Nontoxic living is becoming an important cultural trend, with #nontoxicliving having more than 200 million views on TikTok. While there are many facets of this lifestyle choice, one of the smartest ways to reduce toxins in the home is to choose nontoxic furniture whenever possible.
While toxins in furniture aren’t a reason to re-decorate immediately, knowledge of the potential dangers of toxins in furniture is definitely something to consider when purchasing new items for the home.
Fortunately, there’s never been a better time to buy nontoxic home furnishings. Whether it’s a sofa, desk, or dining table, these pieces are becoming more mainstream, stylish, and affordable than ever. Here’s what consumers need to know about toxic furniture and nontoxic alternatives.
VOCS And Off-Gassing
Much like a “new car smell,” it turns out that new furniture scent isn’t just an unpleasant odor—it means volatile organic compounds (voc) are being released or off-gassed into the air.
“VOCs are typically five to ten more concentrated in indoor air than outdoor air. You are most likely to encounter them in your home from paints, cleaning products, glues, craft supplies, printers, and furniture—especially furniture that contains polyurethane foam,” Dr. Hayley Goldbach, MD, board-certified dermatologist and Assistant Professor of Dermatology at Brown University said.
While breathing these fumes in on occasion isn’t dangerous for most people, it’s exposure over time can cause major health issues, explains Dr. Goldbach. “There are many different VOCs and they can have different effects ranging from lung damage to brain issues to cancer,” she said. “Some off-gassing is down after a short initial period (which is why buying used furniture can be a very nontoxic choice) and some can happen over time as parts of furniture (like foam) start to break down.”
Dr. Goldbach began researching furniture toxicity when she had her first child, ultimately turning her knowledge into an additional career path. “Although I have a wonderful full-time job as a dermatologic surgeon, I’m so passionate about this and have helped so many friends and family members that I’m starting a micro consulting business to help people make healthy choices for their homes and families.”
What To Avoid
Dr. Goldbach recommends avoiding vinyl/PVC (usually faux leather, which can also be marketed as leatherette) and styrofoam to keep PFAS chemicals and flame retardants at a minimum. “PFAS are a group of per and poly fluoroalkyl substances that are commonly referred to as ‘forever chemicals,’ Their use has recently come under scrutiny with many states banning or limiting their use and several manufacturers pledging to stop using them,” she explained. “These chemicals don’t break down and are so prevalent that they have found their way into soil, water, food, and have been detected in human and animal blood.”
While more research is certainly needed about their effects, according to the doctor, “They have been linked to dangerous health outcomes ranging from cancer, reproductive issues, immune system, and liver toxicity.”
Trying to purchase nontoxic furniture can be overwhelming. To cut down on confusion and greenwashing—anything labeled nontoxic is likely a better choice than something that isn’t. But it’s best to go with furniture and decor that has a major third-party certification such as OEKO-TEX, Greenguard, and GOTS.
“OEKO-TEX is a certification conducted by a third-party organization that verifies whether a fabric has passed rigorous tests to be free from harmful chemicals to the human body and the environment,” Billy Shaw, cofounder of 7th Avenue, which is a sofa startup that makes stylish, nontoxic, stain-resistant, modular sofas with machine-washable OEKO-TEX certified upholstery said.
While this company is just one year old, it’s had impressive growth both online as well as with brick-and-mortar showrooms since launching. This is a great example of how consumer interest in a nontoxic lifestyle is becoming more prevalent. “We realize that furniture, especially the sofa, is an important part of one’s home. They’re the products we spend so much time on with our friends, family, and kids. This is why it’s so important to make a nontoxic furniture product that won’t harm people and the environment,” Shaw said.
So why aren’t more brands, especially startups going nontoxic? It comes down to costs. “Having OEKO-TEX certified and PFC (microplastics) free fabrics makes upholstery much more expensive. It is generally more challenging for mid-priced furniture to opt for such nontoxic materials. The only reason why 7th Avenue can have such nontoxic offerings is we choose to cut costs in other ways, such as having a modular design saves shipping costs,” he said.
In 2023, 7th Avenue will be entirely microplastic-free. “Microplastics (also known as PFC/PFOA/ PFAS) can be inside the human body and the environment for a very long time. They have also been shown to be toxic to the human body, and have gradually been banned in Europe as well as in the United States. Unfortunately, most ‘stain-resistant’ and ‘performance’ furniture fabrics are made using chemicals that contain such microplastics.”
OEKO-TEX certification isn’t just for sofa upholstery. Choosing OEKO-TEX is certified over standard sheets, and towels such as those made by Cozy Earth and Weezie are easy ways to eliminate additional sources of toxins in the home. It’s also far easier to replace linens than large pieces of furniture.
Greenguard Certified products have been tested for more than 10000 VOCs. To maintain the certification, all products undergo regular monitoring as well as annual recertification.
One of the most popular places to shop for Greenguard Certified furniture is Pottery Barn. For the past five years, it’s been the only exclusive home retailer on Barron’s 100 Most Sustainable List. Additionally, 100 percent of Pottery Barn Teen wood furniture is Greenguard Gold certified and 100 percent of Pottery Barn Kids’ furniture is Greenguard Gold certified.
Nuna which is sold on Pottery Barn Kids (among other sites) might be best known for its high-end strollers, but the brand also makes several Greenguard Gold certified products that easily integrate with two of the biggest current interior design trends—gender-neutral and minimalist. This includes bassinet/travel crib combos including the Cove Air Go and Sena Air as well as the LEAF Grow, which is a chair for infants. Many of the brand’s other products are also Greenguard Gold Certified, making it easy to coordinate an entire aesthetic.
It’s important to note that Greenguard certification isn’t merely limited to furniture. For example, all Chasing Paper wallpapers are printed with Greenguard Gold certified Ink and Clare Paints are Greenguard Gold certified.
According to the Global Organic Textile Standard website, “(GOTS) is to define requirements to ensure organic status of textiles, from harvesting of the raw materials, through environmentally and socially responsible manufacturing up to labeling in order to provide a credible assurance to the end consumer.” All GOTS-certified products have a minimum of 70 percent organic fibers.
GOTS certification can apply to a variety of items such as mattresses from brands including Essentia. Many GOTS certified products are also OEKO-TEX certified depending on the category.
Can A Home Be Entirely Nontoxic?
Having a home with entirely nontoxic furnishings isn’t a realistic or practical goal even with a very large budget. Furthermore, most homes are with built toxic building materials. So toxins are impossible to avoid completely.
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Opting for a nontoxic sofa is more important than a side table in a home office. Safer furniture for children and babies or the spaces they frequent should always come first.
To reduce toxin exposure from standard furniture, new pieces should be left outside to off-gas. If that’s not possible, allowing pieces off-gas in a room with open windows and an high purifier running can lower toxin exposure.
While social media including TikTok and Instagram can make the average person feel pressure to have a nontoxic home—perfect should never be the goal. Even Dr. Goldbach’s home isn’t entirely nontoxic. “No it is not realistic and trying to pursue perfection in this realm could lead to stress, anxiety, and even obsessive tendencies. None of that is healthy.”