When it was time to up-size my kids’ beds, I spent my time worrying about the mattresses and forgot about the bedding until the last minute. In fact, my daughter’s new bed was assembled, with the mattress in place, before I clued in that we had no sheets. So, I took my her on a little shopping trip. Because we were rushed, I just went to a local conventional bedding store. Why? Because I’d just invested in an awesome mattress, but I wasn’t overly worried about having organic sheets since they could be washed and aired out.
It turns out I should have paid more attention.
Why is a healthy bedroom important?
We spend a third of our life sleeping (if you’re a new parent that statistic is hard to believe, but stick with me). Our bodies also do some pretty incredible things when we’re unconscious. From getting toxics out to repairing the heart to improving brain function; while we’re dreaming our bodies are getting ready for what we throw at them tomorrow.
So why do we need to pay attention to what we sleep on? Because unfortunately, conventional beds, mattresses, and bedding typically contain toxic chemicals that can off-gas or settle out into household dust. To help improve (or at least maintain) your health, getting your bedroom as clear as possible from toxic ingredients is a great place to start.
Learn from my mistakes and successes – here are my tips to create a healthier bedroom from mattress to pillows to sheets.
1. Choose a Non-Toxic Mattress
Polyurethane foam mattresses off-gas pretty much indefinitely, chemicals which have been associated with chronic headaches and respiratory issues in some people. They are also typically treated with toxic flame retardants to meet health and safety standards. These chemicals degrade out of the mattress over time, creating dust that contains these chemicals. (I discussed mattresses in more detail here.)
If you can plan for it in your budget, opt for a natural mattress free from flame retardants. We chose the Naturepedic organic cotton mattresses from Organic Lifestyle because I prefer the feel of a coil mattress to foam and Naturepedic consistently rates well. There are non-toxic foam products available, but read labels carefully because some products are natural foam, typically soy, blended with polyurethane.
If a non-toxic mattress is not in your immediate future, vacuuming, on, underneath and around your bed every week. This will help remove the chemicals that setting into household dust, preventing it from being reintroduced to the air you breath – this is most effective if your vacuum has a HEPA filter.
2. Know What’s in Your Pillow
Similar to mattresses, avoid anything made with polyurethane foam. There is some debate as to whether down can harbour dust-mites (which can be respiratory irritants), but studies aren’t showing a clear link. Some down may be chemically treated so be sure to check with the manufacturer. You can also find natural pillows filled with buckwheat (or you can make your own), solid latex foam, shredded rubber, cotton, wool, or even kapok (that was a new one for me).
I personally switched to a shredded natural latex rubber pillow a couple of months ago. I was super skeptical about it – “shredded rubber” doesn’t exactly scream sleepy-time comfort. But after reading reviews, I was sold. I often go to bed with wet hair so the fact that it’s waterproof was a huge bonus for me. It has kept its loft much better than any other pillow I’ve had, and it’s machine washable. I’ve been dealing with failed pillow purchases for years and I’m so excited to finally have found a healthy winner!
3. Benefits of Organic Sheets (and what to do if they’re not feasible)
Most sheets, or at least the more affordable ones, are a cotton-polyester blend. With the current Story of Stuff campaign about microplastics in the ocean, many are trying to reduce synthetics so check for polyester on the label. So when I took my daughter shopping I was looking for natural fibres. This was harder said then done! But I did find a few options with 100% cotton and bamboo.
But then, I wanted to avoid anything with “wrinkle-free” or “wrinkle-resistant” on the package. Some of these features may be inherent with the polyester blends, but often they are treated with formaldehyde or other toxic chemicals.
So, when I was shopping for my daughter, we were left looking for 100% cotton without any hyped-up performance claims. Yes, cotton isn’t an ideal textile due to the environmental implications of pesticide and water use. You can also look for bamboo or silk, but every fabric has its trade-offs. After circling the store and taking packages away from my daughter’s hopeful hands, I finally found what I thought was my compromise on price and function: 100% cotton, nothing-fancy, sheets.
What did we end up with? The most terrible chemical smell after washing them. Twice. While I knew I was risking questionable processing chemicals with conventional sheets, I was not expecting the extent to which these sheets off-gassed. It really drove home that you never really know what you’re getting in terms of fabric treatments or dyes.
Choosing organic sheets with non-toxic processing really is your best bet.
If, like me, organic isn’t in your budget, wash conventional sheets thoroughly (even 2 – 3 times) and hang to dry outside if you can to get rid of lingering chemicals. Some people soak them in vinegar or borax to help pull out residues as well (though I don’t have the science to back up that it works, it does help reduce the odour).
4. Don’t Forget the Mattress Protector
Walking over to the mattress protector shelves I expected to have a few options to choose from. Then I was presented with multiple products in each of three options: vinyl, antibacterial treatments or both. Let’s just say I was happy to have my label-reading obsession.
If you want a waterproof mattress pad, I recommend avoiding vinyl as it’s the most toxic of plastics and is wreaking havoc on the environment and human health near manufacturing plants. Polyethylene plastic is one of the most inert plastics, and is used in some healthier mattress pads.
Alternatively, opt for a 100% cotton, tencel and/or wool products that don’t have antibacterial treatment claims. Antibacterial chemicals are often known hormone disruptors and are leading to resistant bacteria which cause a whole host of problems. Wash your bedding regularly instead – dry in the sun if you’re able, or use the heat from the dryer.
So, there you have it. I hope this gives you actionable ways you can make your bedrooms a little healthier – for you, and the planet. And remember, this isn’t about changing everything all at once. But focusing on your priorities and what you can accomplish on your budget will help reduce your exposure to chemicals overall, which is all we can try to do.
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