Mattress Guides

What Is GREENGUARD Certification?

Learn how to choose a mattress that’s low on chemical emissions

By Alex Reale

We’re all exposed to environmental toxins, including airborne pollutants and chemical emissions, throughout the day, often without realizing it. In fact, chemical emissions can waft into our nostrils from the furniture in our homes. That’s because many of these items are embedded with chemicals during the manufacturing process.

The mattresses we sleep on are not exempt from this. Indeed, mattresses can be prime culprits for environmental toxins. The good news is that, with a little smart shopping, you can ensure that your next mattress purchase is toxin-free. Specifically, you can look for GREENGUARD certified products, which have been rigorously tested and found to be relatively clean and safe.

What It Means to Be GREENGUARD Certified

The GREENGUARD certification program is administered by UL Environmental, a global safety certifications company. This organization is not affiliated with any mattress company, nor with the mattress industry in general; they evaluate products in a completely independent way, ensuring unbiased, third-party results.

What is UL Environmental testing for, exactly? Their primary goal is to minimize chemical admissions from the products they test, which include but are not limited to mattresses. 

Generally speaking, their focus is on volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. These carbon-based chemicals are often used in manufacturing, but at room temperature they break down, turn into gas, then dissipate into the air. At any given time, your indoor environment may have dozens of VOCs floating about; they are common in furniture but also in many household cleaning products.

There aren’t currently any state or federal laws that regulate VOCs, but many consumer advocacy groups have taken on the cause. That brings us back to the GREENGUARD program, which meticulously tests different products for VOC content, and awards their certification to products that offer low chemical emissions. In other words, if you want your next mattress to be low on VOCs and other indoor pollutants, making sure to buy a GREENGUARD certified product is a smart way to go.

One thing to note as you shop: There are two levels of distinction within the GREENGUARD program. There’s GREENGUARD certification, and then there’s GREENGUARD Gold certification. 

The latter is awarded to products that meet an especially rigorous standard. Greenguard Certification permits 500 micrograms per cubic meter of air total VOCs, while the Greenguard Gold distinction only allows 220. Gold certification also checks for some additional chemicals and pollutants, which means it’s an especially safe bet for anyone who lives with someone immunocompromised, with young children, or with the elderly.

How a Mattress Gets GREENGUARD Certified

How does UL Environmental determine whether a product meets the sustainability criteria for GREENGUARD or GREENGUARD Gold certification? In a word, testing.

UL employs what it calls dynamic environmental chambers, which are carefully controlled for both temperature and humidity, ensuring there are no “background” VOCs to compromise test results.

Mattresses and other products are brought into these chambers, where chemical analysts are able to determine the precise number of chemicals that the product emits. The number can be as low as zero, or as high as 300. The total certification process can take anywhere from a month to half a year, and a mattress may remain in the testing chamber for two full weeks so that analysts can better assess VOC emissions over time.

Even once a product receives GREENGUARD or GREENGUARD Gold certification, the process isn’t over. New versions of the product must be submitted for testing on an annual basis.

How Important is GREENGUARD Certification?

GREENGUARD certification is helpful for anyone who wants to limit air pollution inside their home, and to make certain that they only bring low-emitting furniture into their family space. Because VOCs and other chemicals can potentially increase your risk of illness, GREENGUARD certification is especially useful for families with elderly or immunocompromised people, or very small children.

Be aware that VOC emissions have been connected with a number of unwanted health effects, including symptoms such as exhaustion and irritation of the eye, nose, or throat. By seeking products that have passed GREENGUARD tests and earned the applicable product certification, you can curb your exposure to these harmful chemicals. And by seeking GREENGUARD Gold certified products, you can increase your protection, specifically steering clear of products made with formaldehyde.

With all of that said, there are limitations to what GREENGUARD certifications can achieve. While GREENGUARD indoor air quality certification helps ensure that VOCs are at a certain level, the specific number can be fuzzy; you can never know for sure exactly what kind of VOC content is in a specific product. So, for those with extreme sensitivities to certain chemicals, even GREENGUARD certification may not be enough.

Something else to clarify: GREENGUARD only tests for chemical emissions; it does not test for chemicals that are in the building materials themselves.

Conclusion

The bottom line: Everyone wants to rest assured that the air in their house is clean and toxin-free. The grim reality is that this isn’t always the case. We bring toxins into our homes all the time, usually via products such as mattresses, cleaning supplies, and home decor.

The good news is that there are programs that test these products and allow consumers to make fully informed choices. If you’re looking for a way to minimize the toxins you bring into your home, looking for the GREENGUARD label is one smart precaution you can take.