Buying a new mattress isn’t just about firmness, comfort or pillow-top preference. Think as well about your allergies and asthma.
It’s something everyone needs to feel refreshed and ready to take on the day: a good night’s sleep.
People spend about a third of their lives in bed, and mattress manufacturers offer myriad options for nearly every need.
There are styles for side sleepers, back sleepers and stomach sleepers; there are pocket coils, pillow tops and memory foam – not to mention every level of softness or firmness. There are mattresses that will keep you warm or cool, ones that fold up, and others that stick to the basics.
But for people with allergies, asthma and sensitivities to chemical irritants, there is a whole other layer of complication, because the mattresses and bedding you choose can have a big impact on your health. So which mattresses are better for people with allergies and asthma? What should you look for and what should you avoid? Here are the eye-opening facts.
The Mite Life
There’s nothing quite like cozying up in bed after a long day – but unfortunately, humans aren’t the only ones who love crawling into a comfy bed.
Dust mites feed on skin scales, and they thrive in warm, humid environments, so most mattresses are like all-inclusive resorts for the tiny arachnids. And if there’s no dust mite cover on the mattress, they come and go as they please, leaving behind minuscule fecal pellets, which are a potent allergen for those who are sensitized.
“The dust mites will live in the mattress and then migrate to the surface when people are on the bed sleeping, because there’s enough body heat to create a temperature increase – and the moisture from us sleeping on the mattress raises the humidity,” says Dr. James Sublett, chief medical officer at Family Allergy and Asthma in Louisville, Kentucky, and professor of pediatric allergy and immunology at the University of Louisville School of Medicine. “That’s when you get into problems.”
To start, people with allergies need to avoid old or hand-me-down mattresses, as the allergens build up over time – and once they get into the bed, they’re tough to shake.
“The older it is, the more likely it has accumulated allergens, especially if it has been passed around from family to family, or it’s been in a damp environment like the basement and has mold issues,” says Sublett. “In that situation, I tell people to think about getting a new one.”
While traditional coil or foam mattresses offer plenty of nooks and crannies for dust mites to set up shop, Sublett says that mattresses made of dense memory foam or latex foam may offer a more protective effect. “That foam is thick enough that the mites cannot live in it,” says Sublett.
But there’s a wrinkle: some of those mattresses come with a quilted top or “pillow top” that’s layered with cotton and more porous polyurethane foam, and offers refuge to persistent mites.
“If you get that, then you’re back to square one,” he says.
Dust mites aren’t the only concern for people with respiratory issues.
According to the nonprofit Center for Environmental Health (CEH), many mattresses contain a host of chemicals that can pollute household air, and polyurethane foam can release asthma-triggering volatile organic compounds or VOCs.
They may also contain formaldehyde, fire retardants, adhesives and sealants that can also trigger respiratory symptoms, or have been linked to cancer and endocrine system disruption.
“There is very little information available to consumers about what’s in the products, and that’s a big problem because how can we make informed choices if we don’t have the necessary information?” says Judy Levin, pollution prevention director at CEH.
Levin’s organization, along with the California Professional Firefighters and the National Resources Defense Council, have introduced a bill that would put significant limits on flame retardants in mattresses, children’s products and furniture in California.
“Some of the problem is that the mattress manufacturers themselves often don’t know what’s in their products,” adds Levin. She has spoken with manufacturers who believed their products were free of flame retardants – only to find the chemicals had been introduced at some point in the supply chain.
Fortunately, there are a growing number of natural options to choose from. And while the prices used to be high enough to keep you up at night, these days they are far more reasonable.
Levin advises avoiding polyurethane foam and looking for a mattress made from natural materials, in particular natural latex, certified organic cotton, or a combination. (Some latex mattresses have a wool topper, for example.)
But make sure to read the fine print: certain mattresses will say they “contain” organic cotton or natural latex, but they also contain more harmful substances. So opt for mattresses made with at least 95 percent natural materials – not a blend of natural and synthetic. (Synthetic latex, for example, is made from petroleum-based compounds and can off-gas VOCs.)
Similarly, don’t be fooled by “plant-based foam”: it is typically produced using a small amount of soybean or castor oil, then mixed with petroleum chemicals, so it emits VOCs in the same way polyurethane foam does. Memory foam is also a form of polyurethane.
Levin also recommends avoiding mattresses that have scents, anti-microbial agents or similar features, because they only add to the chemical stockpile.
“I was in a mattress store recently and the salesman proudly explained that one of the highest priced mattresses had added antimicrobials. And I said, ‘You may not know that added antimicrobials are not actually a selling point,’” she recalls. “There’s no evidence, at least in furniture, that added anti-microbials reduce the spread of infection, and the medical community is concerned that this can lead to the development of antibiotic-resistant germs.”
While natural latex mattresses are one of the very best bets for people with allergies and asthma because of their lack of VOCs, their resistance to dust mites, their comfort and their relative affordability, many people who have latex allergies wonder, “Are they safe for me?”
Dr. Gordon Sussman, a Toronto allergist who has authored latex allergy studies, says latex reactions are normally associated with products such as gloves, balloons and condoms. He’s not aware of any evidence that mattresses made with the material trigger reactions, even in people with an allergy to the natural rubber.
“The latex mattresses have been around a long time and we haven’t seen anyone sensitized,” says Sussman. He explains that, unlike latex gloves, which caused an epidemic of latex allergy among hospital workers, the mattresses likely contain very little of the potent allergen. “The generic recommendation is if you’re allergic to latex you should avoid latex. But is the risk high? No, there probably is very little risk.”
Go Under Cover
No matter what mattress you choose, the key for people with allergies and asthma is to seal it with a high-quality mattress encasement.
Sublett says people should steer clear of the plastic and vinyl ones – they can off-gas, which can trigger respiratory issues, and they don’t allow airflow – and to opt instead for a mite barrier made from a tightly woven material.
The ones that are made from a looser weave aren’t effective because dust mites and mold spores can still make their way through, and non-woven ones can also be problematic. “Under the microscope, they have enough dimpling in the surface that mites can actually take up residence there,” says Sublett.
The allergist recommends an encasement that goes all the way around the bed, because the ones that only cover the top and sides give mites a backdoor option. The cover should zip all the way around, and have another layer of Velcro that seals the area where the zipper ends. The same type of encasement should be used on pillows, too.
“That also will eliminate that migration of the dust mite, and over time you’ll really reduce the population,” says Sublett. As well, make sure all the bedding – including the mattress covers, sheets, blankets and duvets – is washable, and wash it regularly.
People with allergies and asthma who don’t take those key steps could be facing some rough nights, as well as tired days, says Dr. Jay Portnoy, a pediatric allergist at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City and professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine. Increased nasal congestion, post-nasal drip and coughing are all signs that your mattress could be causing you problems, especially if it’s not encased.
“You go to bed at 10 or 11, and at midnight you wake up and you’re coughing,” says Portnoy, who has asthma and has experienced the sensation first-hand when traveling. The effects may not even appear at nighttime. “It’s possible that you’ll sleep all night because you were really tired. You’ll wake up in the morning but then you’ll start coughing and having symptoms during the day and you’re like, ‘What’s going on?’” he says. “And it could be because you were sleeping somewhere that was not healthy for you.”
People should encase their mattresses and purchases as soon as they bring them home, says Portnoy, so that dust mites and mold can’t get established; they should also encase the box spring, which is another favorite haunt for the mites. As well, consumers should avoid buying any mattress that has a strong smell – a key sign that it could contain off-gassing chemicals such as irritating formaldehyde.
But while you’re examining all of the health-friendly options, he adds, don’t forget to buy something that suits your comfort needs. “Obviously the most important thing about a mattress is it’s got to be something you can get a good night’s sleep on,” he says. “If you can’t sleep, then all else is for naught.”
Here are a few of the companies that make natural mattresses:
Both the adult and crib models feature certified organic cotton and other natural materials. The mattresses meet the rigorous GOTS certification standard, which follows components from raw materials to finished product. Naturepedic.com
They bill themselves as the first and number one certified organic mattress company in America, and offer mattresses made by hand from GOTS certified organic cotton, wool and latex in their California-based “eco-factory.” Omimattress.com
Originally started by two British sailors looking to create a comfortable boat mattress, the company offers child and kid mattresses made of coconut fiber, organic lambswool, and more. Handmade in Devon, England and available in North America. Naturalmat.com
Featuring materials including organic latex, organic cotton and organic wool, this Canadian company’s mattresses also meet the strict GOTS standard. They don’t come cheap, but the company’s “organic masterpieces” can even be customized to suit each sleeping partner’s preferences. Obasan.com