According to the Organic Trade Organization, nine in ten parents choose organic baby food for their children. You probably already know the basic risks and rewards associated with choosing organic versus conventional produce during your weekly grocery trip, but you also need to be aware of what the term “organic” means outside the produce aisle. With the continued shift in U.S. consumer values toward preferences for natural and organic ingredients, it makes sense that the popularity of organic mattresses is also on the rise.
But how much does the term “organic” matter when it comes to something you don’t ingest, like your family’s mattresses? Is it just another marketing ploy mattress companies use to charge more, or should you really be making sure your children’s mattresses are organic, too? Let’s explore the key differences between standard and organic mattresses when it comes to safety, price, sleep experience, and more.
Why buy an organic mattress?
Just because you don’t directly ingest your mattress doesn’t mean it can’t have harmful health impacts on your family’s well-being if it’s packed with toxic chemicals. Some of the most dangerous compounds in conventional mattresses are flame retardants. On the one hand, mattresses manufactured to resist catching fire do increase your children’s safety in the unlikely event of a house fire. But it’s hard to know if the potential health risks posed by these chemicals are worth it.
Mitigating fire safety risks in your mattress purchase
According to the National Fire Protection Association, “Smoking materials are the leading cause of mattress and bedding fires.” Because of this, fires are much more likely to start in the beds of adult smokers than in your children’s rooms. And with the toxicity of the flame-retardant chemicals contained in many conventional mattresses, the risk of breathing those chemicals in may be a bigger threat than that of an actual fire.
This doesn’t mean that an organic mattress is likely to go up in flames anytime soon. All mattresses in the U.S. are required to pass strict flammability tests, so going organic isn’t as risky as you might think. Federal law mandates that all U.S. mattresses undergo a test called the 16 CFR Part R633 Test. So buying an organic mattress does not mean that you’re purchasing a dangerous product — it will always have been through rigorous fire safety testing regardless of whether or not it’s organic.
Dangerous compounds found in conventional mattresses
Conventional mattresses use chemicals like magnesium hydroxide, borates, paraffins, aluminum hydroxide, and organohalogen compounds in order to become flame retardant. Here are a few specific compounds contained in mattresses known to cause harm to humans, many of which are listed on the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry and Environmental Protection Agency sites:
- Boric acid: This is a pesticide and insecticide that can cause reproductive and developmental medical issues. Because it’s water soluble, boric acid can easily absorb into the skin.
- Antimony trioxide: A possible carcinogen, this chemical is known to cause heart and lung damage, as well as detrimental impacts on the lungs and kidneys.
- Decabromodiphenyl oxide: Another possible carcinogen also known as Deca, this chemical has been cited as responsible liver tumors and for contributing to hair and memory loss. Deca is illegal in Maine and Washington.
- Melamine: These flame-retardant fibers can cause kidney damage and bladder cancer when their residual chemical compounds are absorbed into the body.
A 2017 Consumer Reports study found that more than 90 percent of the 857 tested adults and children had flame retardant chemicals in their systems. Some especially dangerous mattress ingredients, like Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and Brominated flame retardants have been banned for their harmful effects (in 1977 and 2012 respectively). So if you’ve been using a mattress that pre-dates 2012, it might be a good idea to research whether or not it might include brominated flame retardants.
Organic mattress cons to consider
There are, of course, a few cons about buying organic mattresses as well. First off, they’re not as widely available as conventional mattresses — and this is especially the case when it comes to children’s mattresses. Second, organic mattresses tend to be more expensive than their conventional counterparts. Lastly, buying an organic mattress can be confusing. What materials should you look for? How can you tell if something is really held to the highest health standards or if you’re being swindled by greenwashing tactics? Let’s take a look at the composition of organic mattresses.
What are organic mattresses made of?
The most common materials used to create organic mattresses are natural latex, bamboo, wool, and organic cotton. Many of these materials are naturally flame-retardant without the inclusion of the toxic chemicals listed above.
- Natural latex: Natural latex is derived from rubber tree sap. There are also a wealth of synthetic latex mattresses on the market, so it’s important not to instantly equate the terms “latex” and “organic.”
- Bamboo: Bamboo is generally sustainably harvested, naturally anti-microbial, and great for temperature control. That’s why it’s an increasingly-popular material in the organic mattress industry.
- Wool: Wool is naturally fire-resistant, making it a great option for increasing the safety of organic mattresses. If ignited, it burns slowly rather than spreading the fire quickly throughout the room. Rayon is another material growing in popularity for this purpose because it is a less expensive alternative to wool.
- Organic cotton: When a mattress totes that it’s constructed of organic cotton, this means that the actual cotton plants harvested to make the mattress were not treated with pesticides. Make sure that your organic cotton mattress is also free of the harmful chemicals added later in the manufacturing process.
Considering that we spend a third of our lives asleep — and that children need even more nightly sleep for optimal health than adults — this isn’t always an easy decision to make. It goes without saying that you want the safest and highest quality mattress you can afford for your children. At the end of the day, spending the extra research time and accepting a slightly higher price point is worth if for your family’s health.