This post contains affiliated links. Please read my disclosure page.
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.
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.
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)
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‘.
Really brilliant Isabelle, thank you so much.
Do you know if there is a problem with steel frames? also confused about pocket springs if ok if surrounded by cotton?
Thank you for your message! I have not found any studies stating steel frames in couches are toxic or hazardous. I have found the same for the pocket springs in couches when they are surrounded by cotton.
Great info, thank you. So I learned something I didn’t know about leather. I looked into furniture with non flame retardent materials and discoverd a Renew Leather that Lazy Boy sells. Sounds like they have re-puposed the leather and avoid the animal cruelty the second time around. What are your thoughts on the product?
Renew leather is made from recycled leather. It does avoid animal cruelty the second time around since recycled leather reuses leftover leather without extra farming. I do also feel it is less toxic than the Genuine leather since it doesn’t go through tanning process. Therefore, I do feel it is better than the genuine leather. However, I would still avoid a Renew leather. Recycled leather, also known as bonded leather may still have toxic chemicals present from tanning of leather previously. Bonded leather has other materials such as polyurethane (PU) which is plastic. It could contain plasticizers or other chemicals to make this man made material. I personally wanted to avoid any types of leather and gotten a fabric couch for myself.
I am trying to buy a recliner. I tried one from Living Spaces that was covered in 100% polyester but looked like leather. It really didn’t smell but was uncomfortable. So I went back and exchanged it for the next model up which is leather. It smelled like leather when they delivered it but at night my heart started racing and my throat burned.
Both are made in China (big shock, right). I am still trying to air out the leather recliner but went to a more expensive store, Johnson Furniture and Interiors and found a wall hugging recliner that can be covered in either leather or a 100% polyester fabric. This is a Comfort Design brand recliner made in the USA. The sales rep said that imported furniture is sprayed with something and domestic products are not.
I am wondering if good leather is safer than polyester or the other way around? The leather on the Living Spaces recliner had to be poor quality to meet the $500 price point. The Comfort Design recliner is $900 in fabric, probably about $1700 with leather.
What would you do? Thanks
You can ask those sales rep if the sofas have any treatments such as stain-resistant, wrinkle-resistant, on the sofa fabric. The chemicals used for these treatments are toxic and can also cause irritation. Leather goes through toxic chemical treatments so I would avoid it as a sofa material. Sofas also have other materials such as frames, adhesives, paddings, etc. Therefore, it is hard to say which sofa is more toxic since frames, adhesives, paddings can also off-gas. Have you checked out other brands in my other post ‘Non-Toxic Sofa Guide – Which Sofa Brand Is Non Toxic?‘
If sofa fabric doesn’t have any finish treatments, I would probably choose fabric over leather. However, as I have mentioned, other components of a sofa can be toxic too. Therefore, it is hard to conclude which sofa is more toxic since all of the components can off-gas toxic chemicals, not just an outer covering. Hope this helps!
Thank you, I ended up ordering a Manual recliner from Comfort Design with a 100% polyester fabric. They said it isn’t treated with any chemicals, the frame is solid wood and no glues used.
American made, will cost $1,000 total delivered. I’ll see how it goes but it’s much better quality than Chinese made recliners at Living Spaces.
They also said the foam they use is soy and not from petroluem and is non VOC.
One concern about soy foam is that more than 90% of U.S. soybeans derive from GMO (genetically modified organism) crops.
True, I avoid GMOs in food but in a recliner I’m not too concerned. They say their foam gives off no VOCs which is good.
Yes, I understand. However, soy foam can also contain very little percentage of soy and the rest can come from petroleum chemicals. You can read about it here. If the soy foam contains petroleum-chemicals, it can still off gas. I don’t know if your sofa has any no or low VOC certifications such as GreenGuard Gold to ensure. Anyway, hopefully, this helps!
First of all a great website !!! Quick Q. How does one go about testing their sofa’s, curtains ect., for toxic chemicals/ flame retardants? I’ve already done air testing for VOC’S ect.. I’m aware that Duke in Durham NC does some sample testing however not sure of all the the logistics. Any thoughts ?
Many non toxic or organic product brands get certified by reputable certification organizations such as Greenguard Gold or Global Organic Textile Standard. Depending on the certification, they test VOC emissions, flame retardants, toxic chemicals, organic materials, etc. These organizations have standards on what is accepted and not accepted. Hope this helps!
Having a heck of a time finding a recliner that won’t knock me out due to MCS.
I bought a Living Spaces recliner made in china-I didn’t have high hopes and wasn’t let down-it was awful. Living Spaces also ripped me off with their ridiculous delivery fees, I am out over $200.
So, looking online I see some Bradington-Young leather recliners but not brave enough to try them so I searched for floor models and I may have found a couple. Getting more info but I figure if they are floor models hopefully they will be outgassed. They are leather.
Yes, products will off-gas VOCs the most in the beginning such as first month or year. How much VOCs will off-gas in the beginning will depend on products or materials. Off-gassing can occur for years. Even large amount of VOCs have out-gassed in the beginning, small amount of VOCs can out-gas for years after that. The best thing would be to avoid products or materials with VOCS. However, if not possible, allowing products to off-gas in the beginning before use and ventilating your space as much as possible would be a good idea.
Hi, Sorry english is not my first langage.
What if I am broke and have polyester or other toxic fabric on both my couch? Is there something I can put on top of it to stop the toxicity to get on my skin and in my air? Like something I could do until I have enough money in the future to change them?
Also, is the toxicity in the body (from using polyester blankets and sleeping on polyester cushion etc) stay forever? If I have been exposed for 6 years and now I change my bedding, is it going to leave my body at some point? Is it too late to change the effect on my cancer chance percentage?
Thanks you in advance.
Sorry for a late reply.
I am not a doctor, chemist or medical professionalso I wouldn’t know if the polyester use in the past had any effects on your body so far. I wouln’t worry about the past use since it is in the past. Instead, you can try to make more non toxic material choices when you make a purchase in the future. Our clothes also may protect our skin from direct contact with sofa.
If you are concerned about the potential toxicity of your couch fabric, one solution is to cover the couch with a natural fabric such as cotton or linen. (organic cotton or linen even better) You can use a large, breathable cloth to drape over the couch, tucking it in at the edges to keep it in place. This can help to reduce direct contact with the polyester or other toxic fabric, and prevent the release of chemicals into the air. Here are some examples of couch covers. Hope this helps!