By definition, “organic” products are products grown or made out of natural substances without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides.
When you think about a mattress, you usually don’t think about whether it’s organic or inorganic. However, the distinction is becoming increasingly popular in mattress stores and health-oriented communities as people try to steer clear of bedding that has been coated with chemicals.
So, is an organic mattress better for your health? It’s tough to say. According to Biophysical chemist Arlene Blum, organic mattresses are no better for your health than inorganic mattresses. However, the petroleum-derived polyurethane foam used to stuff inorganic mattresses may release volatile organic compounds (V.O.C.s) that can impact your health.
The rest of this article will discuss some key points about organic mattresses and your health:
- What is an organic mattress?
- Health benefits of organic mattresses
- Why are organic mattresses so expensive?
- What happens if I use an inorganic mattress?
- Things to consider before getting an organic mattress
What Is an Organic Mattress?
Mattresses are usually constructed in two parts: the core, which provides the primary support of the bed, and the upholstery, which provides comfort. The upholstery consists of insulating materials and the quilt.
Organic mattresses are built the same way, except that they use materials derived from plants or animals. They are primarily made out of materials such as cotton, latex, and wool.
These substances are cultivated organically without the use of any preservatives or fertilizers.
Some stores and manufacturers are even experimenting with non-conventional stuffing such as soybeans, bamboo, and coconut husks. Some are even “naturally treated” with green tea or aloe vera gel, both of which are believed to be good for ‘energy level.’
This type of mattress is becoming increasingly popular as more consumers pay closer attention to what goes into their everyday products.
During the actual construction of the bed, manufacturers avoid excessive chemical processes to make the bed as ‘natural’ as possible. However, there is still an ongoing debate on whether this matters.
Foam mattress manufacturers claim that synthetic foams are harmless, as it’s found in almost everything from shoe padding to bra linings. We’ll dive into more detail on this matter later.
Many mattress buyers usually concern themselves with firmness and comfort, while ignoring subtle aspects such as chemical components and manufacturing process.
The rhetoric for organic mattresses goes hand-in-hand with the fact that we spend a third of our lifetime sleeping. When you sleep, you are in complete contact with your mattress, and mattresses are known to release gases depending on what they’re made out of.
These are gases that you will inhale throughout the night. By switching to organic stuffing, users hope to reduce their carbon footprint and the number of toxins in the air.
These concerns are generally why more people are opting for organic mattresses and why it’s deemed “healthier” than others.
Just like how organic apple prices more than regular apples, be prepared to pay more if you’re interested in organic sleep.
Cheaper organic mattresses cost just a little more than regular mattresses, though some manufacturers mix in synthetic materials to reduce cost because materials such as organic latex can price well over the ‘average.’
Note: There are no official guidelines given by the International Sleep Products Association or the Specialty Sleep Association on what an ‘organic mattress’ should be. This means manufacturers can get away with labeling not-exactly-organic mattresses as organic.
Be sure to do thorough research to avoid counterfeit organic products. The rule of thumb is that organic mattresses should cost way more than regular or foam-based mattress. For example, a full Twin size organic latex mattress could cost nearly $900 online.
Organic materials are pricey because production costs are generally higher and typically done in smaller batches since there are lower demands. Organic products are also transported and processed separately to avoid cross-contamination.
However, there are cheaper options for sleeping organically. 100% cotton or wool futon costs about $300, much cheaper than actual organic mattresses.
Another alternative is purchasing mattress pads made out of organic products, which could cost anywhere between $50 to $100.
You can simply lay the pad on your existing mattress to enjoy the organic physical contact between your body and the mattress. However, this probably won’t protect you from ‘inorganic’ gaseous release coming from inside the bed. Whatever you choose, be sure to do thorough research.
Multiple third-party certifications will help you avoid getting ripped off:
- U.S.D.A. Organic, which has organic standards in the cultivation of materials as defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture
- GOTS (Global Organic Textiles Standard) has world-standard organic textiles that adhere to both environmental and human safety, with acceptable social standards
- OEKO-TEX Standard 100 Certification certifies mattresses and textiles free of harmful substances.
What Happens If I Use An Inorganic Mattress?
Though there are many arguments for organic mattresses, regular “inorganic” mattresses are still the dominating default in the markets, and this is unlikely to change anytime soon.
So, if organic mattresses are made out of wool, latex, and other naturally derived materials, what makes a regular mattress?
Modern mattresses are usually made out of inexpensive and flexible polyurethane foams, though not all foams are made equal. Memory Foam, for example, is generally pricier due to its “sinking” sensation.
So how ‘dangerous’ is it to sleep on foam? The answer depends. Foam-mattress manufacturers claim that foam isn’t inherently dangerous and that the fuss over ‘organic stuffing’ is mostly marketing talk.
After all, polyurethane foams can be found almost everywhere; from the sponge, you use to wash your dishes to the liners found in clothing items. Surely if it’s hazardous, we’d reach a consensus by now?
Biophysical Chemist of the Green Science Policy Institute, Arlene Blum, told the New York Times that while consumers should be wary of the chemicals making up their products, “Mattresses are one of the only things where it’s not a problem.”
Yet it’s false to completely categorize “organic mattresses” as just another fad, as its advocates carry some truth.
The polyurethane issue
Polyurethane foam is derived from Petroleum, and it emits volatile organic compounds more commonly referred to as V.O.C.’s. Have you ever noticed your new mattress emitting a certain smell during its first few days? That’s the V.O.C. we’re talking about.
The Environmental Protection Agency with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has linked V.O.C.’s to respiratory issues and other health problems like eye/nose/throat irritation, headaches, nausea, alongside damage of the liver, kidney, and central nervous system.
Here’s another problem: fire retardants.
The fire retardant issue
In the 1970s, mattresses constantly caught fire due to cigarette use on the bed, or children playing with candles and other open flames. To resolve this problem, manufacturers started treating foam stuffing using P.B.D.E.’s, or polybrominated diphenyl ethers. P.B.D.E.’s were used as fire retardants to prevent mattresses from catching fire, but exposure to P.B.D.E.’s has been linked to impaired development of the nervous and reproductive systems.
To make matters worse, once internalized, P.B.D.E.’s typically accumulate in the body— especially the breast. Mothers with P.B.D.E.’s in their system could pass this compound to their newborn through breast milk.
While concerns over P.B.D.E.’s are justified, it’s equally important to note that many manufacturers are opting for synthetic fibers as fire retardants. Therefore, your bed is likely to contain those than P.B.D.E.’s. However, mattress manufacturers are not required to disclose what they use to treat your bed, so you never really know.
The vinyl issue
Many modern mattresses are also covered in vinyl— especially those designed for children. Vinyl is a type of hard plastic that needs to be softened before being used for mattress production.
Phthalates are commonly used to chemically soften the vinyl, and trace amounts of this compound have been found to accumulate in human tissue like P.B.D.E.’s. Phthalates are an endocrine disruptor, meaning it interferes with normal hormonal mechanisms— and small amounts of Phthalates are thought to have significant effects.
Early research on phthalate indicates its link to diabetes, breast cancer, obesity, metabolic disorders, and other disrupted immune functions.
But before you throw away your existing mattress in fear of diseases, check whether it’s CertiPUR-US approved. CertiPUR-US is a non-profit organization whose mission is to test the safety of foam-based mattresses based on its chemical makeup and V.O.C. emissions.
Mattresses approved by CertiPUR-US are made without ozone depleters, P.B.D.E.’s, and other hazardous materials such as formaldehyde. These mattresses have a low V.O.C. emission rate as well (< 0.5 parts per million). So, if your mattress is inorganic, but CertiPUR-US certified, you probably don’t have to worry too much.
Another helpful certification to look out for is the GreenGuard Gold certification, which indicates that a mattress (although inorganic) is safe enough for ‘vulnerable’ people such as the sick and elderly.
Health Benefits of Organic Mattresses
The good thing about organic mattresses is that you never have to worry about checking for V.O.C. emissions or other potentially hazardous materials. This could be challenging since there aren’t strict policies on mattress-making.
While inorganic mattresses aren’t necessarily synonymous with ‘Hazardous,’ there are benefits for opting for organic options.
Organic mattresses have no V.O.C.
Since organic mattresses are made from naturally-derived substances and treated naturally, they are carbon-based, and users don’t have to worry about their beds emitting toxic gases.
The ‘V’ in V.O.C. stands for ‘Volatile,’ which means these chemicals easily get into the air that we breathe in every day.
There are numerous health concerns attributed to inhalation of V.O.C., including Dyspnea (difficulty breathing), loss of coordination, fatigue, dizziness, headaches, and allergic skin reactions.
Long-term exposure to V.O.C.’s is even more hazardous; it has been linked to cancer, kidney, and liver damage. While some inorganic mattresses such as those approved by CertiPUR-US are relatively low-risk, getting an organic mattress is the surest way of avoiding these toxic gases. Also, no V.O.C = no stinky ‘new mattress’ smell!
Organic mattresses are better for people with allergies.
People with allergies may also benefit from organic mattresses since they are 100% hypo-allergenic (excluding latex, which some people are allergic to).
Wool fibers, for example, have their own cleaning and ventilating system that resists bacteria, mold, mildew, and dust mites when it’s in its natural form.
For people without allergies to latex, organic latex is antimicrobial, anti-bacterial, and resistant to water. This not only makes for a ‘healthier’ bed but for easier maintenance. Foam-based beds are notorious for being susceptible to mites and bedbugs, which require regular cleaning and sometime in the sun.
Organic mattresses are free from P.B.D.E-based fire retardants.
Foam is flammable, so most mattress manufacturers use P.B.D.E.’s as fire retardants.
As previously mentioned, P.B.D.E.’s are linked with numerous diseases and especially dangerous for children and pregnant women. The United States Environmental Protection Agency has listed P.B.D.E.’s as possible human carcinogens that contributes to multiple toxicities and cancer in laboratory rats.
Organic mattresses use natural wool as fire retardants, which is more expensive but much safer. Wool has high keratin protein and moisture content, making it fire-resistant even without any treatments.
Organic Mattresses are free from formaldehyde.
You may be familiar with formaldehyde as the substance used to preserve dead bodies, but did you know that you’re probably sleeping on it as well?
Most inorganic mattress manufacturers use adhesives (glue) to hold the bed together, which typically contains formaldehyde.
Formaldehyde is dangerous when ingested, but worse and chronic forms of formaldehyde ‘poisoning’ actually occur mostly by inhalation.
In 1988, a Canadian study found that formaldehyde levels as low as 0.046 ppm found in the air cause eye and nasal irritation. Many mattress manufacturers nowadays skip the formaldehyde, but there’s no sure way of knowing whether it’s present in your existing mattress, especially if it’s several years old. With organic mattresses, though, you know for sure.
Better temperature regulation= better sleep quality
Many organic mattress manufacturers would mix wool with the stuffing because wool is a natural fire-retardant.
However, this isn’t the only cool property of wool. According to the American Sleep Industry Association, wool is hygroscopic— it has the ability to both absorb moisture in vapor form and generate heat when necessary.
Wool can absorb nearly one-third of its body weight in moisture without feeling damp since its semi-permeable pores allow for passage and regulation. This is especially useful for sleeping purposes, whereby body temperature is essential for quality shut-eye, and you won’t have to worry about sleeping hot.
When the temperature is optimum, your body will find it easier to release important hormones like melatonin and HGH (Human Growth Hormone), both important for tissue and skin repair.
Things to Consider Before Getting an Organic Mattress
You can buy a safe inorganic mattress
Let’s face it: organic anything is expensive. If you have the resources to get yourself a good organic mattress, then you should go for it.
However, claiming that all inorganic mattresses are dangerous is simply false. Many inorganic mattresses are indeed made with dangerous chemicals.
Still, there are ways to sleep safely on inorganic mattresses by checking any related certifications or asking the manufacturer whether specific chemicals are being used during production.
Mattresses can last up to a decade
You might be thinking that all the fuss over mattress stuffing isn’t important, but note that the average mattress lasts anywhere between 7 to 10 years.
You’re spending almost every night of that decade on your mattress, so it’s probably a good idea to pay more attention to what exactly you’re sleeping on.
Some materials, such as the foam, are more susceptible to toxicity over time; as the foam degrades, more P.B.D.E.’s (hormone-disrupting flame retardants) are released.
So, while they are cheaper, they are dangerous and will keep getting more dangerous as you use it more. Meanwhile, high-quality organic mattresses typically opt for denser quilts and better-quality materials, making the bed much more durable (up to 20 years or more) and generally safer.
When you consider durability with cost, the organic mattress suddenly makes much more sense.
Whether you choose to keep your existing mattress or look for organic options, here are some key points to take away from this article:
- Inorganic mattresses are usually made with dangerous chemicals, such as formaldehyde, P.B.D.E.’s, and V.O.C-releasing foams. While some researchers argue that the level of toxicity is negligible, these substances have been proven to be detrimental to health.
- Organic mattresses are free from dangerous chemicals as they’re typically made out of wool, latex, bamboo, coconut husks, or other naturally derived substances. They’re much safer for usage and higher in quality— making them more durable as well.
- Some ‘organic’ mattresses aren’t organic. This is important to remember while you’re shopping because there aren’t any strict guidelines on manufacturing organic mattresses. There’s a chance that the ‘organic’ mattress being sold at your local mattress shop is counterfeit (mixed with other products), so do your research on certifications before going.
- While organic mattresses are more expensive, the potential for decreased toxicity and increased durability makes them worth considering – even if you’re shopping on a budget.