You’d think that at the end of the day you could just sink your head into your pillow, pull up your duvet and rest easy. Alas, that duvet (as well as your pillows and sheets) may well be made with chemicals that aren’t great for your health or the environment (or the workers making these products!). So, while you (hopefully) spend eight hours a night dreaming under your duvet, this seemingly simple household item could actually be a waking nightmare.
In this Leaf Score series on eco-friendly, non-toxic duvets, I look at some of the best natural materials for duvets (and which one might work best for you) and green certifications for duvets that you’ll want to look for when buying new. I also offer my recommendations for companies making top notch duvets you can snuggle under without worry, with specific product recommendations for kapok, silk, cotton, wool, and down duvets. One of my personal favorites that received a 5/5 Leaf Score is the Savvy Rest Organic Wool Duvet.
Why does it pay to go natural and non-toxic for your duvet?
Let’s take a look at the nasty things that might be lurking in your bed (and I don’t mean dust mites and bed bugs).
Toxic chemicals in comforters
The majority of duvets are made with potentially toxic chemicals including chlorinated phenols, formaldehyde and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs), carcinogenic dyes, and allergens and irritants.
Even if a duvet itself is filled with a quality material such as organic cotton, the case may still have been bleached or dyed with toxic chemicals or treated with flame retardants, antibacterial agents, stain repellants, and other chemicals that can adversely affect your health. If a duvet is marketed as having been treated with an antimicrobial agent, stay well away.
Duvet inserts themselves are not normally dyed, but they may have been bleached with chlorine bleach. Chlorine treatment can create carcinogenic chemicals called dioxins, and these compounds have also been linked to a range of health issues including immune disorders, miscarriage, birth defects, infertility, and diabetes (R).
If a duvet is made with conventional cotton, inside and/or out, this means that it may contain traces of a variety of hazardous chemicals including pesticides and herbicides, and heavy metals such as lead and arsenic that are often found in these chemicals or in impurities in raw materials. Several of the pesticides commonly used on cotton in the U.S. are considered “possible,” “likely,” “probable” or “known” human carcinogens by the Environmental Protection Agency. These include diuron, tribuphos (DEF), cacodylic acid, and others (R).
Duvets may also contain formaldehyde, polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), and other contaminants and degradation products. Such substances can cause health challenges, including textile dermatitis, reproductive problems, developmental issues in infants and children, cancer, cognitive dysfunction, respiratory difficulties such as asthma, endocrine (hormonal) issues, and more. These chemicals can also cause damage to the wider ecosystem, including affecting aquatic lifeforms such as fish, coral reefs, algae, and larger sea creatures such as whales.
Unlike with new bed sheets or clothing, it’s a little tricky to full wash a duvet at home to get rid of any residual chemicals. And, if you take your duvet to the dry cleaners, chances are it will be treated with a whole host of other toxic chemicals and come back even worse. All in all, your best bet is to choose a new duvet made with organic natural materials with certification to the Global Organic Textile Standard, or one of the other green certifications relevant for duvets.
If you’re on a budget and considering buying a new duvet made with polyester, you may want to hold out for a deal on a natural duvet. In the long run, a cheap polyester duvet could cost you much more than an organic cotton duvet, thanks to the impact of this petroleum-derived material on your health and the environment.
Pros and cons of polyester duvets
The majority of conventional duvets are made using polyester, a mass-produced petroleum-based, nonrenewable resource. While polyester is cheap compared to better quality materials, its manufacture is incredibly energy intensive, which contributes to climate change and costs us more in the long run. Even recycled polyester has a higher energy burden than natural materials like organic cotton and hemp.
Polyester is made with a variety of potentially harmful chemicals. These include ethylene glycol, which can be absorbed through the skin and inhaled, causing respiratory and skin irritation and damage to the nervous system and kidneys. Cotton polyester blends are often treated with formaldehyde and ammonia too, both of which can pose problems for health and are regulated as toxic substances by agencies such as Health Canada.
In addition, polyester duvets don’t breathe well, meaning that you’re more likely to overheat, sweat, and have an unpleasant sleeping experience. Furthermore, polyester is frequently produced in factories with unsafe and unfair working conditions, putting workers and the nearby environment at risk. A cheap but toxic duvet provides cold comfort indeed.
Top Tip – Watch out for ‘down alternatives’ or ‘microfiber’ fills – these are usually made with a polyester blend.
There are some good things about polyester, however, aside from the cheap price tag. For example, polyester duvets are easy to keep clean as they are machine washable and can be put in the dryer on a low heat setting. Unfortunately, you’re more likely to need to wash polyester duvets regularly as polyester is highly appealing to dust mites. Polyester also tends to have a short life span, meaning that your new duvet will quickly become lumpy and uneven within a few months, especially if you go for the really cheap options. It’s also a good idea to use a microplastic filter in your laundry if washing synthetic fabrics like polyester.
Top tip – don’t be fooled by ‘hypoallergenic’ on labels. While people aren’t typically allergic to polyester, this fiber can play host to dust mites, and there are far better options that are both natural and hypoallergenic.
When it comes to the environmental impact of duvets, it’s not just your choice of a new comforter that matters. Your old synthetic duvet made with polyester required huge amounts of resources to manufacture, is likely riddled with chemicals that could harm your health, and, in all likelihood, will end up sitting in landfill for years before it begins to break down. Reusing this old duvet, or donating a duvet still in good condition, is the best way to reduce the manufacture of new goods, which is better for the environment as a whole.
Landfills are teeming with toxic duvets made from synthetic materials that leach chemicals into the soil and water supply. It’s important to note that the term ‘biodegradable’ is not regulated in the U.S., so instead of being a sign of eco-friendliness, it can simply mean that a duvet will degrade (eventually) into some other harmful chemicals when exposed to air and light. Indeed, polyester duvets break down while in use, releasing dust containing various chemicals into the air in your home.
Without a doubt, your best bet for a good night’s sleep is an organic cotton or kapok comforter, or a duvet made with cruelty-free wool, down, silk, or HypoDown®, assuming the duvet meets strict standards for toxic chemical content from GOTS, Oeko-Tex, or other accrediting body. These duvets can create a comfortable sleep environment without putting your health at risk.