When A Natural Mattress Isn’t in the Budget

What to do when a natural mattress isn't in the budget

Over the last 5+ years, I researched my way into a natural mattress for our family, but the process was long, somewhat dramatic, and expensive. For many years, a healthier, natural mattress just wasn’t in the budget for us, no matter how important I thought it was (as we saved for years to purchase ours).

In the years before we finally found the mattress we love and were able to purchase it, I found several ways of mitigating many of the problems with traditional mattresses and making ours work for us in the meantime.

Why A Natural Mattress?

We spend about a third of our lives sleeping, meaning that our sleep environment is at least as important (if not more so) than our work environment or the rest of our home.

Many of us go to great lengths to avoid harmful substances in our food, beauty products and cleaning products without realizing that our sleep environment may be our main source of harmful chemical exposure.

In particular, the biggest concerns I had after researching mattresses were:

Off-Gassing of Flame Retardant Chemicals

Mattresses often contain a variety of chemicals designed to make the mattress flame retardant. Typically, the newer the mattress, the higher the concern about these chemicals.

Added chemicals most often found in mattresses are:

  • PBDEs– linked to hormone problems and even certain types of cancers. These chemicals are found in almost every mattress and in 97% of adults tested in the US. These chemicals are especially worrisome since they can contribute to fetal growth problems and are very harmful to babies and young children.
  • Formaldehyde– A known carcinogen found in many mattresses
  • Petrochemicals– Many of the materials and chemicals used in mattress making are petroleum-based.
  • Polyurethane Foam and PVC– Materials often used in mattress making. They are highly flammable on their own, and often the reason that flame retardant chemicals are used. They have the potential to off-gas on their own as well.

The fact that these chemicals were found in high levels in almost 100% of adults who were tested (in the US) shows that the body is capable of absorbing and storing them.

In theory, these chemicals are most concentrated and harmful in new mattresses, although there is evidence that mattresses may still off-gas for many years. Mattresses made before 2007 were typically not sprayed with PBDEs or most other flame retardant chemicals, and may be safer.

If you have an older mattress (pre-2007) it may be worth keeping, at least until an organic mattress is an option, rather than replacing with a newer but less expensive mattress.

Dust Mites and Bacteria?

While flame retardants and other chemicals are found in the highest levels in new mattresses, old mattresses have their fair share of problems as well. In fact, one bacteria often found in mattresses has been implicated as a possible contributor to SIDS and may pose problems for adults as well:

Sheepskins and regular mattresses contain phosphorous, arsenic and antimony, which are the preferred food of a common household fungus, S. Brevicaulis. While these elements are naturally occurring in some (but not all) sheepskins, they are actually added in via the manufacturing process of regular mattresses. Arsenic and antimony are used as preservatives in mandatory flame retardants and phosphorous is a plasticizer used in mattress covers – anything containing PVC will have these compounds.

According to Barry Richardson, a British chemist specializing in preventing the degradation of materials, when S. Brevicaulis gets established in a mattress it converts these compounds into toxic nerve gases which can shut down the nervous system, stop heart function and arrest breathing.

Stibine gas, which is formed from the interaction of the S. Brevicaulis fungus with antimony, is particularly heavy and – according to the theory – clings to the surface of the mattress. “A baby sleeping face down will breathe this gas directly and is more likely to inhale a lethal dose,” says this this article in Midwifery Today, adding that “babies sleeping on their backs are still exposed to the lighter nerve gasses: arsine and phosphine. In a warm environment phosphine can be similar to the density of air, and easily inhaled by a baby sleeping on its back. In addition, face-up sleeping is not as effective in a cot or bassinet with enclosed sides, because the gasses cannot flow away.” (source)

We also know that mattresses and pillows are a prime habitat for dust mites due to the presence of dead skin cells- their food of choice. A study from Ohio State University found that a used mattress may have up to 10 million dust mites inside.

Though dust mites are disgusting, they are generally harmless themselves, it is their feces that most people are allergic to:

According to the American College of Asthma, Allergy & Immunology, approximately 10 percent of Americans exhibit allergic sensitivity to dust mites. The American Lung Associations tells us “Dust mites are not parasites; they don’t bite, sting or burrow into our bodies. The harmful allergen they create comes from their fecal pellets and body fragments. (source)

That makes you feel better, right? The dust mites aren’t actually a problem, you’re just reacting to breathing in their poop all night.

EMFs?

This is one area of concern from mattresses that seems to be often misunderstood and controversial. On the one hand, some sources claim that the springs in conventional mattresses act as an amplifier for wi-fi and EMFs, and that this is the reason for higher rates of breast and other cancers of the left side of the body in the US and most of the developed world (but not in Japan, where mattresses do not contain springs).

I researched this claim in depth and while it seems that some mattresses may have a slight ability to amplify EMFs, the mattress is not the problem, the EMFs are. In my research and in taking measurements in my own home, I found that whether or not a mattress had springs was much less of an indicator of EMF levels than how close the bed was to a meter, wi-fi router, or electronic device (phone or computer).

The bottom line, in my opinion, is that while coils in mattresses may highlight the importance of understanding and reducing EMFs in general, they are a very small piece of a much bigger puzzle.

Natural Mattress: What to Do?

Until a non-toxic mattress was in the budget for us, I sought to reduce each of my concerns about our older mattress. This is what I did:

Don’t Replace with a Newer Regular Mattress

We bought our mattress around 2006, so when I researched it a few years later, I realized that there was a good chance it was not sprayed with the most harmful of flame retardants.

At the point when I started to have concern about our mattress, it had already been off-gassing for several years (unfortunately, in our room), and a newer conventional mattress would have potentially had more chemicals than our existing mattress. When the older mattress started getting uncomfortable, we added an inexpensive natural topper to make it last until we could afford an organic, natural mattress.

Reduce Off-Gassing

As mentioned above, off-gassing is one of the biggest potential problems with many mattresses, especially newer ones. Unfortunately, the only way to fully eliminate this problem is to use a mattress that doesn’t contain the chemical in the first place, but when that isn’t an option, a mattress encasement (not just cover) may help reduce exposure to off-gassing.

There are specialized covers made of polyethylene that have been shown to reduce exposure to chemical off-gassing. In fact, New Zealand ran a highly effective SIDS prevention campaign encouraging parents to wrap mattresses in a polyethylene encasement (like this one) and it has been highly effective in reducing the incidence of SIDS. (Certainly, this is a more complicated and highly emotional topic, but New Zealand’s results do provide insight that perhaps off-gassing is a more important issue than we once suspected).

Encasing adult mattresses seems to be more difficult. An ideal situation would be to fully encase a mattress on all sides in an air-tight food-grade polyethylene cover, but these covers are extremely difficult to find. There are some, like this one, that fully encase mattresses and have a thin layer of polyethylene to block off-gassing. It is also possible to make your own using a higher quality polyethylene sheeting and tape.

The downside, of course, is that polyethylene is still plastic and may have its own share of problems, but after weighing the risks and benefits of each, I was more comfortable with the polyethylene coating than the potential off-gassing chemicals, so we encased our mattress until we could replace it.

Reduce Exposure to Mites & Bacteria

Thankfully, while the jury is still out on how much a quality mattress encasement can reduce chemical off-gassing, we do know that they reduce exposure to dust mites (and also protect against bed bugs!).

A simple full mattress encasement has been shown to block dust mites, bacteria, mold, mildew and other allergens, so this is a simple fix that is very effective.

If you are highly concerned about off-gassing and allergens, it might be more effective to wrap the mattress in plastic sheeting and then cover with an encasement to address both issues.

Reduce EMFs in the Room

As I mentioned above, I think EMFs are definitely a concern, but mattresses are very low on the list of places to address EMFs. In a previous post, I compared getting rid of mattress springs to reduce EMFs to putting a filter on a cigarette to reduce harmful exposure… it may help some but it doesn’t address the real problem.

While I think natural mattresses are important for many other reasons, I personally think that these steps are much more important when it comes to EMF exposure (from this previous post):

  • “Turning off wi-fi at night: This was a struggle to get my husband to agree to and it is a change we are just now starting to implement. It is a tough balance, as we both have aspects of our work that requires much time online, but we also want to protect our family from any unnecessary exposure. Since research shows we are more susceptible to EMF exposure at night and since I have not yet mastered working in my sleep, it makes sense to turn off the wifi at night. If you have more than one device that contributes to your wifi like we do (router, modem, Apple devices, etc), I recommend plugging them into a power strip with a switch to easily turn off at night. This single step alone can reduce 1/2 to 2/3 of exposure, especially for children who are (hopefully) spending some of the daytime outdoors anyway. This addresses the root of the problem as well- no wifi… nothing to amplify. I plan to rewire our house to just use ethernet cables, but I haven’t had the time to do this yet (and it is tough to get in the crawl space of our house while pregnant.)
  • Using an earthing mat: This is a controversial topic and the research is divided, but I seem to sleep better on an earthing sheet, so we use one. This post explains more.
  • Greenwave filters: Last year, our kids all got these dirty electricity filters for Christmas (super exciting gift, I know) but they made a measurable difference in the levels in our home. Interesting note, I decided to repaint our house while my husband was traveling to surprise him and I had to paint 4 rooms in 4 days. I had all of the electrical outlet plates unscrewed and taped over and was painting during the day. The first two nights, I could hardly sleep and was restless all night. I assumed it was because my husband was out of town. The night I plugged the filters back in, I slept just fine. Totally anecdotal, but I still wonder if there was a connection. (This was before we started unplugging the wifi).
  • Don’t plug things in near the bed– This is another factor that made a big difference for us and some things measured higher than others. Things like our lamps and wake up light didn’t seem to have much of an effect, while computers and phone chargers really did. We plugged the green wave filters in to the plugs near our bed and plugged the necessary things into them (lamps, etc) and avoided putting any other electronics in our bedroom…
  • The no-phone rule– We have a non-negotiable rule about not having our phones, computers or other electronics in our room at night (the only time I’ve broken this rule was when my husband was traveling internationally and I wouldn’t be able to talk to him if my phone wasn’t at least close enough to hear). I know some people use phones as an alarm or for various sleep monitoring purposes, so the other option is to put phones in airplane mode at night (a good idea anyway).”

Try a Mattress Topper

If comfort is the issue but the mattress is otherwise good, I’d try a mattress topper to make it more comfortable. We purchased a down topper, which helped some, but not as much as I’d hoped since our mattress was getting older and it was too firm.

If I had known about it, I would have gotten an Intellibed Topper, which offers many of the same comfort benefits as a full Intellibed mattress at a fraction of the price.

Combined with a mattress encasement, this may help an older mattress remain usable for a long time without the need to fully replace, especially if the mattress is older than 2007 and has less issue with flame retardants.

The Bottom Line…

I consider a non-toxic mattress a big priority for improving health, but these mattresses are pricey and not an option for many families on a budget (including our family, for several years). When a new mattress isn’t an option, the solutions above can extend the usability of an older conventional mattress and help mitigate some of the potential problems.

Pssst… If You are Considering a New Mattress…

If you are at the point of replacing your mattress, this is the option we finally chose for our bed after years of research, check it out at this link and use the code WellnessMama for a 10% discount (Note: Until 12/31, use the code “WellnessMama” to receive 10% off + 2 intelliPILLOW’s and Bamboo Sheets (valued at $500) on any queen bed or larger. It’s not valid with the Value bed or any bed smaller than Queen size.)

Do you have a natural mattress? If not, what steps have you taken before getting one?

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Reader Comments

  1. Hi Katie!
    I’m new here; delighted to have found your blog. There’s much more I could say, but for now, I just thought I’d share:

    a healthier mattress option I am considering for my son (14 months) is a 100% wool mattress; a shop on etsy sells them: https://www.etsy.com/shop/TheHomeOfWool?ref=l2-shopheader-name.

    Any thoughts on those? I really like the idea of using a natural, sustainable, re-fillable option that’s a bit more affordable for us right now.

    Be well,
    Rose

    • Wool can be great, just be sure to make sure that it is correctly covered, as the bacteria issue can still be a problem with wool. A waterproof cover is supposed to fix that problem though…

  2. How does the polyethylene encasement feel and sound under the bed sheet? Is it loud and plasticy sounding? (Like a kid’s waterproof mattress cover?) Can you feel it through the sheet at all?

    • It does feel a little pastic-y but not too bad… definitely not perfect though…

  3. Nice article, Katie! Do you remember the brand of the natural topper you had bought for your old mattress?

    • It was a regular down mattress topper that I found at TJ Maxx on clearance… I don’t remember the brand though…

  4. I am looking for a beanbag with similar properties but am having a hard time finding one that is nontoxic. Anyone know of a reasonably priced, nontoxic brand?

    • Have you considered making your own? It’s really easy. I did it in college with almost no sewing experience. Granted, I was more in the market for “cheap furniture” than “healthy furniture” but still. The most expensive part is the filling. I’m not sure, but I think buckwheat would be a relatively affordable option. I know some people swear by it for pillows. If you can sew a seam, you can make a beanbag.

    • You could purchase a beanbag cover and fill it with buckwheat hulls and cotton or whatever you are comfortable with.

  5. I can’t afford an organic mattress atm for my 3 year old, but the mattress we have seems to be damp, should Icover this or by a new one and cover that… Damp or off-gassing?!

  6. We researched beds about 2 years ago and that is pretty much exactly what we did. We have an inexpensive memory foam mattress wrapped in plastic on a wood bed frame (no metal). Then we got a natural latex topper which made it very supportive and comfortable, and we don’t really feel the plastic layer. We also use an earthing sheet and reduce EMFs (no wifi, nothing plugged in). And we sleep better with our heads at the foot of the bed, away from electrical wires in the wall, so we do that too. All of that makes for a great sleep environment! Now if only my baby would let me get a full night’s sleep… 🙂

  7. Hi Katie! I was wondering your thoughts on some of the new, direct to consumer mattresses that are Certi-Pur us certified and made completely in us? Like Casper, dream foam, tuft and needle etc. They are much more affordable than the intellibed and seem to be a much better option than a conventional mattress. Thoughts? Thanks!

  8. Thanks for this post!!! I clicked on Radiant Life Company link and found hubbys pre- x-mass gift. With all the holiday bustle and family events we like to take a moment to share something together x-mass eve before we head out to share our time with others. So we exchange a small gift. I dident know what to get him this year until I saw the earthing bands!!!! Cant afford a mat or sheet right now but hubby has some strange concoction of a earthing band he made up. I think he will enjoy this one better.

  9. Thank you for another great post!
    On the topic of plugging electronics in your room, do you have any insight to the Fitbit craze causing any similar issues? It’s one of those things I think I’m doing to improve my health, but is wearing it all day and night harming me??? I can’t find any info. Thanks!

    • Kelly, I read an article by The Healthy Home Economist that addressed this issue. I was considering getting a FitBit and wanted to know how it was related to EMF exposure, and decided that the potential health gains from tracking fitness weren’t worth the additional EMF exposure. Here is a link to her article: http://www.thehealthyhomeeconomist.com/fitbit-health-concerns/ You can also Google “fitbit emf” for a few other articles on the subject. Hope this helps!

    • I wonder the same thing. My husband won one at a golf tournament and it says in the package to not wear if you are pregnant! I am not pregnant right now but that warning kind of scared me so I won’t wear it!

  10. Katie, if you used the plastic sheeting in your Amazon link, I would like to know if it gave off any odor in and of itself? I am going through a period of recovering from significant sensitivity to odors and scents.

    I would like to wrap our mattress, and was debating between the roll of polyethylene on Amazon, and a 5.5 mil food-grade mattress “envelope” offered here: http://www.offgassing-mattress-wraps.com

  11. hi katie-
    so if we are not in a position to boy the whole thing, would u suggest their mattress protector and topper? how do we protect against the gassing efect?

    • You would want to also encase the mattress you are topping.

      • ok, so with all the stuff you were talking about?

  12. Hi Katie, I was wondering your thoughts on some of the newer direct to consumer mattresses, such as dream foam, Casper, tuft and needle? They all claim to be completely made in the US, are certi-pur certified and much more affordable. Do you think any of these would be a good option? Thanks!!

    • I am also looking at Tuft and Needle and wondering if they are a good option.

  13. I highly recommend buying a 3″ talalay latex mattress topper, which is made
    From natural rubber from Pure Bliss, it is absolute heaven.

    My wife and I tried memory foam topper and hated it, it stunk and it was hot,

    The latex foam topper stays cool and no chemical gassing, it can improve an old
    Mattress. We loved the latex foam so much, we got rid of old spring mattress
    And replaced it with 9″ of latex foam rubber under the 3″ topper, it is the best mattress I have ever owned, its so comfortable that my wife went off medication for her bad back. Talalay latex is not cheap, but there are sources on the internet
    Where you can save thousands off name brands.

  14. My daughter (14) has recently got a loft bed which is really close to the ceiling – from Ikea – i got her a brand new ikea mattress too and since then she has been have loads of problems including not being able to eat properly, itchy arms and legs, achey joints, tired all the time … I have just bought her a futon mattress made of 2 layers of wool with natural felt in the middle – it hasnt arrived yet but i am convinced the ikea mattress is making her sick – she is sleeping on the floor until the new mattress arrives.

  15. Does the polyethylene protector off gas?

  16. How do I determine a good mattress encasement? What am I looking for, does it have to be polyethylene? I’m in Canada too… would this one work? http://amzn.to/1QjJRBq

  17. How do you know the mattress you got is “natural”? It doesn’t say it’s made of organic materials or anything.

  18. Katie,
    I am just curious after reading some awful reviews on Amazon for the earthing sheet company you recommend, how your mat/sheets are holding up?
    Have you had any experience with customer service from this company?

    Thanks so much!

    • Mine has held up really well and is still going strong, but I don’t have any experience with their customer service…

  19. Hi Katie,

    I’m considering getting the mattress cover you linked to on Amazon. They list the materials as:
    The SureGuard Mattress Encasement contains the following materials:
    Top cover – 100% cotton terry
    Other 5 sides – 100% stretch-knit polyester
    Waterproof backing on all sides – 100% TPU (polyurethane)
    I didn’t see any mention of polyethylene. Is this still a mattress cover you would recommend? I already have one that contains polyurethane and polypropylene and am concerned about continuing to use it on my child’s bed. Thanks for your help 🙂

  20. I just wanted to say thank you for all your work looking at mattresses. Non of them mentioned were available over here in the UK so I did some digging and they are pretty spendy. I ended up on youtube looking at how to make your own mattress and I have to say both a sheeps fleece footon and stripping my old matress and using sheepfleece to coat the top and bottom and then making a new cover are both healthy, afordable and if the homstead kids video is anything to go by (they used wood shavings though not sure I am convinced with that one) its going to be a peice of cake. I hope this inspires others just as wellness mama does me :o)

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FTqPR9WgaAE

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lpOOBE80frk

  21. Hi, I am looking into the options right now as well. I noticed that the poly sheeting you link to on amazon says it is UV treated. Are you able to find out what exactly it is treated with and how toxic that may be? I’m looking at another brand at Home Depot but it does not say food safe. It is made to be an actual vapor barrier in construction but it is made from recycled plastics. I like and dislike this because I am not sure about the integrity of the plastic for being in close proximity to our bodies. Thank you SO much for the link to the crib mattress wrap. I have been trying to find exactly that here in the US. I am expecting a new baby and we bedshare. I know the toxic offgasing is an issue so I want to be sure we can accomplish safer and less toxic sleeping quarters by the time baby comes in September. We have seven other children so cost is a definite limiting factor. Thank you for your research.

  22. So Ive been researching pillows and sheets to buy as well as a new mattress since I saw that those too can have the toxins and chemicals in them. What kind of pillows and sheets do you use that are not too pricy?

  23. I am glad to see ur website….I think I am the worst mom in the world..my baby was sleeping till 8 months in 100% polyurethane foam …even our 2 beds have this same foam. I got terrified n removed baby foam…we can’t afford Organic mattress…
    Is suregaurd cover helps to protect from off gassing ?or any other mattress cover to prevent from polyurethane off gassing…please suggest..

  24. Can you recommend a crib mattress that is healthy for a baby to sleep on?

  25. What type of mattress do your many children sleep on? I’ve looked all over your posts but can’t seem to find the answer. Thank you!

  26. As someone mentioned previously, the poly sheeting for greenhouse use includes a chemical that protects the plastic against UV from the sun. There is no way to know what this chemical or compound is, and whether or not it is safe. Similarly, the poly from home stores is construction grade and not refined (and possibly made from recycled materials) but is definitely not the same as food grade poly. The safest bet is a No-Chem Mattress Wrap which fits over the mattress like a large pillow case. It is made from food grade poly made in the USA.