The first time my husband and I went shopping for a mattress (in another state, mind you) we were greeted at the door by a peculiar salesman. Sporting a balding-but-make-it-a-mullet hairstyle and possessing only a fraction of his teeth, he passionately educated us on exactly why we needed a new mattress. At the time the information on dust mites, dead skin and sweat was simultaneously true, disturbing, gross and only made entertaining by our salesman’s appearance. 

He did make one very important point: when all is said and done, the average person spends half their life on a mattress. That’s an astounding amount of time to be on a single piece of furniture, and yet we have only begun to start asking whether or not conventional mattresses are safe to have in our homes. (Spoiler: they’re not.)

A mattress is quite an investment, so a few things to be wary of when shopping for a new one are flame retardants, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), fragrance and antibacterial additives. 

Flame retardants are chemicals that are applied to materials to prevent the start of or slow the growth of fire. Many are now calling flame retardants the “new lead” because of its incredibly toxic impact on the body. These chemicals have been shown to slow brain development and have links to various cancers, liver damage and hormone disruption. Another issue is bioaccumulation, meaning the chemicals used in flame retardants can collect in our bodies, increasing the effects over time. 

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are chemicals that are used in a variety of products in our homes, including mattresses. When they come into our home they are released into the air we breathe indoors. Often they have a powerful chemical smell, which is not always an indication of how bad they are for you. However, VOCs can impact our health on a widely varying scale from headaches, eye/nose/throat irritation and nausea all the way to cancer, liver and kidney damage, and damage to the central nervous system. 

Fragrance is a large class of chemicals used to create pleasant smells in our homes. As with personal care products, fragrance ingredients are not required by law to be disclosed to the consumer. Parabens, phthalates and other hormone-disrupting chemicals can be included, increasing the toxic burden on our bodies. 

Antibacterial additives, specifically TBT, are used as a treatment for mattresses that allow them to be marketed as antimicrobial, antibacterial and/or anti-mildew. However, with the excess of chemicals around us and the availability of washing machines, this treatment is unnecessary (and toxic). Best bet? Forego the coating and wash your linens regularly.  

If you’re looking for a nontoxic mattress, make sure you know what to look for (and what to avoid) when you start shopping. This guide from the Environmental Working Group is a great resource! I recommend creating a checklist of things you want to avoid, and then be willing to ask the company you’re considering whether they contain any of the following:

  • polyurethane foam

  • VOCs

  • vinyl

  • flame retardant chemicals 

  • antibacterial additives

  • fragrance

Remember the lesson we learned at the beginning: you spend half of your life on a mattress. Make it a good one!


Heather Disarro is the author and creator of Heather’s Dish, a clean beauty educator, a health coach and social media boss. She loves spending time with her husband and two kids doing almost anything outdoors, eating great food, reading and enjoying everything Arkansas has to offer.