I’ve only bought a handful of mattresses in my life, but I lucked out with my last one, getting a great deal on an organic mattress that is still in great shape almost nine years later. The thing is, I no longer remember exactly what’s in this mattress (and the law label has faded!). I do remember being impressed with the materials at the time, though, but chances are that next time I buy a mattress I’ll be even more discerning about its construction and want to buy something made with only the most eco-friendly mattress materials.
In this Leaf Score series on mattresses, I’ve already discussed toxic chemicals in mattresses, including toxic polyurethane foam, chemical flame retardants and other nasties. Now that we’ve gotten all the negative stuff out of the way, let’s revel in how many good options there are available for natural, eco-friendly mattresses. These mattresses are made with materials that don’t off-gas, have a lower carbon footprint (typically) than synthetic mattresses, and are more easily recycled, or able to break down naturally.
The best green mattress materials
Some eco-friendly mattress materials to look out for include:
- Organic wool
- Organic cotton
- 100 percent natural latex
Regardless of how firm or soft you like your mattress, choosing a model made with natural materials is better for breathability, comfort, durability, and all-round health. A quality mattress can easily last for several decades without needing to be replaced, if well cared for. And, if more people choose an eco-friendly mattress, this could help to keep millions of tons of material out of landfill and vastly reduce consumption of petroleum products and related greenhouse gas emissions.
A quick word on kapok in mattresses
Kapok remains rather underused in mattresses, but is present in some mattresses as a soft, comfortable, moisture wicking pillowtop layer. It is lightweight, soft, and sustainable and makes a good alternative to down, which is known to harbor dust mites and has some ethical considerations besides. Kapok is an excellent material for pillowtops as it can help with temperature regulation (just like wool).
I’ve started seeing more companies using kapok as an eco-friendly pillow fill, so it seems likely they’ll also catch on to using it in mattresses. Kapok is not, however, proven to be fire resistant, unlike wool, which means it would likely be paired with wool or have to be treated with chemicals to make it pass regulations. Also, as a note of caution, it’s best to avoid buying a crib mattress made with kapok as crib mattresses need to be firm to be safe. For adult mattresses and even for older children, kapok is fine and, indeed, a great choice for a comfortable top layer of cushioning.
Pros and cons of wool mattresses
Wool naturally wicks moisture away from your skin and is flame-resistant and antimicrobial. A wool pillowtop is excellent, then, for maintaining a constant temperature without off-gassing nasty chemicals. A breathable, organic wool covered mattress can help you stay cool on summer nights while keeping you warm and cozy in winter, with wool shown to help fitful sleepers get a better night’s rest (R, R). Wool is also naturally resistant to mold and mildew and is resistant to dust mites, making it a great option for allergy sufferers.
Wool is a little firmer than kapok and some other materials, so it’s best suited to those looking for a slightly firmer mattress. It can also feel quite flat and dense and doesn’t conform to your body as other mattress toppers might. Fortunately, most mattresses using a wool cover have a good layer of more ‘bouncy’ latex underneath, providing a good combination of materials for comfort, coziness, breathability, and safety.
As noted, the downsides of wool include its relative lack of ‘bounce’ compared to latex (or foam). If a mattress is made mostly of wool, this would require a lot of material, which makes for a heavy product and greater resource use. Although not a synthetic product, wool production does have an impact on the environment and wool that isn’t organic may be produced with chemical pesticide and fertilizer inputs and other chemicals such as bleach.
Wool is also not vegan-friendly, although some sources of wool are considerably better in terms of animal welfare. In the US, wool marked with the PureGrow™ label comes from Californian farms that practice sustainable sheep ranching. EcoWool is similar, and both are arguably preferable to New Zealand wool in terms of animal welfare. Wool certified USDA Organic is also a decent option as is any wool product with GOTS certification. To really up your eco game, look for organic wool that carries the European kfB certificate awarded to products made with wool sourced with minimal animal exploitation.
Bear in mind that if you want an eco-friendly mattress free from chemical flame retardants, chances are that this will mean a mattress encased in a thin layer of wool. To get a mattress thicker than 5” without the wool barrier requires a doctor’s note stating that you have an allergy to wool. If a mattress company sells you a mattress thicker than 5” without wool, and claims their mattress is free from chemical flame retardants, they are contravening federal fire safety regulations and are either misleading you about what’s actually in the mattress or are deliberately or unwittingly flouting the law and putting your safety at risk.
Our top mattress pick made with wool is the Dreamer Mattress from Rawganique (View Price on Rawganique).
Pros and cons of organic cotton mattresses
Conventionally grown cotton is resource-hungry and involves the use of pesticides and other chemicals that damage the environment and are bad for human health. Organic cotton is grown and processed without pesticides, formaldehyde, or other harmful chemicals and is very soft, making it an excellent option for the top layer of mattresses.
Many eco-friendly mattresses have organic cotton covers and include cotton-wrapped coils and cotton batting. Mattresses that contain a lot of cotton tend to be heavier and feel firmer than foam mattresses. They can flatten over time, however, so cotton is usually combined with other materials, such as 100 percent natural latex, to help maintain shape. Or, consider an innerspring mattress with a layer of organic cotton batting and wool batting as a fire barrier. Research shows that a medium-firm innerspring mattress can offer “immediate and significant improvements in sleep quality, sleep efficiency, and stress”.
Our top mattress pick made with organic cotton is the Botanical Bliss Organic Latex Mattress from PlushBeds (View Price on PlushBeds).
Pros and cons of 100 percent natural latex mattresses
Latex (natural rubber) is a renewable and recyclable resource increasingly used to make eco-friendly mattresses. Rubber trees can provide rubber serum for up to 30 years and the resulting latex is firm, bouncy, and durable. Although it isn’t as biodegradable as wool or cotton, natural latex can be recycled for use as underfloor insulation or other fill. And, eventually, it will biodegrade without releasing toxins into the environment, unlike polyurethane foam.
Latex mattresses typically use molded latex foam, which is chemical-free and slightly firmer than most polyurethane foam mattresses. Latex is particularly good if you’re a warm sleeper, as the material is porous and disperses heat. According to one study, “Latex mattress reduced peak body pressure and achieved a more even distribution of pressure compared with polyurethane mattress across different sleeping postures.” Latex is naturally antimicrobial, resists mildew, and doesn’t harbor dust mites, so it’s good for people with asthma or non-latex allergies. It is also easy to care for as you can wipe down latex with warm soapy water, dab dry with a towel and let it air dry.
Latex mattresses are a little more expensive than some other mattresses made with natural materials, with the cost usually dependent on certifications. Relevant certifications include GOLS – the Global Organic Latex Standard – and FairRubber, which indicate that the product is made using certified organic rubber sourced in a sustainable way by workers who are well treated and properly paid.
Latex mattresses can have a rubbery smell at first, so it’s best to air them out for a few days before sleeping on them. This is not a sign that the mattress is off-gassing toxic chemicals, it is simply the natural smell of rubber and will dissipate within a few days.
When looking at mattresses, it’s important to determine if the latex is Dunlop or Talalay (I’m assuming you’ve already checked that it is 100 percent natural latex and not a ‘natural’ latex blend).
Talalay is so-called because of Joseph Talalay, who invented the Talalay production process. The latex mixture is filled with air, injected in a mold and expanded through a vacuum before being flash frozen at -30°C (-(22°F). This process enables the round, open cells to retain their shape and creates a smoother, more consistent rubber than Dunlop, which tends to be denser at the bottom than the top. Talalay latex is baked or “vulcanized” at 115°C (235°F) before being washed, dried and tested for quality control.
Dunlop tends to be firmer feeling than Talalay which provides softer support and pressure relief. Savvy Rest offer an amazing mattress, the Serenity (View Price on Savvy Rest), which is made with organic Dunlop latex, Cradle to Cradle Gold Certified Talalay latex, GOTS certified wool and GOTS certified cotton. With this mattress, you can customize each layer and side (picking between different densities of both types of latex in each of three layers), so you and your partner can get the support you need for good sleep.
Pros and cons of hemp mattresses
Hemp is a wonderfully sustainable, renewable resource with myriad applications across multiple industries. Hemp mattresses are few and far between, however, but may be a good option if you live in a hot and humid climate (or are concerned that climate change will make that the case soon).
Hemp is one of the most breathable materials available (R). It helps you stay cool even in hot and humid temperatures and helps wick moisture away from your skin. This means it’s good for keeping your mattress feeling fresh, especially as hemp is naturally anti-microbial and anti-bacterial. Hemp is resistant to mold and mildew and doesn’t hold onto odors.
As mentioned, hemp mattresses are hard to track down and, when you do, they tend to be on the more expensive side. Hemp is also not the softest material. So, if you’re prone to back pain, a hemp mattress may be the best or worst mattress for you to sleep on. Only you can tell!
Hemp is also a very environmentally friendly fiber as the crop is naturally resistant to pests and grows so thick that it prevents the growth of weeds around the plants. This means that you don’t typically need to use pesticides or herbicides when growing hemp, nor do you need fertilizers as hemp actually enriches the quality of soil. Because hemp roots grow deep, they are good at using groundwater and help reduce soil erosion.
Reduce, reuse, recycle
Landfills are teeming with toxic mattresses made from memory foam, synthetic latex, and even more natural materials treated with undesirable chemicals that leach into the soil and water supply. Many of these mattresses still had life left in them and could have been donated to a local shelter or passed down through a community network. Of course, if the mattress is truly toxic, it’s best not to subject anyone else to sleeping on it. In such cases, recycling programs can take mattresses and strip away reusable components, such as metal coils and some fabrics, batting, and metal zippers.
Even if your mattress is said to be ‘biodegradable’, this may be meaningless as the term is not regulated in the U.S., which means that the mattress may simply break down (eventually) into other harmful chemicals when exposed to air, light, moisture, and heat. Proper disposal is important for all mattresses, therefore, whether natural or not.
Some mattress companies have a removal program where they take away your old mattress upon delivering your new mattress. Check what happens to the old mattress in such cases. Does the company have a dedicated recycling and safe disposal protocol, or will it just end up in local landfill?
If you need to dispose of a mattress yourself, contact your local recycling depot or waste management department for advice. They should be able to tell you where best to take your old mattress, or if you can request pick-up for safe disposal.
As always, organic latex, cotton, wool, hemp, kapok, and other natural plant-based materials are the best options for truly biodegradable, eco-friendly mattresses. And, once you’ve figured out which materials you favor in a mattress, check out our recommendations for the best eco-friendly mattresses, with links to individual product reviews.