Create a Nontoxic Nursery

nursery Jul 02, 2018

by editorial team and Sophia Ruan Gushée


When my son was first born, I was scared. How will I know the “right” way to raise a child? How will I protect this tiny innocent little being and keep him healthy and safe?

Little did I know I’d have to worry about chemicals commonly found in the nursery—the very place where newborns sleep for 14-17 hours per day for the first three months of their life. (1)

Children are more likely to be affected by chemicals—such as pesticides, volatile organic compounds (VOC), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and bisphenol A—found in common household products.(2) These chemicals may contribute to several medical conditions—such as cancer, leukemia, early puberty, premature birth, and damage to the development, hormone, nervous, and immune systems, just to name a few.

Why is this?

Children's size, and higher amount food and water intake per pound of body weight make them more vulnerable. (3) Children’s toxic exposures have the opportunity to interfere with the hormones that guide their biological development.

Where are these chemicals and how can we protect our children’s health?

The items listed below are often found in nurseries, but are available in non-toxic varieties. 

1. Crib and Bed Mattresses

Common Chemicals & Potential Health Effects:

Chemicals—such as pesticides, polyurethane foam, phthalates, and flame retardants—have been found to cause cancer (4), affect the brain (the part of the nervous system that is responsible for how well we sleep) (5), hormone system (6), and linked to behavioral issues—such as autism and fertility challenges. (7)

What to Consider When Choosing:

  • Fabric Covering. Choose organic natural fibers—such as organic cotton or wool—instead of synthetic fibers, like nylon and polyester.
  • Padding. Opt for natural fiber paddings—such as cotton or wool—whenever possible.
  • Supporting Core. Look for mattresses that have natural materials in the supporting core—such as organic rubber, natural latex, and some types of innerspring mattress padding.
  • Adhesives. Opt for zero- or low-VOC adhesives.
  • Flame Retardants. Look for mattresses with the least amount of flame retardants possible.

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2. Blankets, Comforters, and Sheets

Common Chemicals & Potential Health Effects:

Blankets, comforters, pillows, and sheets can contain chemicals—such as formaldehyde (8), PDBEs (9), and flame retardants (10)—that prevent our bodies from recovering. These chemicals have been linked to leukemia, brain cancer (11), liver, kidney, thymus and spleen conditions, endocrine (produces hormones) and immune system (to fight infections and disease) effects, growth retardation in animals (12), increased frequency of children exhibiting aggression, defiance, hyperactivity, inattention and bullying (13), and damage to the nervous system (that controls your nerves and muscles). (14)

What to Consider When Choosing:

  • Choose Material made from Natural Fibers. Choose bedding made of wool, cotton, linen, or hemp. Materials such as polyester, nylon, acrylic are made from petroleum-based fibers that may be causing health concerns.
  • Buy Organic Materials. Organic materials are grown without chemicals. Buying organic gives you fewer chemicals to worry about.
  • Buy Untreated. Buy sheets and blankets that are untreated by avoiding these types of fabrics: permanent press, wrinkle-free, crease resistant, shrink proof, stain resistant and water-repellent materials.
  • Ditch the Dyes. Look for naturally colored bedding, and avoid buying sheets, comforters, and blankets that have been dyed. Alternatively, bedding colored with “low-impact” dyes mean that a smaller amount of dyes are needed to color the material. However, they can still use chemicals in the dye process.
  • Choose Pillows Filled with Natural Fibers. Buy pillows that are filled with natural fibers—such as cotton, wool, or silk—instead of synthetic materials—like polyester, nylon, rayon, or foam—that have been linked to health issues.

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3. Curtains

Common Chemicals & Potential Health Effects:

Each of the elements that make up a curtain—the material, dye and finish—can contain chemicals—like chlorine, formaldehyde, pesticides, and PFCs—that may contribute to health concerns, like asthma and cancer.

What to Consider When Choosing:

  • Material. Natural materials—such as cotton, organic cotton, silk, and linen—are preferable to synthetic materials.
  • Dyes. Naturally colored materials can be labeled as “color grown” or list the dye source—such as clay, spices, nuts, roots, tree bark, and plant parts. Dyes labeled as “low-impact dye” are made from synthetic materials (chemicals), but are considered by some to be a better option than standard dyes. There are varying views about low-impact dyes and their effect on health.
  • Finishes. Curtains come with a variety of finishes that may or may not be listed on the label. If you see words like “easy care”, “protected”, or “wrinkle resistant,” there may be chemical finishes added. Steer away from curtains that contain one or more finishes.
  • 3rd Party Certifications. Opt for window curtains that have been certified by a credible third-party. Here are a few to look for:
    • GOTS Certified as “organic.” The GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) takes into account the material fiber, dye, finish, added notions (buttons, zippers, etc), tag, and packaging material when certifying textiles
    • Oeko-Tex Standard 100. This is a certification accepted and used worldwide. Material fiber, dye, finish, and notions are taken into account when certifying textiles.
    • USDA Organic. The U.S. Department of Agriculture certifies raw natural fibers (cotton, wool, flax). USDA organic certification only takes into account the fiber; it does not take into account dye, finish, or notions.

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4. Nursing Chair

Common Chemicals & Potential Health Effects:

Standard upholstered furniture are made of polyurethane foam (for cushioning), synthetic fabric covering, and added fabric finishes that resist stains, water and flames. Several of the chemicals that comprise these furniture components fall into a family of chemicals called VOCs, which stands for Volatile Organic Compounds. These chemicals are also found on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAPs) list.

VOCs have been linked to cancer, cell mutation, hormone disruption and nervous system damage. (15) They have also been found to impact the immune system, reproductive system (toxicity), neurological system, and fetus and child development. (16)  

What to Consider When Choosing:

  • Cushion & Padding with Natural Material. Choosing cushioned furniture, padded with natural rubber or organic wool, is preferable to polyurethane foam.
  • Natural Coverings. Opt for natural fabric covering instead of synthetic fabric covering.
  • Solid hardwood. Consider purchasing solid hardwood furniture that is 100% wood, instead of furniture made from composite woods such as MDF, plywood, or pressed wood.
  • Stains and Finishes. Choose zero- or low-VOC stains and finishes for solid wood furniture. Consider buying the furniture unfinished and finishing it yourself.  Remember that you can always ask the manufacturer for more information about its products, and how transparent the manufacturer is can be revealing.

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5. Bookcase

Common Chemicals & Potential Health Effects:

When buying or installing wood products in the home, be aware that solid hardwood materials have the least amount of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Solid softwoods naturally release higher amounts of VOCs than hardwoods. Composite woods are made of wood parts and adhesives or bonding agents, which are made from chemicals that may be causing health conditions.

Standard stains, paints, finishes, glues and adhesives can also contain chemicals that have been linked to health concerns that affect the immune system, respiratory system, (17) nervous system, reproductive system, liver and kidney systems, and cause cancer. (18)  

What to Consider When Choosing:

  • Look for safer glues and adhesives. Glues and adhesives are available as natural, zero-VOC or low-VOC products, and some claim to be “nontoxic” altogether. Consider choosing glues and adhesives that have the least amount of VOCs and harmful chemicals in them.
  • Skip the adhesives. Look for furniture held together with screws, nails, or other fastening devices to secure parts of products.
  • Choose naturally strong products. Solid hardwood grips that screw and fasten tightly may not need additional adhesives to be used. Even more significantly, solid hardwood does not require the use of adhesives in the manufacturing of the wood, like composite wood products do.

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6. Paints, Stains and Finishes

Common Chemicals & Potential Health Effects:

Volatile Organic Compounds, or VOC, is a category of chemicals found in a standard paint that off-gas chemicals into the air and have been found to cause various health concerns. Included in the VOC family are chemicals commonly found in paint products, such as benzene and formaldehyde. Possible health effects of these and other VOC chemicals, include leukemia, breast cancer, lymphatic cancer and damage chromosomes. (19) Further, they may affect the immune system, respiratory system and cause cancer. (20)

What to Consider When Choosing:

  • Water Based or Latex Paints. In short, latex paints emit fewer VOCs than oil-based paints. (21) This is not to be confused with low-VOC paints, which are labeled as such.
  • Natural Paints. When you see paint ingredients—like water, dyes, resins, and oils—that are made from clay, chalk, talcum, milk casein, natural latex, beeswax, and mineral dyes, it’s a good indicator that you found a natural paint. (22)
  • Flat Finish Paints. The amount of VOCs per liter of paint is printed right on the paint can as required by Federal law. Generally speaking, paints with a flat finish have fewer VOCs than paints with a non-flat finish. (23)
  • Low-VOC Paints. The low-VOC label means that less VOCs are in the paint product and thereby less VOCs will be released into the air (vs. standard paint). Be aware that low-VOC products can still emit VOCs.
  • Certified Paints. The Green Seal certification indicates that the VOC levels for flat paints are below 50 grams per liter and non-flat paints are below 150 grams per liter. Read more about Green Seal at
  • Zero-VOC Paints. Zero-VOC products are not necessarily completely free of VOCs but have less than standard paints. Up to 5 grams per liter of VOCs can be present in zero-VOC paints.
  • Colored & Tinted Paints. Paint color or tint can contain VOCs as well. Lighter colors typically contain fewer VOCs.
  • Interior Paints. Leave the exterior for the outdoors. Heed the manufacturer’s advice and only use indoor paint when painting indoor surfaces.

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7. Flooring

Common Chemicals & Potential Health Effects:

Different types of flooring have various types and amounts of chemicals. However, several types of flooring have been found to off-gas VOCs into the air and contain chemicals found on the Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAP) list created by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

What to Consider When Choosing:

  • Carpet. Less toxic carpet options include those made of wool (which is a natural flame retardant), and has fewer dyes, standard finishes and protective finishes. Look for carpet backing made of natural materials such as jute. (24)  If using adhesives (vs. tack strips) to secure the carpet to the subfloor, opt for low-VOC adhesives. Beyond chemical make-ups, carpets harbor dust. The same dust found to contain harmful chemicals from clothing, electronics and other common household sources. (25)  Generally speaking, carpet is not the healthiest flooring option.
  • Ceramic Tile. Well known as one of the healthiest materials for flooring, 100% ceramic tile is made from non toxic materials, does not off-gas, and does not contain chemicals that are harmful to health. Use water-based thinset and cement-based grout as healthier installation materials. (26) Ceramic tile is easy to clean and does not hold dirt or dust. It is widely considered one of the least nontoxic flooring materials available today.
  • Wood. Wood flooring can be broken into three very different categories: composite wood, laminate wood, and solid wood. Interior solid wood flooring is made from hardwood (vs. softwood), and is among the healthier options for flooring. Like ceramic tile, hardwood flooring does not harbor dust or debris and is easy to keep clean. Solid hardwood flooring can be installed using nails instead of adhesives. Zero- or low-VOC stains and finishes can be applied to solid wood flooring as a healthier option for finishing.
  • Linoleum. Natural linoleum is made from natural products and has been identified as a healthier flooring option in the building industry. (27) Linoleum comes in click-flooring or sheets. To install sheet linoleum, adhesives are used. Low-VOC adhesives that do not contain solvents can be used. (28) If choosing click-flooring, be aware of the materials used in the click system. It may be made from composite wood.
  • Vinyl. Vinyl flooring in any form is made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and has been found to be one of the least healthy materials. (29) Installation requires that an adhesive is used to adhere the vinyl tiles to the subfloor. The adhesives often contain chemicals that are also harmful to health. All around, vinyl is not the best option when considering low-chemical flooring.

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8. Cleaning Products

Common Chemicals & Potential Health Effects:

Chemicals—such as solvents, VOCs, nanoparticles, and preservatives—are found in common household cleaners. These chemicals may affect the nervous, reproductive, development, liver, kidney, and respiratory systems. They may cause irritation of the eyes and respiratory system to dizziness and nausea to cognitive inabilities, cancer, development issues and neurological damage.


What to Consider When Choosing:

Natural alternatives are cleaning products made from natural ingredients—such as plants and minerals. Here are a few natural alternatives:

  • Baking soda. Baking soda is a great abrasive that can cut through the grime but doesn’t scratch surfaces or leave a chemical residue behind. It can also be used to lift stains on counters, absorb odors, enhance soap’s effectiveness, and neutralize minerals in the water.  
  • White vinegar. Use it as a laundry rinsing agent and whole house cleaning agent instead of conventional cleaners. If using as a whole house cleaner, dilute the vinegar with water before using. Never mix vinegar with bleach.
  • Castile soap. Castile soap can be used as laundry soap, floor cleaner, dish soap, all-purpose cleaner, and so much more. Castile soap should not be mixed with an acid—like vinegar (any type) or lemon juice.
  • Hydrogen peroxide. Replace bleach for hydrogen peroxide. Hydrogen peroxide kills disease-causing microbes (some microbes are germs) (30) and is a natural whitener. Use it to clean kitchen and bathroom areas—such as the sink, toilet and shower tile grout—of bacteria, fungus, and viruses. It can also help remove stains on clothing and towels or from some countertops. Always research the materials you are cleaning, especially natural materials (like marble!), since they have unique considerations.

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Creating a nursery that is free of as many harmful chemicals as possible may help children get a more restful sleep, and could possibly have a positive effect on the body. When buying items for the nursery, consider choosing products made from 100% natural and organic materials, zero- or low-VOC paints and finishes, and use natural cleaners on a weekly basis. Taking these steps may help to protect your little one from chemicals that are commonly found in the nursery.


(1) Center for Disease Control – Sleep

(2)(3) MN Department of Health – Chemicals of Special Concern to Children’s Health

(4)(17)(18)(19)(20)(21)(23) A to Z of D-Toxing, Works Cited Part 2

(5) Harvard – Healthy Sleep

(6)(22)(24)(25) A to Z of D-Toxing, Works Cited Part 3 and 4

(7)(15) A to Z of D-Toxing, Works Cited Part 1

(8) Tox Town - Formaldehyde

(9) EPA - PBDEs

(10) Green Science Policy


(12) CDC - Biomonitoring

(13) Oregon State – Flame Retardants

(14) Canada OSHA - Pesticides

(16) National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

(26)(27)(28) EWG Healthy Home Guide - Flooring

(29) Health Care Research Collaborative

(30) CDC - Handwashing




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Ruan Living simplifies a nontoxic lifestyle through its Practical Nontoxic Living podcast, free detox workshops, online D-Tox Academy, and transformative 40-Day Home Detox. It aims to help you avoid toxic chemicals, heavy metals, and electromagnetic fields (EMFs) from what you buy, own, and do— without compromising your joy and convenience. Ruan was founded by Sophia Ruan Gushée, author of the bestselling critically acclaimed book A to Z of D-Toxing: The Ultimate Guide to Reducing Your Toxic Exposures and several detox workbooks. A graduate of Brown University and Columbia Business School, Sophia has served on the Brown University School of Public Health Advisory Council and Well+Good Council. A popular nontoxic living speaker, consultant, and teacher, Sophia lives in New York City with her husband and three daughters. Her passion for empowering others to enjoy nontoxic living began with the birth of her first daughter in 2007. Everything she creates is a love letter to her children and for the healthiest, brightest future possible. You can learn more here: Sophia’s Impact.


This article is for informational purposes only. This information is provided “as is” without warranty.

It is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. We do not offer medical advice, course of treatment, diagnosis, or any other opinion on your conditions or treatment options. To the extent that this article features the advice of physicians or medical practitioners, the views expressed are the views of the cited expert and do not necessarily represent the views of Ruan Living.

In no event will Sophia Ruan Gushee or Ruan Living be liable for any damages or loss of any kind resulting from the use of this website. Anyone relying upon or making use of the information on this website does so at his or her own risk.

Some of the services and products recommended on this website provide compensation to Sophia Ruan Gushee or Ruan Living. All recommendations are based foremost upon an honest belief that the product, service, or site will benefit our site visitors in some way.  

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