If you’re a big fan of crisp, clean sheets that don’t off-gas nasty chemicals, cause skin irritation, or have a deleterious effect on the environment or your gonads, you’re in the right place. Even bed sheets made with natural fibers might have been treated with harsh chemicals or dyed using toxic products. And, while we’re on the subject, how sure are you that those ‘natural’ sheets are actually natural?
To begin, let’s think about the kinds of questions you’ll want to ask before shelling out for sheets. Your choice of bed sheets might seem simply a matter of color, pattern, size, and cost, but it’s also important to consider the following questions:
- What are the sheets made from?
- Are the materials recycled and/or recyclable?
- Have the sheets been treated with toxic chemicals including dyes?
- Does the manufacturing of the sheets harm humans, other animals, and/or the environment?
Considering we spend around eight hours a night in close contact with our bed sheets, it makes sense to know what our skin is being exposed to. This means understanding the materials used to make sheets and the ways in which those materials might be treated.
The best materials for bed sheets
There are pros and cons to every material used to make bed sheets. By far, cotton is the most commonly used fiber in the textile industry, with most sheets made with conventional cotton. Many sheets are also made with polyester, viscose, rayon, and polyamide, with some of these synthetic fibers listed on sheets as ‘microfiber’.
Conventional cotton is hugely problematic as it uses vast amount of water to grow and process and is one of the largest contributors to pesticide use worldwide. Other chemicals are also used to manufacture bed sheets made with cotton, synthetic fibers, and with bamboo and other fibers.
In general, your best bed for bed sheets are organic cotton, hemp, or linen, or a blend of these natural fibers. Check out this in-depth look at the best materials for eco-friendly bed sheets. And, if you’re considering other natural materials for sheets, you might want to take a closer look at silk. You may also be interested to learn if bamboo sheets are truly eco-friendly.
Bed sheets made with natural fibers that haven’t been treated with toxic chemicals are much easier to recycle or reuse, and, if they do end up in landfill, will break down quite quickly without posing a risk to the environment. If you have old sheets to get rid of, here are some ways for How to Reuse and Recycle Old Bed Sheets.
Now, let’s assume that you’ve figured out what material(s) you prefer for your bed sheets; time to go shopping, right? Not quite. If you’re looking for truly non-toxic, eco-friendly sheets, it’s not enough to simply choose organic cotton, hemp or linen. You’ll also need to consider the use of azo dyes and other problematic chemicals, especially as these are more likely to leach out at higher levels from natural fibers.
What could possibly be lurking in your sheets? Here’s a quick look.
Are there toxic chemicals in your bed sheets?
Back in 2014, a groundbreaking Swedish study was published where researchers identified 2,400 textile-related substances in commonly available household products such as bed sheets. Of these, 5% were considered to be a potential risk to the environment and 10% were considered a potential risk to human health (R). That’s some 240 chemicals hanging out in household textiles that might harm you and your family.
Even more worrisome, just 10% of these 2,400 chemicals were included in the Swedish environmental monitoring program at the time of the study. That means that well over 2,000 chemicals were present in households without any clear oversight by environmental protection agencies.
I’ve written before at Leaf Score about the importance of consumer safety regulations and how to best protect yourself and your family when these regulations fail. This Swedish study helps highlight the importance of being a conscious consumer who asks questions of companies making household products such as bed sheets.
Indeed, the researchers in this study also noted that a staggering 4-44 tons of hazardous dyes might be released annually into waste water in the EU alone, just from washing cotton and polyamide textiles during manufacturing. And this is the best-case scenario, assuming companies follow good manufacturing practices. If they don’t, the amount of chemicals released could be five times higher or more.
The chemicals identified in the study as posing a risk to human health were all functional chemicals, which means that they are intended to be present at relatively high concentrations in consumer goods (read more about Common Chemicals in Household Textiles here). Of these, azo dyes of direct and acid application type seemed to present considerable risk to the environment.
The chemicals that posed a potential risk to the environment tended to be auxiliary chemicals (used to manufacture the textiles) or impurities and degradation products. These chemicals included nonylphenol ethoxylates and nonylphenol. Other chemicals that might be present in sheets include formaldehyde and dioxins formed when sheets are bleached using chlorine.
The health risks of chemicals in bed sheets
Bed linens are, as mentioned, in close contact with our skin for many hours every night. This means that we have considerable dermal exposure, and respiratory exposure, to the chemical substances in textiles.
Some of the potential adverse effects of these chemicals include:
- Increased risk of cancer
- Reproductive and developmental disorders
- Endocrine disruption
- Allergic reactions (such as textile dermatitis)
These chemicals may remain in the final product as minor contaminants or enter the waste water stream or landfill, where they can damage the health of wildlife and whole ecosystems.
Some hazardous chemicals may also form in textiles as the product degrades, meaning that they are not identified when new products are tested. Vintage clothing and old bedding may also have significantly higher levels of problematic contaminants, for instance, than newer textiles, in part due to chemical degradation and because stricter environmental regulations have been enacted in recent years (although these are in peril in the US, thanks to lobbyists and funding cuts to the CPSC).
Children and those with respiratory conditions are especially vulnerable to the effects of chemical molecules bound to fiber particles released during normal wear and tear of bed sheets. Substances which bind loosely to the material, including plasticizers, stabilizing agents, and direct dyes, are more readily released during use and when washing textiles.
Different fibers have different binding affinities for specific chemicals, and other factors such as high humidity, temperature, and exposure to the sun can affect the release of chemicals in textiles. Considerable amounts of silver, triclosan and triclocarban have also been seen to be released during normal washing of textiles treated with biocides, which may contribute to bacterial resistance.
Fiber molecules and bound chemicals also make up a significant proportion of household dust, which means you don’t have to sleep on toxic sheets to be exposed to the chemicals in them. Children are also exposed to chemicals when they suck or chew on sheets, pillowcases, blankets, clothing, towels, and other textiles.
Clearly, there are many chemicals that have no place in our sheets or our homes in general. Buying sheets that are certified organic, and/or carry certifications such as Oeko-Tex and GOTS, can help provide some assurance that the product won’t expose you and your family to toxic chemicals.
Before you rush off to check out the companies I recommend for eco-friendly bed sheets, there’s that last question to consider from the list right at the top of this article.
Does the manufacturing of the sheets harm humans, other animals, and/or the environment?
Looking for bed sheets made with organic raw materials, that are free from toxic chemicals, and which carry Oeko-Tex 100 certification is a great place to start, but there’s one last thing I’d urge you to consider. Namely, how the manufacture of those sheets might affect those who make them, the local environment and global environment, and any non-human animals (such as those used for testing chemical dyes or animals displaced through deforestation to grow fiber crops).
A lot of the bedding for sale in the US is imported from other countries where fair labor practices aren’t always respected. Even in the US, working conditions aren’t always as good as we’d hope, as ethical consumers.
So, in addition to thinking about materials and processes, consider looking for fair trade and social justice certifications for bed sheets. Some companies proudly display these kinds of certifications, making it a heck of a lot easier to make good, green, choices for bed sheets without having to break the bank.