Most adults need 7-9 hours of sleep a night, which makes it a good idea to have a non-toxic, sleep-friendly bedroom. Here’s how to create a safe, stylish, and sustainable sleep environment where you can catch some Zzzs without compromising your health or your ethics.
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How to create a safe, stylish, sustainable sleep space
Most of us know that there are certain things that are best kept out of the bedroom – TVs, phones, other screens, bright lights – but what are the must-haves for a sleep-supportive bedrooom?
As a sleep-deprived parent of a go-go-go toddler, and someone who has written a lot about sleep over my career, I’m very deliberate about sleep hygiene. That doesn’t just mean I wash my sheets regularly (though I do), it means I incorporate most, if not all, of the key elements of healthy sleep below.
Key elements for healthy sleep
Key elements for healthy sleep include:
- Darkness or very low-level light
- Good ventilation and humidity control
- Room temperature of 60-71.6 F (15.6-22.0 C)
- No noise or white noise only
- Less clutter (ideally no clutter!)
- Comfortable bedding
- A safe, non-toxic, supportive mattress
- VOC-free bedroom furniture and textiles that don’t off-gas.
For ventilation and humidity control, I recommend a whole home heat recovery and ventilation system. Barring that, a heat pump can help improve air quality and humidity levels if you currently heat your home with natural gas or oil.
I’m currently upgrading my home’s heating system to a heat pump and am very excited to feel the difference in air quality from the older gas furnace. The difference is already noticeable between summer and winter, with my air quality monitor registering much higher levels of particulate matter and carbon dioxide (CO2) when the furnace is running and windows are closed.
If you’re not in a position to make major changes to your heating and cooling systems, opening a window and keeping doors open for airflow will help to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) levels for better sleep.
It’s hard to relax and get restful sleep if your bedroom is busy and full of clutter. This means you’ll want to keep your bedroom free of:
- Work documents and other papers
- Laptops and tablets
- Exercise equipment
- Bright and busy artwork
- Bright or contrasting wall colors
- Craft projects etc.
- Piles of laundry
- Broken or obsolete furniture and clothing.
This is definitely an area I fall short on, with only so many minutes in a day to keep clutter in check. My strategy is to at least give clutter a home. I use larger wicker baskets or boxes for those things that just don’t seem to ever get put away, which helps to contain the clutter in one or two spots, rather than letting it spread.
I find light extremely disruptive to sleep, and have had to move my air purifier out of visual range because its light is too bright. I’ve also been known to travel with painters’ tape, so I can tape over those annoying standby lights on various appliances in guest and hotel rooms.
Blackout curtains or shades are a must for me (and for my toddler’s room). These help to minimize light, especially for bedrooms that get early or late sun that disrupts sleep. Reading lamps with dim LED lights are a good choice for bedroom lighting that doesn’t disturb circadian rhythms.
It’s also a good idea to keep your sleep space hygienic by:
- Washing sheets and pillowcases at least once every two weeks, ideally once a week
- Using non-toxic, scent-free laundry detergent
- Vacuuming once a week (or more if you have allergies)
- Using a quality air filter.
Better bedding for safe, sustainable sleep
Your choice of bedding has a huge impact on how you sleep. Synthetic bedding can be uncomfortable, smelly, and unhygienic. It also doesn’t last long, meaning you pay more for it in the long run. And we all know that financial worries are a primary cause of lost sleep!
Natural and organic materials make for better bedding for safe and sustainable sleep. This means choosing non-toxic, organic, and natural options for:
Your choice of bedding will depend on where you live and how you sleep. If you live somewhere hot and humid for most of the year, you will want lighter bedding that is breathable and helps you stay cool. For colder climates or colder seasons, thicker, heavier bedding can help you stay cozy and comfortable without getting sweaty and overheating.
I sleep hot, but I also like some weight to my bedding. My ideal solution is a cool and crisp percale sheet with a weighted blanket or wool blanket. Or, for a little more coziness (but not too much), I love linen bedding. This fiber is breathable, supports thermoregulation, reduces sweatiness, and feels a little heavier than other fibers, meaning I can sleep with just a top sheet in the hotter months of the year.
Pillows are perhaps the most complex bedding items and the most important for good sleep. Choose well and you can enjoy night after night of great sleep. Get an ill-fitting, ill-suited pillow and your sleep will suffer, even if the rest of your bedding is perfect.
Pillows come in many shapes and sizes and with a range of fill options. These include:
- Polyester (virgin or recycled)
- Cotton (or organic cotton)
- Polyfoam or memory foam
- Buckwheat or millet.
As you might expect, we only recommend natural materials for pillows to create a safe sleep space. This means favoring organic cotton, latex, wool, hemp, kapok, and buckwheat or millet. I’ve tried most of these materials and am firmly on the side of kapok and shredded latex, followed by buckwheat. For my toddler’s pillow, a low-profile molded latex has proven its worth.
I spent many years sleeping with polyester pillows, mostly because these were cheap and easily available. Having so little time to sleep these days, I’m adamant about not losing any sleep because of a bad pillow though, and I don’t want my co-sleeping toddler (or anyone else) breathing in toxic chemicals from synthetic materials.
So, as with duvets, while recycled polyester is better than virgin polyester in terms of sustainability, it’s still a poor choice for good sleep. Like polyfoam or memory foam, polyester pillows are heat traps that off-gas toxic chemicals and pollute the environment during manufacture and at end of life.
In terms of pillow covers, conventional cotton is the most common material. An increasing number of companies now offer pillows with organic covers. I’m also happy to see more companies offering pillows with zippered covers that let you adjust the fill to meet your sleep needs.
As a stomach-sleeper, an adjustable pillow is a must for me. Most pillows are designed for side-sleepers and are much too high for my needs. If you’re also a stomach-sleeper or even a more petite back-sleeper, go for an adjustable pillow wherever possible – trust me, it’s worth it to not wake up with a crick in your neck every morning.
Watch out for pillows marketed as organic when they actually just have an organic cotton cover. Many such pillows are still filled with polyester or polyfoam, or with non-organic cotton or wool. Check for certifications such as GOTS to be sure you’re getting a truly sustainable and safe pillow.
- Organic pillows 101
- Types of organic pillow
- How to choose an organic pillow
- Pillow protectors
- LeafScore top choices for pillows.
Comforters and duvets
I grew up in the UK, where we mostly sleep under a duvet with no top sheet. Most North Americans sleep under a top sheet covered by a duvet or a comforter. What’s the difference between a comforter and a duvet? Good question! We cover that in-depth here.
The major difference between a comforter and a duvet, though, is that a comforter is just one piece, comprising fill in a sewn-shut cover. A duvet comprises a duvet insert and duvet cover.
Both comforters and duvets can be made with synthetic or natural materials. When creating a safe and sustainable sleep space, you’ll want to select natural materials, regardless of whether you’re team duvet or team comforter. This usually means looking for:
- Covers made with organic cotton, linen, or hemp
- Fiber fill comprising organic cotton, wool, or kapok.
If you like to switch up your bedroom aesthetic fairly often, a duvet may be the best choice. That way, you can conserve natural resources by using the same duvet insert with different duvet covers.
Note, too, that some duvet inserts are designed to snap together, so you can double up for colder months. Again, this saves resources by avoiding the need to buy a separate winter and summer duvet.
- Comforter versus duvet
- Toxic chemicals in duvets
- Factors to consider when choosing a duvet
- Types of duvets.
A duvet cover is basically an envelope for a duvet insert or comforter. Duvet covers are essential if you’re using a duvet insert. However, there’s nothing to stop you from using a duvet insert with a comforter. Indeed, a duvet cover is a low-cost way to provide extra protection and a change of style, especially for an older comforter.
Most duvet covers are still made with conventional cotton or polyester. However, there are many fantastic choices of duvet covers made with organic cotton, linen, and hemp.
Once you’ve chosen your preferred material, you’ll also want to think about the color, pattern, and any special features of the duvet cover. These can include:
- Buttons versus zippers (I’m firmly Team Buttons, which are much easier to replace)
- Corner ties or snaps
- Reversible pattern or solid color.
You’ll also want to consider the care and maintenance of your new duvet cover. Some materials require more babying than others, for instance.
Finally, if you have dust allergies or frequently have a dog or cat sleeping on your bed, consider protecting your duvet. This might mean using an easily washable blanket on top of your duvet or getting a tightly woven duvet encasement that keeps out dust mites, bed bugs, and so forth.
Bed sheets are a great place to showcase your style. They can add pizzazz to an otherwise muted bedroom, but you don’t want that pizzazz to come at the expense of safe sleep.
Most sheets are made with conventional cotton or synthetic materials treated with hazardous chemicals and dyed with toxic dyestuffs. Even worse, some sheets are now treated with antimicrobial chemicals that aren’t safe for the health of you, your family, or the environment.
In Europe, many bedding sets include sheets and a matching duvet cover. In North America, most sheet sets only include a fitted sheet and matching pillowcases, with an optional flat sheet in a similar color or pattern. Typically, you’ll have to figure out a matching or complementary duvet cover yourself.
For safe sheets, look for products that carry GOTS or MadeSafe certification. And check the sheets themselves for the certification logo. If it’s not on the sheet, it’s not actually certified! (Read more about that here.)
Top choices for safe, sustainable, and stylish sheets include:
- Organic cotton
Each material has its own pros and cons for bed sheets, and the performance of bed sheets also varies depending on thread count and weave. We get into the nitty-gritty of choosing the right sheets for your sleep needs here.
- Toxic materials and chemicals in bed sheets
- Types of bed sheets – the pros and cons of different sheet fabrics
- Factors to consider when choosing sheets
- Factors to consider when choosing pillowcases and shams.
Mattress protectors and waterproof covers
A new mattress can cost thousands of dollars, so it’s smart to protect it from spills, stains, and critters like bed bugs. Unfortunately, however, most mattress protectors and covers are made with toxic materials and chemicals.
We look at different types of mattress protectors and pads in more depth soon, including:
- Cotton mattress pads
- Wool mattress pads
- Waterproof mattress protectors
- Bed bug and dust mite-proof mattress encasements.
We’ll also dive deep into factors to consider when choosing a mattress protector or mattress pad. Key considerations include:
- Size, shape, and fit
- Care and maintenance
The best way to choose a safe and sustainable mattress cover or protector is to look for credible certifications such as GOTS and MadeSafe. Greenguard Gold offers some assurance that a product is low-VOC but it doesn’t certify that the majority of the materials are eco-friendly.
After months of research, I finally settled on the Avocado mattress protector as the best of the bunch, given that I co-sleep with my toddler who, while potty trained, is still a toddler.
We’ll look at mattress protector options in more depth soon. The long and short of it, though, is that you can now purchase a waterproof mattress protector with GOTS certification made with organic cotton and an inner layer of polyurethane or other plastic that is less worrisome than PVC.