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Mattresses, Box Springs, and Bed Frames

bed mattress box frame PlusONE

Lay the foundation for a good night’s rest

The most common type of mattress, the inner-spring, is made with a host of synthetic materials in addition to its metal springs. The outer fabric is polyester or cotton/poly “ticking.” Then there is polyester batting (sheets of stuffing), and layers of foam, including polyurethane foam, latex, or visco-elastic foam (commonly known as “memory foam”). All these materials are derived from nonrenewable petrochemicals. While sellers of natural-fiber mattresses may claim that synthetics are bad for you, there’s little evidence substantiating this, especially since most manufacturers have stopped using PBDE flame retardants (see below).

From an environmental and health perspective, there’s little to distinguish one synthetic mattress from another. Spend plenty of time testing mattresses at the store, and buy one that feels good to you and is priced right. Although Consumer Reports doesn’t rate mattresses, the magazine does report that paying more doesn’t necessarily get you a better mattress, and all but the cheapest mattresses can be fine.

If you are trying to minimize your use of petrochemicals, you may want to look for an all-natural mattress. There are a number of options to choose from, but they can be pricey and hard to find in stores.

Top Tips

At home

  • Extend the life of your mattress with a pad, cover, or mattress protector.
  • Vacuum. To remove dust, vacuum your mattress periodically, or purchase zippered mattress protectors to contain the dust.
  • Treat natural materials with TLC. Some special care is required for a natural mattress: Don’t put it on the floor or on a solid platform bed frame-use the box springs or bed frames designed for it. This will ensure the mattress can breathe. If possible, take the mattress outdoors for a day of airing and sunning at least twice a year.

When shopping

  • Take your time. From a health and environmental perspective, there’s nothing that makes one brand of conventional synthetic mattress stand out above another. Take plenty of time to shop around for a mattress that feels good, is well made, and fits your budget.
  • Size matters. Regardless of whether you are buying a synthetic or natural-fiber mattress, the larger it is, the bigger its impact on the environment because it requires more material to make (and more fabric for the sheets and other bedding that will cover it). If a double or queen will suit you fine, don’t feel pressured to upsize to a king.
  • Decide what type of mattress is right for you:
    • Innerspring? The metal innerspring mattress and box spring is the most common bed system in the United States today. Choose an innerspring mattress if you want a conventional mattress that has good, firm support. If you want an all-natural bed, make sure your covering (also called “ticking”) and batting (stuffing) are made from materials such as organic cotton, wool, or hemp. One environmental disadvantage of innerspring mattresses is that they are 70% to 80% steel, which requires more energy to manufacture than other types of mattresses; however, steel is fully recyclable and will be recovered if your local waste hauler recycles mattresses rather than landfilling them.
    • Foam? The most popular type of foam mattress is visco-elastic, a petrochemical-based product more commonly known as “memory foam.” Many people like the pressure-free support that memory foam provides. If you’re looking for an all-natural alternative, however, consider a natural latex mattress, which is made from the sap of rubber trees. (Many synthetic latex or synthetic/natural latex blend mattresses are also available.) Natural latex has good, resilient “spring,” provides excellent moisture regulation and efficient air circulation, and resists mold and dust mites. Be aware, though, that some people don’t like the smell of natural latex.
    • Stuffed? These mattresses, also called futons, have cotton, wool, or hemp casings stuffed with cotton, wool, or hemp batting that is usually 4 to 6 inches thick. You can customize the firmness by layering multiple mattresses made of different materials. They require periodic sunning and airing.
  • Then choose a matching foundation:
    • Box spring? If you choose an innerspring mattress, you’ll probably want a box spring (an assemblage of spiral bedsprings attached to a foundation and enclosed a box) underneath it. Despite the name, box springs aren’t springy. They should be very firm. To go all-natural, make sure the box spring is covered with natural-fiber fabric. If your old box spring is in good shape–the fabric isn’t torn and the metal supports aren’t sagging or springy–consider keeping it and just buying a new mattress. Some mattress warranties will be voided if you don’t buy the accompanying box spring, however, so check with retailers for mattress that can be sold separately.
    • Wood slats? For a latex mattress or stuffed mattress, you will want a wood slat foundation. Some bed systems come with a mattress and wood slat frame designed to work together. Most of these frames are stationary, but some European slat systems are adjustable. Most have plain, exposed wood; others are upholstered to look like a box spring. If the bed frame is made of composite wood materials like particle board, be aware that they may give off fumes of urea formaldehyde; choose solid wood or metal frames instead. Some companies make FSC-certified-wood bed frames.

Other Considerations

Until 2005, manufacturers of mattresses containing foam commonly used flame retardants called PBDEs that may damage human nervous systems. The good news is, most new mattresses and other polyurethane foam products, such as pillows and mattress pads, are no longer made with PBDEs.

Without PBDEs, what are manufacturers doing to meet government flammability standards? Natural mattress companies blend cotton with wool, which is naturally flame resistant. (Buying an organic cotton mattress without wool or fire-retardant chemicals requires a doctor’s prescription.) Some companies use low-toxic fire-resistant chemicals like borate or silica. Other companies use chemical treatments that they claim are proprietary.

To be sure the foam product you are buying is PBDE-free, ask the retailer or check the Environmental Working Group’s list of companies that sell PBDE-free products.

If you are considering a natural bed, here’s what you should know about materials:

  • Cotton. Sheets of cotton filling give a bed firm support. On the other hand, they pack down over time, getting harder and harder with use, and do not breathe well. Other disadvantages: Cotton absorbs moisture from perspiration and air faster than it can release it. If you are spending the money to have a custom all-natural bed made, you will likely be able choose between conventional and organic cotton for the stuffing and cover fabric.
  • Wool. Many all-natural mattresses today contain at least some wool because of its many benefits. Where cotton gives support, wool offers resilience. Wool is fast drying, so it keeps your body comfortable through the night. It’s also mold resistant, and does not harbor dust mites or bacteria. No chemical flame retardants are needed because it’s naturally resistant to fire.
  • Hemp. Organically grown hemp is extremely durable and similar in its properties to wool. It does not grow mold or harbor bacteria. It’s an excellent choice for mattress coverings because it’s so much more durable than cotton.
  • Natural latex. The benefits of natural latex foam are similar to those of wool. It has a good resilient “spring,” resists mold and dust mites, and provides efficient air circulation and moisture regulation. If you like sleeping on a foam mattress, this is a good natural alternative.


…to your wallet
Natural mattresses range in price from about $500 for a futon to more than $10,000 for a luxury-brand mattress.

…to the Earth
Natural mattresses are made from renewable agricultural fibers rather than nonrenewable petrochemicals.

Common Mistakes

Waterbeds. A waterbed heater uses about 900 kilowatt-hours of electricity each year. That’s about one-twelfth of the average U.S. household’s total electricity consumption. If you have one of the 6.4 million waterbeds in use in the United States, it’s likely one of the biggest energy hogs in your home.

Getting Started

  • What should you do with old foam mattresses, pillows, and other foam products that may have been made with PBDE? No one has a good answer yet about how much of a health hazard they may be. But if you’re concerned, you could replace old foam products with new PBDE-free products. If that’s not in your budget, make an extra effort to dust and vacuum regularly since dust seems to be a carrier of PBDEs. Keep in mind that infants and toddlers bear the biggest exposure burden, since they’re more likely to put dusty fingers in their mouths.
  • Check your local community disposal options for mattress recycling. In some places there’s an organization that will come collect your mattress, cut it apart, and separate the materials and recycle them for a reasonable fee.

Related Products & Services


14 Responses to “Mattresses, Box Springs, and Bed Frames”

  1. Georgina Says:

    i really wish i had seen this when i was shopping for a mattress. fail.

  2. troy Says:

    there are a lot of nasty things like bed bugs and dust mites associated with mattresses… i don’t know how eco-friendly water beds are! but i prefer those

  3. Jeff & Marcie Says:

    We are in the process of remodeling, more like ‘greening’, our home and have come across the issue of slat layer under the bed. It’s very difficult to find a bed or mattress manufacturer that sells FSC certified slats, so we just made our own out of FSC certified wood. Works great!

  4. Tossy Says:

    I am a big fan of clean mattresses, but it’s important to remember that you have to use a different vacuum than the one you use on the floor because that’s just gross. However, if you choose to use the same vacuum I would wipe it out at the bottom.

  5. Ava Mancini Says:

    I didn’t know there was so much to think about regarding your mattress if you’re an eco-conscious person. As long as you don’t dump your mattress on the side of the highway, you’re alright in my book.

  6. Lynda Says:

    Thank you so much for your information. As owner of I talk with people everyday about their mattress needs. Your resources here are clear and concise and appreciated. We have chemical free futons which have worked for many for over 25 years. But they do not work for everyone. I even offer small samples of the materials before they purchase a mattress if there is some concern at all. Always seeking new ways to be of assistance, and blog forums are just great! Thank you.

  7. Shannon Says:

    I just purchased a Spaldin Tubes mattress, after trying a bunch of “green” mattresses and doing a lot of research.

    I’ve lot latex/rubber allergies in my family, so wanted to stay away from it. Something fellow Sierra Club fans should also consider is that a lot of the latex comes from rainforest regions of Southeast Asia, where rubber plantations are an important driver of tropical deforestation. For example (Summary of a paper in the journal, Science, about “The Rubber Juggernaut”:

    The Spaldin mattress has covers made from organic cotton that is GOTS certified, which means that the cotton was both BOTH grown AND processed into a textile organically. To add durability, they use recycled PES as a backing. The flame retardant is a cellulose-silica-based material and the core has the highest levels of plant oils of any poly mattress. While plant oils are still like driving a hybrid vehicle rather than an electric, it was the most comfortable, eco-friendly non-latex mattress I could find.

    All components are certified by Oeko-tex 100 as “safe for a baby” and they company even has a page on their web site ( where you can verify that their certifications are authentic and up-to-date. Love the transparency (especially in the mattress industry, where greenwashing makes purchasing choices very hard to research).

    Anyway, check out Spaldin at

    They also have a great FaceBook page where their “green expert” answers questions and sounds very up-to-date on all things green.

  8. jay Says:

    ….Just swallowed a little upckuck.

    Spaldin is more like a flex fuel car than a hybrid. Green to who’s standards? It’s nowhere near most people’s standards who want to sleep on something natural and healthy.

    Lets not move away from petroleum based foam mattresses like Paladins because people are burning forests to plant more rubber tree crops for natural foam mattresses. Explain this logic?

    We ALL need to go natural and figure out how to do it respectfully. That’s the bottom line. Burning forests is not the way and continuing to dig for oil under our oceans isn’t the way either.

    Go natural and give Greenpeace some money to fight for the environment if you’re not up for it.

    Keep buying natural and organic products. Things are changing and companies are adjusting. Lets keep it up!

  9. dsurasit Says:

    there are a lot of nasty things like bed bugs and dust mites associated with mattresses… i don’t know how eco-friendly water beds are! but i prefer those

  10. Four Quick Questions to Help Mattress Makers Go Green Says:

    [...] [...]

  11. john doe Says:

    $100 for a chemical-free pillow?

    I have a queen bed I am not royalty.

    I am going to try using a folded towel instead …

  12. Terry Says:

    Thanks to the author for the article!

    For example, I’d like to tell about my feelings after buying a normal mattress and a bed, I’ve begun to feel great, I just can’t find a word. I do not have a back pain anymore. My wife also likes it. About any bugs, spiders and bugs – here I can only say that it’s a normal mattress. Incidentally this is one of the options I have such a mattress and a bed.

    Well, thanks very much for all those people who create things like this!

  13. Susi McMillan Says:

    We researched for a long time to find the right product.
    eco frame and CERTIFIED organic latex mattress. Now we sleep on it and support others to find the right solution.

    eco bed frames and 100 % natural or USDA/EU certified organic latex mattresses.
    Beside sleeping on moss in the forest, which would be the real natural sleep, – this is as close as you can get.

  14. lee Says:

    Just a tip–the memory foam mattress will lose its solid feel if you use your old box springs. You know the ad where someone jumps on the bed and the wine glass doesn’t fall over? Well, the springs in will give the mattress an unstable base and your wine will spill. We made this mistake and when my husband turns over in the night the whole bed moves and we have a Tempurpedic mattress.

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