Mattress protectors may seem straightforward but there are actually quite a few nuances to these bedroom accessories. To help you figure out which type of mattress protector will best meet your needs, we look at the pros and cons of some popular designs.
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Mattress protectors offer varying degrees and types protection. Not all protectors are waterproof, for instance, and many don’t protect against infestation with bed bugs or other critters.
To make sure you get the level of protection you need, we look at some of the most popular designs and types of mattress protectors, including:
- Cotton mattress protectors
- Wool mattress protectors (AKA water-resistant mattress protectors)
- Waterproof mattress protectors
- Bed bug and dust mite-proof mattress encasements.
Cotton mattress protectors
Many mattress protectors are made of cotton and aren’t waterproof or water-resistant but do absorb moisture to some degree. This can help protect a mattress against premature degradation due to sweat, body oils, and very minor spills and accidents.
What we like
The degree of protection you get from a cotton mattress protector will depend largely on its thickness. Thicker batting will absorb more moisture, meaning you have a little more time to whip off the bedding if a bigger accident occurs.
The beauty of simple cotton mattress protectors is that they’re machine washable and plastic-free. Those that are GOTS certified or USDA Organic certified are also typically non-toxic and eco-friendly, with no concerns about chlorine bleach and azo dyes, phthalates or other chemicals.
What to watch out for
Cotton mattress protectors are liable to shrink when washed, however, so be sure to measure up, research the product (see if it is pre-shrunk) and potentially size up if getting a fitted style protector.
Watch out, too, for cotton mattress protectors that have a layer of waterproofing that isn’t explicitly detailed. This could indicate the use of PVC or other plastic.
Overall, an organic cotton mattress protector (without plastic) is the simplest, most straightforward style of mattress protector available. These bedding accessories are great for throwing in the wash with your regular laundry and can last for many years.
An organic cotton mattress protector will also feel good under a fitted sheet, help improve mattress breathability, wick away moisture, and even help with body temperature regulation a little.
- Can be fully organic and non-toxic
- Help improve breathability
- Moisture absorbing and moisture wicking
- Usually machine washable
- Support body temperature regulation
- Not waterproof
- Often made with conventional cotton
- Not as thermoregulating as wool
- Degrade faster than wool
- Can shrink in the wash (unless sanforized)
Water-resistant wool mattress protectors
Water-resistant (but not waterproof) mattress protectors are typically made with wool. Some have a layer of wool batting between layers of cotton while others are a simple wool sheet that slips over your mattress.
What we like
Wool is a particularly good material for supporting deep and restorative sleep. It’s also a smart choice for extra protection on a crib mattress or child’s mattress as it is non-toxic, plastic-free, breathable, thermoregulating (so your baby doesn’t overheat), and water-resistant.
What to watch out for
While wool is naturally water-resistant, harsh detergents and exuberant washing and drying can significantly reduce its resistance to water. That means it’s especially important to care properly for wool mattress protectors. Improper care can also shorten the lifespan of wool mattress protectors, cause the wool to felt and shrink, and otherwise damage the product.
Many wool mattress protectors aren’t machine washable and are only meant to be spot-cleaned or rinsed by hand and line dried.
The other obvious downside to wool is that it comes from animals, which means it isn’t vegan, often involves the exploitation and cruel treatment of sheep, and can have significant environmental impacts. When choosing a wool mattress protector, then, consider both the origin of the wool (and animal welfare) and how the wool is treated after shearing.
Wool products that are more eco-friendly and humane typically carry certifications such as GOTS, kbT, or EcoWool, rather than RWS. Read more about these certifications and why they matter here.
Wool mattress protectors are a great choice for lots of reasons, but their care and maintenance can prove too fussy for busy households. My advice is to use a wool mattress protector underneath a cotton protector to reduce the chances of having to wash the wool. That way, you get double the protection with less of the hassle.
- Naturally water resistant without plastic or chemicals
- Can be organic and totally non-toxic
- Very durable (if treated right)
- Supports deep, restorative sleep
- Thermoregulating (great for hot and cold sleepers alike)
- Usually not machine washable
- Not vegan
- Can be expensive
- Requires more careful care and maintenance
- Animal agriculture has a big environmental impact
Waterproof mattress protectors
For a fully waterproof mattress protector, you’re going to need some kind of plastic. The good news is that there are now mattress protectors made with less worrisome plastics than the noisy, toxic, polluting vinyl or polyvinyl chloride (PVC) of old.
Even better, you can even find a waterproof mattress protector with GOTS certification made with organic cotton and an inner waterproof membrane comprising less than 5% of all materials. My favorite is the Avocado Green Mattress Protector, which I’ve tried and tested (see our review).
Thanks to materials scientists, some possible waterproofing solutions now available for mattress protectors include:
- Polylactic acid (PLA)
These plastics are still synthetic materials (PLA is usually a bioplastic made from plants) but they are less concerning than vinyl, polyester, and PVC. In most cases, the materials above are free of phthalates, BPA, and other hazardous chemicals and the layer of plastic is so thin that it doesn’t contribute to off-gassing in any significant way.
As with other parts of your bedding set-up, we recommend looking for mattress protectors that carry GOTS, eco-INSTITUT, MadeSafe and other relevant green certifications.
Polyurethane is a waterproof but porous synthetic material. Because water vapor can pass through it but liquids can’t, polyurethane is breathable and highly protective. Polyurethane can even protect mattresses against dust mites and bed bugs (if a full encasement is used).
Polyurethane is a petroleum-derived synthetic material, though, and there are many toxic chemicals involved in its production. The good news is that thin membranes of polyurethane as used in protectors are made in a different way to polyurethane foam (such as is found in many mattresses). As such, these membranes don’t off-gas and don’t leach toxic chemicals.
Like all plastics, though, polyurethane will degrade faster with more exposure to heat, light, and moisture, as well as repeated flexing and any punctures. That means the more you wash a waterproof mattress protector, or bounce on it, the shorter its lifespan. Wherever possible, spot-clean as a first measure. Machine wash only according to instructions and when necessary.
If you’re less concerned about waterproofing and more worried about keeping dust mites and bed bugs out of your mattress, a natural fabric 360 encasement is a great choice. These are made with a super dense weave that prevents critters getting in (or out, as the case may be).
Most mattress encasements are made with polyester or conventional cotton. You can also find bamboo mattress covers, but I don’t recommend these because bamboo fabrics are usually not as eco-friendly or non-toxic as manufacturers want you to think. Organic cotton mattress encasements also exist and are my top choice for protecting a mattress against bed bugs and dust mites.
Note, though, that fabric encasements don’t block off-gassing. For that, you would need a full plastic cover, ideally one that doesn’t off-gas itself! See here for more information on covers to block off-gassing.
Final thoughts on types of mattress protectors
The best type of mattress protector for you will depend on your particular needs, capacity for care and maintenance, budget, and ethics. For the most natural and eco-friendly protector, you’re looking at an organic cotton quilter protector pad, with the caveat that this won’t be waterproof but does buy you a bit of time if there’s a spill or accident.
For the most natural water-resistant mattress protector, wool is your best bet. This requires more care but is the next best thing to plastic for protecting your mattress from more serious leaks and spills.
If you need more serious waterproofing for your mattress, go for a protector that pairs a thin polyurethane or bioplastic membrane with a natural fiber or fibers such as cotton or wool. Look for GOTS certification for the whole product as this ensures it is free of chemicals that can harm health.
Finally, it’s worth noting that no mattress protector is foolproof. For best performance, check your protector regularly for any wear, tear, or punctures. Follow the care instructions (see our tips here) and replace your protector when necessary.
A good quality mattress protector could last several years with proper care. That makes it a worthy investment to protect your much more expensive and resource intensive mattress. (See: Is a mattress protector or pad worth the money?)
Almost all waterproof mattress protectors use polyester, whether for the waterproof membrane or for the other layers, sides, corner ties, or labels. The quality of polyester varies dramatically, and thicker, lower quality polyester can be very noisy and crunchy-feeling. Polyester also makes for a sweatier sleep as it isn’t breathable or thermoregulating.
To minimize sleep disturbance and maximize performance, manufacturers often blend polyester with spandex and Tencel (lyocell from bamboo or wood pulp). Watch out for ‘green and natural’ bamboo mattress protectors that are actually mostly polyester. These are not eco-friendly, degrade fast, and don’t actually confer the benefits natural bamboo is famous for (such as being breathable and antimicrobial).
All in all, I strongly suggest avoiding polyester mattress protectors. They are noisy, sweaty, not very durable, don’t biodegrade, and are made with toxic chemicals.