There are few things that seem more innocuous than a simple fluffy pillow, but the reality is that the things we squish our faces into for eight or so hours a night can be riddled with toxic chemicals. Whether your pillow is made with polyester, memory foam, synthetic down alternatives, down itself, or conventional cotton, chances are it’s off-gassing some nasty chemicals and harboring dust mites.
I’ve written extensively at Leaf Score about Toxic Chemicals in Household Textiles and the Health Effects of Toxic Textiles. Rather than go over the same ground again, this time I’ll focus more on the cons (and some pros) of four of the most problematic types of materials used to make pillows.
Before I really dig in, though, it’s worth noting that all synthetic pillows require huge amounts of resources to manufacture. These pillows then typically wind up sitting in landfill for years before they begin to break down. And, if you replace your pillow on the industry recommended schedule of just 6-24 months for most synthetic polyester pillows, you could be single-handedly responsible for more than a hundred pillows ending up in landfill during your life.
Clearly, a natural pillows made with biodegradable materials is the way to go. But even ‘natural’ pillow materials may have been treated with harmful chemicals. So, what do you need to watch out for when buying a new pillow? Let’s take a look.
Pros and Cons of Polyester Pillows
The majority of conventional pillows 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.
Polyester is also teeming with nasty chemicals, the main one being ethylene glycol. This toxin off-gases from pillows, meaning that we inhale it as we sleep. It can also be absorbed through our skin and can cause skin and eye irritation as well as damage to the nervous system and kidneys, and respiratory irritation. Polyester doesn’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. It’s hard to rest easy when your pillow is poisonous.
Top Tip – Watch out for ‘down alternatives’ – these are usually made with a polyester blend.
There are some good things about polyester, aside from the cheap price tag. For example, polyester pillows can be thrown in the washing machine and dried on low heat in the dryer, making them easy to keep clean. Unfortunately, though, you will need to do this regularly because polyester is very attractive to dust mites as there are plenty of places for these bugs to hide. Polyester also tends to have a short life span, getting lumpy and flat within a few months, especially if you go for the really cheap options.
Most polyester pillows only last 6-24 months, which means millions of pillows end up in landfill every year. That’s certainly not eco-friendly, and even if you try to upcycle or recycle your pillow, this can present further hazards to the environment. Your best option, then, is to avoid buying polyester pillows and help encourage manufacturers to stop making them and offer more natural, eco-friendly, non-toxic products instead.
Top tip – don’t be fooled by ‘hypoallergenic’ on labels. While people aren’t typically allergic to polyester, this material harbors dust mites and can make allergies worse. Also, there are far better options that are natural and hypoallergenic too!
Pros and Cons of Memory foam Pillows
Memory foam pillows have become popular in recent years as they offer good support and feel comfortable while you sleep. Unfortunately, memory foam is simply polyurethane, which can release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) while you sleep. Again, the manufacture of polyurethane memory foam is energy intensive and involves formaldehyde and benzene, both of which are bad for factory workers, the environment, and for the end user (i.e. you and your family).
Some companies have started marketing their memory foam pillows and other products under the CertiPur-US™ logo. While this might make a pillow seem eco-friendly, the truth is that all this label means is that the environmentally-damaging memory foam is a little less terrible for you than standard memory foam. The certification offers some assurance that the foam component of the pillow is free from polybrominated diphenyl ether (PDBE) and flame retardants, and that levels of formaldehyde and other chemicals including ozone depleting substances, mercury, lead, and other heavy metals, and hormone-disrupting phthalates are low. However, memory foam is still resource-hungry, synthetic, and a source of VOCs, so it is best avoided.
Pros and Cons of Polyethylene Terephthalate Pellets (PETs) and Microbeads for Pillows
Polyethylene terephthalate pellets (PETs) are small stuffing pellets made from plastic and often used in pillows. Along with microbeads, which are made with another synthetic polyester type material, pillows made with PETs have a significant carbon footprint, emitting greenhouse gases at every stage of production. The PETs in these pillows can be recycled, technically, but most pillows simply end up in landfill.
One of the biggest problems with these types of pillows are that the pellets and beads take a long time to degrade, meaning that they often end up in waterways where they have damaging effects on wildlife. The beads and pellets are a choking hazard for animals, and the toxins in these synthetic materials persist and bioaccumulate, i.e. they increase in concentration the higher you go up the food chain.
Pros and Cons of Goose, Duck, and Chicken Down and Feather Pillows
Goose down and feathers a luxurious option for stuffing and make for a soft, indulgent pillow. These feathers are rarely sourced in a humane way, however, being forcibly plucked (repeatedly) from live geese, chickens, and ducks who are reared in cages too small for them to even spread their wings. Furthermore, these feathers are typically sterilized with formaldehyde, bleached, and treated with other chemicals to reduce their allergenic potential and naturally ‘gamey’ odor.
The Down Association of Canada (a non-profit organization) administers the Downmark® logo to certify that the down and feathers in a product come from birds killed for meat, i.e. the feathers are a by-product of the meat industry, like leather and suede; the birds are not reared specifically for their feathers. This label does not, however, offer any insight into the conditions these birds experience before slaughter.
It should also be noted that down and feathers are not the same. Down refers to the soft material under the breast feathers of geese and ducks. This material helps the birds stay warm in cold weather and doesn’t have sharp quills, which is why it is a popular stuffing for duvets and comforters. Feathers are easier to come by and are often mixed in with down to increase volume as a lot of down is necessary to fill a single pillow. This is why down pillows are so expensive. A grading system is used to mark the ‘fill’ of a down pillow, with a number somewhere in the range of 300 to 800 used to indicate how much space is filled by an ounce of down. The higher the number, the firmer the pillow.
Feathers also tend to poke through pillows and both down and feathers collect dust mites. These pillows require a lot of fluffing as they lose their shape and go flat very quickly.
Cotton pillows and pillow cases
Most pillows come in a cotton encasement, and a very small number are made entirely of cotton. In almost all cases, this cotton casing will be made with conventional cotton, a resource hungry crop grown with massive amounts of pesticides and other chemicals. It’s very likely that trace amounts of these pesticides are present in the cotton when you get your new pillow home. And, if the casing has been bleached, your pillow may well contain harmful dioxins, a by-product of chlorine bleaching.
So, what can you do to check if your chosen pillow is tainted by a conventional cotton case? Well, be on the lookout for a legitimate organic cotton certification, such as USDA Organic or Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). Choosing an organic cotton case for a pillow means you’re helping to reduce the use of pesticides and herbicides worldwide, and that’s good news for biodiversity and everyone’s health.
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
When it comes to the environmental impact of pillows, it’s not just your choice of a new pillow that matters. Landfills are teeming with toxic pillows 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 pillow will degrade (eventually) into some other harmful chemicals when exposed to air and light.
Organic cotton, wool, hemp, kapok, natural rubber, buckwheat, millet, and other natural plant-based materials are the best options for truly biodegradable, eco-friendly pillows. And, as with every household product, before you even consider sending an old pillow to landfill, think about ways to repurpose, upcycle, or recycle the pillow.
You could donate lightly used pillows that just aren’t a good fit for you to a nearby retirement home, shelter, or social housing for those in need. Pillows can be reused to make comfy beds for cats and dogs at shelters (or in your own home!), or you might turn a pillow into a throw cushion for the couch by removing or compressing the filling into a smaller, square, shape.
Or, if you have an old t-shirt or sweater and an old pillow, these can be paired to make a comfortable bed for a small dog or a fun cushion with a vibrant motif. Sew the arms of a sweatshirt in a circle along the sides of the sweatshirt to form a bed shape, keeping the sleeve ends open for stuffing. Then, slide a pillow into the sweatshirt, stuff the arms with any leftover fill and stitch it shut. Voila! A new dog bed that has helped save an old pillow from landfill, prevented resources from being used to make a new bed, and saved you money.
My long suffering dog has been sleeping in the same ratty old bed for many years, so this year may be the year I finally use one of those worn out old pillows to make her something fantastically upcycled. Of course, if she had her way, I’d just buy her a brand new luxurious full body kapok pillow from Rawganqiue or one of the other companies making excellent eco-friendly, non-toxic pillows.