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How to identify and source safe, nontoxic, green, and organic furniture for your home and office that is budget conscious and also practical for households with children.
I’ve written several articles in the past about the importance of sourcing nontoxic mattresses and pillows to facilitate deep, sound sleep habits. But what about furniture?
Most of us sit quite a bit and even sleep on the couch occasionally (you know, zonking out during a boring Netflix selection).
Considering the purchase of organic furniture when budgeting for home furnishing is nearly as important a decision.
Searching for Safe Furniture
One person grappling with this decision recently emailed me about it to ask for input. Kyra writes:
I love your blog! I have a suggestion for one…searched your site and don’t think you ever talked about it before– I am considering updating my living room couches, but I’ve read that most furniture is sprayed with all kinds of chemicals. Since our family room is where my family spends a ton of time (playing, napping, snuggling, snacking), I want to buy something non-toxic. Is that possible? Where and how do I find furniture that isn’t full of chemicals, fire retardants and formaldehyde?
Can you give us some tips on several brands/companies or stores and what to look for, please? What did you purchase for your family? Your article about mattresses was great so I was hoping you have helpful tips for furniture too (even though, if I remember correctly, you only recommended one particular brand). Thank you for providing us with such valuable information to keep us healthy!
This is a great question. Unfortunately, I have not discovered clear-cut answers especially if you are furnishing your home on a budget.
My husband and I have never placed much importance on the need for fancy decorating in our home (primarily because my husband really doesn’t care one way or another, and I am an avowed minimalist in that department). However, we have always managed to procure quality, nontoxic furniture despite spending very little.
Below is the strategy we have employed during our 25 years together. It has served to keep the furniture we buy affordable, green, and as organic as possible.
Perhaps it might help give you some ideas too. First, let’s go over what’s available on the market currently and how it is or isn’t an option for those seeking a chemical-free living environment.
Toxins in Conventional Furniture
Before we talk about solutions, let’s identify the problem with conventional furniture today. This includes dormitory furniture used in most colleges and boarding schools. The health issues are primarily three-fold:
- The foam in the cushions is made of petroleum-based polyurethane, a highly flammable product. To rectify this, toxic, cancer-causing flame retardants are added. This synthetic foam in the cushions breaks down over time. The result is dust containing fire retardant chemicals polluting the indoor air which everyone breaths. These chemicals have become ubiquitous in the environment. They are found in wildlife tissue samples (both land and sea), breastmilk and other human body fluids. (1)
- The wood used in typical furniture products is not solid. It is comprised of particleboard. Particleboard manufacture involves the use of formaldehyde. This chemical has been identified as a known carcinogen by the National Toxicology Program. (2)
- The half-life of formaldehyde outgassing from particleboard is about one year. Heat makes it outgas faster. However, long term studies indicate that significant outgassing continues for at least 5 years and possibly longer. (3)
- Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from adhesives, dyes, and/or Scotchgard, which carries the unique risk of perfluorochemicals. The EPA says that these VOCs pollute indoor air by outgassing. (4)
Safe Bed is the MOST Important Purchase
For a health-conscious consumer seeking to furnish the home environment with nontoxic items, conventional furniture is quite simply a non-starter. Don’t forget – this includes the mattress you sleep on all night long!
Fortunately, there are nontoxic mattresses on the market that are very affordable and last as long or longer than conventional toxic ones (find healthy mattress brands I’ve vetted here).
Organic Furniture: Is There Really Such a Thing?
While finding a nontoxic mattress is getting easier and affordable today, the same cannot be said for organic furniture!
A few brands boast organic cotton upholstery, but watch out for the materials underneath! There is a lot of greenwashing going on in the furniture industry. A savvy consumer needs to be on high alert so as not to get scammed by clever marketing.
For example, the mainstream furniture manufacturers Pottery Barn and Ikea have a line of eco-friendly furniture which is clearly a step up from conventional toxic furniture of the Rooms-to-Go variety. This is a positive trend for sure!
However, I personally would not buy anything in these lines. Why? While the furniture is fire retardant-free and made of sustainably produced materials and perhaps even organic cotton, it is still a toxic choice from a health perspective.
For example, the recycled, FSC-certified wood used in the Pottery Barn line still has the potential to outgas formaldehyde and other chemicals since it can be made from all or a mix of post-consumer waste and VOC containing adhesives and upholstery dyes.
A more intimate example of this consumer trap is recycled toilet paper. While environmentally friendly, this is a toxic choice for the consumer.
In other words, an environmentally friendly, green product is not necessarily a nontoxic and healthy choice for your family!
Selection and Affordability
Let’s say you’ve managed to find organic furniture that delivers what is claimed. There are a few brands out there that are flame-retardant-free, fully recyclable, and use solid wood frames, certified organic textiles, and water-based adhesives.
This furniture brand is a good option to consider.
Unfortunately, an option like this is more expensive than conventional choices.
With conventional furniture a sketchy choice and organic furniture expensive, what is a health-conscious consumer to do? Let’s dig deeper.
What About Leather?
Some of you may have considered leather or faux leather furniture as an option to reduce toxins.
First off, let’s scratch faux leather off the list right away. Faux leather is made from a fabric base. This base is chemically treated with wax, VOC emitting dye, or polyurethane to achieve the desired color and texture. No thanks.
Real leather undergoes a tanning process that involves many carcinogenic chemicals and solvents that would make any environmentalist cringe. The process is so toxic to both the environment and the workers, in fact, that the EPA and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) have closed most USA tanneries. (5)
At one time (believe it or not), Boston was a world leader in the production of leather goods, but so many pollutants were dumped into rivers and streams that the dirty water runoff kicked off an environmental backlash from consumers.
As for the interior components of a leather couch, there would be little difference from upholstered conventional furniture.
Fire retardant foam and cheap, formaldehyde emitting particleboard are favored over a safer solid hardwood frame. Watch out for “engineered hardwood” too which uses plywood construction.
All plywood contains formaldehyde glues which outgas over time.
Some leather furniture makers use hypo-allergenic foams and true hardwood frames, but the leather tanning process is still a thorny issue for those that are chemically sensitive.
How to Ensure Your Furniture is Safe
If all of this information has you worried about furniture that was purchased before you started greening your lifestyle and improving your diet, take heart. There are some things you can do now to make sure your existing furniture is safe for your family.
Test Foam for Fire Retardants
Duke University’s Superfund Research Center is assisting consumers by offering foam testing services. You simply send in a small sample of the foam from your sofas, couches, or chairs.
The research team is testing foams to examine how badly fire retardant chemicals continue to off-gas over time. (6)
Stop the Outgassing of Formaldehyde
Another option is to purchase Safecoat Safe Seal.
This unique product is applied to particleboard to block the off-gassing of formaldehyde from processed wood products such as plywood, particleboard, and pressed wood.
It is especially practical to use on tables and the frames of sofas, couches, and chairs that are not composed of solid wood.
How to Source Nontoxic Furnishings
If at this point you feel discouraged or your head is spinning, take a deep breath. You can do what my husband and I have done for 25 years to keep things simple, safe, and affordable.
Buy. Used. Furniture.
Back when we bought our house in 1993, nontoxic furniture items didn’t exist and even if they did, we couldn’t afford them. So we developed a habit of scouring estate sales, consignment and antique shops, and even garage sales for quality furniture that was made with solid wood and/or old enough (5+ years) where any outgassing issues were long gone.
Not only does this strategy ensure a safe living environment, but it also saves a ton of money and is kind of a fun hobby too.
Probably the best example of this approach is the solid oak dining table we have that I am typing at right now. We got it for a song and have never had to worry that we were breathing formaldehyde fumes with every meal we ate there as a family.
What strategies have you employed over the years to source nontoxic, organic furniture?
(1) How Dangerous is Your Couch?
(2) Report on the Carcinogenicity of Formaldehyde
(3) Long-Term Formaldehyde Emissions from Medium-Density Fiberboard in a Full-Scale Experimental Room: Emission Characteristics and the Effects of Temperature and Humidity
(4) Coming Clean. Did 3M and DuPont ignore evidence of health risks?
(5) Chicago’s Last Tannery
(6) Duke University. What’s in My Foam?
thank you for your informative site. My question is regarding my bathrooms. Recently purchased this small retirement home and bathroom vanities/tops need replacing. After spending hours online and regardless of price finding most vanities have Cal Prop warning I am thinking it may be best to repaint the wood cabinets with low or no VOC paint as they are probably 10-20yrs old and maybe safe to presume have outgassed? Would replace tops with quartz. I did have the kitchen cabinets painted as they are all good wood and quartz tops put on and they look very nice. Just wondering what you think? thnx
I have MCS., a late stage that causes me to live in virtual isolation. We have bought thousands of dollars of used furniture. We get it home in our toxic free space and suddenly we smell horrible odors, like fragrance from toxic laundry products that were not detectable at purchase. We ended up giving the furniture away for free because we wanted it out of our space before I got very ill. Everything we have bought was contaminated with fragrance, mildew, and God knows what. We have 2 old chairs and that’s it. Our mattresses are organic from mygreenmattress. The best mattress ever. This is a difficult life with MCS. The stores with authentic toxic free furniture are out of most people’s budget! Every time I see a suggestion for a $5000.oo sofa , I want to scream! I gave up on sofas. $$$$$ Try to just buy comfortable toxic free chairs. This is a cheaper proposition and perhaps more workable! Having MCS means giving up the conventional thinking that our non MCS brothers and sisters have the luxury of entertaining. It’s more important to be safe than sorry or concerned with how your home looks. We have a beautiful home, but it’s virtually empty: 2 chairs & 2 organic mattresses. This is the way it has to be ….unless someone will step up and do the right thing: create non toxic affordable furniture for the masses.
Have you heard of DNRS…? Look up Annie Hopper!
Barbie Jean Hazen
OH…It seems to be a Chemical World! Which, is very sad! I have Contact Allergic Dermatitis. Not able to sit on anything that is foam, polyurethane…flame retardant’s, formaldehyde, etc., For two years, I suffered with a very itchy, oozing, rash, all over my body, only to go to an allergy specialist, finding that all my furniture, is useless to me. In not understanding, why, manufacturers, would jeopardize their customers, health, with these terrible chemicals….(to make money). is a very aggravating issue! I can only suggest, when anybody purchases, anything…to check out the ingredients (chemicals), being used in a product.
There are various Amish furniture stores in Northeastern Ohio. One of them is Cherry Valley Furniture in Andover, Ohio. They will customize most of what they build and will even allow you to finish the wood yourself. I’m not sure if they’ll ship. There are other Amish businesses in not just this area. A search on the internet will surely give you plentiful results. Good luck to all!
Hi, Sarah, You used to recommend Intellibed and offered a promo code. I see that you no longer recommend the company/source. Why is that? Have you uncovered some additional information/buyer beware? Thank you for your time.
Sarah Pope MGA
The company is now Organix … the organic Intellibed. The promo code is HealthyHome and is still 10% off with free organic sheets, etc.
I’ve been using the name Organix for a couple years now.
I really appreciate you writing this article and all the research that went into it. I also appreciate the resources, information, and ideas. It’s hard to find good info on these concerns.
You mention that it’s good to buy used furniture. I just wanted to mention that mold sensitive people generally cannot do that because you don’t know where the piece was (a moldy house?), if it was stored (in a moldy facility or in someone’s moldy garage?) or how the previous owners used it (as a guest bed for lots of visitors who live in moldy houses and have contaminated it?) It may sound extreme, but since 85% of all houses (new or old) have experienced water damage of some kind, it’s very hard to expect anything used to be ok. For this reason, shopping for furniture for us is even more challenging. I can’t tell you how many new furniture deliveries I’ve had to send back because the NEW furniture was even moldy. Add that concern to chemicals and toxins, and it’s a fun puzzle to deal with……..
From what I understand there is something like 13 pounds of PBDEs in a couch.
These brain-damaging chemicals would be released into the air every time you
sat on the couch, whether it was old or new… Unless you have a couch from the before
I really wish articles like this would include links to PBDE-free furniture.
I’m sorry but this article was very disappointing. The whole article talked about the problem, which most of us are already aware of, which is why we’re seeking solutions. I wasted my time reading the whole thing looking to find the good advice in it, but you spent no time at all discussing possible solutions. One very brief final statement at the end saying you buy used furniture with the hope that it’s finished off-gassing! Wow what useless advice! Who knows how the people who used it before you treated it or what kind of environment they had it in. It could have been exposed to mold, housefires, or who knows what else. This article was such a waste of time. You tricked us into thinking there would be solutions offered, but instead just extensively rehashed a problem we already knew about. Thanks for wasting our time.
Sarah Pope MGA
Hi Jenn, unfortunately, sometimes the answer is that there aren’t very many good solutions out there! Sorry I couldn’t offer more … if I could have, I certainly would have! There is definitely a good business opportunity out there for someone who wants to fill that void in the furniture industry.
I feel the same way. She talks about buying furniture that is safe, but expensive and never tells us where we can get it. I am not rich by any means, but if I have to save up to get non-toxic furniture that is what I will do. Does she really even know where there is furniture that is free of all that toxic crap. I wasted my time and it is late. I am really mad. Just another con!
Sarah Pope MGA
The article clearly suggests where to find safe furniture if you want to take another look 😉
I too had been of the “source used furniture” mindset–until doing good deal of research recently on mycotoxicity. Used furniture does carry that risk, since (as my functional medicine doctor recently told me), at least 70% of Americans are living in water-damaged/moldy homes, often unbeknownst to them. The only piece of upholstered furniture that my husband and I have owned in our 11-year marriage, due to my husband’s Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, was a used loveseat that we bought several years ago from a friend. After reading Neil Nathan’s excellent book on mold and multiple chemical sensitivity recently, however, I took several deep sniffs of the loveseat and could detect a slight whiff of mildew (even though there’s no discernible mildew or mold to be found on its exterior).
Off it went to the dump–and now we’re back to living in a house of only hard upright (non-upholstered) wooden chairs. I’m sitting cross-legged on the floor as I type this, just to get a break from the hard chairs. My husband, young children, and I SORELY miss having a comfy couch to sit on, but goodness–how do we avoid one that is both affordable AND free of mold spores?… So frustrated.
My family is in exactly the same predicament. We’re genetically mold sensitive and chemically sensitive too. I won’t touch used furniture with a 10 foot pole for the very high probability that’s it’s been in a WDB.
I make my best decision. But the piece. Live with it. If there’s a reaction, it’s goes back. It’s a slow process.
For more helpful suggestions, check out My Chemical Free House.com. New furniture brands are reviewed. Very helpful!
Sarah Pope MGA
Used furniture that is solid wood is fine … this would not have any mold issues and you would avoid the particleboard off-gassing.
Hi Sarah, I follow your blog and have taken your advice many times. I truly appreciate your logical approach to tackling tough subjects.
I do want to address your comment about latex degrading quickly. Natural latex rubber lasts for decades with minimal loss of resiliency and support. I’m not referring to latex with a small amount of natural rubber and mostly petrochemicals. (That breaks down very quickly.) I have been working and living with all natural latex rubber since 2004 through my ventures in organic mattresses, non-toxic upholstered furniture and organic home furnishing fabrics. My Sleeptek/ Obasan organic latex mattress is 17 years old and isn’t dipping at all. Neither are my sofa cushions that are 15 years old. My mother is still sleeping on her Sear mattress from the 1960’s that she purchased as “foam”. It is all natural latex rubber. I highly recommend it in terms of bang for the buck. Always ask for GOLS or independent lab certifications on the natural latex to make sure you are getting the real deal. Check that the certs aren’t expired and they show the name of the company from which you purchasing a natural latex filled mattress or sofa. Transparency, please.
Stem furniture, now Medley. I was very happy working with them. Handcrafted in CA in 6-8 weeks, great to work with and the products were of high quality, and decently priced.
Thank you for the Medley recommendation. Is anyone aware of any similar companies closer to the east coast? We live far from CA, and it’s hard to imagine making such an expensive purchase as an eco-friendly sofa without first sitting in it. Appreciate any recommendations!
Barbie Jean Hazen
Thank you, for that recommendation! I will look into it. I read that, foam, is banned in Europe and California. In which case, why wouldn’t we (United States), follow? This is a very frustrating allergy, to say the least! MCS