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The wellness industry is coming for your mattress

Are mattresses toxic? And does that matter?

Avocado is one of many mattress upstarts that promises a “natural” place to rest.
Courtesy of Avocado

“Every spring works like a little hand holding your body,” a male voice intones from the darkness. “That level of relaxation can open up all your small muscles, and particularly that of our hip flexors. In Swedish culture, we know that the root chakra is where we store all those emotions or feelings. So once that is open, we can really be our true self.”

I’m not used to hearing the words of a yoga goddess in a clipped, professorial Swedish accent. And normally I would laugh at the assertion that belief in chakras is a Swedish thing, but the bedding salesman’s lyrical patter has lulled me into a helpless, meditative state as I sink deeper into the $400,000 mattress system.

That is not a typo. In fact, the mattress, mattress topper, and box spring underneath me altogether cost the equivalent of an upper-middle-class home, everything handmade with all-natural materials: cotton, wool, linen, horsehair (like the Vikings used to insulate their armor), Swedish steel, and slow-growing pine from the frigid northern regions.

“It’s never been touched by electric tools. Some people say they feel that; it feels very grounding,” explains the Swede, who is slumped against the wall on a children’s mattress like someone who has just finished a glorious blunt, his fur-lined Gucci slides dangling from his feet. “Almost every person working in the movie industry sleeps on Hästens.” (This mattress salesman got his start in Los Angeles, which he says is a Hästens mecca.)

“It’s the one thing you can do to preserve your youth, to have the most energy, look the most beautiful, is when you’ve slept well,” he adds.

I’m at the Hästens Sleep Spa in SoHo, Manhattan, the place where New Yorkers with more money than sleep — finance guys, mostly — come to optimize what time they do have in bed. The space reminds me of the belly of an aquarium, with soothing music and navy walls receding into the cavernous space. Large potted plants and candles dot the room.

I’m here, ostensibly, because a Hästens representative asked me if I wanted to write about nontoxic mattresses. And I certainly do. The eco-friendly mattress industry has blossomed from almost nothing a decade ago to a dozen different brands. Do an internet search for “nontoxic mattress,” and you’ll see paid ads for Avocado, Nectar, Tuft & Needle, Savvy Rest, Purple, and BedInABox. Right around the corner from Hästens in SoHo is Coco-Mat, where the beds are stuffed with coconut husks and natural latex; I could head uptown to test out a Naturepedic, which has coils encased in organic cotton. Each mattress company has its own special mix of stuffed fluff, batting, foam, and springs, and all insist they offer the healthiest, most nurturing sleep experience, thanks in part to what they don’t contain: flame retardants, glues, carcinogens, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

A bed, slightly unmade
All-natural Hästens mattresses start at $8,000 for a queen.
Courtesy of Hästens

But I’m also at the Hästens Sleep Spa because the midrange Hästens costs somewhere in the $20,000s, and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to find out what a mattress that requires the equivalent of a year’s rent feels like. (Now I know: It’s as pampering as a first-class flight to Stockholm.)

Even a mattress built for the common person is one of the most important and expensive purchases you can make. We spend a third of our lives on it (ideally), and the typical price can range from $300 for a mattress that’ll be lumpy within a year to $1,500 for something more solid. Eco-friendly mattresses, not surprisingly, cost more. Avocado and Naturepedic beds start at $1,000 and $2,000, respectively.

I’m curious to find out whether we should truly be concerned with the ingredients in our mattresses, or if — as with the clean beauty industry — it’s a faux house of horrors designed to get us to open our wallets wider.

Volatile versus organic

“It’s been a really interesting ride, learning about all the things that go into mattresses,” says Bobbi Wilding, executive director of Clean and Healthy New York, an organization that advocates within the state for restricted use of toxic chemicals across industries. CHNY grew out of Wilding’s search for a safe crib mattress for her first child, who is now 16. Last year the organization released a report titled “The Mattress Still Matters,” with several notable names in environmental chemistry and public health ringing the alarm.

With their tiny, frail bodies, babies are especially susceptible to toxic substances (and their mothers are particularly receptive to education on the topic). But are regular mattresses as harmful for adults as the bitty ones can be for babies?

Yes, says Wilding. Mattress companies, which are not required to disclose what goes into their mattresses, employ a wide variety of fancy features — memory foam, cool gel — to mask their ingredients. Especially concerning are the mattresses you order online and have delivered in a box. “A lot of those are just foam that gets squished, and then you open them up and let them reinflate,” Wilding says.

The current winner of the online mattress wars, Casper, calls the materials in its products “planet-friendly” but admits on its website that memory foam can “temporarily leak off-gassing chemical odors, due to volatile organic compounds (VOCs).” That’s that new car smell. In the short term, VOCs can irritate your eyes, throat, and skin and cause breathing problems, headaches, fatigue, and nausea. Long-term exposure can damage your liver, kidneys, and central nervous system.

Casper attempts to allay shoppers’ fears by saying its mattresses are “low in VOCs emissions” and instructing consumers to let the mattress air out in a ventilated room for up to 72 hours if they smell anything. (Casper declined to answer my questions on how it defines “low VOC” or whether it has tested the mattresses for toxicity over time.)

Like many mattress companies, Casper also points to its CertiPUR certification from the Alliance for Flexible Polyurethane Foam, a not-for-profit organization created by the foam industry that covers only the foam in a mattress, not the rest of the complex layers that make up a typical bed. “It basically certifies that it doesn’t contain chemicals that never were present, or [that] are legally required not to be present in the foam,” Wilding says. In other words, it’s very clever greenwashing.

For example, CertiPUR says foam shouldn’t contain “phthalates regulated by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.” But the CPSC only regulates phthalates for children’s products. And all polyurethane foam is made the same way: by blending oil with a type of chemical called isocyanates, leaving behind a potentially carcinogenic residue that CertiPUR doesn’t mention.

CertiPUR also assures consumers that the foam is free of flame retardants. But that doesn’t mean they’re not found in other mattress layers. “Flame retardants show up in sneaky places,” Wilding says. They started being added to mattresses in an era when smoking in bed was considered glamorous, not the first step in a particularly depressing way to die. They are bioaccumulative and persistent, meaning once they make their way into your house, they tend to stick around, in its dust and then in your body. They have been linked to hormone disruption, asthma, immune system suppression, cancer, reproductive and developmental toxicity, and impacted neurological function. CHNY and the Natural Resources Defense Council are supporting a bill in New York state to ban flame retardants in mattresses, on the heels of similar bans in California, Maryland, and other states.

“I’m particularly passionate about bedding,” says Amy Ziff, founder and executive director of Made Safe, a nonprofit that certifies consumer products it deems safe for humans and the environment. “When you sleep, that is the time when your body is detoxing. And it’s doing important repair and rejuvenation work. It’s really important, if people are going to make an effort to clean up their living space, to pay attention to what they’re sleeping on.”

When I ask Ziff whether mattresses are particularly toxic compared to other household items, she says, “I wish I had the answer for you. We are all living lab rats in an uncontrolled experiment with chemicals. Nobody’s ever really looked at what the toxic impact of a mattress is over your lifetime, [compared] to, let’s say, the impact of your household cleaning chemicals.”

You might be the kind of person who cleans with vinegar and baking soda and would like to avoid messing up the purity of your home with your mattress. Or you could decide, like Wirecutter did, that you’re comfortable with a low level of toxins. Why single out your mattress when everything else in your home — your new kitchen cabinets, your vinyl flooring, your new paint job — is also off-gassing?

Off-gassing does go down over time, so if your mattress is a few years old, you’ve already gotten past the most toxic point. But before you take Wirecutter’s advice to just chill out, it’s worth noting that the product review site came to this conclusion after interviewing CertiPUR’s CEO, a former polyurethane foam executive with an interest in keeping consumers calm about his industry’s product.

So what makes for safe sleep?

The main thing to know is that mattresses made of natural materials such as wool and cotton are inherently fire resistant and don’t require the application of chemicals to meet safety standards. Choosing a bed with layers that are sewn together also avoids potentially toxic glues. And as long as you’re not allergic, natural latex provides a cushy alternative to polyurethane foam.

It turns out there is something to the idea that mattresses made from completely natural materials are better for you. “The unfortunate thing is that right now, they are significantly more expensive than the synthetic products,” Wilding says.

If you’re on a budget, Made Safe’s Ziff suggests you start smaller by changing out your pillow and replacing your mattress topper with one made of natural materials. When you’re ready to replace your mattress, there are a few trustworthy certifications you can look for. The most stringent is Made Safe, which has a list of 6,500 substances it has banned for reasons related to human and environmental health.

All-natural mattresses, like this one made by Hästens, are inherently fire resistant.
Courtesy of Hästens

The Standard 100 by OEKO-TEX label covers every single material in the Hästens mattress. It does allow for some substances below certain limits based on human health, so you’ll find the label on foam beds that may not be “perfect” but are at least on the healthier side. (Make sure the label applies to the mattress as a whole, not just one of its components.) Standard 100 OEKO-TEX-certified beds also tend to not require a Prop 65 label, which alerts California consumers to the presence of carcinogens and reproductive toxins.

Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certifies mattresses that are at least 70 percent made of organic natural materials and which don’t contain flame retardants, phthalates, or other chemicals of concern. The Global Organic Latex Standard requires the latex to be at least 95 percent organic; it also sets limits on harmful chemicals.

With my 7-year-old foam mattress reaching the end of its life, and my husband occasionally wheezing in his sleep, I think it’s worth springing for a certified nontoxic mattress. Unfortunately, at $8,000, the entry-level queen-size Hästens is out of my reach. But a girl can dream — and test out all the options.

As I ready to leave Hästens’s midnight-blue, undersea sleep cocoon, the Swede leads me into a small room with two adjustable single beds, similar to what hospital beds might look like if they were designed by a high-end Scandinavian firm. The beds face a widescreen TV showing the album that’s currently playing: Indigenous flute. Laser pricks of light dance on the ceiling. He explains that while most clients put the adjustable beds in their movie theaters, they have other uses: “LSD trips, and yes, getting kind of into the sky.” (He has personally dragged his Hästens mattress toppers onto his apartment floor for at least one ayahuasca ceremony.)

I suppose it’s progress that finance guys these days have mellowed out enough to spend their time and money on psychedelics and a good night’s sleep, rather than cocaine and perilously young women. Finally, I can say that I have something in common with millionaires.