Natural and Conventional Mattress Alternatives

Choosing the Right Mattress

While conventional innerspring mattresses still constitute the majority of mattress purchases, a number of alternatives are increasingly available.

Memory foam, air chambers, natural latex, and cotton futons are just a few of the alternatives to conventional mattresses, in some cases offering better comfort or better indoor air quality.

Innerspring Mattresses

Conventional innerspring mattresses offer durability, comfort, and affordability. These mattresses are made with metal coils, usually plastic-coated, encased in padding and fabric. There are several types of coils, affecting firmness, durability, and cost.

As a result of their materials and manufacturing, conventional mattresses contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs), formaldehyde, and chemical fire retardants that will off-gas over time. This could have a negative effect on indoor air quality. Mattress off-gassing is most likely to cause problems for infants, since their brains and bodies are more sensitive to toxins. Some research has even posited links between mattress off-gassing and SIDS.

For consumers concerned about air quality, but still wanting an innerspring mattress, there are a number of companies now manufacturing natural and/or organic versions that are free from toxins, formaldehyde, VOCs and chemicals. For example, take a look at these pocket spring mattress from MattressTime.

Memory Foam

Memory foam and latex mattresses are alternatives to innerspring mattresses. Memory foam is made of polyurethane. Its firmness changes with temperature changes, so it conforms to the body. This is believed to alleviate the problems of pressure points associated with innerspring mattresses. Memory foam mattress toppers, usually several inches thick, are also available. Like conventional innerspring mattresses, new memory foam off-gasses, reducing indoor air quality at least temporarily.

Latex Mattresses

Both memory foam and latex mattresses are solid throughout. Rather than polyurethane foam, latex mattresses are made from a block of synthetic or natural latex foam through which holes have been pierced; the holes make the mattress softer and more pliable. The mattress is then encased on cotton, wool, or other fabric. Some manufacturers use synthetic latex, or a combination of synthetic and natural latex. However there are manufacturers who use only natural latex, a product that comes from the rubber tree. All-natural latex mattresses are typically harder to find and cost a bit more. Latex mattresses are popular in Europe, but are just catching on in the US.


One of the oldest forms of mattress is the futon, made by layering cotton and/or wool, sometimes with a foam core. The cotton batting provides loft and is much more breathable than conventional mattresses. A cotton futon will get firmer with use, as the cotton gets matted down. Extra firm cotton futons are available in crib sizes. Because they are made from natural materials, futons do not contribute to indoor air pollution through off-gassing and typically last many years. Organic futons, made from organically grown cotton, are also available. And an important distinction should be made between mattress-quality futons and the inexpensive futons intended as dorm or “throwaway” furniture (typically these are presented as alternatives to couches and sofabeds, rather than being marketed as long-term sleeping surfaces).

A good night’s rest is so important for health and well-being. It is worth exploring all the options to find the mattress that best fits your lifestyle, values, and comfort preferences.