A little nighttime reading


When it comes to things we put on, in and around our bodies, plenty of things can impact our health. A pillow seems like the least of our concerns. But could your pillow actually be affecting your health? It could be...but that doesn’t mean that it has to.

Lots of things in your home are way dirtier or chemical-laden than the pillows in your bed. But hey, most people probably don’t realize that some less than sunshiney things -- like allergens and unnecessary chemicals -- lurking in pillows could be toxic or causing an allergic reaction.

Sleep is the time of day when your body rejuvenates and detoxifies so why burden it even more? Why not sleep on a pillow that’s cleaner and has less chemicals? It’s easy enough to do!

Let’s look at the ways your pillow could be affecting your health and tips for tackling the problem.

Is your furry friend making your pillow toxic?

Allergens lurking in your pillows like dirt, oils, dust mites, mold and fungi
You -- and sometimes other bedmates -- sleep on your pillows for months (and years) every night. After a while, they accumulate not only dirt, oils and skin cells, but also icky things like dust mites, molds, bacteria (including E. coli) and even fungi.

These allergens build up over time if you don’t wash your pillows or cover them with a pillow protector. If you have respiratory allergies, sinusitis or asthma, these accumulations can cause wheezing, sneezing or other reactions.

  • The most common variety of fungi found in pillows is Aspergillus fumigatus, which can trigger reactions even in people without respiratory conditions or asthma
  • Synthetic pillows were found to contain higher numbers of fungi species
  • Molds that grow in pillows can generate millions of spores that become airborne and cause issues when breathed in
  • Dust mites -- which can comprise up to 1/3 of your pillow -- while themselves harmless to most, can leave droppings that exacerbate hay fever, eczema and rhinitis (inflammation of the nose)  

Here are some tips to mitigate allergens in your pillows and keep your sleep space clean:

  1. Wash your pillowcases and sheets frequently, ideally, 1x per week (here are tips for caring for bed linens)
  2. Use pillow protectors (ideally, bed bug and dust mite proof), and wash them often (at least 1x every two weeks)
  3. Buy high quality pillows that can be washed or cleaned...and will not degrade from doing so. If you use pillows that can’t be washed without degrading, then replace them every 6-12 months
  4. Keep your pillow dry to avoid mildew. When washing pillows, dry them thoroughly, and do not sleep on them with damp hair
  5. Certain pillows come with hypoallergenic fill and might be more resistant to harboring allergens. If you purchase a down or feather pillow, make sure the down/feathers are from a reputable manufacturer who has properly cleaned the fill to hypoallergenic standards
  6. Vacuum your bedroom frequently, with a HEPA filter vacuum cleaner, and dust your bedroom furniture
  7. Keep pets off the bed (we realize this may be the toughest of them all for you pet owners!)

And... if you happen to be looking for new pillows that contain hypoallergenic fills and can be cleaned, we have them at Slumbr (surprise, surprise). Check out Slumbr’s Pillow Menu of comfy, high quality pillows.

Hidden and unnecessary toxic chemicals in pillows
Unfortunately, some pillows contain toxic chemicals that aren’t necessarily important for their comfort and durability. These chemicals can disrupt hormones, cause allergic reactions and even cause cancer. You may be wondering which types of pillows contain these and how you can find ones that don't.

In the world of pillows and bedding, this is a complicated subject, and the answers aren’t so black-and-white. For example, while the fiber used to produce the material in a pillow might be harvested from organic plants, the material itself might go on to be processed using a number of chemicals. So-called organic or eco-friendly options may not necessarily be 100% natural as suggested.

So how is the consumer supposed to make sense of it all and choose a pillow?

At Slumbr, we advise first and foremost to focus on finding a pillow that is comfortable and supportive for your sleep. Prioritizing quality sleep is one of the most important things you can do to benefit your health and wellness.

Then eliminate the most chemical-laden pillow options from your consideration set. The types of pillows that immediately come to mind are cheaper memory foam pillows, typically those produced overseas (as their production is not strictly regulated).

There are manufacturers that create cleaner versions of any fill type available, including memory foam. It is worth spending time to find these manufacturers.

If you don’t have time to research, you can look for pillows containing materials that have been certified by independent 3rd-parties for safety and purity. Two of the most common certifications are:

  • CertiPur-US - certifies foam materials that are free from harmful chemicals and have low emissions
  • OEKO-Tex - certifies a range of materials that are free from harmful chemicals and have low emissions

Below are some things you might consider in your search for a healthier pillow:

Flame Retardants
You may have heard that many foam pillows contain flame retardants. This harkens back to a California law from the 1970’s that required foam furnishings meet certain flammability requirements. Some flame retardants use chemicals that have been linked to endocrine disruption, neurological damage and cancer.

Memory foam pillows are made with polyurethane, which is considered highly combustible. As such, memory foams have traditionally used polybrominated diphenyl ethers (or PBDEs) for flame retardation. PBDEs are known to disrupt hormones, are not biodegradable and can build up in your home.

However, the use of the most carcinogenic PBDEs has been phased out since 2005 for products produced in the US. And as of 2014, California changed its flammability laws such that flame retardants would not be added to foams, and California law requires any product containing flame retardants to indicate so on the pillow’s attached law label. However, the law does not ban the use of such chemicals so if you’re unsure about a pillow, check with the manufacturer. Note that most other types of pillows do not contain flame retardants. Note: none of Slumbr’s pillows contain them.

Off-Gassing Emissions and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)
Certain pillows release a chemical smell when you first purchase them, known as “off-gassing.” Memory foam pillows in particular are known for off-gassing. This happens when the chemicals present in the pillow break down and disperse in the air.

These emissions stem from volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs are organic compounds present in objects that transform to vapors or gases. Keep in mind that almost all household products emit some form of VOC -- even fruit emits VOCs. It’s really a matter of how harmful those emissions are. Some VOCs are highly toxic, while others have no known ill effects.

The odor from pillows that off-gas usually dissipates within a couple weeks. But keep in mind that some of these VOCs are actually odorless.

Memory foam pillows generally contain more chemicals than other types of pillows. However, the VOCs in the finished product (ie: the pillow) are considered to be stable, thus minimizing how much VOCs are released. While the majority of people can use memory foam pillows with no issue, some people are particularly sensitive to these emissions.

The topic of VOCs and off-gassing is a complicated one, and if this is a concern, we recommend that you look for certifications that signal a level of safety and purity, as well as low VOC emissions.

Perfumes and deodorizers
Some pillows made with memory foam use industrial level perfumes and deodorizers to mask the chemical smell of the foam. These perfumes are composed of chemicals themselves and likely not something you want to be inhaling.

Find non-toxic supportive pillows from Slumbr

How different pillow fill types stack up
It’s a personal choice how comfortable you are with the level of chemicals in your pillows. The reality is that most pillows, even “natural” or organic options, contain at least some form of chemical in either their processing or composition. It’s a matter of degree.  

MEMORY FOAM: Foam pillows (memory foam) pillows would generally be considered the pillow types with the highest amount of chemicals. If you love the feel of these types of pillows,  some options provide the CertiPur certification or are very transparent about their use of chemicals. These options usually are made with a percentage of soy-derived foam but still have some level of petroleum-based foam.

LATEX: Latex pillows -- whether blended (synthetic + natural) or all-natural -- contain fewer chemicals than memory foam pillows and typically are made with latex that is OEKO-Tex certified. If you prefer to avoid synthetics, choose a 100% natural latex pillow (although beware of false claims among manufacturers, as truly 100% all-natural latex is relatively rare). In Slumbr’s in-home testing, note that we found sleepers prefer the feel and comfort of the blended latex pillows vs. the 100% natural (which tended to feel too soft for most people’s preference).

DOWN AND FEATHER: Down and feather fills bought from a reputable manufacturer tend to be quite clean and free from chemicals. The fill should be cleaned thoroughly with environmentally-safe, gentle detergents.

If you’re particularly concerned about chemicals in your pillows, the fills that are considered the “cleanest” -- both from a hypoallergenic and chemical standpoint -- are buckwheat, wool, kapok, organic cotton and millet. But note that even these fills are sometimes treated with chemicals for various reasons so it’s always best to check with the manufacturer. Each of these types of pillows have distinct feel and comfort properties; it’s worth reading reviews to understand how they might feel before purchasing.

Consider the pillow shell or tick material
One last consideration is the type of material used in the pillow’s shell or tick -- the cloth that encases the fill. Most pillow shells are made of conventionally-grown cotton, but poly-knit blends and bamboo (ie viscose rayon) are also common. These types of materials all have various levels of chemicals used in their production. Even organic cotton usually has some degree of synthetic or toxic chemicals used in growing and processing.

More importantly, the final materials can be finished with chemicals such as wrinkle resisters, conditioners and formaldehyde. Again, if this is a concern, certifications can give you a better sense of the pillow shell’s safe use of any additives and chemicals.

Here are some tips for purchasing pillows that contain fewer toxic chemicals:

  1. Choose high-quality pillow types that use lower levels of chemicals from manufacturers that care about safety and sustainability
  2. Look for third-party, independent certifications that indicate the pillow has been tested free of certain chemicals. Again, two of the more common certifications to look for include OEKO-Tex and CertiPUR (for foams)

At Slumbr, find your perfect pillow from our Pillow Menu of high quality pillows for a range of sleep styles. Our Pillow Quiz  makes it simple to find the comfiest pillow for you.


Hero photo credit: © Can Stock Photo / Enjoylife
Dog photo credit: © Can Stock Photo / thesupe87