By Jesse Cannone, CFT, CPRS
In the market for a mattress? Maybe you should be.
You already know you’re going to spend roughly a third of your life in bed. And I’m sure you’ve heard about the importance of getting a good night’s sleep.
Clearly, selecting a comfortable mattress is crucial. But what you may not have realized is how dangerous buying the wrong mattress can be to both your health and the environment.
That’s why I’ve put together this buyer’s guide to explain why you may want to replace your standard spring or memory foam mattress with a natural latex mattress. I’ve also taken the liberty to recommend some of my favorite companies and products in the natural bedding arena to help you find the best organic mattress for you.
Your bed as a giant medicine patch
You’ve probably seen those nicotine patches you wear on your skin to help you stop smoking. How do they help? Very simply your skin absorbs the nicotine released from the patch straight through your skin.
The same type of patch technology is used to deliver medicines to your body. Many chemicals are absorbed the same way.
According to Jack Dell’Accio, founder and CEO of natural mattress maker Essentia, sleeping on your mattress is just like applying a giant patch to your body. The question then is what chemicals are coming out of your mattress?
Ever try the new mattress sniff test? Buy just about any new mattress, open the plastic bag, and take a big whiff. Instant nausea.
Don’t believe the lie that it’s “just the plastic wrapping.” What you’re breathing in is the off-gassing of noxious chemicals found inside the mattress. Chemicals used as flame retardants, pesticides, and to make the mattress itself are continually released into the air around your bed.
Even memory foam mattresses, touted as hypoallergenic, are made completely out of chemicals which constantly off-gas leading to frequent complaints of headaches and other ailments.
So if you’re lying on a polyurethane foam, memory foam or typical spring mattress, congratulations, you’re breathing in and directly absorbing a nightly 8 hour dose of toxic and carcinogenic chemicals. Some of these poisons are never expelled. Instead, they accumulate in your body night after night. If you wake up with a headache every morning it’s definitely time for a change.
A few days or weeks of airing out your mattress will reduce the smell. But these mattresses will continue to off-gas harmful chemicals and volatile organic compounds for months and years to come.
Is there really a certified organic latex mattress?
Most rubber tree plantations do not produce certified organic latex. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of rubber trees grown to organic standards. It’s just that to be certified organic requires a cumbersome verification process that most rubber tree plantation owners and processors have not been willing or able to comply with. So until recently, you simply couldn’t find a company manufacturing mattresses with certified organic latex.
A couple months ago, Savvy Rest became the first organic mattress company in the United States to use certified organic latex with certifications and independent test results posted on its website. Again, there are other companies with natural latex mattresses using strictly organic materials. But it is nice to have the peace of mind independent verification offers.
Shamefully, some companies use marketing trickery to make you think you’re getting something you’re not. I’m not talking about using the word organic when it’s not certified… but much worse.
For example, watch out for little “gotchas” like claims of mattresses containing 100% natural latex. Every latex mattress has at least some real latex in it because even highly synthesized blends require some amount of actual plant-derived latex. The small amount of natural latex they throw in their synthetic blend may be 100% latex, but the real stuff may account for as little as 20% of the total latex used in the mattress.
On the other hand, and you may be surprised by this, there are no mattresses made with 100% pure natural latex. In fact, there never will be. That’s because for a mattress to have the elastic characteristics of foam, whether natural latex or synthetic, there are always going to be additives. It’s a necessary part of the process.
The difference between the best latex mattresses and the harmful ones is how much and what kind of additives are used. What you’re looking for are mattresses with an extremely high percentage of the mattress material being latex and all latex used being 100% natural. The best latex mattresses are made of over 95% pure natural latex and greatly restrict the types of additives used in their processing.
That’s why you’ll want to choose a reputable natural mattress manufacturer which details both the specific materials used in their mattresses and their mattress making process when selecting a latex mattress. There’s a good reason why you can find so many cheap latex mattresses — they invariably use an inferior blend mixed into polyurethane full of the chemicals you’re trying to avoid in the first place. Buyer beware.
Green mattresses — the most comfortable way to sleep
When you sleep on organic materials you can sleep better knowing you aren’t compromising the environment to get a good night’s rest.
Most organic mattresses use a combination of natural latex, organic cotton and organic wool. Together they provide a uniquely comfortable sleeping experience.
- 16% of the world’s insecticides are used on cotton plants
- The 2nd most common pesticide applied to cotton, aldicarb, can kill a grown man with a single drop absorbed through the skin
- Cotton represents less than 3% of farmland use worldwide
- Purchasing mattresses and other products made with organic cotton is one of the easiest ways to protect both the environment and your health.
Hevea milk, the milky white liquid latex collected from rubber trees, is harvested with a tap similar to how sap is collected from maple trees to make maple syrup. Since a rubber tree can mature enough to begin latex sap harvesting in as little as five years it is an easily renewable resource.
Same with organic cotton and wool. These can be renewably harvested year after year. But whether you are environmentally conscious or not, there’s no denying the pure comfort of natural bedding.
Benefits of natural latex
- Natural latex breathes to promote good air circulation allowing moisture to escape and maintaining a consistent sleeping temperature.
- Natural latex is highly durable retaining its shape, firmness and elasticity for decades — like a natural memory foam mattress without the chemical dangers.
- Mattresses made from natural latex can be formed in varying degrees of firmness to give exactly the right amount of mattress firmness for your normal sleeping position and comfort.
Benefits of organic cotton
- Organic cotton means you don’t have to worry about synthetic fertilizers, dangerous pesticides, or other unsafe processing additives added.
- Cotton is very soft and comfortable to sleep upon — though it tends to compress heavily and is not a good primary mattress material in and of itself.
Benefits of organic wool
- Organic wool keeps the natural lanolin found in wool which helps wick away moisture.
- Wool is soft like cotton but more resilient and durable allowing it to retain its shape longer.
- Air pockets throughout wool trap air helping maintain a constant comfortable sleeping temperature.
If you’ve even been to your local dump you’ve probably seen high mounds of discarded mattresses there. That’s another benefit of buying natural organic mattresses. When the time comes to finally dispose of it, they are safely biodegradable.
What about latex allergies?
Reported latex allergies are often contact allergies to the chemicals found in synthetic blends rather than a reaction to the latex itself. That’s why latex rubber gloves, which are usually synthetic blends, cause problems for so many people.
Real organic latex is much less commonly allergenic than synthetic latex. However, a very small minority of individuals (less than 1% of the U.S. population) do have some type of reaction to natural latex.
Virtually any quality latex mattress company will be happy to send you a sample of the mattress material on request to help you determine if you have any sensitivity. But if you have a concern in this area you should always seek medical advice from your doctor first.
Two types of natural latex mattresses
There are two types of processes used in the creation of natural rubber mattresses: Dunlop and Talalay.
There seems to be a huge debate about which is better. My recommendation is to go with the material that provides the most comfortable sleep as long as the manufacturer’s process uses only natural latex.
Dunlop latex has been processed the same way for over 80 years. Basically the latex mixture is poured into a mold, steam heated, washed in warm water to remove impurities, squeezed to remove water then dried.
The mold shape helps control the latex foam density allowing for a softer or firmer mattress. Dunlop latex remains firm yet resilient providing excellent stability for your spine. It’s slightly more dense making it firmer and more supportive than Talalay latex.
Talalay latex mattresses are created almost identically to Dunlop latex mattresses except for two additional steps during the manufacturing process.
First, the latex mixture is vacuum sealed as soon as it is poured into the mold with the remainder of the process completed in that vacuum environment. Secondly, the latex mold is flash-frozen directly before the baking process.
The end result is a mattress with a softer, bouncier, even spongier feel than an equivalent Dunlop mattress. Being softer and more cushy, the Talalay latex is more pressure-relieving than Dunlop latex. The extra cost of manufacturing does result in a pricier mattress though.
How firm should my latex mattress be?
Let me start with a bit of a cop-out. Go with whatever helps you sleep better. Seriously. It’s your back and your health after all. And good sleep starts with personal comfort.
That said, here are some general guidelines that’ll help you select the perfect mattress. Choose Talalay latex for a softer, more luxurious feel or Dunlop latex for a firmer, more supportive feel. Remember, both types of latex mattresses come in varying degrees of softness or firmness.
Select a firmer organic mattress if:
- You tend to sleep on your back
- You tend to sleep on your stomach
- You are heavier in weight
- You have lower back pain or sciatica
Select a softer organic mattress if:
- You tend to sleep on your side
- You tend to toss and turn a lot when you sleep
- You have trouble falling asleep
- You are lighter in weight
- You have spinal stenosis
My favorite organic mattress companies
Once again, let me start by saying that choosing a mattress is a very personal decision. That’s why I’m providing some information on a couple of my favorite organic mattress companies. Each of these companies provide very high quality natural latex mattresses with organic materials. I’m confident that at least one of them has the perfect mattress for you.
I personally love the flexibility of the Savvy Rest Serenity organic mattress. Each Serenity latex organic mattress is composed of three 3″ layers of natural latex foam. But here’s what’s really cool: you get to mix & match soft, medium, and firm Dunlop or Talalay latex layers when you order your mattress.
Want luxurious soft? Extra firm? No problem. Just pick any combination of the six available latex layers to get exactly the comfort you want. Savvy Rest has a great video demonstrating how to pick the layers for your own customized organic mattress.
Their Serenity organic latex mattress is covered by a sturdy organic cotton casing lined with organic wool batting for a cool, dry, comfortable night’s rest.
Essentia is another top notch company with a strong “commitment to comfort and quality, without compromise.” I agree.
They have designed an excellent natural memory foam mattress.
As you’d expect from a proven green company, their memory foam mattress is just as comfortable and durable as the synthetic leading brand (no names, cough, Tempur-pedic, cough) without the morning headache.
Wait a minute, I lied. The Essentia memory foam is not just as comfortable, it’s more comfortable. It’s proven 80% more breathable, recovers much faster, and works well in a much broader temperature range than any other memory foam mattress on the market. And like I said, it does it all naturally without the toxic chemical materials and adhesives.
Bed bugs and dust mites
No discussion of mattresses would be complete without mentioning the critters most likely to live in them.
Bed bugs have hit the news in a big way again in recent months. Houses and hotels in areas where these pests were practically eradicated have gotten a foothold once again.
Growing to around a quarter inch in length, bed bugs must feed at least five times to grow to adult size. And their favorite meal is you. Or, more specifically, your blood.
While many people bit by bed bugs experience an itchy rash or welt, at least the bites aren’t known to transmit any disease. However, some do have allergic reactions and severe bed bug infestations have even been known to cause anemia due to blood loss after hosting too many late-night bed bug parties.
Bed bug infestations can be murder getting rid of too. Just one more good reason to always buy mattresses new instead of accepting hand-me-downs or purchasing used, especially from unknown sleeping environments.
Bed bugs aren’t the only pest to be concerned with in your mattress. If you’ve moved around an old mattress lately it might seem a bit heavier than you remembered. Before you chalk it up to falling out of shape there’s a chance you might have an even better, though creepy, legitimate reason.
According to a fact sheet on house dust mites published by Ohio State University, a full 10 percent of the weight of a two-year-old pillow may actually be the feces and carcasses of the little critters.
Feces? Yep, that tiny house dust mite can produce 200 times its weight in waste in its short little two to four month lifespan. By some reports a used mattress can double in weight within a decade from all the accumulated dust, dead skin, dust mites, and their waste. With as many as 10 million mites taking up residence inside your bed that’s a lot of bugs… and a lot of bug poo.
The good news? Dust mites feed on dead skin instead of gorging themselves on your blood like bed bugs. The bad… all of that dust mite feces is highly allergenic and can trigger asthma attacks, hay fever, and increase the severity of eczema.
Natural latex mattresses with organic wool coverings can help prevent infestations. Organic wool with its natural lanolin repels moisture, dust mites, and bed bugs. And dust mites simply don’t thrive in natural latex like they do in a standard mattress.
So if creepy critters give you the creepy-crawlies, that’s just one more reason to consider a natural organic latex and organic wool mattress. Sleep tight.
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). An Introduction to Indoor Air Quality (IAQ). United States Environmental Protection Agency.
Cotton and the Environment. Organic Trade Association. 2009
Lyon L. House Dust Mites. Ohio State University Extension Fact Sheet. HYG-2157-97.
Pritchard MJ, Hwang S. Severe anemia from bedbugs. Canadian Medical Association Journal. 2009 Sep 1;181(5):287-8.