We spend 30 to 40 percent of our time in the bedroom, according to the American Time Use Survey by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Ideally, it’s where our bodies and minds rest and rejuvenate, and where we find respite from the outside world’s toxins and stressors. Unfortunately, most Americans sleep an hour and a half less each night than they did a hundred years ago, and fewer than 35 percent of American adults regularly get the seven to eight hours per night that medical experts recommend, says Stanford University sleep researcher William Dement in his book The Promise of Sleep. Meanwhile, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke says that 60 million Americans suffer from stress-related sleep disorders.
Given all these obstacles to a good night’s rest, it makes sense to have a sanctuary that facilitates uninterrupted sleep. Here’s how to create a fresh, healthy bedroom.
Many bedroom products contain chemical flame retardants called PBDEs, which have been banned in several U.S. states and other countries because they interfere with nervous system development, causing problems with memory and attention. The Environmental Protection Agency says that its toxicology database on PBDEs “is inadequate to truly understand the risk.” Given these uncertainties, it’s smart to keep PBDEs out of your sleeping space.
A few general things to consider:
- Look for beds and bedding made with natural fibers such as cotton, wool, and hemp, which don’t catch fire easily or burn quickly and are less likely to be treated with toxic flame retardants.
- Not sure how to find PBDE-free mattresses and bedding? Find a list at ewg.org/pbdefree.
- Ikea no longer uses PBDEs in any of its furnishings or accessories.
When you think about how much time you spend in bed and the important work your body does to rejuvenate and revive you while you sleep, your bed might be the most underrated, undervalued piece of furniture in your home. Buying a comfortable, toxin-free bed such as Savoir Beds’ handmade Savoy bed, which is made of lamb’s wool, cotton and horsetail, can make a huge difference to your physical and mental health.
A few things to consider when buying a new bed:
- Most mattresses and beds are made with a variety of petroleum-based chemicals, foams and plastics that evaporate into the air. While you sleep, you inhale these compounds. Continuous exposure could make you ill. Common petroleum-based chemicals have been shown to weaken or damage the immune and nervous system, and to cause arthritis, autoimmune disorders and damage to soft tissues, organs and the brain, according to Richard Pressinger and Wayne Sinclair, M.D., of Chem-Tox.com. Current laws do not require industrial chemicals to be tested before they are put on the market, and producers are only rarely required to provide information necessary to assess safety.
- If you experience any new health problems such as shortness of breath, headaches or sore throats immediately after purchasing a new bed, remove it from the living area (perhaps to the garage) and see if the problems stop.
- Look for a bed made from natural materials produced organically. Cotton, wool, natural latex and horsehair are solid choices.
About 25 percent of all the pesticides used in the United States are used to grow cotton, and many of them are carcinogenic, according to the Sustainable Cotton Project. Don’t get in bed with these! Choosing organic cotton bedding such as this contemporary duvet cover from Amenity can go a long way toward protecting your health.
A few things to consider when buying bedding and other textiles:
- Organic cotton is grown without synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, irradiation, sewage sludge or genetic engineering.
- While federal organic-fiber standards regulate how cotton is grown, there are no standards for how it is processed and finished. Cotton can be treated with sizing agents, chlorine bleach or heavy metal–containing dyes and still legally be “organic,” so do your homework. If you’re not sure how it was processed, ask questions.
- White Lotus Home sells organic cotton batting by the pound. To save money, consider buying the batting and sewing it up in a pillowcase.
Light pollution in your bedroom can rob you of much-needed rest and impede your body’s ability to regulate its sleep cycle. Artificial lighting interrupts natural rhythms, confusing our bodies into thinking that they should be awake long after the sun has gone down. This can lead to sleep deprivation, depression, weight gain and increased risk of diabetes and heart disease. Sleeping in a room polluted with artificial light causes fragmented sleep and interferes with your body’s natural production of melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep cycles and sexual development and may even help prevent cancer.
A few things to consider about lighting:
- The darker the room, the better you sleep. You should not be able to see your hand after you turn off the lights.
- Be aware of light pollution sources, including streetlights, nightlights, hall lights, clocks, phone dials, baby monitors and electric blanket controls. Move or cover sources within the bedroom and install blackout drapes to block outside sources.
- Turn off the television and computer at least an hour before bed. These light sources can reset your biological clock and make falling asleep difficult. If possible, keep computers and televisions out of the bedroom altogether.
- Think of light in terms of layers. Ambient light should provide enough for general tasks; task lighting can reside on the bedside table, a desk or near a reading chair; and accent lighting can highlight artwork, furniture or an accent wall.
In a test of more than nearly 2,300 wallpaper samples, the Ecology Center found that the vast majority—96 percent—contained polyvinyl chloride (PVC) coatings, and 53 percent of the PVC-coated papers contained one or more hazardous chemicals, including lead, cadmium, chromium, tin and antimony.
Most of the samples also contained phthalates, a type of plasticizer that is banned in children’s products.
A few things to consider about wallpaper:
- Natural finishes such as plaster and milk or limewash paints are great alternatives to wallpaper.
- Even wall coverings made from natural materials can have PVC coatings for durability. If it’s not clear whether the wall covering you’re considering does, you might want to look at other options.
- Look for wallpaper printed with water-based inks.
- Natural fibers such as sisal, hemp, grass cloth and cork are sturdy and tactile.
Removing wall-to-wall carpeting, which off-gases chemicals and harbors toxins and pollutants, is the healthiest thing you can do in your bedroom. Hardwood, natural linoleum and cork are all great alternatives.
A few things to consider about flooring:
- If you choose bamboo, shop carefully. Prefinished bamboo flooring can off-gas formaldehyde and other harmful chemicals.
- If you choose hardwood, use a water-based finish.
- If you do choose carpeting, opt for untreated 100 percent wool and have it installed using a tack-down method rather than glue.
- Seal existing carpet using AFM Safecoat’s SafeChoice Lock Out, which keeps chemicals from off-gassing and repels dirt and stains.
Keep plywood, particleboard and fiberboard—sources of formaldehyde, which has been linked to watery eyes, headaches, depression and even cancer and Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS)—out of your bedroom. The glue holding these materials together off-gases formaldehyde over time, and it’s best to keep those toxic vapors out of your sleeping space.
It’s great to buy organic and nontoxic bedroom furnishings and textiles to begin with; a bit of simple maintenance also can go a long way toward creating a healthy bedroom.
A few things to consider about maintenance:
- More than a quarter of the U.S. population is estimated to be sensitive to dust mites, which live in bedding, carpeting and upholstery, according to Darryl Zeldin, M.D., of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Studies show that more dust mites live in the bedroom than anywhere else in the home. To keep them at bay, wash bedding weekly and curtains biweekly; vacuum upholstered furniture, mattresses and carpets; and dust with a damp cloth.
- Vacuum with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter to capture allergens, and wash stuffed animals, throw rugs and pillows in the washing machine. Bag unwashable items and put them in the freezer for 24 to 48 hours to kill dust mites.
- Enclose your mattress and pillows with impermeable dust-mite covers.
- Wash bedsheets weekly in water that is at least 150 degrees to kill and remove dust mites.
- Dust regularly. PBDEs attach to dust particles, so keep your bedroom as dust free as possible.
- Open the windows. This simple act brings fresh air in and moves toxins out.