Copyright 2015 Healthy Child
Typical mattresses contain chemicals that are not healthy for anyone, but particularly not safe for babies and children. Most mattresses contain petroleum based chemicals, toxic foams, synthetic fabrics, and are treated with chemical fire retardants. These chemicals can create toxic off-gassing that can expose your family to dangerous levels of chemicals while they sleep.
Even mattresses that are called organic can have materials that have some toxic off-gassing, so it’s important to know what to look for in an organic mattress.
It’s difficult to know how much an individual mattress might be off-gassing. It really depends on what’s in the mattress, and this varies greatly between different types of mattress materials and manufacturers. Sometimes it’s obvious because you can actually smell the chemical odor. But a mattress can still off-gas even when it’s 10 years old and there’s no chemical smell.
What if You Can’t Afford an Organic Mattress?
If you can’t afford to buy an organic mattress, how do you block the off-gassing from a typical toxic mattress? We are sometimes asked this question, and I wish we had a good answer. The quick answer is there is no real solution, except to make it a priority to buy a safe and healthy mattress as soon as you can. But there are possible options that may at least partially solve the problem. So let’s explore them.
Please note: This article is about mattresses for older children and adults – not babies. Please read this article for protecting babies.
Do Dust Mite Covers, Barrier Cloths, or Organic Mattress Pads Block Chemical Off-Gassing?
People sometimes assume that a dust mite allergy cover, barrier cloth or organic mattress pad will block the off-gassing. This is not true.
There is an organic cotton dust mite barrier cover that we recommend for blocking dust mites, bed bugs, and allergens. It’s a tightly woven, 100% organic cotton fabric that is completely chemical-free. See Organic Cotton Dust Mite Barrier Cover
However, the dust mite barrier cover will not block gases since it is a fabric. Organic cotton, wool, or latex barrier covers or any other type of mattress cover or pad will likely not be enough to protect you from the toxic chemicals or gases coming from the mattress. Plastic is the only material known to block off-gassing. But unfortunately, most plastic covers will add more chemical exposure or off-gassing to the situation. Many plastic dust mite covers or barriers are not safe. Barrier cloths or covers are great for blocking dust mites and other allergens, but not for toxic off-gassing.
Polyethylene is Safe and Non-Toxic
Blocking chemical off-gassing is not so simple. Plastic will work, but the plastic needs to be thick enough so the gasses won’t penetrate. The type of plastic used is critically important because many types of plastics will create more chemical off-gassing. For instance, you wouldn’t want to use a vinyl-based cover since vinyl will add more chemical exposure.
Low density, food-grade polyethylene is safe and non-toxic. It has a simple molecular structure that does not require toxic chemical additives like phthalates and other unsafe plasticizers. BabeSafe mattress covers (made in New Zealand) are made with a specially formulated polyethylene that has been tested and confirmed to block off-gassing and will not off-gas itself. These covers are safe for covering baby and crib mattresses. Unfortunately, BabeSafe will not make the larger sizes in twin through king. I’m sorry to say that there is no one that we can recommend who makes tested mattress wraps for older child or adult beds.
Some people are buying sheets of polyethylene at a home improvement store to wrap their mattresses, but this can be risky since there are different grades of polyethylene and this plastic is not tested. You have to be really careful to get the correct thickness – at least 125 microns, or 5 mil, and it needs to be clear and not colored. And you will want to be sure you are actually getting pure, low density polyethylene and not some other plastic or combination.
Important: There are different grades and thicknesses of polyethylene and without testing, there is no way to know if what you get will block all off-gassing.
Some people have purchased several BabeSafe crib size mattress covers to wrap an adult bed. The covers are cut open and then taped together, overlapping the seams with strong tape. This seems like it may be a good alternative since at least you know you’re getting a safe polyethylene that does indeed block the toxins.
Please note that I’m NOT recommending any of this as safe sleeping arrangements for a baby or as SIDS prevention advice.
When you wrap your mattress in a sheet of thick polyethylene, you are sleeping on plastic that can be noisy and annoying – it’s not the most comfortable bedding material and it’s not breathable. An organic cotton mattress pad on top is essential, and a thicker organic topper would be better.
Please NOTE that if you have an infant sleeping in your bed, it’s not safe to use a thick mattress pad or topper that will make the surface soft or too squishy or yielding. Infants need a firm flat surface. But for an older child or adult bed you could use a soft topper.
Another possibility is to use a Naturepedic Organic Cotton Waterproof mattress pad. In this waterproof pad, there is a thin film of plastic in the middle between the organic cotton layers. This thin film may partially block some of the off-gassing from the top of the mattress. Will it block all gasses that may be coming from your mattress? I can’t say, since is not designed for this purpose; it is designed to be waterproof. It is not the correct thickness and it is not tested to block off-gassing. But it is a safe and non-toxic pad, and it’s the only waterproof mattress pad that has been tested and confirmed to not off-gas itself.
What Have I Done for My Family?
Obviously, there are no great alternatives if you can’t afford a new mattress, and I can certainly empathize. 20 years ago, I slept with my baby in my bed, not knowing mattress toxicity was an issue. I breastfed her frequently throughout the night and I was in tune with her natural breathing rhythm. At that time in my life, I couldn’t afford an organic mattress. And there simply weren’t that many options available then.
If I had a baby now, I would make it an absolute priority to purchase an organic mattress that I know is also non-toxic. Or I would get a safe, non-toxic bassinet, cradle, crib or co-sleeper to put beside my bed.
As soon as I could, I purchased an organic mattress for my daughter – the Naturepedic Quilted Organic Cotton Deluxe Mattress. She’s now 20 and this mattress has been great for her for many years. This mattress is the most affordable and highest quality that I have found for a completely non-toxic certified organic mattress.
I need a very soft sleeping surface. I simply don’t sleep well on a firm innerspring mattress. Before I could afford a softer adult mattress, I compromised for myself. I bought a 4″ organic topper and put that on top of my regular (probably toxic) firm innerspring mattress. Then I had another organic wool topper on top of that. It was very soft and comfortable and I was sleeping about 7″ above my old mattress. I also have a very good air purifier in my room that works well with VOCs.
Please remember that my solution is not safe if you’re bed sharing with an infant. Babies need a firm flat surface and the toppers that I have make it too soft for a baby.
Did this scenario guarantee I was not being exposed? No, but I recommend that you do the best you can with the resources you have. We have to let go of the worry until we can afford to get what we need. Now I sleep on an EOS organic mattress in the plush/soft comfort level, and this is total bliss for me! It’s organic latex and pocketed coils with a quilted organic cotton and wool covering.
Make a Non-Toxic Mattress Your Priority
If you have a family, I’m sure there are many things you need to spend money on. It may seem difficult to justify spending a lot on an organic mattress. But what could be more important than protecting your family from chemical exposure? You can’t protect them from all exposures since chemicals are virtually everywhere, but a mattress is an up-close, long-term exposure of toxic chemicals. Taking steps to eliminate this exposure goes a long way in assuring good health. Do the best you can to make safe, non-toxic organic mattresses a priority in your budget. Then let go of the worry. Worry can be toxic, too.
After 18 years of extensive research into safe, non-toxic materials, Healthy Child recommends these mattresses:
Organic does not always equal non-toxic. This article outlines how to determine whether a mattress is organic AND truly non-toxic. This article is about crib mattresses, but most of the information also pertains to child or adult mattresses.
This information is purely for educational purposes and is NOT meant to be SIDS prevention advice. It is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. Healthy Child does NOT make ANY claims that co-sleeping or using a non-toxic mattress will prevent SIDS since this has not been 100% scientifically proven, and there can be other factors involved in SIDS. None of the information or options presented here are considered to be SIDS prevention advice or medical advice.