Have you ever wondered how some sheets feel so smooth, or what makes ‘wrinkle-free’ sheets resistant to wrinkles? Around two-thirds of bed sheets contain at least some chemicals of concern. As part of the Leaf Score Guide to Non-Toxic Bedding, here’s what to look for and how to find truly safe and non-toxic sheets.
Table of Contents
- Why are there chemicals lurking in your sheets?
- ‘Wrinkle-free’ sheets
- Insecticides and pesticides
- Biocides and anti-odor treatments
- Chlorine bleach
- Dyes and color fasteners
- Silicone in your sheets
- Bamboo sheets
- Polyester or microfiber sheets
- Waterproof and flame retardant treatments
- Choosing sheets free from toxic chemicals
Unless your last bedding purchase was truly organic and non-toxic, there’s a strong chance you’re sleeping with some strange bedfellows every night. Most manufacturers (around 70%) create bed sheets using some chemicals of concern, though we tend not to know because there’s no legal requirement to include these chemicals on product labels.
Even organic cotton or linen sheets can harbor nasty chemicals. Unless they carry GOTS or MadeSafe certification, sheets may contain:
- Chemical dyes
- Aldicarb, parathion, or other insecticides and pesticides
- Phthalates (in PVC waterproofing)
- Chemical flame retardants
- Chemical stain repellents
- Biocides including triclosan
- PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances).
Why are there chemicals lurking in your sheets?
Many chemicals are present in bed sheets to give the sheets specific qualities, such as being wrinkle-free, stain-resistant, or super soft to the touch (at least at first). Other chemicals are there because of contamination and some as residual traces from raw materials and manufacturing processes.
Here are some key things to watch out for when buying bed sheets.
Bedding companies sometimes advertise their sheets as wrinkle-free. If you hate ironing and hate crumpled sheets, it can be tempting to choose sheets that keep creases at bay.
Our advice: Embrace the wrinkles or choose fabrics that are easy to wash, dry, and iron. Why? Because wrinkle-free usually = formaldehyde in your sheets.
Formaldehyde is a carcinogen and can trigger allergy symptoms including:
- Itchy eyes and skin
- Wheezing and respiratory irritation
- Fatigue, ironically.
Avoid toxic sheets by checking for a ‘Permanent Press’ label. This is a strong indicator that the sheets are ‘wrinkle-free’ due to formaldehyde treatment. Better still, choose sheets that are safe and non-toxic. Look for GOTS and MadeSafe certification. At minimum, look for Oeko-Tex certification and natural, organic materials.
Insecticides and pesticides
Unless your sheets are made with organic natural fibers by a company with a traceable supply chain and good manufacturing practices, there’s a strong chance they were exposed to pesticides along the way.
Conventional cotton is almost always grown with a slew of chemical pesticides and herbicides, which could include glyphosate and other toxic chemicals. Cotton and other fibers can also be contaminated with aldicarb or parathion, insecticides which are serious neurotoxins banned in most countries (but not fully outlawed in the U.S.).
The best way to avoid traces of pesticides and insecticides in your sheets is to buy certified organic cotton sheets where the final product has GOTS and MadeSafe certification. If a product is just ‘made with organic cotton’ this can mean the manufacturer uses hazardous chemicals to clean and process the organic cotton after harvesting.
Biocides and anti-odor treatments
One worrying trend in the bedding market is the deliberate use of biocides in sheets. This is most commonly in the form of triclosan or silver. The idea here is to prevent bacterial build-up in sheets and keep them ‘fresher’ for longer.
Some greenwashing manufacturers even claim that such ‘odor-resistant’ sheets are more eco-friendly because you can wash them less.
Don’t be fooled. Sheets with odor-resistant treatments are bad for you and for the environment. Triclosan, silver, and other treatments leach from the sheets, during use and in the laundry. This can actually increase bacterial resistance and cause harm to wildlife in waterways.
If you’re considering odor-resistant sheets for your next bedding purchase, here’s an idea: choose organic hemp sheets instead. This natural fiber is a great choice if you tend to sleep hot and sweaty and need to wash your sheets more often.
Linen and organic cotton in a lightweight weave and lower thread count are also good choices for more breathable sheets that keep you cool even in hot and humid climates.
Find out more about the best natural materials for sheets here.
If you love the look of snow-white sheets, take particular care over which sheets you buy. Most conventional white sheets are bleached with chlorine, which can produce toxic dioxins that harm human health and the wider environment.
Sheets made with bleach can cause skin irritation and expose you to carcinogenic dioxins. They also tend to degrade faster due to the harsh effect of chlorine bleach on natural fibers.
Don’t worry, though, you can still enjoy crisp, white sheets that are safe and non-toxic. The difference is that these are made using chlorine-free bleaching processes. Typically, GOTS organic sheets are whitened using hydrogen peroxide.
You can also bleach sheets yourself at home with some good old sunshine, hydrogen peroxide, baking soda, lemon juice, white vinegar, and other natural whiteners.
To restore the whiteness of your sheets, try adding the following to water, mixing well, and then soaking the sheets for a few hours before washing as usual:
- 1 ½ cups of 3% hydrogen peroxide
- ½ cup lemon juice.
You might also want to add 1 cup of vinegar to the water.
Dyes and color fasteners
It’s an unfortunate fact that natural fibers tend to be more resistant to dyestuffs and to fade faster than synthetic fabrics. To overcome this problem, some manufacturers use harsher chemicals to force natural fibers to take on and retain more vibrant colors. This can include the use of carcinogenic azo dyes.
If you have your eye on cotton sheets in a hot pink color or vibrant pattern, you might want to consider how the fabric got its colors. For more sustainable, less toxic sheets that will also feel softer and last longer, go natural.
This means choosing sheets made with organic materials and processes, including sheets in natural hues, created using safe dyes without chemicals that degrade the natural fibers.
Silicone in your sheets
It sounds weird, but there may be silicone in your sheets. Why? Because some manufacturers coat sheets in silicone to make them feel artificially soft in the store or when you first open the package.
Again, don’t be tricked. The silicone washes out in the first wash or two, leaving you with sheets that don’t feel as soft. And all that silicone goes into waterways, where it won’t biodegrade for some 500 years or more.
While the environmental effects of silicone sheet treatments aren’t well researched, there’s some indication that silicone oils can build up in sediment and cause fish and other aquatic life to suffocate.
Frankly, I’d also suggest you avoid giving your money to companies that use underhand tactics to try to sell you sheets. There are many fantastic bedding companies that offer soft sheets that get softer with every wash and that are safe, non-toxic, and eco-friendly.
Bamboo is one of the most greenwashed fibers around. Sure, it sounds sustainable, given how fast bamboo grows, but this hard fiber requires a lot of harsh (toxic) chemicals to break it down for use in textiles. Bamboo textile manufacture is also incredibly water intensive, even though the crop itself requires very little in the way of water input or fertilizers.
Some bamboo bedding is better than others as it is made in a closed-loop system where chemicals and water are reused and very little toxic effluent enters waterways. Still, the chemical treatment of bamboo reduces or eliminates its natural antibacterial qualities and breathability.
All in all, bamboo bedding is not natural, eco-friendly, or non-toxic. It’s also not as breathable as manufacturers want you to think.
The best alternative to bamboo bedding is a percale organic cotton sheet set, or natural flax linen.
Read more about the eco-friendliness of bamboo sheets here.
Polyester or microfiber sheets
Polyester sheets are affordable, readily available, and… plastic. Sure, some might be made with recycled polyester and blended with cotton or other natural fiber, but these sheets are still petroleum-based and full of toxic chemicals.
Polyester bedding is almost always made with formaldehyde and ammonia and doesn’t biodegrade. It also sheds microplastics when washed and dried. This means it is toxic on your bed, bad for the environment when washed, and destined to choke landfills for hundreds of years to come.
Waterproof and flame retardant treatments
Most bed sheets are, thankfully, not likely to expose you to chemical flame retardants or toxic vinyl. However, if you see sheets made with synthetic materials or that claim to be waterproof or stain resistant, steer clear.
Synthetic sheets may well contain chemical flame retardants because petroleum-derived fabric is highly flammable. Waterproof or stain resistant sheets may contain PFAS, phthalates from PVC, and other chemicals you want to avoid. Many of these chemicals are linked to reproductive problems, cancer, and developmental issues.
Even if more vulnerable family members aren’t sleeping directly on the sheets, the chemicals end up in household dust and are breathed in by children, pets, and everyone else in the home.
Choosing sheets free from toxic chemicals
The good news is that it’s increasingly easy to find bed sheets that are eco-friendly and non-toxic. The trick is knowing which sheet certifications mean something and which are tantamount to greenwashing. It’s also a good idea to choose sheets made by a company with a comprehensive approach to sustainability and with a product line that is entirely organic and free of chemicals of concern.
In general, choose:
- Certified organic (GOTS) sheets
- Sheets with MadeSafe certification as non-toxic
- Sheets made with natural materials that best suit your sleep needs.
Not sure which material is best for how you sleep? We cover that here. Want to skip straight to our recommendations for the best non-toxic, sustainable sheets? Head here!