The Truth About Natural Mattresses

The Truth About Natural Mattresses

Can you help us?

We are doing some research into the ‘natural’ mattresses available in the UK. From our perspective we believe it’s very important that if a mattress is described as a natural product, then it should contain no harmful chemicals such as flame retardants, either on the inside of the mattress or the outer cover.

Our local MP, Sir Hugo Swire, has just tabled the following written question: To ask the Secretary of State, whether it is illegal under the Trade and Descriptions Act for retailers to describe mattresses which contain fire retardants as natural mattresses.   

If you have been sold a natural mattress, which you have found out later has been treated with such chemicals, even if the supplier is calling them safe, please could you let us know?

A Buyer’s Guide to Choosing Natural Mattresses

Buying a natural mattress can be a minefield with many retailers (even large well known High Street retailers) misleading the consumer, so let’s get to the truth.

In order to make sense of natural mattresses it is important to divide the mattress into three parts:

  • The Cover
    • The material that covers the outside of the mattress whether it has a zipped cover or tape edged (sewn shut).
  • The Filling
    • The comfort layer in between the cover and the core.
  • The Core
    • The structure of the mattress whether it be foam, latex, open sprung or pocket sprung.

Covers

The cover is the most important layer, being closest to your skin and forming a barrier between your skin and the fillings. To be legal in the UK the cover has to pass BS7177 Low Hazard Fire Test for domestic use or BS7177 Medium Hazard Fire Test (Crib5) for hotel use.

Your first question should be: Does this have chemical fire retardants applied to any part of the mattress? If you’re seeking a natural mattress it is best to avoid these man-made chemicals. Even if they are given ‘green credentials’ many of these environmental certification schemes only ban the most toxic fire retardant chemicals and take time to check new chemicals being released. They can also be misleading by implying fire retardants are somehow natural. Some natural manufactures call this ‘Greenwash’ making it appear eco-friendly, when it is not.

But don’t worry – there are some natural products that can pass the UK Fire Regulations without chemicals. Natural mattresses covers can be made from the following materials:

Wool Cover

This cover can be expensive but if dense enough should pass the Fire Test BS7177 naturally. It is always best to by top quality wool covers as wool can be coarse and the fibers can puncture through cotton sheets. The thickness of wool is also important to pass the above regulations.

Wool composite cover

Covers using a mixture of wool, wood pulp viscose and silicate can act as a fire retardant. Some argue this is natural as it uses wool mixed with wood pulp viscose. The wool is natural, and the wood pulp certainly started off as such BUT the process to make cellulose uses acids. With all the problems of effluent disposal it could be argued that viscous is not so natural. The same could be said of silicate.

Organic Cotton cover

Organic Cotton (and all Cotton) has a problem with passing the Furniture Fire Regulations as it chars and smolders before it ignites. Some manufactures claim it passes the regulations if you use wool underneath. I have tested it like this many times – without success. So I advise its best to ask for proof in the form of their UKAS test certificate.

Cottonsafe® cover

Uses the fire properties of wool, woven with Organic Cotton in a particular way. This fabric passes the UK regulations for domestic and contract use without adding any chemicals or other fibres. Cottonsafe® only uses organic cotton and wool.

The Filling

If it’s a natural bed it should have natural fillings. It is always best to have a wool layer under your cover fabric for fire safety and ventilation. The main fillings under the cover should NOT be assembled using adhesives, unless this too is a natural product. It’s best if the fillings are stitched with natural twine or flax.

Foam

Standard foams should not be used in a natural mattress. Apart from the chemicals its its manufacture it is also treated with chemical fire retardants to meet UK Furniture Fire Regulations.

Latex

Can be used, as long as it is treated using the mineral graphite (giving it a silver colour) to make it fire retardant. Although natural or organic latex sounds good, as a material it is highly inflammable and does not pass UK Furniture Fire Regulations. Some manufactures coat the latex in fire retardants an still call it natural, we feel that this is misleading.

Wool

Lamb’s wool and sheep’s wool is used for its springy rebound texture as well as being naturally resistant to fire.  It is also bed bug resistant and improves breathability.

Cotton

Cotton has been used for many years in the bed industry. The problem is that it settles over time leading to reduced ventilation and increased moisture. The manufacturer can get around this by mixing the cotton with a some recycled polyester (allowed under the Global Organic Trading Standards – GOTS). This prevents the fibers from matting and increases ventilation. It is important to make sure you have a good thickness of cotton filling. This layer is normally placed over a fabric trampoline sheet which is stretched over the springs to stop the cotton sinking into the top of the coil.

Recycled cotton can be used this is normally recycled cotton clothing and is therefor dyed to give a standard colour. This product still has the problem of settlement and care should be taken on what type of dye is used.

Coir Fibre

Coir Fibre or coconut husk is dipped in latex to produce a firmer feel to your mattress. It can be seen as natural alternative to foam.

The Core

The Core of a mattress is the support zone and if good quality fillings are used, this area is deep inside the mattress.

Pocket Springs

Some may argue metal is not natural, that’s debatable. At the end of the day we all want a good night’s sleep, so the comfort of a pocket sprung unit outweighs the concerns for many people. I would suggest make sure you have an abundance of natural fillings on top of the springs. The pocket springs can be covered in a polyester or cotton cover; the latter is more natural but does not last as long as the polyester so will affect how long the mattress will last.

Pocket spring count can also be misleading as it is normally agreed a 1000 to 1500 quality springs within a king-size mattress will give you optimum comfort. Some companies add layers of mini-springs on top of the main springs to increase the spring count up to 5000 springs or more! This simply adds to the weight, price and kudos of the bed, but few people agree it adds any extra comfort.

Latex

As mention above, latex is a lovely natural material but it is highly flammable. If lit, it burns quickly and sticks to anything it touches – a bit like napalm. Under UK Furniture Fire Regulations latex is treated as a foam and therefore must pass the foam test before is used inside a mattress. Wrapping it in wool is not sufficient. It needs to be chemically treated in the same way as foam or mixed with the mineral graphite. If used in a natural mattress, then graphite is by far the lesser of two evils.

Futon Style

Futons are mattresses made of one fibre or a mix of fibers such as cotton, coir fibre, latex or wool. These material can be layered to make a mattress up to 20cm thick. One thing to bear in mind is that the UK Furniture Fire Regulations for futons are higher than mattresses as they are classified as a seat. Be sure if you want a natural futon they meet these regulations. An all-wool cover or a Cottonsafe® would be suitable. 

Don’t be afraid!

Ask your retailer:

  • Does the cover contain chemical fire retardants?
  • Does the filling contain chemical fire retardants?
  • Does it contain chemical adhesives?
  • How much is natural?
  • Does it meet all UK Furniture Fire Regulations?

Help us make the world a more natural place.

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