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
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.
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.
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.
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:
And so of course it had this one too:
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:
My big question as I research is of course safety. Here’s a quick rundown:
- 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…
- 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!)
- 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.
- 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:
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