Mattress Off-Gassing 101 – True Goods
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  • Mattress Off-Gassing 101
  • Elizabeth Wasserman
  • babies & kidsconscious consumerenvironmental healthproduct safetytoxins
Mattress Off-Gassing 101

~ Special thanks to Jane Sheppard at Healthy Child who authored the original content from which this was adapted. ~

Preventing Toxic Off-Gassing When Organic Isn’t Affordable

If you can’t afford to buy an organic mattress, how do you block the toxic off-gassing from a non-organic mattress that contains unsafe materials? We are frequently asked this question and I wish we had a good answer. It’s not an easy fix, but there are possible options that may at least partially solve the problem.

If you aren’t familiar with why this question is even asked, here is a brief explanation: Typical mattresses contain chemicals that are not healthy for anyone, but particularly not safe for babies and children. Most mattresses contain petroleum-based chemicals, toxic foams, synthetic fabrics, and are treated with chemical fire retardants.

These chemicals can create toxic off-gassing that can expose your family to dangerous levels of chemicals while they sleep. Even mattresses that are called “organic” can contain materials that have some toxic off-gassing, so it’s important to know what to look for in an organic mattress.

Do Dust Mite Covers, Barrier Cloths, or Organic Mattress Pads Block Chemical Off-Gassing?

People sometimes assume that a dust mite allergy cover, barrier cloth or organic mattress pad will block the off-gassing. However, the dust mite barrier cover will not block gases since it is a fabric. Organic cotton, wool, or latex barrier covers or any other type of mattress cover or pad will likely not be enough to protect you or your children from the toxic chemicals or gases coming from the mattress.

Also, many of the synthetic or plastic covers will add even more chemical exposure or off-gassing to the situation. Barrier cloths or covers are great for blocking dust mites and other allergens, but not for toxic off-gassing.

Plastic Must Be the Correct Thickness and Formulation

Blocking chemical off-gassing is not so simple. Plastic, if it is the right thickness and formulation, will work, but the plastic needs to be thick enough so the gasses won’t penetrate. The type of plastic used is critically important because many types of plastics will create more chemical off-gassing. For instance, you wouldn’t want to use a vinyl-based cover since vinyl (also known as PVC) will add more chemical exposure.

Polyethylene is considered the safest plastic available. It has a simple molecular structure that does not require toxic chemical additives like phthalates. Some people are buying sheets of polyethylene at the home improvement store to wrap their mattresses, but this can be risky since there are different grades of polyethylene and this plastic is not tested.

You have to be really careful to get the correct thickness – at least 125 microns, or 5 mil, and it needs to be clear and not colored. And you will want to be sure you are actually getting pure polyethylene and not some other plastic or combination.

When you wrap your mattress in a sheet of thick polyethylene, you are sleeping on plastic that can be noisy and annoying – it’s not the most comfortable bedding material and it’s not breathable. An organic cotton mattress pad on top is essential, and a thicker organic topper would be better. Please NOTE that it’s not safe to use a thick organic mattress pad or topper if you will have an infant in your bed. Infants need a firm flat surface. But for an older child or adult bed you could use a topper.

Another possibility is to use an organic cotton waterproof mattress pad, which usually has a thin film of plastic in the middle between the organic cotton layers. This thin film may partially block some of the off-gassing from the top of the mattress, but there’s no way of knowing how much and it will probably not completely block all the gases since it may not be the correct thickness. It really depends on how toxic your mattress is to begin with. 

This brings up another point...

We really have no idea to what extent an individual mattress is off-gassing. It really depends on what is in the mattress and this varies greatly between different types of mattress’s materials and manufacturers. Sometimes it’s obvious because you can actually smell the chemical odor. But a mattress can still off-gas even when it’s 10 years old and there’s no chemical smell.

What have I done for my family?

As soon as I could, I purchased an organic mattress for my daughter. For myself, I need a very soft sleeping surface – I simply don’t sleep well on a firm innerspring mattress. Since I’ve not yet been able to afford a softer organic latex mattress, I’ve compromised for myself. I bought an organic topper and put that on top of my regular firm innerspring mattress. Then I have another organic wool topper on top of that. It’s very soft and comfortable (pure bliss, actually) and I’m sleeping about 7″ above my old mattress (I assume this old mattress is probably toxic).

What I’ve learned is that toxic gases are heavier than air so they hover only an inch or two above the mattress. I also have a very good air purifier in my room that works well for VOCs. Does this scenario guarantee I’m not being exposed? No, but we do the best we can and we have to let go of the worry. As soon as I can I will replace the toxic mattress. Please note that my solution is not a solution if you’re co-sleeping with an infant. Babies need a firm flat surface and the toppers that I’ve used make it too soft for a baby.

17 years ago, long before I knew about toxic gases in mattresses, I co-slept with my baby in my bed not knowing the mattress was an issue. I breastfed her frequently throughout the night and I was in tune with her natural breathing rhythm. At that time in my life, there was no way I could have afforded an organic mattress even if I knew the dangers. And there simply weren’t that many options available then. If I had a baby now, I would make it an absolute priority to purchase an organic mattress that I know is also non-toxic.

If you have a family, I’m sure there are many things you need to spend money on and it may seem difficult to justify spending a lot on an organic mattress. But what could be more important than protecting your family from chemical exposure? You can’t protect them from all exposures since chemicals are virtually everywhere, but a mattress is an up-close, long-term (8-12 hours a day) exposure of very toxic chemicals. Taking steps to eliminate this exposure goes a long way in assuring good health.

Obviously this is not a black and white issue, nor is it currently an easy one to solve. Since your family spends a lot of time sleeping, it’s important to protect them from toxic mattress exposures. Do the best you can to make safe, non-toxic organic mattresses a priority in your budget. Then let go of the worry. Worry can be very toxic, too.

Just because a mattress is organic does not mean it is non-toxic.

This article outlines how to determine whether a mattress is organic and whether it is really non-toxic. The article is mostly about crib mattresses, but most of the information also pertains to most all mattresses.

IMPORTANT:  This information is purely for educational purposes and is NOT meant to be SIDS prevention advice. It is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. True Goods does NOT make ANY claims that co-sleeping or using a non-toxic mattress will prevent SIDS since this has not been 100% scientifically proven, and there can be other factors involved in SIDS. None of the information or options presented here are considered to be SIDS prevention advice or medical advice.

  • Elizabeth Wasserman
  • babies & kidsconscious consumerenvironmental healthproduct safetytoxins