington Toxics Coalition, says the subject of toxics in mattresses is complicated, particularly because most companies don’t disclose what chemicals they might be using in their products, and because they don’t usually make the foam, but purchase it from another manufacturer, who may or may not have treated it with flame retardants.
The subject of toxics in mattresses is complicated, particularly because most companies don’t disclose what chemicals they might be using in their products.
“The safest bet is always natural materials,” says Rachel Koller, a Seattle environmental health consultant and owner of the website Healthy Home Focus. That means mattresses, futons, crib beds and pads that are made with wool and/or natural latex—both of which are naturally flame retardant enough to meet government guidelines—and free of vinyl and toxic flame retardants.
Even if toxics aren’t your first concern, you may be interested in avoiding petroleum products, or might just prefer the feel of more natural materials.
When shopping for natural bedding, it’s easy to go into option overload without a few pointers, as some product labeling is misleading. For example, dozens of synthetic products are labeled “latex,” although only those labeled “botanical natural latex” are guaranteed to come from a tree, and not a chemistry lab. Cuddy suggests asking a few key questions: Do you want certified organic wool or cotton, or can you go with a standard fiber? Will botanical latex suffice, or do you want only that from a certified organic forest, which guarantees that the rubber trees are sustainably managed and harvested? Would you like to support locally owned producers? Those decisions may affect the price of the mattress, if not the quality of your sleep.
Illustration by Joyce Hesselberth
At Bedrooms and More, latex beds start at $699 for a twin. One of the company’s all-botanical latex best-sellers is a mattress made at a company in Tualatin, outside Portland. Layers of naturally flame-retardant wool and organic cotton flank three layers of latex ($1,699 twin, $2,799 king). A less costly bed, the Therapedic, is made from organic cotton and regular wool ($699 twin, $1,299 king). All mattresses at Bedrooms and More meet flame-retardant mattress safety requirements using either a rayon/Dacron pad, flame-retardant wool or cotton with a boric acid wash. No other chemicals are added.
Cuddy says she’s lucky enough to snooze on a mattress from Organic Mattress Inc. (OMI). OMI uses only organic materials and maintains fastidious manufacturing practices at the company’s California headquarters, including an ozone chamber to keep wool and cotton clean, and a no-fragrance policy for its employees. The fire-retardant organic wool is quilted to the mattress, and the mattresses pass more stringent European certifications without added chemicals. OMI mattresses run from $1,299 for a twin to $10,895 for a king.
At Soaring Heart Natural Bed Company on north Queen Anne, mattresses are hand-built on site using three natural materials: latex, organic cotton and eco wool, increasingly from local sources. Soaring Heart’s wool, for instance, comes from small farms in Oregon and Washington. Mattresses range from $980 for the twin-sized Cottonwood, made from organic Dunlop latex surrounded by a thick layer of organic cotton, wool batting and organic cotton ticking, to $3,910 for a California King Madrona, made from latex wrapped with organic cotton ticking and wool batting, and a thick, wool, organic-cotton-wrapped topper. It also sells crib mattresses ($355‒$560) and futons.
Jason Goessl, sales manager at Soaring Heart, says people worry that wool will be hot, but explains that’s probably because many wool items in the United States are actually cut with polyester, even if it isn’t listed on the tag. Not at Soaring Heart. “Polyester reflects body heat right back at you,” he says. “Wool is not hot—it helps regulate your body temperature. It keeps you cool in summer and warm in winter.”
We lose about 1 pint of water, oils and salts each night, and much of that will go into a bed unless it is topped with a mattress pad. A cotton-topped, Gore-Tex-lined mattress pad at Bedrooms and More is $39.95, and a washable wool pad inside cotton is $149 for a queen size. At Soaring Heart, waterproof pads made from organic Northwest wool are $80 for crib size, $140 for twin and $200 for queen.
If the luxury of a natural bed doesn’t give you more restful sleep, at least you can be sleeping on wool while counting sheep.
Bedrooms and More
Wallingford, 300 NE 45th St.
Soaring Heart Natural Bed Company
Queen Anne, 101 Nickerson, Suite 400
Healthy Home Focus
A Seattle resource for nontoxic home issues and products:
Washington Toxics Coalition
A nonprofit that provides information on toxics in home products and what to avoid