Many duvets are made with toxic, synthetic materials. Even those made with natural materials can contain harmful substances. As part of the Leaf Score Guide to Non-Toxic Bedding, here’s the lowdown on toxic materials and chemicals in duvets, so you can make a safer, more sustainable choice.
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Most duvets continue to comprise polyester fiber fill and a poly-cotton blend cover. Even if you choose a down and feather duvet, though, this likely still has a conventional cotton or poly-cotton cover. And those feathers have probably been treated with formaldehyde and deodorizers.
Here’s what to watch out for when choosing a new duvet, so you can avoid toxic materials and chemicals.
Polyester in duvets
Most duvets are made with virgin polyester, either as the fiber fill, the cover, or both. Polyester is not sustainable as it is:
- Resource intensive (energy, water, raw materials).
The manufacture of polyester also requires a slew of harsh chemicals, including ethylene glycol (see below), which can harm people and planet.
Even if the chemical composition of polyester doesn’t bother you too much, the ethics of its production might. Most polyester manufacture relies on Russian oil and takes place in India and China. This means that its production is also ethically fraught and poorly monitored for environmental safety and worker safety. Polyester is frequently produced in factories with unsafe and unfair working conditions.
As for recycled polyester, this is arguably better in terms of resource use and keeping plastics out of waterways, though it’s still liable to expose you to an array of hazardous chemicals.
Polyester duvets are also a poor choice if you’re on a budget. This is because they tend to get lumpy within just a few months and need replacing within two or so years. If you invest in a quality natural duvet instead it could last you for decades without needing replacing.
Polyester duvets don’t support good sleep
Polyester is not breathable and instead collects and traps heat and humidity. This makes you more likely to overheat, sweat, and then get cold and clammy.
Because it holds onto moisture, polyester is also very attractive to dust mites. And while you can wash a polyester duvet, chances are that you won’t, especially if you have a small washing machine. This means your ‘hypoallergenic’ duvet is actually teeming with dust mites and their feces, which is the main cause of allergy symptoms related to bedding.
It’s rare to be allergic to polyester itself, but this material harbors dust mites and their feces and can worsen allergy symptoms.
If you do wash your polyester duvet regularly, make sure to use a microplastic filter in your washing machine and dryer. Otherwise, you’re likely washing microplastics into groundwater and spewing them out into the air around your home.
Goose and duck down and feather duvets
Goose and duck down and feathers are a common fiber fill for duvets. These natural materials offer excellent insulation, are usually washable, and are also breathable, durable, and a poor habitat for dust mites.
So far so good.
The downsides of down and feather duvets, though, include commonplace treatments with formaldehyde, chlorine bleach, and other chemicals to sterilize, deodorize, and otherwise process the fill.
As for the ethics of feathers and down, it continues to be the case that most duvets are made with materials that have been not humanely sourced. Most are forcibly plucked (repeatedly) from live geese and ducks who live short, unhappy lives in cages too small for them to spread their wings.
You can choose slightly more ethical down by looking for the Responsible Down Standard (RDS) or GRS certified recycled down and feathers. RDS certification only looks at the source of the down, however, and doesn’t speak to toxic chemical use in processing the down.
Conventional cotton duvets and duvet cases
Cotton comforters can be a great bedding option, especially if you like a flatter aesthetic versus a big fluffy duvet. Even if your duvet has a down, kapok, PLA, wool, or polyester fill, though, chances are it’s encased in a cotton fabric.
Most of the time, this cotton will be conventional cotton, which is a resource hungry crop that requires huge inputs of:
- Chemical fertilizers
- Pesticides and herbicides
A conventional cotton duvet is very likely to contain traces of these chemicals, along with heavy metals, chlorine bleach and dioxins. These pollutants can end up in household dust, where they contribute to the toxic load of a home.
Several of the pesticides commonly used on cotton in the U.S. are considered “possible,” “likely,” “probable” or “known” human carcinogens by the Environmental Protection Agency. These include diuron, tribuphos (DEF), cacodylic acid, and others (R).
Find out more about the dangers of conventional cotton here.
Chlorine bleach and other chemicals in duvets
So far, we’ve looked at problems with the materials that typically go into making duvets, including polyester, conventional cotton, and down and feathers.
Even if a duvet is made with more natural and eco-friendly materials, though, it may still have been treated with:
- Flame retardants
- Antibacterial or antimicrobial agents
- Water repellants and stain repellants (including PFAS)
- Deodorizers (for wool and down mostly)
- Polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAH)
- Chlorine bleach.
Duvet inserts are often bleached to give them that pure white hue we associate with dreamy sleep. In almost all cases, manufacturers use chlorine bleach, which can create carcinogenic chemicals called dioxins as byproducts. Dioxins are notorious for polluting waterways and household dust and are linked to a range of health issues including immune disorders, miscarriage, birth defects, infertility, and diabetes (R).
The chemicals in duvets, including PAH, can cause health challenges such as:
- Textile dermatitis
- Reproductive problems
- Developmental issues in infants and children
- Cognitive dysfunction
- Respiratory difficulties such as asthma
- Endocrine (hormonal) issues.
PAH, dioxins, and other chemicals can also harm the wider ecosystem, including affecting aquatic lifeforms such as fish, coral reefs, algae, and larger sea creatures such as whales.
Final thoughts on toxic materials and chemicals in duvets
Unlike with new bed sheets or clothing, it’s a challenge to fully wash and dry a new duvet to flush out any remaining residual toxic chemicals. And if you dry-clean your duvet, it’s likely to end up laced with a whole raft of other toxic chemicals.
Wherever possible, then, choose a new duvet made with certified organic or natural materials that haven’t been treated with toxic chemicals at any point in their journey to your bedroom. This can mean checking for the most important green certifications for duvets, after choosing a natural duvet material that suits your sleep style.