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Your Waterproof Mattress Protector Might Have Problems Too

Does your BAB Ys Mattress Pad have any of these 3 Toxins Click to find out how to avoid them

I didn’t even know what to look for when I first had kids.

I remember religiously using only the “baby” lotion that we had gotten at our shower on my own hands when I had a newborn because I figured I would be touching his body and didn’t want to “contaminate” him with harmful chemicals or scents.

So I had a consciousness. I had a drive to keep that tiny body safe from environmental harm. But I had no clue how to read ingredients.

I can bet that if I had that name brand lotion in my house right now, the components wouldn’t pass my standards anymore, not when I have 3 ingredient MadeOn lotion everywhere in the house.

It’s been a decade-long process of dozens, maybe hundreds, of baby steps to get from that level of carefulness to the crazy, eco-friendly, ingredient nazi I am today.

And I think I’m proud of that?

It’s a little annoying to be so well informed, honestly, because I have to be so careful about everything.

I’ve mentioned a bit during this healthy sleep series that it’s been both a long process of researching and purchasing healthy sleep surfaces (3-5 years?) but it was also one of the final frontiers for our green living changes. That’s a little backward, really, because of the high percentage of our time we spend sleeping. If you’re still near the beginning of your journey, kudos to you for tackling the sleep issue!

Containing the Messes

One item we had (and have) a LOT of in our house is waterproof pads.

We doublesheet our kids’ beds and cribs with them, use them under co-sleeping babies to protect our own sheets and non-toxic, organic mattresses, put them on the floor for quick diaper changes, and I bet we have over a dozen in the house of all sizes, from bassinet to twin.

I never thought to check the material of all the ones we bought from Meijer with each passing babe.

And what would I have paid attention to if I had been older and wiser on those shopping trips?

3 Things to Avoid in Waterproof Mattress Protectors for Safe, Healthy Sleep

1. Vinyl/PVC

When I was shopping last fall for mattress protectors for twin and double sized beds, I suddenly was learning a lot on accident about dust mites, bed bugs, mold and mildew.

After I had about 50 tabs open and my head was spinning, I asked on Facebook for advice from the KS crowd. That thread contains advice for everything from lanolized wool to cheap vinyl-topped pads from Walmart to Babesafe mattress covers like I mentioned in the crib protection/healthy sleep for babies post the other day to just leaving the plastic on that the mattress came in.

Funny. That didn’t stop my head from spinning at all.

Ultimately through my own research, I realized that vinyl (PVC) is a very common component of waterproof mattress pads and particularly covers that protect the sleeper from dust mites and mildew that might already be in the mattress.

So vinyl is great for protecting you from your mattress and your mattress from you (waterproof) – but it comes with plenty of problems on its own.

Vinyl off-gases VOCs, or Volatile Organic Compounds. That’s basically a fancy name for any natural compound that leaves the solid or liquid it’s in, turns into a gas at room temperature, and enters the air. (Organic meaning “of the earth” or biological, not mineral.) Most scents from products are VOCs. Not all of them are harmful, but many are, and it’s very hard to study them because human exposure is so long-term and constant.

There’s some controversy about whether vinyl’s VOCs other than phthalates are harmful or not really, but honestly? For 8-18 hours a day depending on who the sleeper is, it’s just not worth the risk.

EDIT: Peva is another waterproof plastic found in mattress protectors – it’s a non-chlorinated form of vinyl, so the products will likely say “no PVC” on them, but it doesn’t mean “no vinyl.” Removing the chlorine seems to remove some of the VOC off-gassing risk, but it doesn’t remove all the safety questions. It seems like peva is a newer attempt at waterproofing with vinyl, so it’s likely largely untested in the long term. I’m wary of it and would rather go with something completely vinyl free, personally. Read more at these sources: 1, 2, 3.

2. Phthalates

Say that one five times fast!

Actually, I don’t rightly know how to say it even once personally.

But I know phthalates are plasticizers add to things like PVC (uh huh!) to make it more flexible. They do offgas and/or leach out into the environment. They do cause health issues like hormone disruption, cancer, and more.

I don’t want to hang out with them all night long. Another reason to run for the hills if you see “vinyl” or “PVC” on a mattress protector.

RELATED: My Non-toxic WakeWell Adjustable Pillow Review

3. Polyurethane Foam/Flame Retardant Chemicals

We talked about these nasties already last week when I discussed the hazards of your mattress. You’ll see foam included in padded things like changing table pads, so it’s worth mentioning in this discussion.

In fact, while doing research for this safe sleep series, I realized that the changing table pad we’d been using for ten years had this tag:

Flame retardant tag on changing table pad California Bulletin

And so of course it had this one too:

Flame retardant info tag on changing table pad California Bulletin

In my opinion, care should be exercised if using this pad near a baby! Sigh. You just can’t win. I yanked the pad from our changing table in disgust and we just use one of the lightly quilted bassinet pads from American Baby that I bought on Amazon for co-sleeping and haven’t needed yet in bed:

What to Look for in Waterproof Mattress Protectors

But if not vinyl, what can make a pad waterproof? A few options:

  1. Polyurethane
  2. Polyethylene
  3. Polypropylene
  4. Wool

My big question as I research is of course safety. Here’s a quick rundown:

  1. Polyurethane – a quick search makes it seem like it’s not super toxic but perhaps iffy. It’s the same compound as in the foam used in most mattresses though, and in that setting it’s pinned for nasty VOCs, so I’d put this one at the bottom of the list for sure. Oops, not really – see the next point for details…
  2. Polyethylene – food grade and generally thought to be very safe. Babesafe mattress covers are made of polyethylene and proven not to off-gas VOCs. This is a good option. UPDATE 2016: Jane Sheppard of Healthy Child explained to me that polyethylene is great for mattresses themselves but won’t hold up to washing, so it’s really not a good option for washable mattress pads. She also explained that polyurethane plastic is very different from polyurethane foam in mattresses, so I wasn’t comparing apples to apples. (Oops. Sorry about that!)
  3. Polypropylene – food grade as well, the same as the number 5 plastic in most food storage containers. Not supposed to off-gas. This one should be a good option as well. UPDATE 2016: As you’ll see on the big review, we had a pretty poor experience with this material holding up to washing, too, so I’m not sure this is a great option for effectiveness.
  4. Wool – Wool is only “sort of” waterproof, best for minor moisture, not a total disaster like vomit or bedwetting. There is an allergy concern for some people with wool.

Ultimately with my 2016 updates, it sounds like polyurethane may actually be the best disaster-proof material for waterproof pads!

What did Katie Buy?

I had a huge document of my shopping research, and I ended up getting quite a number of mattress pads, some purchased, some as review samples, so here are all the reviews of the best natural waterproof mattress protectors I could find!

If you want more information on healthy sleeping you can read my whole Healthy Sleep Series:

How to Have Healthy Non Toxic Sleep

Read all the How to Get Healthy Sleep series posts HERE.

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Unless otherwise credited, photos are owned by the author or used with a license from Canva or Deposit Photos.

17 thoughts on “Your Waterproof Mattress Protector Might Have Problems Too”

  1. Hi. So above, you compared polyurethane laminate to polyurethane foam and then retracted it saying that it’s not quite the same. So, you’re leaving me scratching my head here without any answer. Does polyurethane laminate off-gas toxic chemicals, or not? Thank you!
    PS– sorry this question is showing up twice. I don’t know how it posted my reply to your response to someone else’s question, but it’s not related to that thread at all!

    1. Carolyn @ Kitchen Stewardship

      Hi Tina, it is different and not as concerning as polyurethane foam. I can’t find anything proving that it doesn’t off-gas at all, but the consensus seems to be that it’s minor compared to the foam off-gassing. I hope that helps!

  2. Hubby is set on a new mattress and I am 99% sure he won’t go for an organic or “healthy” one. I purchased an Aller-ease zippered mattress protector per a recommendation above. The label says polyester and nylon with thermoplastic polyurethane laminate; polyester and polyethylene film. Wondering if this is safe enough and will keep the new mattress from off-gassing as much (and will it hold up to washings if needed!) Thanks if you have any more current info…

    1. Hi Debbie,
      You’re going to need polyurethane to be waterproof so that’s standard – what I don’t know is if any of the mattress protectors are designed to hold in the offgassing chemicals – I think that’s a taller order. Check out this post and the rest of the safe sleep series for more: http://www.kitchenstewardship.com/2015/04/02/where-to-find-the-best-natural-organic-mattress/
      Good luck! Katie

  3. Hi Katie

    How well do mattress protectors seal? If I have a toxic memory foam topper on my bed and then seal it with a good mattress protector then won’t that seal in the toxins? Are mattress protectors breathable?

    Trying to find an alternative without spending thousands on a new mattress.

    1. Hi Todd,
      That’s a good question – and I’m afraid that all these protectors are really just made to keep moisture off the mattress but won’t do a ton to keep offgassing chemicals in. There are some thoughts on wrapping mattresses for protection – I think you’ll find more in this post: http://www.kitchenstewardship.com/2015/04/02/where-to-find-the-best-natural-organic-mattress/ or this one: http://www.kitchenstewardship.com/2015/03/13/safe-crib-mattress-may-prevent-sids/
      Good luck! 🙂 Katie

  4. Do you have any idea what is typically used in “rubberized flannel sheeting”? I’ve bought this by the yard to make my own mattress protectors and changing table pads, but unfortunately doesn’t have any info about what is in it.

  5. I’m worried a bit now, i use the mattress covers from http://www.protectabed.com/content/mattress_protectors.asp what do you know about them? i want to keep my mattress safe and me and my family at the same time. please help me!

  6. “It’s a little annoying to be so well informed, honestly, because I have to be so careful about everything.”
    That sums it up perfectly and I also feel annoyed at the general public because most people are not so informed as your readers. I think, shouldn’t your family’s health and well-being be a priority? It just seems irresponsible in today’s advanced-technology information age.
    Thank you for the many hours of research you put in to help others be informed.

  7. The whole safe sleeping issue is one I’ve been working on for a while (on a small budget)! My two bigger kids are sleeping on the floor – it was even their idea – so I didn’t need to buy any new mattress for them. I tried sleeping on the floor (with just a couple blankets under me) and I think it would be fine if I wasn’t trying to keep the nursling happy all night. I’ve thought about buying a futon mattress, but we don’t have any local sources, and is it possible to find one without flame-retardants from far away? I’d really like to spend no more than $200 on a single bed… all the organic fancy mattresses are much more.

    1. Katie,
      I think you can order flame retardant free mattresses from afar with a doc’s note – but shipping might get you. ? You might see if there are any mattress-production places within an hour or two of you. There’s one an hour from here and I’d never know it was there if my friend hadn’t ordered from there. I hope you can find what you’re looking for – it’s got to be possible, but it might take some legwork! 🙂 Katie

  8. Two other materials you didn’t mention here:
    Nylon.
    Polyester fleece.
    I haven’t tried nylon on a bed, but it’s the waterproof layer in a number of my cloth menstrual pads and the material of my baby’s cloth diaper covers, and it works very well. A thick polyfleece blanket is what I use under a potentially dripping child, because moisture beads up on it (it will soak through, but takes a while) so if I pull it off right after the leakage, the bed under it is dry–and it washes really well.

    I’m curious if you have any safety info about those materials, and if polyurethane laminate (PUL, a fabric used for many cloth diaper covers) has the same risks as polyurethane foam.

    Thanks for the research! My first child was not a bedwetter, but it’s too early to tell with the second one.

    1. Interesting thinking ‘Becca! I didn’t come across anything made out of those, but perhaps they’d be a great DIY version. I’ve noticed that my babies don’t really leak through their polyester fleece zippered “bags” unless it’s a really serious leak. But I wouldn’t want to have that be the only waterproof layer on a mattress, too risky.

      I also never thought about the connection in words between the PUL on cloth diapers and the foam. Looks like a “maybe safe, maybe not” for it – http://www.ehow.com/about_4696415_what-polyurethane-laminate.html and http://everydaylife.globalpost.com/polyurethane-diapers-safe-babies-7378.html

      Thanks!
      Katie

  9. Sometimes it truly is frustrating to know so much. Because then when you miss one ingredient or one small anything you start beating yourself up for it. It makes it hard to buy some things that you might have previously loved or you want to find a way to compromise and still buy it 😉 It can definitely contribute to the burn out of trying to follow all these “rules.”

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