Non Toxic Sofa Guide – How Sofa Can Be Toxic Or Non Toxic

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Non Toxic Sofa - Stem Sofa

Non Toxic Sofa


Sofa is a furniture that you and your family sit on every day. Living room is where all your family hang out most of the time. However, most sofas release toxic chemicals that is harmful to our health. Toxic chemicals from sofa easily escape into the air and attach to dust particles. Everyone in the family including a baby can breathe in toxic chemicals or ingest them by touching the chemicals accumulated in the living room and transporting them to mouth.  These chemicals can cause serious illness such as cancer or brain damage. In this post, I am sharing with you how sofa can be toxic and what you should look for when buying a non toxic sofa.


How Sofa Can Be Toxic & What’s Good

Toxic chemicals can come from four places in sofa: frame, foam cushion, glue and exterior fabric of a sofa.


Toxic Flame Retardant Chemicals

A flame retardant slows down the spread of fire and reduces its intensity. Most often, foam filled furniture uses polyurethane foam which is petroleum-based. These polyurethane foam in the removable cushions of the sofa is infused with flame retardants. A large sofa can have up to 2 lbs of flame retardants in its foam cushions. Currently, 80-100% of the sofas in the market contain flame retardant chemicals.

Flame retardants are very toxic and have negative health effects on us. They are linked to cancer, thyroid disruption, delayed mental and physical development, advanced puberty, lower IQ, reduced fertility and learning problems. Flame retardants from sofa can escape from sofa into the air and they can attach to dust. Our family members including babies and toddlers can breathe the air or touch the dust on furniture and transport it to their mouth. (Flame retardants in consumer products are linked to health and cognitive problems)

So why so many sofas use flame retardants despite its negative health effects? Starting 1975, California government required  foam-filled furniture to withstand 12 seconds open flame test without catching on fire. They also required products to contain flame retardant chemicals. Therefore, upholstered furniture manufacturers had to blend toxic flame retardants into their products in order to pass the test. Soon, most foam-filled furniture sold across the country contained flame retardants. Manufactures could not make two separate lines of sofas, one with flame retardants and one without, therefore, they just made sofas with flame retardants to cater to all markets in US. California had a large market share so manufacturers had to make sure they can cater to California market. There were numerous legislative efforts to take flame retardants out of the products over the years, however, they were all defeated due to heavy lobbying from the chemical industry. (The Fight Against Flame Retardants)

In 2014, fire-safety regulation was finally revised and updated. Scientists at the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission have determined that the flame retardants in household furniture don’t work but rather they are dangerous. In 2014, California removed the mandatory requirements for flame retardants in the filling of upholstered furniture. This doesn’t mean flame retardants are banned in the furniture, it just means manufacturers do not have to use them to pass the fire test. Therefore, some sofas will still contain flame retardant chemicals in them. (Quartz: The US government is finally acknowledging the flame retardants in your furniture and baby products are not just ineffective, but also dangerous)

So how do we know if a sofa contains flame retardant? As of Jan.2015, sofa manufacturers had to label sofas selling in the state of California indicating if they contain flame retardants. Now you can check the label yourself when you are shopping for a sofa. (on the bottom of the sofa or under the sofa cushions) If you bought a sofa made before 2015, the indication of flame retardants is not on the label and your sofa will most likely contain polyurethane foam with flame retardant chemicals.


Foam/ Filling For a A Non Toxic Sofa

With the revised standard and the label requirement, some manufacturers started making sofas without flame retardant chemicals starting 2015. Their sofas made after 2015 won’t contain flame retardants at all. They use materials such as natural latex rubber, cotton, wool or down instead of polyurethane foam to avoid the use of flame retardant chemicals in their sofa. Also polyurethane foam is petroleum-based, therefore, it emits VOCs (volatile organic compounds) even without flame retardant chemicals. VOCs cause respiratory problems and skin irritation. Therefore, it is best to avoid polyurethane foam.


Toxic Frame Material

Frame of a sofa is another place that can release toxic chemicals to our home. The problem with frame part of a sofa is releasing of a toxic chemical called formaldehyde. Formaldehyde is a highly toxic chemical which can cause cancer, asthma, allergies, irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat. US National Toxicology Program described formaldehyde as ‘known to be a human carcinogen’. High concentrations of formaldehyde results cell death. Direct contact with formaldehyde solution can cause severe burns to the eyes and skin. Chronic exposure of formaldehyde can cause cancer and adverse effects on the central nervous system. Children are more susceptible to negative health effects of formaldehyde. Chronic exposure of formaldehyde is also more serious to children.  Formaldehyde is a highly dangerous chemical. Therefore, it should be avoided to protect you and your family. (Medical Management Guidelines for Formaldehyde)

So why does the frame of a sofa release formaldehyde? A sofa frame can be made with wood, plastic or steel. Most often, you will find that frame is made of wood. There are two types of wood used for making a sofa frame: solid wood or engineered wood. Solid wood is natural wood and formaldehyde is a naturally occurring chemical in natural wood.  Solid wood releases only a trace amount of formaldehyde at its natural state which is within safe levels.

Engineered hardwood, on the other hand, releases high levels of formaldehyde. Engineered hardwood is manufactured wood such as medium-density fiberboard (MDF), particle board, or plywood. During manufacturing, engineered wood is treated with hot temperature or prolonged heating. Treating wood with hot temperature increases the emission of formaldehyde level from the wood.  Engineered wood releases significantly higher amount of formaldehyde due to the treatment it receives. (Understanding of Formaldehyde Emissions from Solid Wood)

Also, engineered wood is made by gluing many layers of wood together. When wood layers are put together,  formaldehyde-based glue is used. Most manufactured wood products use one of two types of formaldehyde-based glues: Phenol-formaldehyde (PF) or Urea-formaldehyde (UF). The Healthy House of Institute stated that PF-glued products typically emit 10 times the formaldehyde outgassed by natural wood, UF resins can release at least 100 times more formaldehyde than the natural wood.  As I have explained, engineered wood emits toxic formaldehyde significantly at higher levels from wood due to its manufacturing process and glues used.


Frame For A Non Toxic Sofa

Solid hardwood is the best material for a wood frame of a non toxic sofa. Solid wood can be divided into hardwood or softwood. Hardwood is much stronger than softwood and it lasts longer so it’s better. Engineered wood should be avoided since it emits toxic formaldehyde significantly. Solid wood doesn’t emit high levels of formaldehyde like engineered wood does so it would be the best choice.

For hardwood, kiln-dried hardwood is the best and it is considered to be the top of the line. Kiln-drying is better than traditional air drying since temperatures and humidity are strictly controlled and it can remove 93% of moisture from wood. Drying wood makes the wood stronger and also perform better. With air-drying, you can not be sure if moisture of wood is reduced enough. Therefore, look for kiln-dried hardwood. (Are Kiln Dried Sofa Frames Better?)

Wood can be also The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified. FSC certified means products’ wood came from FSC certified forest and supply chain that is managed responsibly, environmentally conscious, and socially beneficial.


Toxic Glue

Glue is used to connect the joints of the frame. Often, glue used is formaldehyde-based glue. Glue can be also solvent-based that are toxic by inhalation and skin contact.


Glue For A Non Toxic Sofa

Some manufacturers use water-based, low-VOC glue to minimize the toxic chemical release.


Toxic Upholstery Materials

Sofa’s exterior can be covered with different materials such as leather, organic, natural fabrics or synthetic fabrics. Natural fabrics include cotton, hemp, linen or wool. Organic fabrics are natural fabrics that are made with organic materials.  Synthetic fabrics include nylon, polyester, rayon, acrylic, etc. Leather, synthetic and even natural fabrics are heavily treated with toxic chemicals and they can have chemical residues on a final product. These chemical residues can cause negative health effects. Let’s see why leather, some synthetic or natural fabrics should be avoided when buying a sofa.


Toxic Leather

First, leather is not only a very toxic material but also it involves animal cruelty. Often, animals go through harsh abuse and living conditions in factory farm then killed cruelly in order for us to harvest their skin to make leather products. We don’t realize this when we buy leather products since we don’t actually witness animals living in a horrible animal farm factory and getting killed. In some animal farm factories, animals are skinned alive and they are still conscious bearing pain for hours after they are skinned. Most leather products in US is made from cattle and calves but it can also come from pigs, sheep, lambs, goats, ostriches, alligators and snakes. In China, dogs and cats are also skinned to make leather products. We could be unknowingly using leather products made from dogs. (Leather: Animals Abused And Killed for Their Skins)(Dogs Skinned Alive For Leather)

Leather goes through tanning process which skins and hides of animals are treated to produce leather. Most leather in the U.S. and around the world is chromium-tanned. In tanning process, about 250 chemicals are used. Some of the chemicals used in tanning are chromium, formaldehyde, chlorine, alcohol, coal tar, sodium sulphate, sulphuric acid, chlorinated phenols (e.g. 3,5-dichlorophenol), azo dyes, cadmium, cobalt, copper, antimony, ammonia, ammonium sulphate, lead, selenium, mercury, zinc, polychlorinated biphenyels (PCBs), nickel and pesticide residues.

Chromium is lung irritant and carcinogen and it can cause lung, sinus or nasal cancer. Formaldehyde is also a carcinogen which can cause nasal cancer. Mercury can cause negative health effects on  the nervous, digestive and immune systems, and on kidneys, lungs, skin and eyes. Lead accumulates in the body and it is distributed to kidney, brain, liver and bones. Lead can be deadly especially for children. Cadmium is also highly toxic and is known to cause cancer. There are so many toxic chemicals that I can not list them all here. Other types of tanning such as Vegetable tanning or Aldehyde tanning which referred to as ‘chromium-free’, still uses 249 chemicals and goes through the same tanning process. Therefore, ‘chromium-free’ or not, all types of leather tanning use deadly, toxic chemicals and they are hazardous to our health. Leather tannery is also very hazardous for workers and many develop health problems. Leather tanning also destroys our environment with its toxic wastes. (Estimating Chemical Releases From Leather Tanning And Finishing) (Chrome-free leather?)



Toxic Stain or Wrinkle-Resistance Treatments

Some upholstery fabrics have stain or wrinkle-resistance finishes on them. Although it is convenient to have stain or wrinkle-resistant properties, they often leave toxic residues on fabrics that your skin come in contact with. They can also release toxic chemicals, therefore, they should be avoided.


Toxic Stain-Resistant Finish

Almost all the stain repellent finishes on fabrics in the market today use perfluorochemicals (PFC’s). They are the only chemicals capable of repelling stains. Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) which are part of a perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) are highly toxic and found in stain-resistant finishes. You may have heard PFOA or PFOS from Teflon nonstick cookware. PFOA and PFOS cause thyroid disorders, decreased fertility, testicular cancer, kidney cancer, changes in growth, learning and behavior of the developing fetus and child. PFOA and PFOS stay in our body for a long time. They exist in our environment with so many products using these chemicals such as carpet, apparel, upholstery and cookware. These chemicals can be found in animals and 90% of Americans in their blood. Researchers have found that of every 20 children tested, 19 had blood contaminated with PFOA. Recent addition of nanotechnology to stain resistant formulations is also dangerous since nanoparticles can travel through our blood stream and enter our organs such as lungs and liver. (PFOA/ PFOS Exposure And Health Effects) (Soil and Stain Resistant Finishes) (What about soil resistant finishes like Scotchgard, GoreTex, NanoTex and GreenShield – are they safe?)


Toxic Wrinkle-Resistant Finish

Wrinkle-resistant finish uses a formaldehyde resin. Almost all cotton/ poly blend in USA are treated with a formaldehyde resin to make the fabric wrinkle-free. Also, cotton is easily wrinkled so manufacturer may ask you if you want a wrinkle-resistant finish on it. Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen and it causes other  negative health effects such as contact dermatitis or asthma. We can be exposed to formaldehyde by inhaling off-gassed formaldehyde fumes from a wrinkle-resistant fabric.  Formaldehyde can also be easily absorbed through the skin if formaldehyde residue is present on an upholstery fabric. (Formaldehyde In Your Fabrics) (10 reasons to make sure your sofa choices are upholstered with safely processed fabrics.)


Toxic Chemicals In Fabrics

Fabric goes through tons of harsh chemical treatment during production. Many of these chemicals are not only toxic but also leaves residues on the fabrics. If chemical residues are left, they will be in direct contact with our skin. Polyester, for example, is a petroleum derived fabric and made with highly toxic chemicals which are carcinogens. These chemicals don’t fully go away even after the manufacturing process. They can be entered into our body through moist skin. Excessive wearing of polyester clothes can cause  skin rashes, hormonal dysfunction, behavior problems, immune system problems, cancer and other health problems. We have our clothes to protect our skin from direct contact with sofa and our skin is most likely not moist during seating. However, our moist skin can be in direct contact with sofa when we wear short sleeves & shorts and possibly sweat due to hot temperature. (read Polyester and Our Health.)


Fabrics For A Non Toxic Sofa

If you want to avoid chemical residues, the only way to make sure is to get fabrics that are GOTS (Global Organic Textiles Standard) and Oeko-Tex Standard 100 certified. GOTS (Global Organic Textiles Standard) covers every stage of production from raw materials through manufacturing to a finished product. GOTS certified organic products must contain 95% certified organic fibers and ‘made with organic’ products must contain minimum of 70% certified organic fibers under their certification. GOTS also watches any toxic chemicals used before, during and at the finish stage of the production.  Oeko-Tex Standard 100, on the other hand, does not look at raw materials or manufacturing process but only tests a final product for harmful substances. Therefore, Oeko-Tex Standard 100 certified fabrics may have gone through harsh chemical treatment during raw materials and manufacturing process but chemicals were washed out at the final product stage and have no residues left on fabrics.

Non toxic sofa will have fabrics made from natural fibers such as certified organic cotton, certified organic wool, certified organic linen, certified organic hemp or blend of certified organic fabrics. 100% cotton, even 100% organic cotton goes through harsh chemicals unless it is GOTS certified. Dioxin is used as a preservative for cotton and other fibers during sea transit, dyeing and bleaching. It causes lung & liver cancer and interferes with immune system. Studies have found that dioxin leached from clothing to human skin during wearing. Therefore, even for natural fibers, check if they are GOTS or Oeko-Tex Standard 100 certified to ensure the final product doesn’t have any chemical residues. (10 reasons to make sure your sofa choices are upholstered with safely processed fabrics.)

Polyester fabric which is used very commonly for sofas can not be GOTS certified since it is not an organic fabric but a synthetic one. However, if you are going with a synthetic fabric, 100% recycled poly fabric made from plastic bottles can be Oeko-Tex Standard 100 certified to make sure there are no chemical residues left on fabric. Recycled polyester is considered a sustainable textile since it needs a lot less of energy to produce the fabric than conventional polyester.  Also, it uses recycled plastic water bottles to make the fabric, therefore, we keep plastic out of the landfills. However, a synthetic fabric such as polyester is a petroleum-based product which also contains toxic chemicals with serious risks to your health. (A buyer’s guide to safe upholstery fabrics) (Why is recycled polyester considered a sustainable textile?) (Polyester and Our Health)



Final Thoughts

So many sofas have petroleum-based foams infused with flame retardants, formaldehyde releasing frames and chemical treated leather or fabrics. On top of that, sofas can also contain toxic glues to make them even more harmful. Non toxic sofas have a 100% natural latex foam or down fillings, kiln dried hardwood frame that is FSC certified, certified organic or at least Oeko-Tex Standard 100 certified cotton, wool, linen or hemp upholstery fabrics. Glue used will be water-based, low-VOCs to minimize the release of VOCs (volatile organic compounds) from a sofa. In my next post, I will list non toxic sofa companies that you can shop from. In the mean time, I hope this guide helps you decide what to avoid and what to look for when buying a sofa.


For non toxic sofa companies that you can shop from, please read my next post, ‘Non Toxic Sofa Guide – Which Sofa Brand Is Non Toxic?

If you are interested in non toxic, solid wood platform bed frames, please read my post ‘Solid Wood Bed Frame – What To Look For When Buying A Solid Wood Platform Bed‘.

If you are interested in organic latex mattress, please read my post , ‘Non Toxic, Organic Mattress – The Best Organic Latex Mattress Brands.’

If you are interested, how mattresses can be toxic, please read my post, ‘Non Toxic Mattress Guide – Chemical-Free, Organic Mattress‘.  




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    Isabelle has been an entrepreneur for last 16 years in retail and educational industry. She is also a mom. She is a mom entrepreneur who is always trying to find a better, easier way to run her business. She also tries to provide organic and non-toxic living environment for her child. She likes to research for the most non-toxic products or safe alternatives and share them with parents. In addition, she is against animal testing and supports cruelty-free products.


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