Your bedding may be home to hazardous chemicals that sabotage your sleep night after night. Here’s an overview of harmful chemicals in bedding and how to limit your exposure.
Table of Contents
Bed sheets, pillows, duvets, and mattress pads and protectors are a major source of toxic chemicals in most homes. While they seem innocuous, these kinds of textiles are typically made using thousands of chemicals.
Around 10% of the chemicals involved in textile manufacture are considered hazardous to human health and around 5% are known environmental hazards.
Common harmful chemicals in bedding
Many of the harmful chemicals in bedding are not only bad for human health but also for the environment. They’re also totally unnecessary and avoidable if you know what to look for in safe, sustainable sheets, pillows, duvets, and other bedding.
A groundbreaking Swedish study published in 2014 found that textiles such as sheets and duvets can expose us to more than 2,400 chemicals. Of these, more than 240 are considered a risk to human health. And that’s just the ones we know about and have studied.
We get deep into the nerdy details of household textile chemicals here and dive into the specifics of harmful materials and common chemicals in sheets, duvets, and pillows. For now, though, let’s look at some of the most common chemicals in bedding.
Watch out for these chemicals
Even at its simplest, conventional bedding is made with a slew of potentially hazardous chemicals. These can include:
- Chlorine bleach
- Azo dyes
- Flame retardants
- Phthalates (to make plastics like polyvinyl chloride more flexible)
- Surfactants, solvents, and softeners
- Ethylene glycol
- Formaldehyde (to sterilize down and feathers, typically).
To try to differentiate their products, some bedding companies also apply functional chemicals to confer specific qualities. Examples include:
- Anti-wrinkle treatments (which often contain formaldehyde)
- Softeners (like silicone)
- Hypoallergenic and anti-odor treatments (for down and wool, typically)
- Antibacterial or antimicrobial agents (including triclosan)
- Anti-shrinking agents
- Oil, soil, and water repellants, including PFAS (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances).
Because functional chemicals need to be present in high amounts in the final product, for them to have any effect, these are often the chemicals that impact human health the most.
In addition to chemicals that manufacturers intentionally use to make bedding, some chemicals are present through contamination. These include:
- Polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAH)
- Toxic heavy metals
- Pesticides and biocides.
The knock-on effects of chemicals in bedding
It’s not just the chemicals used to make bedding that we need to worry about, it’s also what those chemicals can turn into.
This is because exposure to the sun, sweat, air, rain, and laundering can degrade chemicals. This creates new metabolites of the original chemicals that have their own health effects. Even at end of life, when most bedding ends up in landfill, these chemicals can leach into soil and waterways or degrade and cause air pollution.
Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are sometimes used in bedding to make a product water-resistant or stain-resistant. PFAS are known endocrine disruptors and carcinogens and can affect:
- Immune function
- Liver and kidney health
- Cholesterol and overall lipid levels
- Reproductive health.
PFAS are also known as ‘forever chemicals’, because they pollute the environment and won’t fully break down for a very long time, if ever.
Choosing non-toxic, organic bedding helps to reduce everyone’s exposure to hazardous chemicals. This includes those deliberately used by manufacturers and those unintentionally present.
By making safer bedding choices for your family, you also reduce chemical exposure for factory workers and help decrease environmental pollution.
The health effects of common chemicals in bedding
Chemicals in bedding can have a range of health effects. These range from acute impacts such as skin irritation to longer-term health concerns such as cancer and fertility problems.
Chemicals used to manufacture bedding and to wash bedding can also affect the environment, even if they don’t affect human health directly.
It would be impossible to conduct a study to clearly demonstrate the health effects of one type of bedding versus another. After all, humans lead complex lives with exposure to thousands of chemicals every day. To isolate the impact of one chemical or even a cocktail of chemicals in bedding, we would need to also isolate a large number of humans and control every aspect of their day-to-day lives for many years.
In the absence of such (unethical and impractical!) studies, we have data from animal testing and cell studies on the potential hazards of some chemicals commonly used in bedding.
|Azo dyes||To create vibrant colors and patterns||Carcinogenic; toxic and persistent in the environment; can cause contact dermatitis||R, R, R|
|Phthalates||Make plastics (such as PVC waterproofing) more flexible||Reproductive toxins that can affect growth, development, and fertility||R|
|Alkylphenol ethoxylates||Surfactants used to support dying processes||Endocrine disruptors; affect immune and nervous system health; may be linked to allergies||R|
|Dioxins||Byproducts of bleaching||Carcinogenic; linked to type 2 diabetes, ischemic heart disease, chloracne, developmental problems in children, reproductive and infertility problems, miscarriages, and immune system damage||R|
|Triclosan||Antibacterial treatments||Can increase bacterial resistance; endocrine disruptor affecting thyroid function and reproductive health; may affect immune function, energy metabolism, cardiovascular health; increases likelihood of skin and food allergies and asthma||R, R|
|Ethylene glycol||Used to manufacture polyester||Can cause skin and eye irritation, nervous system and kidney damage, and respiratory irritation||R|
These are just a few examples of the health effects and environmental impact of common chemicals in bedding. Even so, it’s clear that a wide range of cells, tissues, organs, and physiological processes can be harmed by chemicals we don’t even realize we’re exposed to daily.
Is cotton bedding non-toxic?
Having read everything above, you might be thinking, “Whew, I’m glad I chose cotton sheets.”
Not so fast.
Cotton bedding can still expose you to a slew of chemicals. Conventional cotton requires massive amounts of pesticides, for instance, and these may remain in the fiber for a long time. Pesticides are also a source of toxic heavy metals, which you definitely don’t want right next to your skin while you sleep.
Unfortunately, even when manufacturers work with organic cotton and other organic fibers, they might still use toxic chemicals to clean, dye, or otherwise manipulate the fiber and final product.
This is because natural fibers tend to be more resistant to dyeing and other treatments compared to synthetic fibers. Manufacturers tend to use large amounts of harsh chemicals to overcome the natural properties of fibers like cotton, which is worse for the environment overall. And because the dyes and other chemicals don’t bond well to the natural fibers, they pose a greater risk of transferring to skin, into dust, and into waterways when washed.
Choosing natural materials is a great start, but you need to also look for bedding that hasn’t been treated with toxic chemicals at any point on its way to your bed. The best way to work out what’s truly non-toxic is to check for credible certifications for safe and sustainable bedding.
Help! There are toxic chemicals in my bed!
As with many household products, it’s hard to isolate the specific health impact of your sheets or a new duvet cover. The health effects of household textiles are typically cumulative, with risks increasing every time you add to the chemical load of your home by introducing new products.
Sometimes, a specific product can tip the balance. This can trigger a symptom cascade and significant illness that sets off alarm bells. It may be easy to identify and remove the culprit, which is a good start, but this doesn’t address the underlying chemical load.
If you know that most or all of your bedding is subpar, don’t despair. Non-toxic, safe, and sustainable bedding is much more affordable than you might think. It’s also much more readily available now than ever before.
How to replace toxic bedding with safe and sustainable options
You don’t need to replace your bedding all in one go. If you need to replace things gradually, here’s how to prioritize in your switch to non-toxic bedding:
- Mattress protectors – replace any PVC, vinyl, or old mattress protectors with GOTS or MadeSafe certified alternatives
- Pillows – ditch old, synthetic, unhealthy pillows next
- Duvet or comforter – replace synthetic duvets next, choosing natural materials
- Pillowcases, flat, and fitted sheets – choose all-season sheets or sheets for the current season first
- Blankets – replace any old, synthetic blankets with natural and organic blankets as needed.
What if you just bought new bedding that’s not MadeSafe or GOTS certified as non-toxic and organic, though? If you’re not in a position to return it or switch it for a safer option, there are ways to minimize the health impact of any chemicals in the bedding.
Reduce your risk from toxic bedding
That new sheet smell may scream luxury but it can also be a sign of residual auxiliary chemicals used to make sheets, shams, and duvet covers. As such, it’s a good idea to wash all new bedding at least once before first use. This can flush out some of the chemicals, though this does mean they enter waterways, moving the problem out of your home and into the wider environment.
New bedding can certainly be a source of toxic chemicals, but old bedding can also expose you to toxic chemicals. This is because functional chemicals detach more easily from fibers as they degrade.
If you’ve little choice but to live with the bedding you have, there are steps you can take to reduce the health burden on your family. These include:
- Using a good quality air purifier
- Ensuring good ventilation by opening windows and doors
- Vacuuming regularly (at least once a week)
- Minimizing how much babies and children chew or suck blankets and other textiles.
As always, the best way to avoid exposure to toxic chemicals in bedding is to choose products that don’t contain these chemicals in the first place.
Check out our recommendations for non-toxic bedding here.