The manufacture of bedding products—such as bed sheets, blankets, comforters, bedspreads, and mattress pads—and the fibers they are made from affect not only our health but also the health of the environment. Harmful chemicals are used in the manufacturing process, and pesticides and synthetic fertilizers are used to grow the fibers. All can contaminate groundwater and some have detrimental health affects.

Bedding textiles made from either synthetic (polyester or satin) or natural (cotton, wool, silk, bamboo, and more) fibers, or a combination of both, endure multiple processing steps, including spinning, dyeing, weaving, scouring and sizing. For example, cotton threads are treated with starches or sizing so they are easier to weave. This sizing is washed out before caustic chemicals are used to remove debris and dirt from the fiber. Every time the fiber is flushed with water, there is an opportunity for wastewater contaminated with volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and bleach (which produces dioxin—a human carcinogen) to enter the environment.

Thankfully, consumers have environmentally friendly choices—such as bedding made from organically-grown and alternative fibers—that can minimize the health risks, too. But regardless of the fiber choice, there will always be environmental downsides, the more if you choose bedding made from conventionally-produced cotton, polyester, or wool.

Eco-concerns surrounding conventional cotton

Bed linens are made mostly from cotton, a natural fiber. A study by Cotton Inc., an industry trade association, found that 66 percent of consumers believe cotton is safe for the environment, yet cotton is far from an eco-friendly fiber.[1] Conventional cotton farming uses only about 3 percent of the farmland around the world, but consumes 25 percent of all chemical pesticides and fertilizers.[2] It takes about 1.25 pounds of petroleum-based pesticides and fertilizers to produce one cotton queen-sized sheet.[3] Insects are quickly becoming resistant to recommended rates of pesticide application, and ever-increasing amounts are needed to be effective.

The various chemicals used to treat conventional cotton can harm beneficial insects and soil microorganisms, pollute groundwater and surface water, and adversely affect the health of humans and wildlife, including fish, birds, and livestock. Additionally, up to 70 percent of seeds used in conventional cotton farming in the United States are genetically modified.[4]

Billions of pounds of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers are also applied to cotton crops, leading to runoff that creates zones in waterways that are void of much life. Due to cotton's natural resistance to dyes, roughly half of the chemicals used as dyes or fixers end up as waste in rivers and soil. Chlorine bleaching to get cotton white before dyeing it also releases carcinogenic dioxins. The farming of conventional cotton is also water-intensive. Approximately 400 gallons of water are required to produce a single cotton undershirt.[5]

Damage caused by synthetic textiles

The synthetic fibers polyester, nylon, and acrylic are made from petrochemicals, which are non-renewable resources. The use of petrochemicals in bed linens contributes to the environmental hazards associated with petroleum and coal exploration and processing. These hazards include disruption of land and ocean habitats and pollution of water supplies. Rayon, which is often combined with other fibers, is made from wood pulp that has been treated with chemicals, including caustic soda and sulphuric acid.

In 2005, 53 billion pounds of polyester was produced worldwide with China being the biggest producer.[6] Polyester fiberfill is known as a “down alternative” because it mimics the loft and insulation of natural down. Consumers buy it because it is perceived to reduce allergies, plus it costs less and is easier to clean. However, there are some significant environmental concerns associated with polyester products:

  • The main ingredient in polyester’s manufacture is ethylene glycol, a toxic chemical that can be absorbed into the body by inhalation and through the skin where it can damage kidneys and the central nervous system. Textile mills using ethylene glycol have released 43,614 pounds of it into the environment.[7]
  • Polyester production requires high energy consumption, averaging 63 percent more energy than the production of cotton.[8]
  • Dye carriers are used to dye polyester and these chemicals are toxic; some are carcinogenic.

Worrisome wool

Wool is used in pillows, comforters, mattress pads, and blankets. The total wool output in the United States in 2005 was around 39 million pounds.[9] Only 19,000 pounds (.05 percent) were grown organically in six states and Ontario, Canada, with New Mexico as the leading producer at 15,300 pounds.[10] Though a natural product, conventional wool production also has some environmental drawbacks.

Many individuals and organizations, such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), take issue with how wool-producing sheep are treated—even those subject to a pesticide-free, environmentally sound production process. A particular act of sheep mutilation that has caught the attention of animal rights supporters is the “mulesing” of Australian Merino sheep. Merinos are bred to have wrinkly skin that, in turn, results in higher yields of wool. These characteristic wrinkles attract flies that lay eggs in the folds of skin, resulting in fatal maggot infestations. To prevent this, ranchers perform mulesing—the sheep are restrained without painkillers and chunks of flesh are removed from the area around the tail, resulting in smooth skin that discourages fly egg-laying.

Mutilation aside, another environmental danger of the wool industry is enteric fermentation—or livestock belching and flatulence—a major contributor to global climate change. In New Zealand, for example, 90 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions (methane, in particular) result from enteric fermentation, primarily from sheep.[11]

Fabric treatments

Conventional bedding textiles are often treated with chemical finishes to repel water and stains, as well as to prevent wrinkles. These “permanent-press,” “no-iron,” “stain-proof,” and “water-repellant” finishes can offgas formaldehyde. Additionally, their manufacture releases perfluorochemicals (PFCs) or dioxin, which may harm the environment or your body.

Newer fabric treatments from the performance apparel industry are now being introduced in bedding products. Bed sheets are being made from Coolmax, which wicks away moisture, and Thermolite, a lightweight insulation material. Home textiles are also being made from anti-microbial fabrics, flame retardant materials, and fragrance encapsulating technologies.

The problem with fabric dyes

The textile industry generates and consumes an estimated 1.3 million tons of dyes and other synthetic coloring agents worth around $23 billion.[12] These dyes are largely petrochemical-based and contain lead, mercury, and cancer-causing heavy metals like chromium VI, arsenic, and cadmium. The US Environmental Protection Agency believes a number of dyes to be hazardous due to the threat of groundwater contamination in the vicinity of manufacturing plants. Although the use of synthetic, petrochemical dyes is prevalent, alternatives do exist and are commonly classified as “low-impact” or "eco-friendly."

Related health issues

We spend about a third of our lives sleeping, exposed to the chemical contents of our bedding, inhaling and absorbing them through our skin.[13] The natural bedding industry was initially established by individuals with chemical sensitivities who need to avoid chemicals found in mattresses and bed linens.

Any fiber—even certified organically grown fibers—used in bedding products may be coated with chemical fabric finishes. For example, formaldehyde is used to impart “permanent press” attributes (no wrinkles) or to fix color. When present in the air, sensitive individuals can experience watery eyes; burning sensations in the eyes, nose and throat; nausea; coughing; chest tightness; wheezing; and skin rashes. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) notes that formaldehyde, which off-gases in the home—can cause nasopharyngeal cancer (cancer of the nose and throat). Formaldehyde does not completely wash out in the laundry but the emissions can be reduced by about 60 percent. Flannel and knit sheets do not have formaldehyde-based permanent press finishes.


  • formaldehyde: A flammable reactive gas belonging to the VOC (volatile organic compound) family of chemicals. It is widely used in personal care products, building materials, insulation, and home furnishings. Ingestion of the chemical can cause severe physical reactions, including coma, internal bleeding, and death. The US Department of Health and Human Services considers it a probable human carcinogen.
  • genetically modified organism (GMO): GMOs result from merging the genetic makeup of two organisms to create a desired byproduct that could otherwise not be found in nature. Using genetically modified seed is a common practice in conventional farming. Studies have shown that GMOs pose significant environmental risks and cause some insects, which feed on GM crops, to become resistant to pesticides.
  • volatile organic compounds (VOCs): Organic solvents that easily evaporate into the air. VOCs are emitted by thousands of products including paints, cleaning supplies, pesticides, building materials and furnishings and they may cause immediate and long-term health problems.

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