Are you wondering if your pillow is toxic? You might be if you have allergies that just won’t go away, you aren’t sleeping well, or maybe you’ve been reading about the questionable materials often used in pillows.
The place where you lay your head to rest every night for 8 hours or more needs to be as chemical free as possible.
Here’s how to find out if your pillows are toxic.
Warning Signs That Your Pillow Might Be Toxic
Do you suffer from indoor allergies? Do you struggle with getting refreshing sleep or a good night’s rest?
These could be warning signs that your pillow needs to be changed. Of course, they are symptoms of a lot of different problems, too, which makes it so difficult to figure out. But buying a new pillow is an easy way to start ruling out potential causes.
Indoor allergy symptoms can include:
- Runny nose
- Itchy nose
- Watery, itchy eyes
- Scratchy or swollen throat
Chemicals Used In Pillows
Have you ever really thought about what materials are used to make a pillow? Probably not. Which is why you should know that not all pillows are the same. Some (but very few) use all natural ingredients. Many others use potentially toxic chemicals that you probably wouldn’t choose to expose yourself to if you knew what was happening.
There are laws, both state and federal, that mattresses must meet certain flammability requirements. Often these guidelines are used for pillows, too. This goes back to the 1970s, when they were concerned about items burning quickly in a home. For instance, if you are smoking in bed and the cigarette drops on the bedding, then it wouldn’t necessarily go up in flames quickly.
That ancient law was modified in 2014 to be more appropriate for modern textiles. (You can read all about the requirements and labeling in A Guide to United States Apparel and Household Textiles Compliance Requirements. It’s actually kind of interesting to see the laws if you care about what is unknowingly allowed into your home.)
What few people realize, though, is that you don’t have to have chemical fire retardants to meet these flammability guidelines. Natural materials, such as wool, will work as well.
However, the cheaper and easier way is to use chemical flame retardants.
While current EPA laws (starting in 2005) have phased out the use of some of the biggest known offenders, two types of PBDEs, that doesn’t mean that a new chemical isn’t being used to work as a flame retardant. P.S. You really should visit the link and scroll to the bottom the page to see the EPA’s final thoughts on PBDEs.
You always need to know how a pillow is meeting those flammability guidelines – whether with chemicals or natural materials.
As for those old PBDEs (Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers), they can still linger in pillows and polyurethane foams made more 2005. So if you have a really old pillow, you could be exposed.
Much polyester is made from petroleum. So the fluffy insides of your pillow can be made from petroleum and you might never have realized it.
Formaldehyde / Protective Finishes
Some pillows have a protective finish, such as:
- Wrinkle Resistant
When you promise a feature for a pillow that is not provided naturally, then a chemical has to be used to give the product that feature. For instance, a fabric that is not naturally anti-microbial would need a chemical finish to keep bacteria from breeding. A fiber that wrinkles easily would need a chemical finish (often using formaldehyde) to keep it from wrinkling.
Allergens in Pillows
Your pillows could be toxic even if they are not made of toxic chemicals. How?
If you have had your pillows for many years, there could be dust mites in your pillows that can affect your health. Or other allergens. Here’s some of the common offenders.
All pillows, even natural ones, can develop dust mites over time. These nasty creatures are well known for causing indoor allergies and triggering asthma flareups.
Though dust mites are so tiny you will never see them, they leave droppings behind. Those droppings accumulate and can cause health problems if you are sensitive to them.
What is really gross is that the droppings accumulate and can add extra weight to your pillow because they never go away unless you vacuum them or wash your pillows.
Sweating at night and drooling (yep, we all do it) can add moisture to your pillow. And moisture can start to breed mold. You don’t want mold in a material you are putting your nose right against, do you?
Aspergillus fumigatus is a fungi that can grow in pillows. In fact, researchers found more than a million spores in pillows they tested.
Just like mold, you don’t want to be breathing this stuff in. Synthetic pillows have been found to harbor more fungi.
Are Cooling Pillows Toxic?
If pillows are using only natural materials, such as wool, which are known to naturally regulate body temperature, then they wouldn’t be toxic.
However, most “cooling pillows” are using gels, foams and other man-made materials that promise to whisk away heat.
Are Foam Pillows Toxic?
Memory foam pillows are often made from a combination of synthetic materials to create the dense foam. These types of pillows tend to have the highest concentration of chemicals used.
Essentia is one of the rare exceptions that makes natural memory foam products.
What Are Non Toxic Pillows?
Everyone’s version of what is a non-toxic pillow is different. So you need to know what is most important for you.
However, for many people, a non toxic pillow would be one that is considered hypoallergenic. Yet hypoallergenic pillows are often made with man-made materials, such as polyester or other petroleum-based products.
The term hypoallergenic doesn’t really mean much today. Because everyone reacts to ingredients differently.
I would never buy pillows simply because it promised to be hypoallergenic. After all, wool pillows are among some of the safest and healthiest pillows available. They certainly wouldn’t be classified hypoallergenic because some people are allergic to wool. However, wool pillow benefits of dust-mite resistance and natural cooling, can far outweigh the benefits of polyester batting that is labeled hypoallergenic.
Down feather pillows are natural. However, they can cause serious allergies for people. And that response definitely isn’t good.
Best Natural Pillow Materials
Pillows can be made from a lot of different materials. And some of the safest, most natural pillows probably use materials that you might not be familiar with or don’t even know what it is!
Here’s a simple explanation of some of the safest pillow materials you can use:
- Cotton We’re all familiar with cotton. Just choose organic cotton. Otherwise, conventional cotton is one of the most pesticide-heavy products there is. While cotton can be firm at the beginning, this material does compress over time.
- Wool A natural material from sheep. Wool is fabulous at keeping you cool throughout the year. It is a great natural insulator, keeping you warm when it is cold, and cooling you off when it is hot. Wool also is naturally dust-mite resistant. However, make sure you choose untreated wool. Otherwise the wool can be coated in pesticides and other products.
- Buckwheat Not just a food source, buckwheat hulls can be used for pillows. I have an in-depth review of buckwheat pillows.
- Kapok This is a great down-alternative made from a tree. I talk more extensively about how great this material is in my kapok pillow guide.
- Latex Not all latex is bad! In fact, natural latex made from a rubber tree is one of the best non-toxic choices. Latex comes in two different types: talalay and dunlop. Latex pillows also come in either molded one piece latex, or shredded latex fill.
Regardless of whether you choose an all natural pillow or a polyester pillow that works best for you, if you don’t take care of it properly it can become toxic.
You must keep your pillows clean to prevent potential allergens in any type of pillow. Here’s a checklist of how to keep your pillows allergen-free:
- Wash your pillowcases (and all bedding) frequently. Once a week is the general rule of thumb. Use hot water to kill dust mites, allergens and bacteria.
- Wash your pillows if possible. Do this once or twice a year.
- Can’t wash your pillows? Put them outside in high heat or freezing cold temperatures. Here’s how cold temperatures kill dust mites.
- Using a pillow with a removable, washable cover is a great way to keep your pillow clean. You might not necessarily have to wash your pillows as much, then.
- Use pillow protectors that prevent dust mites and bed bugs. Make sure these are made from all natural materials (not plastic) that will breathe easily and not make you sleep hot. These pillow protectors made from natural barrier cloth are a great idea.
- Make sure your pillow is dry. Don’t go to bed with wet hair. Don’t wash your pillow and then allow to stay damp for too long.
- Vacuum the outside of your pillows frequently if you are allergic to dust mites.
- Replace your pillow when it is not supportive enough anymore. Pillows should be replaced often. There is no guideline on when to replace, since all materials are different. But if you notice your pillow is suddenly lumpy or not supporting your neck and head, make the small investment for a better pillow.