Updated: Jun 27
When my son was born in 2018, I was fortunate enough to be already educated on the potential dangers of the sleep environment and in particular the potentially harmless ingredients in a mattresses. As a wellness architect, I had already made the mattress swap for myself, so when looking for the best option for my newborn I put in a lot of research. Why? Because babies spend a majority of their early life in the crib either sleeping or crawling around.
Ensuring I had the safest products was a non-negotiable for all items in the nursery, but specifically the mattress because these can release up to 30 different types of volatile organic compounds, and other potentially harmful airborne chemicals. You can see which products I use and recommend at the end of this post.
When purchasing a mattress, it's important to note that many on the market are composed of synthetic foams such as polyurethane or memory foam, with a cover made of polyester or nylon. However, it's crucial to consider the potential for off-gassing of VOCs when choosing a mattress made from these materials. Synthetic materials have a tendency to emit higher levels of VOCs and may utilise toxic glues and flame retardants in the manufacturing process.
Volatile Organic Compounds, or VOCs, are carbon-based chemicals used during the production of a product. At room temperature, these chemicals evaporate and combine with other molecules in the air, leading to the creation of new compounds that produce the distinct smell associated with fresh paint, new furniture, and cars. While some of these compounds may be harmless, many are not.
Exposure to these chemicals has been linked to various health issues such as endocrine disruption, cancer, respiratory illness, reduced motor function, and impaired brain development. Acknowledging the potential harm caused by these irritants is an important initial step towards making positive changes for your family's health.
Studies published by Boor and colleagues at The University of Texas at Austin in 2014 and 2015 found that crib mattresses released nearly 30 different types of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, and other potentially harmful airborne chemicals such as endocrine-disrupting phthalates and fragrance allergens.
Crib mattresses are typically composed of polyurethane foam, a petroleum-derived synthetic material. They also contain adhesives and other chemical additives. The foam core is usually enveloped with a waterproof cover. These mattress components can release harmful VOCs, some of which can cause respiratory and nervous system damage. VOC exposures are especially troubling for babies.
“A baby’s exposure to chemical contaminants in their crib mattresses can be amplified since they sleep for 12 to 14 hours every day and inhale air just inches above the mattress surface, where the concentrations of the VOCs can be about twice as high as standing just a few feet away...Their body heat also increases VOC emissions.” (Boor)
Airing out a new mattress can reduce VOCs, but other harmful chemicals could still be present.
“VOC emissions from new mattresses are four times greater than those from used mattresses," said Boor. "VOC emissions tend to decay over time, but airing out will not get rid of less volatile chemicals, such as phthalates and flame retardants, that leach slowly for years and tend to accumulate in house dust.”
Mattress testing also revealed the surprising presence of fragrance ingredients, such as chemicals associated with lemon and lavender scents, that can act as allergens. Researchers don’t know exactly why these chemicals were present in mattresses. Fragrance ingredients can be used by manufacturers to mask other odours, as can happen in a product that can get wet with use.
Mattress dust and microbes are readily released into the air when a baby moves in bed, kicking up the dust. To reduce allergens, I recommend vacuuming the mattress once per fortnight or when you change the sheets , it may not sound fun or just another job to do, but research has shown that it is an effective way to reduce the amount of dust mite allergens and microbes that accumulate on the surface.
Boor's research has moved from crib mattresses to carpets, which can harbor the same chemicals and bacteria. “We are studying how infants are exposed to dust and microbes stirred up from carpets as they crawl, using a robotic infant," he said. "We are also relating real-time measurements of microbes in the air to the activities and movements of children in a child care setting. I hope my research could help in the future design of safer bedrooms, cribs and play environments for babies.”
@the natural bedding co.
EWG recommends that parents look for low-VOC emitting crib mattresses that have been independently verified by a third-party certifier, such as Greenguard or Oeko-Tex Standard 100, and mattresses made without polyurethane foam.
I personally use a coco-mat for myself and a Kalon oganic crib mattress (both purchased when I was living in the USA) and The Natural Bedding Co. and Peacelily for my youngest. If you would like any advice or help selecting the right mattress for yourself or your little ones please feel free to contact me.