UPDATED: September 2016
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.
If you’re ready to buy a truly safe sofa, this guide will help. 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 four manufacturers who make non-toxic upholstered furniture.
(Please note that Stem Furniture and Ekla have generously extended discounts to my readers; see more details below.)
The Trouble with Flame Retardants
Your sofa likely 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.
Good News on Flame Retardants
This is huge: the flammability standards enacted in January 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.
Update: Many conventional brands now claim to have removed flame retardants from their furniture. We have not yet dug deeply enough to be sure that these companies are truly Good Stuff, but sofas from the following brands at least will lack the very bad chemicals listed above: West Elm, Ikea, Pottery Barn, Room & Board, Crate & Barrel.
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.
- 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 safe 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.
- 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, I am inclined to tell you not to worry too much about the rest!
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:
- the purest natural Talalay latex foam available
- 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.
Ekla sofas are made with organic latex, wool, and cotton, with strict standards met across the board (including the dyes used in fabrics). Ekla furnishings are not treated with flame retardant chemicals.
How to Get an Ekla Sofa: Unfortunately, you can’t test out Ekla furniture, as they are sold straight from the manufacturer, and they have no retail locations or design showrooms. You’ll pay anywhere from $2,000 to $10,000 for a sofa, depending on the model and fabric you select. Use coupon code GIMMEGOODSTUFF to receive 5% off your Ekla furniture purchase (accessories not included).
Stem (formerly Viesso)
Here’s what I love about Stem:
- Stem 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 Stem uses in their standard sofas), provided you select this option. (For the sofa to be truly Good Stuff, I recommend upgrading to latex).
- 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 Stem sofa by selecting that filter when choosing your upholstery.
- The glues used by Stem 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). Stem 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 Stem Sofa: Stem sofas can be ordered on their website, and most cost around $4,000-$5,000. Stem has generously offered Gimme the Good Stuff readers 10% off of orders (real money considering the price of these sofas!). Please use code GOODSTUFF10 when ordering.
Cisco is the brand we ended up going with when we upgraded our sofa last year. 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. (Note that I now have seen Viesso sofas in the flesh, too, and feel comfortable recommending them as a result).
Like Viesso, not all Cisco sofas are untreated with flame retardants, and you’ll have 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.
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. (#portlandia)
- 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.
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.
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