What Are They and Why Do They Matter?
If you are worried about your mattress containing harmful chemicals or the impact on the environment, these are 10 of the top certifications to consider. When shopping for your new mattress, it is essential to understand what the certifications mean so you and your family can sleep safely. Click to see which of the over 200 mattresses listed on this site have that specific certification.
Once upon a time, buying a mattress meant going to the sleep store and trying mattresses until you found the most comfortable one. Nowadays, there is much more awareness about the safety and ethical sourcing of materials used in mattresses—seen in the growing number of certifications available.
Mattresses and Indoor Air Pollution
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the United States, indoor air can contain a concentration of certain pollutants that is 2-5 times higher than outdoor air. Mattresses are one of the contributing factors to this problem as they usually contain glues, polyurethane foam, flame retardants, and other chemicals that emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air.
Seeing as you spend up to a third of your life sleeping, investing in a mattress that is certified to have minimal toxic gas emissions and/or is free of potentially hazardous materials can help to prevent known health problems caused by these substances, including:
- Respiratory problems
- Memory issues
Please note that while an organic or non-toxic mattress won’t prevent these illnesses from developing due to other causes, they can lower the overall toxic burden on your body and in your home.
100% Natural or Organic Mattresses
If you’ve decided that you want to buy an all-natural or organic mattress, you will notice that this kind of mattress costs more than a conventional mattress. Why the extra cost?
- Firstly, to avoid the use of foam, your mattresses will need to be made entirely from natural latex or a combination of natural latex and coils. These materials cost more than foam to harvest and process.
- Secondly, the process of submitting materials for certification and paying the laboratory and certifier costs adds to the price of the mattress.
- Thirdly, organic certifications like USDA Organic, Global Organic Textile Standards, and Global Organic Latex Standard control the conditions under which laborers work from the beginning to the end of the manufacturing process. Latex that comes from an ethical plantation will cost more because the workers are being paid a fair living wage!
Once you have decided that an organic mattress is worth the price, you’ll want to look for the three organic standard labels mentioned previously to ensure that the materials have been controlled and certified every step of the way. Read more about these certifications here:
What is a Latex Mattress?
Many modern mattresses claim to contain “latex” either as a complement to polyurethane foam or instead of it. However, there are two different types of latex on the market today (natural and synthetic) and a latex mattress may contain either of these or a combination of both. If you’re wanting a natural, non-toxic mattress, it’s important to understand the differences:
The cheapest type of latex, synthetic latex is produced from petrochemicals such as styrene and butadiene. In comparison to natural latex, synthetic latex is less springy, tears more easily, and does not last as long. A synthetic latex mattress is unlikely to pass the limits set by certifiers such as Eco-Institut, OEKO-TEX®, and GREENGUARD Gold.
Blended latex contains a combination of natural and synthetic latex and is generally used to lower the price of a mattress while enabling the manufacturer to state that it “contains natural latex.” In reality, a mattress that claims to contain “natural latex” may actually contain a blend of natural and synthetic latex while leading the buyer to think that they are buying a mattress that is 100% natural latex. The GOLS certification is the best way to identify mattresses that really are 100% natural latex!
The original and safest kind of latex, natural latex is produced from the milky-white liquid of the Hevea-Brasilienis tree. Native to South America, the tree is now being grown across tropical regions of the world and is especially abundant on the island of Sri Lanka.
How Natural Latex is Harvested
To produce natural latex, laborers known as “rubber tappers” cut a small piece out of the bark on the trunk and the liquid pours out and is collected in containers—much like the process used to harvest maple syrup. Then, the liquid is thickened by removing the water content and is shipped to the factories for processing. Each rubber tree produces latex for 20-30 years and is then cut down and used to make wood products. The plantation is re-planted with new rubber trees and the cycle begins again.
Compared to synthetic latex, natural latex is stronger, springier, and longer-lasting. It is 100% natural and does not have any chemical off-gassing. Due to the fact that it is covered with layers of material such as organic cotton, natural latex in a mattress will not typically cause an allergic reaction in those who are sensitive to latex.
How Natural Latex is Processed
To turn latex sap into latex foam, two different processes are currently used, and only the Dunlop process results in latex foam that can claim to be 100% natural and/or organic:
The Dunlop Process
Developed in 1929, the Dunlop process produces latex foam in the following way:
- The thick sap of the rubber tree is whipped in a centrifuge, causing it to froth.
- The frothy sap is poured into the desired mold, covered, and steam-baked.
- Natural sediments in the latex foam sink to the bottom, making the underside slightly denser than the topside.
The Talalay Process
A more recent innovation, the Talalay process adds two steps to the standard Dunlop process:
- After the frothy sap is poured into the mold, the mold is sealed and passes through a vacuum chamber where the air is extracted.
- The contents of the mold is then flash-frozen using chemicals before being baked. This stabilizes the liquid so that it has a more even cell structure and feels softer to the touch.
Of these two, Dunlop latex is often used for the core of the mattress and Talalay latex is more commonly used in the top cushion layer. However, because the Talalay process uses chemicals to make the final product, it is not able to be certified as organic according to the Global Organic Latex Standard. Only Dunlop latex can be 100% natural and GOLS-certified.
Latex and Sustainability
To make sure your natural latex mattress is sustainable as well as safe for use, look for a Rainforest Alliance Certified™ and/or Forest Stewardship Council® (FSC) label. As a forest product that is harvested when the tree can no longer be tapped, rubber tree plantations can absorb up to 34 metric tons of carbon per kilogram of latex harvested when managed correctly but can contribute to deforestation and habitat loss when sustainable practices are not followed.
A Rainforest Alliance or FSC label means that the latex in your mattress has been produced according to environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable practices and that the latex foam has been controlled at every point along its journey from the plantation to the store.
If you’re still keen on buying a mattress with memory foam (usually polyurethane foam) or a hybrid foam-and-coil mattress, there are a small number of certifications available that can give you at least some peace of mind about the chemical emissions coming off your mattress:
The CertiPUR-US® label was created specifically to test polyurethane-foam mattresses (it does not apply to latex mattresses). While this certification still permits VOCs, it sets limits on the amount of VOCs a mattress can emit and bans certain known toxic substances outright.
Note: almost every mattress has this certification. This is not applicable to latex all-latex or latex hybrid mattresses (latex + coils) as it only applies to polyurethane-based foams.
OEKO-TEX® Standard 100
The international OEKO-TEX® Standard 100 certification is somewhat stricter than CertiPUR-US® in the limits it sets for VOC emissions and does not permit any amount of banned substances in the qualifying mattresses. This certification is especially helpful for families with infants and small children as the certifier offers a separate category for children under 3 with their Product Class I, which sets much stricter limits for VOC emissions.
A very select few mattresses containing polyurethane foam have been able to qualify for the GREENGUARD Gold label—a certification that ensures a mattress is safe for use by children and the elderly over an extended period of time.
If you prefer to forego VOCs and toxic materials completely but don’t mind too much about the materials being organic, you might like to go for a mattress with the MADE SAFE® label. These mattresses are completely free from any substance that is known or even suspected to cause harm and considers environmental as well as human health.
The Bottom Line
Taking all of the possible factors into account, a mattress with certifications offers you the assurance that it has been tested by an independent third party and found to have acceptable emission levels for daily use (if any emissions at all).
Choosing a more comprehensive certification like USDA Organic, GOTS, or GOLS offers further benefits for workers and the environment if you can afford the higher price tag. Whichever kind of mattress you choose, we wish you years of enjoyment and a great night’s sleep every night. Happy mattress shopping!