UPDATED: October 2017
When I was on The Dr. Oz Show last month, my co-guest was a toxicologist from Yale. Although we were discussing phthalates in macaroni and cheese , when I asked him what he was MOST worried about in terms of toxins in the home, he said household dust, largely thanks for furniture whose toxic contents constantly shed and accumulate there.
Since sofas are often among the largest pieces of furniture we have in our homes, and ones on which we spend a lot of time, this seems like an important item to get right.
I wrote this post for those of you ready to invest in a truly safe sofa (or upholstered chair). We’ve done the research for you, and I will cover all the (scary) details in this post. Or, if you want a simpler answer–just skip down to the Good Stuff tab, where we’ve identified the manufacturers who make non-toxic upholstered furniture.
My Top Pick for Best Sofa
I recently got a Medley sofa, and I’m obsessed! This is the brand I recommend most, and because I’m an affiliate, my readers get 5% off with code GOODSTUFF5.
You’ve probably read–on this website and elsewhere–that your sofa (and the rest of your furniture) is bad for your health, in large part because of the flame retardant chemicals in which all upholstered items are doused. So here’s the deal with that:
The Trouble with Flame Retardants
Your sofa, particularly if it’s more than a few years old, almost certainly contains one of the following flame retardant chemicals:
- Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) are found in mattresses, electronics, and cars, in addition to the foam of sofas. PBDEs are associated with hormone disruption, hyperactivity, and neurodevelopmental delays, including lowered IQ . The European Union has banned the use of PBDEs in electronic devices. Studies show that children in the United States have higher levels of PBDEs than adults do. Oh, and here’s the kicker: they don’t even work very well at stopping fires.
- Firemaster 550 is made with bis(2-ethylhexyl) tetrabromophthalate (TBPH). Yes, you saw that word in there: phthalate. TBPH is nearly idential to DEHP, the phthalate banned in children’s products due to evidence of carcinogenicity and developmental toxicity.
- Chlorinated tris is the chemical that was removed from children’s pajamas in the 1970s because it was shown to cause cancer.
But There is Good News on Flame Retardants!
This is huge: the flammability standards enacted in 2014 can be met WITHOUT the use of the toxic chemicals I just described! To be clear–the new law does not BAN the use of the chemicals; it just renders them unnecessary.
How to Tell if a Sofa Contains Flame Retardants
The bad news is that this puts us in limbo land–we don’t know for sure which companies are still using treated foam and which have switched over to safer materials. One clue: Look for the TB117-2013 label on sofas and pillows, which suggests that the item meets the standards without fire retardants.
When possible, you should go straight to a furniture’s manufacturer to find out what chemicals they are using, as even knowledgeable-sounding retailers rarely know, as you’ll see in my examples of “The Sneaky Stuff,” below.
For now, I still advise my clients to choose a sofa that they know is untreated with flame retardants, and that typically means either a custom piece of furniture (I work with interior designers to design these, but they are admittedly quite pricey) or a brand that we here at Gimme the Good Stuff have vetted. For these recommended brands, see The Good Stuff, below.
How to Reduce Your Exposure to Flame Retardants
This guide is intended to help you select the safest sofa (or upholstered chairs–all of the Good Stuff below also makes flame-retardant free armchairs). However, if you’re not yet ready to plunk down thousands, here are some other steps to limit your exposure.
- Keep foam enclosed. Be sure to mend any rips in your sofa or chairs that might allow chemically-treated foam to be exposed, and don’t remove cushion casings to launder.
- Upgrade your mattresses. If replacing your own mattress is out of the question,consider upgrading just the mattresses for your children. Many of my clients think their crib mattresses are okay if they are old because they have “already off-gassed.” In fact, as the foam degrades, more PBDEs and other chemicals may be released. Get help choosing a truly non-toxic mattress with our Safe Mattress Guide.
- Ditch your broom. Flame retardants accumulate in household dust, and sweeping puts plumes into the air. Instead, use a vacuum or wet mop to banish dirt and toxins. Invest in a HEPA-sealed vacuum that really traps toxins.
- Invest in a robust air filter. We like (and own) Austin Air filters, which employ HEPA, activated carbon, and zeolite, a mineral with superior ability to trap toxic gases and odors such as formaldehyde, ammonias, and carbon monoxide.
- Eat more plants. Unfortunately, even though these chemicals are being phased out, they will continue to persist in our environment for years. The number one food source of PBDEs is poultry fat. The lowest levels of a variety of toxins–including flame retardants–are found in plant-based foods, so if you substitute beans for chicken a couple of times a week, you’ll reduce your exposure.
What Other Toxins Are in Sofas?
Flame retardants are of greatest concern when selecting a sofa, but there are other toxins to consider as well. Anything that is wrinkle or stain-resistant should be avoided (see the box below on Scotch Guard). The glues and finishes on wooden legs can contain formaldehyde. Even without a chemical bath, polyurethane foam is a petroleum-by product that releases VOCs. This said, if you can get a sofa that doesn’t contain flame retardants, the biggest concern is off the table.
A Note on Scotchguard
Many of my clients–particularly those with young children–ask about Scotchguard. Here’s the deal: Scotchguard used to be SUPER toxic because it contained a noxious chemical called PFOS–which is not only terrible for the environment but also linked to cancer, hormone disruption, and immune system dysfunction. Scotchguard agreed to phase out PFOS and has replaced it with PFBS. Overall, PFBS seems safer, as it has a shorter half-life and accumulates in our bodies at a slower pace.
I remain skeptical as safety studies are still lacking. At this point, there really is no natural alternative to Scotchguard. You can get a good spot stain remover to deal with spills as they happen. You can cover your furniture with slipcovers. You could try this natural stuff called NikWax that’s really made to waterproof clothing but some people use on furniture.
The Good Stuff
Constructed in their Central Virginia production house, Savvy Rest organic sofas, loveseats, and armchairs are made with quality, safety, and longevity in mind. In all Savvy Rest furniture, you’ll find:
- Natural Talalay latex foam
- Certified organic fabrics (cotton, hemp, and a cotton/hemp blend)
- Sustainably-sourced maple hardwood
- Organic wool batting used as a natural flame barrier
- Zero-VOC linseed oil and AFM Safecoat stains
In addition, Savvy Rest furniture avoids all forms of formaldehyde glues, cardboard, metal coils, particle board, plywood, veneer, polyester, polypropylene, polyurethane, toxic stains, dacron batting, feathers, or down.
How to Get Savvy Rest: Savvy Rest furniture is sold through their retail stores, but they are also sold straight from the website. Depending on the piece you select, the price ranges from $3,999 to $5,299.
Note: Savvy Rest generously sent us a love seat, and it’s super, super comfy. The opinions expressed here are of course my own.
Medley (formerly Stem)
I ordered a Medley sofa and ottoman for my own living room, and I love it because it’s both modern and comfortable.
Here’s what else I love about Medley (formerly Stem):
- Medley uses “green” sources of wood–this includes bamboo* and FSC-certified maple.
- Natural latex, which is resistant to bacteria, mildew, and mold, is used as a filler in place of polyurethane foam (which is what Medley uses in their standard sofas), provided you select this option. (For the sofa to be truly the Best Stuff, I recommend upgrading to latex, but I must admit that because of my budget, I did not follow my own advice on this one).
- The feather/down fill option consists of 100% feathers and down, both of which are thoroughly cleaned (with non-toxic cleansers) before being used.
- You can opt for recycled, 100% natural, and even organic fabrics on your Medley sofa by selecting that filter when choosing your upholstery.
- The glues used by Medley are water-based, which make them much less toxic (and less flammable) than standard solvent-based adhesives.
- Similarly, the stains and finished used on wood pieces contain no solvents, preservatives, or biocides, and instead are treated with plant oils.
*A note on bamboo plywood: The process used to create the plywood is called a “hot process,” where they heat and attach the layers of bamboo to each other. Some formaldehyde is used, but the amount is below E1 European standards (stricter than the U.S. standards). Medley claims that any off-gasing occurs when the wood is being made, not at the time it is used in their products.
How to Get a Medley Sofa: Medley sofas can be ordered on their website, and most cost around $4,000-$5,000. Medley has generously offered Gimme the Good Stuff readers 5% off of orders (real money considering the price of these sofas!). Please use code GOODSTUFF5 when ordering.
Cisco was the first Good Stuff sofa we ever bought in 2013, and we still have it (now featuring a few marker streaks) in our den. For those of you also living in New York City, you can find Cisco in ABC Carpet & Home, and I liked being able to go sit and test out the sofa before buying. (Now that I also own Medley (formerly Stem) and Savvy Rest sofas, I can vouch that those are comfortable, too).
When I bought my Cisco, not all of their models were free of flame retardants, and I had to pay more for the “Inside Green” option. In addition to the absence of flame retardants, this version of a Cisco sofa is filled with organic down and natural latex instead of polyurethane foam. Because Cisco uses wool in their sofas, they are naturally flame resistant and meet even the old flammability laws. The wood used is FSC certified, and any wooden parts of the sofa are treated with low-VOCs finishes. If you go with a Cisco couch, ask them if anything contains flame retardants (and don’t trust the sales people at ABC–they were unreliable in my experience.)
While we love our sofa, my husband is annoyed by how it constantly leaks feathers.
How to Get a Cisco Sofa: Visit their website for a list of retailers. As I mentioned, ABC Carpet is one place to find Cisco furniture in New York City. Cisco extended me a designer discount on my sofa, and I’m happy to pass this on to my private consulting clients. Otherwise, you’ll pay between $5,000 and $8,000 for most sofas with the Inside Green option.
Furnature is really the purest of the pure, going the extra step across the board. If you buy a sofa from Furnature, you’ll be sitting on:
- FSC-Certified wood from the U.S., treated with only AFM Safecoat or Bioshield finishes (both Good Stuff with zero VOCs), and put together with only water-based glues.
- Foam made from 100% natural latex rubber.
- Wool (which is all that’s used to make their sofas naturally flame retardant) from California-raised sheep who enjoyed life in an open, mountainous setting. (Holy #portlandia, right?)
- Fabrics made from natural fibers that are certified as organic (cottons), naturally organic (hemps), Oeko-Tex certified (wools), or rapidly renewable fibers (bamboos and hemps). In addition, the organic cotton fabrics are woven in the U.S.
How to Get a Furnature Sofa: Your best bet is to call 800-326-4895 and speak with the president of Furnature, Fred Shapiro, whose father started the company more than 100 years ago. Sofas cost around $5,000.
These sofas feature cushions made of natural latex and untreated wool, organic cotton covers, and legs and frames made of FSC-certified, kiln-dried solid maple wood. Even the leg stains are zero VOC.
You’ll have to call to place an order, but they are offering Gimme the Good Stuff readers 5% off all orders. Call 978-440-8200 and mention us for your discount.”
The Okay Stuff
Many conventional brands now claim to have removed flame retardants from their furniture. The sofas from the following brands will lack the very bad chemicals listed above, but may contain other questionable materials (polyurethane foams, stain or wrinkle treatments, formaldehyde-containing adhesives and so on): Ikea, Pottery Barn, Room & Board, Crate & Barrel. The best information that we can get out of IKEA is that “some of our upholstered furniture contain flame retardant chemicals around the zippers.” Obviously this is a major improvement, but we can’t quite call these brands Good Stuff.
As for West Elm, they don’t treat their furniture with flame retardants, but their sleeper sofas include mattresses that ARE treated. We received these photos from a reader who ordered a sleeper sofa.
The Bad Stuff
When it comes to sofas, the bad stuff is anything that doesn’t specify that it is completely free of fire retardants.
The Sneaky Stuff
ABC Carpet & Home’s Cobble Hill Line. Multiple salespeople in ABC told me their Cobble Hill furniture was completely free of flame retardants. I dug deeper and discovered that they do use chemical fire retardants, but they are proprietary. Fail.
Pottery Barn’s “green” line of furniture uses FSC-certified wood. And that’s it. Nothing about the foam/fabric treatment is any different from their standard furniture. Fail again.
Dania claims that they will “continue to develop new ways of upholding an “eco-friendly” standards in everything we do.” While recycling 100% of their paper and using solar power is great, they use conventional foams and flame retardants.
Want a less expensive sofa? One alternative is a futon. Here’s the one I like.