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What to Consider When Considering a Mattress: Our Top Five Concerns for Buying a New Mattress

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By John, Certified Holistic Health Coach

We are asked about mattresses a lot! Our Safe Mattress Guide needs to be perpetually updated because new mattress manufacturers are continuously showing up on the scene.

This is good news because this means that the idea of sleeping on a toxin-free mattress is finally catching on!

The bad news is that there is quite a bit of green-washing going on, and it can be very difficult to tell the imposters from the Good Stuff. Of course, that’s where our Safe Mattress Guide comes in.

If you want to do some of your own research, and are looking for some general guidelines on how to evaluate a mattress for toxicity, the list below should help.

It is also important to remember that developing fetuses and children are the ones who are most affected by chemical exposure–so if you are pregnant or looking for a crib mattress, you should be extra vigilant.

Top Five Concerns When Buying a Mattress

1. Flame Retardants

Of course, nobody wants his mattress to catch on fire, but the real reason that there are federal guidelines requiring mattresses  to be fire resistant has to do with a tale too long to get into here. Suffice it to say that it involves the tobacco industry and other mighty entities…Google it! Or watch HBO’s great documentary, Toxic Hot Seat.

This snippet from an article in the Washington Post describes the trouble with flame-retardants in furniture:

Studies in laboratory animals and humans have linked the most scrutinized flame retardants, called polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, to thyroid disruptionmemory and learning problemsdelayed mental and physical development, lower IQadvanced puberty and reduced fertility. Other flame-retardants have been linked to cancer. At the same time, recent studies suggest that the chemicals may not effectively reduce the flammability of treated products.

Simply put, PBDEs are bad, Bad Stuff and we should all strive to get rid of as much of it as possible in our homes (and anywhere else for that matter.) If you’re just itching to bum yourself out, go ahead and read the rest of the article.

Believe it or not, some sneaky manufacturers use chemical flame-retardants in beds marketed as “natural” and other meaningless, unregulated,  and deceptive terms!

2. VOCs

VOCs stands for “Volatile Organic Compounds.” Organic! What could be wrong with organic compounds, right?


This group of interesting chemistry can be found in all sorts of products throughout our homes, like paint and glue and carpet and plywood, and much more. Basically, VOCs are chemicals that vaporize at room temperature, meaning they slowly off-gas, often for years, into our indoor spaces. This means that unless we take measures to keep VOCs out of our homes, we are getting a small background amount of them with every breath.

Long-term, chronic exposure to high levels of VOCs is linked with increased risk of cancer, liver damage, kidney damage and central nervous system damage. Not fun stuff!

Okay…so we all have VOCs floating around our homes, but at least you don’t sleep every night with your face directly in an open can of paint, right? Not so fast. If you sleep on a typical “memory foam,” mattress you are likely directly inhaling seven to eight thousand lung-fulls of the stuff every night. This is quite different than getting small amounts of background exposure.

Check out the following from the website Sleep Junkie:

Here are chemicals that can be or have been found in memory foam and potential issues. Note that each manufacturer uses their own “recipe,” so these do not apply to all lines.

  • Methylene dianiline / MDA– suspected carcinogen, eye and skin irritant, liver and thyroid damage with ingestion. Household products produce very low levels, greatest risk is during manufacturing.
  • Vinilideine chloride– eye and respiratory irritation, possible carcinogen, organ damage. Primary hazard is during manufacturing.
  • Methyl benzene– inhalation can affect nervous system.
  • Dimethylformamide – organ damage possible, and possible carcinogen, though primary risk is during manufacturing.
  • Acetone – toxic when inhaled in large amounts, but limited effects with low exposure.
  • Methylene chloride– a solvent, mucous membrane irritant and potential carcinogen. Use has declined in recent years due to EU restrictions and pollution regulations.
  • Formaldehyde– typically not added to foams, but may result as a byproduct of chemical reactions or adhesives.

3. Undisclosed Materials/Chemistry

Just as with cleaning products and the fragrances in makeup, baby creams, and so on, any proprietary methods, blends, materials, or treatments in a mattress legally need not be disclosed.

There are mattress manufacturers who claim to have nontoxic products but who, in fact, will not fully disclose what is actually in the materials they use. Many conventional mattresses offer only vague descriptions of their materials, with throw-away claims like “meets safety standards.

Beware of companies that use this type opaque language.

4. Spring Back!

There is increasingly clear evidence that electro-magnetic fields (EMFs) of various kinds might compromise our well-being. Experts believe that the steel coils in beds can amplify ambient EMFs. This means that you might want to consider a mattress made without steel springs. More research needs to be conducted, but as long as you are upgrading your mattress, you might want to shun springs. There are many great alternatives.

5. False Tradeoffs

Finally, watch out for the claim that the benefits of a good night’s sleep outweigh any potential dangers that might arise from breathing toxins for one-third of your life. This type of marketing claim has at least two serious flaws:

  1. The implication is that you cannot have both a safe night’s sleep and a restful night’s sleep…that you must choose between the two. This is what is technically known in the industry as…baloney! Most nontoxic mattresses are extremely well-made and offer a very comfortable night’s rest.
  2. During sleep is when our bodies do most of the cleanup and repair work we need. If we must spend our entire sleep-time fending off a blitz of toxins, the case could be made that you might never get a superior sleep because your body must work so much harder to be perpetually ridding itself of the chemistry taken in with every breath. Yes, a good night’s sleep is very good for you, but inhaling a cloud of known toxins all night, every night, can be very damaging, especially for children.

In the final analysis, there are several manufacturers who make great nontoxic mattresses (this is my number 1 pick). Unfortunately, we had to cherry pick certain mattresses from certain manufacturers—in other words, some companies make one thing that’s Good Stuff, but other products in their lineup may not meet our strict criteria. On this website, we recommend products that we’ve cherry-picked from a lineup of sometimes less-than-Good Stuff.

Check out the Safe Mattress Guide to learn more.  A mattress is a serious investment, and it’s worth getting it right the first time!

Stay sane,

John Goss from Gimme the Good Stuff





One response to “What to Consider When Considering a Mattress: Our Top Five Concerns for Buying a New Mattress”

  1. Great advice! I think it’s important to dive in a little deeper when looking at a new mattress. Of course people want to see you the one they make the most money off of. Do your research first!

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