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Shopping for an Organic Mattress

Buying a new mattress can seem a daunting process. It's a large purchase, and an important decision that will affect your health and comfort for many years to come. There's more to the subject than we can address in a short marketing blurb, so we offer the following FAQ in the hopes it will help you on your way to assembling your ideal healthy sleep environment.

What is an organic mattress?

Technically, “organic mattress” is a misnomer, because there is no organic certification standard for mattresses per se. The phrase is nonetheless widely used to describe a class of mattresses that is designed to minimize or eliminate synthetic ingredients and chemical additives with a goal of providing a healthy environment for sleeping. Typically, renewable natural ingredients such as natural latex (from rubber trees), organically grown cotton, and mindfully produced wool are used in the construction. Natural materials are used for several reasons. In addition to health concerns, petrochemical inputs (e.g. for polyurethane foam or memory foam) are avoided for sustainability reasons, as they are not renewable. In addition, it is desirable for the product to be compostable or recyclable at the end of its life (other than for removed steel springs, mattress materials are rarely recyclable today).

What makes a mattress “healthy”?

“Healthy” in this context implies good support for your body (including proper spinal alignment), minimization of pressure points that cause discomfort, and materials that are free of chemicals that can pollute your indoor air and impact your health. Studies that have shown rapidly increasing levels of pollutants in breast milk [1] and umbilical cord blood have caused many people in the past decade to wake up to the health risks of environmental toxins that are ubiquitous in our industrial age society. While Europe has moved ahead in recent years with tighter controls on the manufacture and use of toxics, the US lags behind. As the NIH's President's Cancer Panel [2] reported in May 2010: “Only a few hundred of the more than 80,000 chemicals in use in the United States have been tested for safety...Many known or suspected carcinogens are completely unregulated...to a disturbing extent, babies are born ‘pre-polluted'”. In the case of mattresses and furniture, chemical flame retardants (some closely related to PCBs and pesticides) are a particular concern, as they can comprise up to 30% by weight of the plastic foams used in these products.

We all need to practice the precautionary principle for ourselves. We spend one third of our lives in bed. Therefore, one of the ways we can minimize our chemical exposures (and resulting body burden) is to sleep in as clean an environment as we can, allowing that significant time period when we are asleep to be restorative rather than detrimental.

Wool: The Key Ingredient

When shopping for a natural mattress, people often become fixated on latex as the magic ingredient, but wool is an equally important if not more important ingredient in natural mattress "recipes". The unique curly and hollow structure of wool fiber makes it both breathable and hygroscopic (moisture wicking). Thus, the wool layer effectively removes excess moisture and dissipates excess heat, allowing you to sleep in dry and hygienic comfort year-round. These properties explain why merino wool is a preferred material for hiking socks and other high-performance technical apparel. A mattress's wool layer also acts as a natural flame barrier, allowing the mattress to comply with state and federal fire-resistance regulations. (If you require a wool-free, chemical-free mattress, then organic cotton can be substituted if you have a prescription from your doctor.)

What are the different types of organic/natural mattresses?

Most natural mattresses fall into the following categories: natural latex, innerspring, pocket coil, or combinations of these. All of the models we sell incorporate a layer of sheep's wool under the outer cover. We prefer simply designed products with high quality ingredients that perform well at a reasonable price, and avoid pricey complex features that can be, let's be honest, marketing gimmicks.

Natural Latex Core Mattresses

In our store, this is the most popular type of natural mattress. The natural latex (also known as “foam rubber) is a spongy, resilient and very durable material. It is excellent for supporting and conforming to the body, reducing pressure points, and is available is several firmness ranges to suit individual needs. Unlike thermoplastic memory foam, latex springs back instantly when you turn in bed, rather than forming a persistent depression that you feel stuck in. These mattresses typically have warranties of 10-25 years, and the industry consensus seems to be that most customers will enjoy their natural latex mattress for 15+ years.

Dunlop Latex vs. Talalay Latex

People researching natural latex mattresses often become confused by these arcane-sounding terms and what they really mean. “Dunlop” and “Talalay” are two different processes by which raw latex is made into a durable block of latex foam. The Dunlop method is older and simpler – it is a fairly low tech process in which the latex serum is spun, poured into a mold, then baked (vulcanized). The Talalay method is a more “high tech” process in which the latex is spun, then expanded in a sealed mold by applying a vacuum, flash frozen, then vulcanized. This more elaborate process allows Talalay latex to be made in a wider range of densities (from extremely soft to super hard), and the density (size and number of bubbles) is considered to be more consistent throughout the material. Because it is more affected by gravity, the Dunlop process results in a latex block that is denser on the bottom, whereas the Talalay block will be more uniform and reversible. Because Dunlop latex is typically manufactured overseas using a simpler process, it is a somewhat less expensive material. In our opinion, both processes result in a very durable and suitable material for mattresses. When a very soft top layer (or pillowtop) is called for, sometimes Talalay is more suitable.

Natural Innerspring Mattresses

Some of our customers prefer the feel of a traditional innerspring core, which tends to be firmer and less body-conforming. These mattresses are carefully hand-built using the same wool and organic cotton as our natural latex mattresses, and can be considered just as healthy and sustainable (just be sure to recycle the steel at the end of the mattress's life). Some customers choose this type of mattress for their guest room, to provide a sleep experience that is similar to what their guests are accustomed to.

Natural Pocket Coil Mattresses

Steel coils provide the flexible support in a pocket coil mattress, but unlike an innerspring where coils are connected by steel wires, each coil is encased in a separate organic cotton pouch. This allows the coils to move more indepently from each other, reducing transfer of motion from one partner to the other. These mattresses tend to be quite firm, and are often paired with a soft latex topper. Pocket coil mattresses are labor intensive to make and tend to be at the higher end of the price range.

How do I know what firmness or thickness to choose? Should I get a topper?

The best option is to try the mattresses for yourself. Wear loose, comfortable clothing to the showroom. Find a pillow that is comfortable and allows your neck and spine to align. Narrow it down to your 2 favorite mattresses, and then spend at least 20 minutes relaxing on each one. If you live too far from a showroom (like ours in Ithaca NY) where multiple lines and models can be evaluated first hand, then we can conduct a phone interview with you to help you determine which mattress is most likely to be a good fit for you. We take into account what types of mattresses have worked for you in the past, your body weight, and whether you are primarily a side or back sleeper in giving this guidance. If you are concerned about getting the firmness exactly right but can't visit the showroom, we may recommend a model with a zippered cover that would allow you to swap out layers later if needed, to fine tune the feel.

If you'd like your mattress to conform to your body and minimize any pressure points, you should try a latex topper. A topper is a removeable soft top layer for a bed. (We use the terms "topper" and "pillowtop" interchangeably.) We find that side-sleepers often benefit from a soft latex topper, as it tends to relieve excess pressure on the shoulders and hips. For a pillowtop that is more cloud-like and body-hugging, we offer wool filled toppers with organic cotton covers.

What's a good natural mattress choice for a child?

Most children seem to do fine with a firmer mattress. Most of our customers shopping for a child opt for either a 6” latex mattress, or an innerspring mattress.

Will I need a box spring or foundation?

All of the mattresses we sell can be used directly on a platform style bed frame with hardwood slats (gaps between slats should be no more than 3”). This type of bed setup has a lower, more modern look, and is favored by many of our customers. We offer a line of sturdy platform frames that are locally crafted of beautiful local hardwoods. If you have a traditional style bed frame that requires a foundation , we offer a “wood foundation” which is a slatted hardwood box upholstered with the same wool and organic cotton materials as our mattresses.

Should I put some kind of pad or protector on my mattress?

To help your mattress last as long as possible and protect it from stains, a protector is a good idea. We sell fitted organic cotton protectors, and organic wool protectors. The organic cotton is machine washable, whereas the wool is hand wash only. The wool version is somewhat more effective as a moisture barrier.

What about allergies to wool or latex?

In our experience, these are generally contact allergies, and very few people are sensitive to the natural latex and wool which are encased inside natural mattresses. If you have a diagnosed allergy, then it is best to try sleeping with a sample of the materials inside your pillowcase (we can provide samples). Remember, you can place a thick organic cotton mattress protector on your mattress as well as a fitted sheet, so you won't be in direct contact with the latex or wool.

Natural is great, but aren't synthetic memory foam mattresses really comfortable?

Certainly memory foam has its fans, but we hear frequently from ex-memory-foam sleepers that these mattresses can offgas (and smell bad) for extended time periods, can cause headaches, can be a hot and sticky sleeping environment in warmer weather, and can feel overly firm in cooler weather. We feel that natural latex is superior to petrochemical memory foam in every respect, including comfort and durability, and is often competitive in price as well.

What's the difference between “organic” latex mattresses and less expensive “latex” or “green” mattresses I see advertised?

Some companies cash in on the buzz around the word “latex” by pairing a synthetic blended latex (combining natural and petroleum-based latex, and who-knows-what chemical additives) with other relatively cheap materials like polyurethane foam, polyester, rayon, conventional cotton, etc. Simply containing some latex does not necessarily make a mattress comfortable, natural or healthy – so ask a lot of questions and give it a good 20 minute test ride before making a purchase. Watch out for companies that “green wash” by making broad health and environmental claims while “cutting corners” on the actual materials and construction of the products. A current trend is to make health and environmental claims for products that contain polyurethane foam that contains 15-20% bio-based (e.g. soy or castor oil) ingredients, but which are still 80% petrochemicals and include flame retardants. From our perspective, this is like putting an organic lettuce leaf on a fast food burger and proclaiming it a “healthy eco-burger”. Caveat emptor!

Any other questions?

Please give us a call at 607-319-4159 for friendly expert assistance.

Further Reading

1. Lessons from the Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs): Precautionary Principle, Primary Prevention, and the Value of Community-Based Body-Burden Monitoring Using Breast Milk, Kim Hooper, Jianwen She (California EPA)

2. “Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk : What We Can Do Now”, 2008-2009 Report of the President's Cancer Panel, National Institutes of Health

3. WJ Southard Latex & Organic Mattresses

Cazenovian Mattress by WJ Southard

Cazenovian latex mattress photo

Our most popular model is the 6" Cazenovian Mattress. Crafted by our local mattress maker (their workshop is less than 50 miles from our door), it is simple, affordable and also the "best comfort" choice of many customers. It features a solid 6" core of medium-density Dunlop latex surrounded top and bottom by an eco-wool breathability layer quilted into a plush organic cotton cover. Simple recipe, pure ingredients, delicious rest!

25 year prorated warranty.


Cazenovian Pillowtop Mattress by WJ Southard

Cazenovian Pillowtop Mattress photo

This mattress combines the Cazenovian Mattress with a 3" removable topper made with a softer Dunlop latex. The supportive properties of the 6" base combine with the pressure-relieving pillowtop to create a wonderfully comfortable bed for a wide variety of people, especially side sleepers.

The topper is also available separately. 25 year prorated warranty.


Linklaen Mattress by WJ Southard

WJ Southard Linklaen mattress image

This configurable mattress consists of a 6" natural latex base that can be either medium or firm density, along with a softer latex pressure-relieving top layer, with each layer sewn into an organic cotton pouch, and then all are enclosed within a zippered organic cotton flannel cover. Full and larger sizes can be customized for each partner.


Archetype Mattress by WJ Southard

WJ Southard Archetype mattress image

If you prefer a relatively firm bed with a traditional innerspring feel, then this mattress may be your solution to toxin-free sleep. Hand built with a high quality innerspring unit, domestic eco-wool, organic cotton batting, and a tufted organic cotton cover. The unique properties of the wool layer help to maintain a breathable and dry sleeping environment that is dust mite resistant and comfortable year-round. 25 year prorated warranty.


Archetype Pillowtop Mattress by WJ Southard

Archetype mattress image

This mattress combines the sturdy support of the Archetype mattress with the pressure-relieving plushness of the Southard 3" Pillowtop. 25 year prorated warranty.


Serenity Mattress by Savvy Rest

Serenity mattress latex layers image

This mattress comprises three 3" layers of 100% natural Dunlop latex, in a zippered organic cotton cover, with certified organic wool in the top (breathability) layer. While the ingredients are similar to what you'll find in most organic mattresses, the strength of this model lies in its flexibility. The default configuration of firm latex at the bottom, a medium density latex in the middle, and a softer latex in the top layer, provides an ideal mix of support for many sleepers. However, the feel of this mattress can be adjusted by substituting layers of different firmnesses, or by swapping the layers. Because it can be made with split layers, each partner's side can be customized to suit their needs. Stop in to the showroom or give us a call to discuss the ideal layering for you.

Besides the awesome configurability and pure ingredients, we like the value you get with this model - nine inches of all-natural latex at a great price. And because it can be taken apart, it is easy to box up and move to your next home or apartment.

As with all of our mattresses, no borate or other flame retardants are added. Required flame tests are passed thanks to the natural properties of wool. By promoting a dry sleep space, wool also helps to prevent dust mites and related allergies.

Overall height is approx 10".

Comes with 20 year warranty and 90-day manufacturer latex comfort exchange policy (call for more details).


Serenity Pillowtop Mattress by Savvy Rest

Serenity mattress latex layers image

At 13" tall, this model is the thickest, most plush mattress in our lineup. With the 10" Serenity mattress as a fully customizable support layer, plus the dreamy "melt into bed" softness of a removable 3" Talalay topper, this bed brings the comfort in a big way!


Quartet Mattress by Naturepedic

Naturepedic Quartet mattress image

This mattress features a substantial level of support from 2 layers of encased coils, with a generous amount of organic wool padding on top. Encased coils are excellent at reudcing motion transfer between sleepers. The 6" bottom layer offers firm support, while the 3" top layer offers a bit of softness.


Ordering

Ideally, you'll be able to visit our Ithaca showroom and try out the beds. Customers from all over upstate NY and northern PA find Ithaca to be a rewarding day trip destination. In any case, we'll be happy to help you by phone at 607-319-4159. We take a 50% deposit to initiate your order. We usually have the Cazenovian (queen) in stock. Other models will take 1-3 weeks to get in.

Local Delivery

In Tompkins County NY, delivery and set up are free. Fee for removal of old mattress is $50.

"Almost Local" Delivery

We will deliver outside of Tompkins County, up to a distance of 100 miles. Cost is $2/mile (one way distance). Fee for removal of old mattress is $50.

In Store Pickup

We are now offering a $50 discount (or store credit) to customers who pick up their mattress or bed frame from our store. Some latex models can be rolled up, and some come unassembled, making car transport feasible. Our staff will bring the mattress to your car.

Shipping

We can ship your mattress anywhere in the continental US. Shipping for the Serenity or Linklaen mattress is 5% and includes delivery to your door. Shipping for all other mattresses and foundations is 10%, and includes inside setup.