Nontoxic slumber

Eco-friendly mattresses put concerns of offgassing to rest

Karen Woods sells organic and eco-friendly mattresses at her store, The Sleep Shop.

Karen Woods sells organic and eco-friendly mattresses at her store, The Sleep Shop.

Photo By Kat Kerlin

The Sleep Shop is at 140 Vesta St. For more information, call 354-1800, or visit

When Karen Woods, co-owner of The Sleep Shop, told her 80-year-old father she was selling organic mattresses, he said, “What’s in them? Dirt?”

Not exactly. Her organic offerings are made from organic cotton and use organic wool as a flame retardant. Her eco-friendly mattresses contain things like castor oil- or soy-based foams rather than petroleum-based ones, bamboo in the cover, and natural rubber latex.

Woods appreciates her dad’s humor—after all, he experienced a childhood free from many of the chemicals now present in everything from carpets to cars and kitchen cupboards. But while beds are typically places of rest and comfort, reports of offgassing and a host of chemicals present in most conventional mattresses leave some people tossing, turning and looking for alternatives.

Offgassing is what happens when building materials release chemicals through evaporation. That “new car smell,” the odor of most shower curtains and the smell of a conventional mattress, especially when you take the plastic off, is the mark of offgassing, and it doesn’t go away after the scent does. You breathe the chemicals years after the odor is gone, absorbing them through the skin at a cellular level.

Flame retardants, which are suspected carcinogens, are required in mattresses by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, although people with allergies or chemical sensitivities can get flame retardant-free mattresses with a prescription. PentaBDE was a commonly used flame retardant before it was phased out in 2004. It’s unclear what replaced it, as most mattress manufactures are either vague about their flame retardant formulas, don’t know or are unwilling to divulge them. Woods says she won’t buy from a company that isn’t open about their flame retardants. She adds that some of the chemicals replacing the PBDEs in new beds include arsenate, formaldehyde, antimony trioxide, boric acid, and acetone.

Woods sold mainstream mattresses for 25 years before she and her husband, David Woods, decided to open a shop of their own in Spanish Springs. They moved The Sleep Shop to downtown Reno, off Vesta Street, a few months ago. They didn’t even know ecofriendly mattresses existed—or that she’d been breathing toxins both at work and home—until she started finding inventory for the store.

“It was a revelation,” she says.

The couple began with just one line of organic mattresses but now exclusively sell organic and environmentally friendly mattresses and bedding. At between $1,799 and $3,600, the organic offerings are more expensive than conventional ones. Eco-friendly mattresses are more competitively priced, at between $670 for a queen size with soy foam to around $2,200.

The health risk of the chemicals used in mattresses hasn’t been proven, largely because tracking their long-term effects has been very difficult, given their ubiquity in the environment, infinite combinations and lack of studies.

“An organic bed, when it’s new, smells like a meadow,” says Woods. “When you buy a new mattress and bring it home, it has an odor—sometimes for weeks—that’s offgas. … I just feel there’s enough valid research that it makes sense to me.”