cup of green tea
Photo Illustration: Holly Lindem
Of all the things in my home that I've worried are bad for the environment, my mattress is one I'd never lost any sleep over. Until recently—after my linebacker-size boyfriend, Peter, moved in, and created a deep canyon on his side of the bed. I was waking up grumpy, with backaches from the strain of staying level. I'd bought the bed a decade before, shortly after my divorce. Now, with a new man in my life, I decided I was ready for a new mattress.

Around that time, I visited my parents and slept on their new pull-out couch. But instead of peaceful slumber, it felt as if I were being gassed by the mattress's smell. I opened a window but tossed all night, worried about the toxic fumes I might be inhaling. Mattresses, I soon learned, are rarely ecologically innocent. Most are made with synthetic fibers or foam, which don't biodegrade. Cotton or wool stuffing can be processed with pesticides and other chemicals—some of them potentially carcinogenic. Considering I spend one-third of my life lying in bed, realizing this was fairly disquieting.

The good news is that choices once limited to size and firmness now include environmental options as well. If you prefer an innerspring mattress—steel coils surrounded by layers of fluffy padding—you can rest easy on beds made from organic cotton and wool, with steel coils that aren't coated in chemicals. If, like me, you prefer a solid-foam mattress, you can opt for latex made from the milky sap of rubber trees. And though I worried that sleeping on something made from coconut husk fibers or natural rubber would feel like napping in Gilligan's hut, when I test-drove the beds, my back couldn't feel the difference. Here are three tips from my eco-mattress hunt.

Follow Your Nose

The smell that kept me awake at my parents' house is a cocktail of chemicals, including volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are associated with skin irritation and respiratory problems. Walter Bader, author of Sleep Safe in a Toxic World and cofounder of Organic Mattresses Inc., sent a conventional mattress to a lab that measured its emissions and found 61 VOCs. "Mattresses are like cigarettes were in the 1930s," Bader says. "Completely unregulated, and everyone thinks they're safe."

Experts, though, remain divided about what exposure levels pose a danger. Berkeley-based toxicologist Janet Weiss, MD, who has studied these chemicals, says, "Like the new-car smell, mattress smells aren't hazardous." Others argue that exposure should be limited as possible. "Although the amount people inhale is incredibly small, the exposure adds up," says epidemiologist Devra Lee Davis, PhD, of the Environmental Health Trust.

Choosing organic materials is one of the best ways to cut the toxins you inhale while sleeping. Fumes are strongest in the first few weeks, so it also helps if you can let your new bed air out in a spare room or garage before using it.

Ask for the Real Credentials

There is no government certification for eco-friendly mattresses. "Manufacturers use the terms green and natural however they want, and there isn't much standardization," says Sonya Lunder, a senior analyst at the Environmental Working Group.

While shopping, I found mattresses made with castor oil, aloe vera, green-tea infusions, and bamboo—and labeled every variation of green, eco-, organic, and natural. It takes some sleuthing to push past the green stickers and figure out what really goes into a mattress. I tried out one "eco-friendly" memory-foam mattress in a store that was plastered with green leaf symbols. A salesperson offered me piping hot green tea, but when I pressed her on what was so green about their mattress, she explained that more than 10 percent of the oils in the petroleum-based memory foam had been replaced with plant-based oils. So the product wasn't exactly green, just 10 percent greener. "We're the hybrid cars of the mattress world," she said. "We're still burning gas, but it's better than a regular car."

Yet to many shoppers, the company's beds appear just as pure as those made by rigorously green Organic Mattresses, Inc., a company Bader started because of his chemical sensitivities (the handcrafted creations are made from cruelty-free wool, certified organic cotton, and 100 percent natural rubber latex in a facility where no one is allowed to smoke, wear fragrances, or wear fabric softeners).

When shopping, ignore words like eco- and natural. Instead, seek out companies that explain ingredients clearly and can point to where materials are sourced. Even better, look for third-party certification" Oeko-Tex Standard 100 is the largest voluntary third-party certification for textiles free of harmful substances, and Global Organic Textile Standard certifies that a natural fiber was grown organically and processed sustainably.

Find a Comfortable Compromise

If I had a $3,000 budget, I'd be on a virtuous mattress made by Organic Mattresses in a heartbeat. But there's only so much I can spend on my back health and eco-consciousness. I decided I wanted a memory-foam mattress that replaced some of the usual synthetic latex with soy. And after careful research, I bought it from Magniflex, an Italian company, because its bona fides were so impressive: Its memory foam is 30 percent plant oils, one of the highest percentages in the industry; it uses water to expand the memory foam rather than relying only on solvents, like most companies; and it created a flame retardant derived from sea sand, saving me from more chemical additives. The company's textiles are Oeko-Tex certified, and it uses GOTS-certified cotton.

When Peter and I lay down on the $1,600 mattress, I knew I'd done what I could to make my bed more eco-friendly, and as a result, I sleep just fine.

Next: Check out 3 smart choices for eco-bedding


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