A Green Mattress for Mind and Body

Here are a few thoughts on the benefits of a green mattress for your health and comfort.

A green mattress means one which broadly conforms to environmental concerns and which works well as a part of green living. It should cause minimal environmental disruption and have a low carbon footprint too.

This article mainly focuses on health aspects of latex mattresses, made from natural rubber.

Traditional mattresses from around the world have been made of natural fibers and other organic materials such as fur and straw. Now we often use sophisticated chemical processes to make mattresses from raw materials as diverse as metals, petroleum and even a type of alcohol (polyols).

Some organic materials such as wool and cotton are still used either as the filling for mattresses or as a supplement to other products used.

Modern latex mattresses may be considered as green in that they are made from naturally occurring rubber from. These trees are cultivated in South East Asia and parts of South America. Rubber use has a long history and pre-history; the Olmecs of ancient Mexico were known for their use of rubber.

Latex was developed by Dunlop in the 1920s by vulcanising rubber. Further developments have led to a mattress material which is durable and comfortable.

The truth regarding the green credentials of latex is complicated. Not all production methods are green and sustainable. However some of the best quality mattresses have a lot to recommend them as an aid to a good night's sleep.

Picture above: Latex mattresses can now incorporate springs. Picture thanks to www.mattressnextday.co.uk


The health benefits of latex mattresses

Latex mattress have become very popular because of a number of qualities. They can mold themselves to an individual body shape and they give good support to the important parts of the body.

A comfortable temperature can easily be achieved both in winter and summer. Other natural materials such as cotton or wool absorb heat from the body and so can leave you feeling very hot in the summer months.

Latex also naturally inhibits dust mites which helps people who suffer from asthma and other allergies. A small number of people may be allergic to latex; the Talalay process of latex production can remove most of the proteins responsible for such allergies. People who have had a lot of surgery and suffers from spina-bifida may be unable to use latex mattresses.

A good quality latex mattress will return to its natural shape when not in use. This reduces the need to turn the mattress. A latex mattress can also be constructed to provide different levels of firmness to suit individual needs and preferences. A firmer mattress is recommended for those who like to sleep on their back or on their stomach whereas a softer one may be better for people who prefer to sleep on their sides.

A good quality latex mattress will also tend to last longer than many other conventional types of mattress.  It makes sense to choose a mattress that has all the right ‘green’ credentials, but it is also important that the mattress chosen should provide an excellent night's sleep.

It is now possible to have both a good night`s sleep and a ‘green’ mattress.


Memory foam mattresses - what's the difference?

Memory foam is an artificial product invented at NASA. Memory foam is made from polyurethane. I would not consider them to be a green mattress. Here are a few details.

Memory foam mattresses can have benefits for those with health problems as they may enable a good night's sleep that otherwise would be elusive. They prevent or relieve pressure sores for example. 

Different densities are available for different purposes. You can now buy these mattresses and mattress toppers in any large chain outlet specialising in bedding or soft furnishings.

Memory foam has its critics because of the harsh chemicals involved in manufacture which may give off fumes into the air as the user sleeps.  This problem is being combatted by the introduction of bamboo-infused memory foam which is supposed to be totally safe.

Early types of memory foam retained heat rather too well; an open cell structure is now often used, which means that memory foam mattresses are more user friendly in hot weather.

Memory foam is toxic when burned. There are also a number of hazardous air pollutants (HAPs) associated with its manufacture. The most problematic is the solvent methylene chloride, also called DCM. DCM is toxic in a number of ways. It is a suspected carcinogen and it is highly volatile which makes it a hazard if inhaled. It can also cross the placenta  - so even if it is not so very hazardous as an end product in your home, it is certainly causing environmental and health concerns at the point of production.

Flame retardants

In some countries polybrominated diphenyl ethers or PBDEs may be used as flame retardents on memory foam products. Thesee products can accumulate in blood and breast tissue and even in breast milk. Residues have been found in house dust and even in marine animals. They are even turning up in the food chain. Fortunately they are banned in the EU - but not in north America. The Environmental Working Group tested mothers in the USA and found levels of these chemicals that were 75 time higher than those found in a group of European mothers.

Memory foam is sometimes included in conventional mattresses, so if you want o avoid it you may need to quiz the manufacturer or study the  product details with some care.

Mitigating the dangers of memory foam

If you do opt for memory foam, be sure to cover it with a good layer of blankets or duvets so as to minimise the risk from off-gassing. My daughter bought one of these memory foam mattress toppers and covered it over with several layers of materials and a hollowfill duvet. We could not detect any unpleasant smell after doing that.

Would I have one?

No way, not unless that was really the last resort for a comfortable night! The environmental consequences are too many and  the possible health benefits are off-set by a poor record on air quality. This is not what qualifies as a green mattress in my view.

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Choosing a latex mattress

If you are choosing a latex mattress it is crucial to look for quality. A good deal of the latex mattresses on the market are made from synthetic latex, which is a derivative of petroleum.

Check the label on the mattress which should contain guidance on the density and origins of the latex used.

Check that it contains only pure latex and not a man-made synthetic latex. Synthetic latex will contain more chemicals; even "pure", natural latex will contain some chemicals as they are needed to produce stability.

However, the better quality brands will have fewer chemicals and probably fewer negative environmental impacts from the production process.

To obtain a truly green mattress, try to find a manufacturer that cares for the product thrugh the whole cycl of production, from planting and harvesting to shipping and even end of life recycling.


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A Green Mattress for Mind and Body - top of page

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