How to Buy a Natural Bed when You Have No Income

Note to readers: click HERE to read an updated version of this post.

I truly believe that if you are going to green one thing, you should green your beds, because people (babies and children especially) spend so much time sleeping.  About a year ago, we bought a full size bed for our 2 small children to sleep in together.  I couldn't afford my ideal bed (all natural materials, no plastic, no toxic chemicals), but I ended up with a decent compromise. Below you'll find information about my ideal bed, very affordable eco-friendlier options, and what I actually bought.

The Pièce de résistance.

But what if you aren't in the market for a new mattress right now?  Hopefully, you'll find the information below on bedding, pillows and mattress protectors useful.  Honestly, I chose not to research the mattress issue until I was ready to buy a new bed to avoid unduly stressing myself out.  I will say that if I had a new baby sleeping in a crib it would be my number one shopping priority to buy a 100% natural crib mattress (probably made of organic cotton and wool) with zero added flame retardants and a wool puddle pad for protection.


The ideal.  100% natural materials (wool, cotton, hemp, bamboo, natural latex).  Enough wool used that no flame retardant chemicals are necessary to pass flame retardant regulations.  There is some argument out there about whether it is appropriate to use wool or latex in children's bedding products, since some believe them to be potential allergens.  The green manufacturers that use latex and wool argue that because of the way the materials are cleaned and used in the mattress, their mattresses are very unlikely to cause an allergic reaction.  We don't have any allergies in our family, and I've slept directly on wool puddle pads with both of my babies, so this wasn't a concern to me. 

Eco-nomical.  It can be challenging to find an affordable mattress with neither polyurethane foam nor chemical fire retardants (two things I like to avoid).  Polyurethane foam is made from nonrenewable petrochemicals and can emit volatile organic compounds, which have been linked to respiratory irritation and other health problems.  Over time, foam also sheds tiny particles that become part of your household dust and are easily inhaled. Spring mattresses might contain less foam, or you could try some of the new soy-based foams, which are partly derived from renewable sources (but still contain polyurethane).  Manufacturers now often use undisclosed chemicals to make polyurethane foam flame retardant. If you can, buy a mattress whose manufacturer actually discloses what chemical is used for the fire retardant treatment.   For example, during my research, I got an email from Sealy stating that their mattresses use a flame retardant system called "Fire Blocker" which utilizes boric acid.

Futons are a great affordable option for polyurethane foam-free mattresses made of natural materials (often cotton and wool).  However, if you are used to sleeping on a spring or foam mattress, it could be tough for you to get used to a traditional futon.  Your kids might not mind one bit though, especially if they are too young to know the difference (my brother's kids all sleep on traditional futons).  One adult friend of mine says that sleeping on a traditional futon has done wonders for her back. If you opt for conventional (not organic) futons, they are really not too expensive.  For example, a Japanese futon place near my home sells twin cotton futons for as low as $145 and cotton/wool futons for as low as $180.  Note that the thinnest (and cheapest) varieties offered might not be thick enough for slats or your personal taste.  They also sell crib-sized futons for even less (beginning at $95 for an all-cotton futon).  Although many online futon manufacturers will ship nationally, I would suggest searching in your local area for a local store (especially if you have a sizable Asian population in your area), because it will allow you to try lying down on the futon to make sure you find it comfortable and will save you a bundle on shipping.

In most cases, cotton and cotton/wool futons are treated with boric acid to meet flame retardant standards (you can often opt out of even the Boric acid: see section entitled "
A Note about Flame Retardants in Mattresses" below).  Boric acid is a naturally occurring substance (used in roach killer, for example, so don't eat your futon), and, according to my research, one of the least toxic options for flame retardant treatments.  Much safer than the synthetic chlorinated and brominated chemicals, for example. You could also search out a futon with enough wool to meet federal flame retardant standards with no treatment, but it would be quite a bit pricier because of the cost of wool.

If you live in the Bay Area, you can buy a spring twin mattress made with all natural materials (steel coils, wool, cotton) and with zero chemical flame retardants for less than $400 from a Berkeley company. This mattress has enough wool to meet federal flame retardant standards without any additional treatment. I first learned about this one while browsing some local parenting forums for ideas on natural mattresses. Since I drove by a sign that said "twin mattress $99" yesterday, I'm not sure I can call this mattress "eco-nomical," but I think this is the least expensive all natural no-chemical twin that still meets federal flame retardant standards that I know about.  But since it only comes in the twin size , it wasn't an option for me.  If you are in the market for a mattress, be sure to ask around and check your local parenting forum for any threads on "natural mattresses" before buying this big-ticket item.

For those with sewing skills, you could also try making your own mattress.    

What I bought: An (almost) 100% natural futon mattress stuffed with organic cotton and organic natural latex.
Our new full mattress had to be firm/extra firm because that's how we like our mattresses around here, and we expect to spend some time sleeping with our kids.  In addition, my husband does not believe in spring mattresses.  I bought my futon mattress and wood frame together for less than $600 total (on special).  The "natural" mattresses I found recommended on green websites all cost $1,000-plus.  Our full futon mattress is not all natural because it has a polyester/cotton case.  I wasn't willing to pay several hundred dollars more for a custom bamboo/cotton cover.  Our futon mattress also was treated with boric acid to make it more flame retardant.  Even though you can expect to find pesticide residues and possibly other chemicals in conventional cotton batting and conventional wool, buying an organic mattress was not essential for me.  My top priorities were avoiding polyurethane foam and avoiding synthetic chlorinated and brominated flame retardant chemicals.  It was actually more important that we find the mattress comfortable to sleep on.  The organic materials were a nice bonus.

My futon mattress was not only made in the USA, but made less than 50 miles from my home!  I laid down a good chunk of change for my natural mattress, but it is a long-term investment (10 years) and we can use it as a sofa/guest bed when my kids outgrow it.  I used all my Craig's List money (several hundred dollars earned through selling stuff previous to our last move) on this eco-splurge.

A Note about Flame Retardants in Mattresses
Many smaller local futon shops are willing to make mattresses completely free of flame retardants, as long as you provide a doctor's note.  Several books that I have read about decreasing your exposure to chemical toxins have recommended this route.  Should you sidestep flame retardant regulations and get an untreated mattress?  First, keep in mind that by sticking to natural materials like cotton and wool (rather than foam), your mattress is already less flammable.  Polyurethane foam is, after all, basically solid fuel.  After following the flame retardant controversy for several years, it is my opinion that the evidence for the harm caused by flame retardant chemical treatments is far more substantial and definitive than the evidence that flame retardant chemical treatments actually prevent fire injuries or save lives. In other words, many experts believe that the risks of flame retardant chemicals probably outweigh their benefits.

We bought an organic cotton/latex futon mattress.
Bed Frame

The ideal.  Nicer hardwood (maple, oak) with FSC certification, no box spring necessary (wood slats), finished with child-safe eco-friendly stain in a lovely shade of brown.

Eco-nomical.  An unfinished wood bed frame with wood slats from IKEA (under $100).  Futon shops are often a good bet for unfinished solid hardwood frames too.  Avoid particle board and pressed wood if you can.

What I bought.  An unfinished pine futon frame made from eco-friendly Southern Yellow Pine. Because it's unfinished, I don't have to worry about what the stain is made of (although unfinished wood has its disadvantages, of course). Because of the wood slats, I need no box spring.

We bought a pine futon frame.


The ideal.  Organic natural fiber sheets with certified eco-friendly manufacturing and dying process.

Eco-nomical.  Aim for sheets made of 100% cotton (or other natural materials), lighter in color (less harsh dying process), with no finishers.  According to the Sierra Club, any poly/cotton sheets, or sheets marked as permanent press, easy care, or no-iron (who irons sheets?) contain formaldehyde, which off-gasses.  Sheets marked as stain or water resistant have probably been treated with Teflon.  Avoid all those things.

What I bought:  organic sheets with self-proclaimed eco-friendly dyes.
Sheets are in direct contact with your child's skin and face, so it's nice to get organic sheets in order to limit exposure to chemicals.  Organic cotton is also so much nicer for the planet.  I bought organic sheets from a discount online store.  The description proclaimed eco-friendly dyes, but since there was no certification, I'm just taking the company's word for it.  Note that the color is not that awesome.  Clearance shoppers cannot always be choosy.
We bought organic cotton sheets.

The ideal.  Organic, natural fibers, eco-certified dyes, really cute kiddy pattern.  No flame retardants.

Eco-nomical.  100% natural fibers (including filling) with no flame retardants.  Check the label:  if it references flame retardant regulation such as TB 117, it's probably been treated.

What I bought: Heavy 100% White Egyptian Cotton Blanket.
Initially I wanted to get a 100% cotton quilted bedspread/coverlet.  However, I found several that said on the tag that they were in compliance with flame retardant regulations (TB 117).  This made me suspicious of all bedspreads, so I decided to just buy a cotton blanket instead.  Since I was avoiding toxic flame retardants in my mattress, it seemed a shame to buy bedding with it.  I ended up buying a high-quality heavy white Egyptian cotton blanket on clearance at a chain home goods store.  The blanket was probably bleached and possibly was treated with optical brighteners, which ideally are to be avoided, but the white color means I don't have to worry about dyes.  I originally envisioned something more colorful, but the bed is always covered with books and toys anyway.  In the winter, we will throw the machine-washable twin-sized down comforter (with 100% cotton duvet) over the top for extra warmth.


The ideal.  Organic natural filling and cover.  No flame retardant treatment.  These days you can buy pillows filled with buckwheatkapokwoolorganic cotton, flax seed, corn -- all kinds of crazy stuff.

Eco-nomical. A washable pillow with a high-thread count cotton cover.  No flame retardant treatment (check the label).  Wash it frequently.

What I bought:   wool pillows with hemp/ organic cotton cover
This is the closest I got to my ideal.  I spent a little extra on the pillows because my kids' faces will be in contact with it.  I had never previously addressed the pillow issue, but this time I was really going whole-hog with the natural materials.  The company I buy from uses untreated, unbleached, uncarbonized wool from locally raised sheep that graze on chemical-free fields.  The certified "Eco-wool" is washed with mild soap and never treated with chemicals.   I think wool is an ideal material for pillows.  Although it's not machine washable, wool is naturally anti-fungal, anti-bacterial and lots of other good stuff.  You can find many makers of wool pillows these days, but they can be very pricey, so shop around.

We bought wool-filled pillows with hemp/cotton covers.

The Mattress Protector/Pad

The ideal.  Washable nearly waterproof full-size puddle pad made of organic wool.  If you have bed-wetting in your family and want a plastic barrier, consider a PVC-free waterproof mattress cover certified by Greenguard (for low chemical emissions) such as this one by Naturepedic which uses food-grade polyethylene.

Eco-nomical.  A vinyl-free mattress protector.  IKEA uses no vinyl in any products and has a waterproof mattress protector.  I've also found PVC/vinyl-free mattress protectors at Target.  This list provides specific PVC-free suggestions.  Keep in mind that you generally need some kind of plastic layer if you want it to be waterproof.  Another economical (but not 100% waterproof) option would be to simply use an all wool or mostly wool blanket (such as you would find at an army surplus or emergency supply store).  You can always do a little test by pouring a cup of water on top of the blanket to see how well it prevents moisture from passing through to the mattress.

What I bought:  full-size wool felt with twin-size wool puddle pad.
Once you lay down the cash for the expensive natural mattress, you really feel like you don't want to let it get ruined.  But I really wanted to try to avoid plastic all together on my "natural" bed.  The washable wool puddle pad that we used on the twin bed was too expensive in the full size, so I purchased some wool felt (spot clean only) instead.  I also put the twin puddle pad on top of the full size wool felt at the top of the bed, where my kids mostly sleep.  I'm not really that scared of pee, which is sterile after all  (and I could air out the mattress if need be).  However, although neither of my kids has ever vomited in bed, it is definitely a possibility that gives one pause.  Thus, the wool felt plus wool puddle pad.  After a year of use, and several leaky diapers/ potty training accidents, I can tell you that our wool pads have never allowed any moisture to pass through to the mattress itself.  You can also utilize a nice plush mattress pad above or below the wool pad to absorb any moisture, but be aware that some pads are treated with flame retardants, even though they aren't labeled as such (I found this out by calling several manufacturers of 100% cotton mattress pads).

Additional Resources

Do you have a tip for affordable eco-friendly bedding?  Please share it below!

Note: this is an updated version of a post published in September 2010


  1. Love this break down! We also have been slowly switching over to organic/latex mattresses. It's a process b/c they are expensive, but I found relatively good deals at an online store called Organic Grace (which I found out about through the Mothering message boards). As far as sheets, I've read that washing non-organic sheets in hot water with 1 cup of vinegar once or twice will strip off most of the petro-ickies. The problem with mattresses, of course, is that we can't wash them! Thanks for sharing this knowledge with everyone.

  2. Thank you for all this information! I have been looking for an organic/natural mattress for a long time and feel a bit overwhelmed by the choices. I am going to check out Organic Grace-thank you Mara.

    Thanks again!!

  3. I really want to get a 'natural bed' but I get nervous when I see the latex in them. I get a rash from latex gloves so I was told to stay away from latex. I know natural latex isn't really the same, but I wonder if it would be safe since I've already been sensitized...? I have allergies and I am also allergic to wool. But, as I think you wrote, many say it is the toxic chemicals they often use on wool that people get sick from, not the wool itself... But it's a lot of investment of money and then I might have to get rid of it!

  4. interesting. we were going through much the same process and much the same time. Wish I had noticed this then, but I too went for a cotton mattress (shikibuton).

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