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The Hunt for a Healthier Mattress

Mattress shopping as a chemically sensitive person is rough. What drives me crazy is that manufacturers in the United States aren’t required to disclose the materials and chemicals that comprise the mattress you’re going to be breathing an inch next to for 8 hours a day. Well, for me and other chronically ill people that number may be a bit higher; all the more reason to care about what you’re sleeping on. There are regulations that should keep the worst materials out of the mattresses, but it’s not enough, especially for people with chemical sensitivities.

I consider myself a chemically sensitive person, because I’ve been diagnosed with Mast Cell Activation Syndrome (MCAS). Airborne chemicals don’t send me into anaphylaxis like others with this condition, but I suspect some chemicals have insidiously, slowly compromised my health over time. After reading about the toxic chemicals used in mattresses that can’t be good for even a rugged person, I decided to look into what I’ve been sleeping on. My current mattress was just a hunk of foam with an additional memory foam topper from Costco and was starting to cause shoulder pain. I acquired them right before my health problems took a sharp turn downward in 2012. I suspect the outgassing has been making my health worse, and at the very least it hasn’t been helping.

Casper Mattress  |  Tried & Failed

About a month ago my husband got us a new Casper mattress. It was such a tempting option, because neither of us wanted to deal with the hell of mattress shopping. Casper claims on their website to be incredibly allergy friendly, but it’s just a polyurethane mattress topped with synthetic latex. If you’re sensitive to polyurethane, as some with MCAS are, then steer clear. I was happy to read that they had the Certipur and OEKO-TEX certifications, but they still are low-VOC (volatile organic compounds), not NO VOC. The information online says that the Casper is low odor too. Well, having a mast cell disorder has given me a very sensitive nose and the smell was just as noxious as my previous foam mattress. To meet fire regulations, the mattress is encased in their silica fire sock. If I were keeping the mattress I’d be tempted to unzip and remove the fire sock, because it only takes a tiny amount of airborne silica to create a respiratory health hazard. However, untreated polyurethane is nearly as flammable as gasoline, so I can’t truly recommend removing the fire prevention.

This is probably one of the healthier foam beds you can buy, but it destroyed my back. They sent a topper, which helped a little bit, but after a few weeks my lower back gave out. The pain the next day caused one of the worst attacks I’d had in over a year. I’m a side sleeper, so since the mattress was too firm for me, my spine was being curved too much, causing straining of my back muscles night after night. So that final day, bending over to pick something up – boom- massive back muscle spasm and back sprain.

Despite their tagline “one perfect mattress,” there is no single mattress that’s going to be comfortable for everyone. I need something more plush. I don’t have stately curves, but on the Casper I felt like a buxom Jessica Rabbit would trying to sink her hips into a yoga mat.

To their credit, Casper has fantastic customer service and had Salvation Army pick up the mattress and returned my money with no questions asked. Thank you, Casper!!!

Berkeley Ergonomics Mattress  |  The Winner

Yes, the Berkeley Ergonomics mattress has wool and latex, but after their thorough washing process the lanolin (oil) content of this wool is less than 1%. Most with wool allergies are actually allergic to the lanolin in the wool fiber. For those with only skin sensitivities, these wool and latex components are embedded in the mattress and aren’t in direct contact with skin, so it could still be an option. I discuss my own latex sensitivity below.

If you’re extremely allergic to wool/lanolin or latex, look into mattresses by McRoskey or Shifman. I contacted both manufacturers. McRoskey has their “Classic” line that is latex and wool free, and instead filled with 100% organic cotton and poly fiber. Shifman is only sold at the pricey Bloomingdales near me, and they do have select mattresses free of both wool and latex. 

After Casper failed me, I spent a massive amount of time researching online. One of my notable finds was the Old Bed Guy, who is mindful about VOCs and draws a hard line for quality. Some of his favorite brands are Berkley Ergonomics, McRoskey, and Shifman. We ended up finding a retailer in San Diego called Scripps Natural Mattress that sources from Berkeley Ergonomics. They sold me. Berkeley Ergonomics appealed to my fondness for “keep it simple stupid” design and for German engineering. I really love the European style construction that uses a zipper on the outer wool encasement to unveil the inner German pocketed coils and the 100% natural filler-free latex toppers (both are OEKO-TEX certified). The toppers and springs can be selected in varying firmness and easily changed out. Steel coils make up the base of the mattress, instead of a large wedge of flammable polyurethane foam. Best of all, organic compacted wool is used to meet the flame requirement on the outer mattress layer. No, I’m not getting paid or compensated to write about these guys- I’m just so thrilled to have found a quality healthy mattress!!! I look forward to bedtime again and I’m sleeping better than I have in years. My Casper-induced back pains are gone, and hopefully my “bucket” will be less full.

Wool as Flame Retardant
Compacted Wool as Flame Retardant
MCAS Friendly Pocketed Coils
Nested German Pocketed Coils

I truly believe that a mattress with a pocket coil base and a filler-free natural latex comfort layer on top is the most comfortable way to go. As an engineering nerd, I really am sold on quality pocketed spring coils for the base construction of a mattress, because the springs easily vary the give underneath your body. Springs will displace based on the weight above them, allowing your body to sink into the mattress better, while still getting appropriate support. In contrast, a single foam cannot displace as much without loosing its supportive quality. This is why soft, plush foam mattresses are hard to find, and those that exist are comprised of different types of foam of varying firmness layered together. For so many reasons ditch the foam.

Latex Sensitivity

I should mention that I’m hypersensitive to latex, meaning after skin exposure I’ll probably break out in hives. I haven’t had an issue with either of these mattresses. Unlike the closed cell structure of the stretchy medical grade products I’ve reacted to, the latex in these mattresses is open cell. Latex allergies are generally from proteins that get liberated from the latex. In the stretchy closed cell kind of latex, these proteins are embedded in the material and can pretty easily make contact and break free to react with you- lucky you.  When latex is processed to make a mattress layer, the material structure changes to an open cell. Then, those allergy inducing proteins are liberated and in large part should be rinsed out in the rigorous washing of the manufacturing process. For good measure, I’m still advised to not physically handle the latex material, which isn’t a problem, because those layers are placed under the mattress casing. My new mattress uses 100% natural talalay latex, which is a pretty safe bet.

All Natural Talalay Latex Hybrid Mattress
All Natural Talalay Latex

Published in Treatment & Help


  1. Hi Brandy,

    Great article on your website you wrote, your such a great writer.
    I am so happy that the bed has been so therapeutic for you.I am glad your sleeping and feeling better. This is a great website you started to help all the people that are having the same issues as you.I know this will reach and help a lot of people. No more trial and error, Keep up the great work.

    • brandy brandy

      Thanks, Mark!! So glad to have found you guys!

  2. Julie Julie

    Thank you!! Similar research just had me going in circles and giving up. I’m so grateful I found your site, thank you for so many things here, including this thoughtful (and well-written) post!

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