Last Updated on January 6, 2023 by The Filtery
You likely spend a lot of time on your couch, whether you’re snuggling up for a good show, taking a much deserved midday nap, or gathering together with loved ones for game night. In fact, with the exception of your bed, your couch is probably the piece of furniture where you spend the most time.
Unfortunately, there is some seriously sketchy stuff added to our upholstered furniture (hint: there are a lot of toxic “forever chemicals” involved).
So in this article, we’re diving deep into:
- what to avoid in a couch
- what to look for in a non-toxic sofa
- our favorite non-toxic (and beautiful!) furniture brands offering safer couches, loveseats, sectionals, sleeper sofas, armchairs, ottomans, and benches
Let’s get into it, shall we?
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Featured Image: Maiden Home
If you’d like to read more about the specific toxins found in most couches along with what to look for instead, click on the toggles below for more info. If you’d rather just skip right to our recommended brands, scroll down.
The Toxic Chemicals Commonly Found in Couches & Upholstered Furniture
What makes a couch toxic? Well, there are a lot of different things to consider, from the raw materials used to the additives applied to the foams and fabrics. Let’s break it down:
Stain- and Water-Resistant Sprays & Finishes
Many couches and other types of furniture are sprayed with stain-resistant treatments to help minimize the damage of spills and accidents.
While keeping stains at bay is a good idea not only for aesthetics but also for things like preventing mold growth, the chemicals used to make these finishes are known toxins. They’re made using per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, a.k.a. PFAS, a.k.a. “forever chemicals.”
You’ve probably heard about this family of chemicals before—they’re the same ones used in Teflon. These harmful chemicals are linked to everything from cancer to reproductive problems, birth defects to immunity issues, liver damage to increased cholesterol and blood pressure, and more.
And unlike some other toxins like phthalates, this family of chemicals are persistent organic pollutants (a.k.a. POPs), which means they can’t be broken down but instead remain in our bodies and ecosystems forever (hence the name “forever chemicals”).
For more about this family of chemicals, check out documentary The Devil We Know (which is available on Netflix) and the movie Dark Waters. These two films tell the story of the shameful actions of chemical giant DuPont, who knew these chemicals were toxic but covered it up and kept manufacturing them anyway. Fast forward to today and they’re still doing it.
“The average American baby is born with 10 fingers, 10 toes and the highest recorded levels of flame retardants among infants in the world. The toxic chemicals are present in nearly every home, packed into couches, chairs and many other products. Two powerful industries — Big Tobacco and chemical manufacturers — waged deceptive campaigns that led to the proliferation of these chemicals, which don’t even work as promised.”
This quote comes from a Chicago Tribune investigation called “Playing With Fire,” which outlines a successful decades-long effort by the chemical and tobacco industries to put toxic fire retardants in a multitude of everyday products despite the fact that they don’t even slow down fires!
There are a lot of different kinds of flame retardant chemicals, and Toxic Free Future has a great resource if you want to dive deeper into each type. These chemicals are linked to things like cancer, thyroid disease, hormone disruption, fertility problems, decreased IQ, other developmental problems, altered neurodevelopment, and more.
Flame retardants are most often added to polyurethane (PU) foam (which we’ll talk more about it in a minute) due to its increased flammability. In the past, safety regulations in the U.S. required flame retardants be used on things like sofas (despite the fact that, as referenced above, there wasn’t any indication that these flame retardants actually increased safety in the unfortunate event of a fire).
The primary way these flame retardants get into our systems is through dust. The flame retardant molecules off-gas into the air and eventually land on surfaces, where they collect with the dust and then are eventually ingested. (This is why regularly cleaning your home and using an air purifier can help decrease the amount of toxins you and your loved ones are breathing in!)
Similar to PFAS, most of these flame retardants stick around in the environment. They can also be bioaccumulative (which means they build up in an organism’s tissues), and they can biomagnify (which means they move up the food chain). Flame retardants are basically everywhere these days—they’ve even been found in the tissues of polar bears, killer whales, and sea otters around the world.
There is some good news on this front, though. In 2014, however, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission updated its regulations and flame retardants are now no longer required by law. The following year, California instituted a law requiring that any flame-retardant-containing couches sold in the state have a label that tells the consumer they contain these toxins. (The next time you buy a piece of furniture, look for a TB 117-2013 label, which will tell you whether or not it contains flame retardants.)
In 2018, California went even further and actually banned flame retardants in certain products at levels above 1,000 parts per million. (The law passed in 2018 but actually went into effect in 2020.) This regulation applies to children’s products, mattresses, and upholstered furniture. Other states have also passed similar legislation in recent years, but California is the only one to ban ALL flame retardants in these products (whereas other states have only banned specific ones).
Because of the fact that California is such a large economy, these steps have certainly had a positive effect on the industry as a whole. Companies like Ashley Furniture (which as of a few years ago was the largest furniture manufacturer and retailer in U.S.), Crate & Barrel, and Williams Sonoma (who owns Pottery Barn and West Elm) have stated they’ve either completely banned and/or nearly eliminated flame retardants in their furniture.
While regulation changes and an increase in label transparency is certainly very good news, but it doesn’t necessarily mean we’re in the clear (yet?). A lot of sofas and other types of upholstered furniture is still made using flame retardants. Some furniture companies may not even be aware that their products contain flame retardants if they’re sourcing PU foam from manufacturers that add it to the materials earlier in the supply chain.
So although we’re making a lot of good progress in this area, it’s still important to shop carefully and ask brands for more information if needed.
The Problem with Secondhand Sofas
This brings us to the potential issue of buying secondhand couches. On one hand, buying secondhand is usually the more sustainable choice. It keeps furniture out of landfills and helps decrease the amount of resources needed to manufacture and ship a brand new piece of furniture. It’s also more affordable.
However, there are a couple of issues with secondhand sofas to consider. First, couches made before 2014 definitely contain flame retardants since it was required by law. These couches also will not have a label informing you about the presence of those flame retardants.
Secondly, furniture containing PU foam can actually get more toxic as it gets older. As the foam ages, it slowly starts to dry out and break down. As this happens, more of the flame retardants that were originally added to the foam are released into the air.
The exception to this is vintage furniture that was made prior to the mid-1970s, which is when flame retardants first started being added. (Of course, if it’s been re-upholstered since then, it might not be safe.)
If you do want to purchase an older (post-1970s) couch, you may want to consider replacing the foam and re-upholstering it with new foam and fabric that is free from flame retardants.
The reality is that sometimes there is no perfect choice. Ultimately, you have to weigh everything out and make the best decision you can (even if it is not the most ideal).
Another thing to consider when shopping for a couch is the fabric with which it’s upholstered. Most ‘conventional’ couches are made out of synthetic fabrics like polyester or faux leather.
Most of these fabrics come with various concerns. Most synthetic fabrics are just plastics, which are petroleum derivatives. Big picture, these materials aren’t great for human nor environmental health. They don’t biodegrade and they can potentially contain toxins such as phthalates (which are used in plastic materials to make it more flexible).
That being said, there are some synthetic fabrics that are safer than others. Olefin, for example, is a type of fabric that is made from ones of the ‘least-bad’ types of plastic. You’ll see that we have chosen to include some brands that use some of these safer synthetics below.
We recently talked about the foam problem with regard to office chairs and it’s commonly found in couches and sofas, too. Like synthetic fabrics, polyurethane foam (PU) is derived from petroleum and often contains volatile organic compounds (VOCs) like benzene, toluene, and formaldehyde. Many of these VOCs are known carcinogens and when you have them in your home, they slowly leak out into your air over time, contributing to indoor air pollution (this is commonly referred to as “off-gassing”).
PU foam also contains things called isocyanates (like toluene diisocyanate a.k.a. TDI and methylene diphenyl diisocyanate a.k.a. MDI), which are powerful irritants and sensitizers.
Some types of PU are more stable and less toxic than others… The problem is that it’s almost impossible to know just how safe (or unsafe) the PU foam in your couch is.
We’ll talk about what to look for in safer foams in a minute.
Although you might not really think about wood when it comes to your couch (since you often can’t see most of it), it’s still an important factor to keep in mind. Along with the legs, much of the internal frame of your couch is made using wood.
You want to look for couches and sofas that are made from solid wood, as opposed to engineered wood (which often goes by MDF, plywood, and other names).
This is because engineered wood is actually just made out of pieces of wood (think sawdust and wood chips), which are glued together to look like real wood. That requires quite a lot of glue, which usually contains volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as formaldehyde, a carcinogen. These VOCs can off-gas into your home over time, contributing to indoor air pollution.
What’s the Healthiest Couch to Buy?
Alright, now let’s talk about what to look for in a safer, healthier, non-toxic couch.
Zero Flame Retardants
Luckily it’s gotten much easier to find couches without flame retardants in recent years. Considering that flame retardants don’t actually work when it comes to fire safety, there is absolutely no reason to spray these toxins all over the furniture we live and lay on.
So, go for a sofa that is completely free of flame retardants.
Zero Stain and Water Repellants (PFAS-Free)
Be wary of products that have labels like “water-resistant,” “stain-resistant,” or “spill-safe.” It usually means they’ve been sprayed with toxic “forever chemicals.”
That said, some fabrics (both natural and synthetic) are more water- and stain-resistant than others, even WITHOUT these added chemicals (which can make these labels confusing at times!). If you’re ever unsure, don’t be afraid to reach out to the company and ask if they add any PFAS or other finishes to their fabrics.
As mentioned above, engineered wood like plywood and MDF are filled with glues, which contain lots of formaldehyde and other VOCs. So look for brands that use solid wood for their frames and legs.
Natural & Organic Fabrics
Natural and organic fabrics like cotton, linen, hemp, and wool are great options for your upholstered furniture because they’re better for human and environmental health.
One thing to consider when it comes to cotton, however, is that it can be more likely to develop mold compared to other fabric options. If you have kids, tend to make a lot of spills on the sofa, and/or are sensitive to mold, you may want to consider a safer synthetic fabric, such as Olefin.
What About Leather & Fake Leather?
As with almost everything else, leather has its pros, cons, and nuances. For people with kids and pets, leather can be an appealing option because it’s easy to keep clean. Leather can also be more durable and last longer than couches made from other types of fabrics.
But if you’re going to go with a leather sofa, you’ll want to choose vegetable-tanned leather. Most of the time, leather is chrome-tanned, which involves lots of toxic chemicals including heavy metals (like lead), formaldehyde, cyanide-based dyes, and more.
Vegetable-tanned leather, on the other hand, doesn’t use all of these harsh chemicals. So if you’re going to buy leather products, you should choose veggie-tanned leather whenever possible.
The downside is that vegetable-tanned leather tends to be a longer and more expensive process. Because of that, it’s uncommon for larger things like sofas to be made from it. If you really want a leather couch, don’t be afraid to reach out and ask the company for more information about the leather they use and how it is sourced and processed.
If you’re a vegan or are trying to decrease the amount of animal products in your life, you might go for vegan leather. And while that might seem like a good idea at first, it’s important to keep in mind that faux leather is just plastic. It’s made from things like PU and PVC (which is the most toxic kind of plastic).
Not only that, but in 2012, the Center for Environmental Health started testing fake leather products for lead, and the results have not been pretty.
No- or Low-VOC Glues, Stains, and Finishes
The stains and finishes that are typically used on wooden furniture are heavy on the VOCs. So look for brands that are made with natural finishes like linseed oil, walnut oil, or low/no VOC synthetic finishes and glues.
Alternatively, you could look for a couch with legs that are unfinished. Then you can either leave them as-is or finish them yourself with a natural and non-toxic finish of your choice.
If you can, it’s best to avoid synthetic PU foam completely and opt for natural foams made from organic latex or kapok instead.
But to be honest, completely avoiding PU foams can be difficult. So when buying synthetic foams, look for certifications like CertiPUR.
Although it’s not perfect, CertiPUR-US® foams are free of:
- PBDEs, TDCPP, or TCEP flame retardants
- Ozone depleters
- PBDEs, TDCPP, or TCEP flame retardants
- Mercury, lead, and other heavy metals
- They’re not necessarily completely free of phthalates, but they do have certain phthalate restrictions
Another better foam to look for are soy foams. These foams are also far from perfect. For one, the soy industry comes with its own environmental problems. And secondly, “soy-based” foams aren’t necessarily completely plant-based and/or biodegradable as they might still have petroleum-derived foams mixed in. Still, they’re probably better than straight-up PU.
Other Third-Party Certifications to Look For
Most certifications have pros and cons, but they all provide a certain level of accountability for brands to test their products against a certain set of safety criteria. In addition to CertiPUR certified foams, here are a few other labels to look for:
- The GREENGUARD and GREENGUARD Gold certifications by UL are focused on volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These labels look at the product as a whole and verify that a couch has no or low levels of a list of VOCs.
- OEKO-TEX certifies that an end product is free from a long list of toxic chemicals. This certification is most commonly applied to fabrics.
- Global Organic Latex Standard (GOLS) means that at least 95% of the latex used in a product is organically grown and sourced. This standard also looks at the impact on human health, safety, and welfare along with the environmental impact of the manufacturing process.
- Global Organic Textiles Standard (GOTS) is very similar to the GOLS certification, except that it applies to organic cotton.
- Wood that is Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified means it has been responsibly sourced from sustainably-managed forests.
Where to Get the Best Non-Toxic Sofas, Couches, Armchairs, & Ottomans
I know the above info about all of the potential toxins in your couch can be overwhelming, BUT the good news is that there are some really great brands offering non-toxic sofas, loveseats, sectionals, armchairs, and ottomans to help you create a safer living space. Here are our favorites:
Savvy Rest’s non-toxic sofas, loveseats, armchairs, and ottomans are made from organic fabrics like cotton, hemp, and wool; natural Talalay latex foam; solid wood; and more. They come with various third-party certifications for sustainability and safety, including GOTS organic, Cradle-to-Cradle, GREENGUARD, and more. Plus, it’s all completely free from all PFAS, flame retardants, formaldehyde glue, cardboard, metal coils, particleboard, plywood, and veneer.
Savvy Rest’s non-toxic and organic furniture is made to order, which not only minimizes waste in the production process, but also allows you to get exactly what you want! You choose things like the seat firmness, the color and type of fabric, the height of the armrests, finish type, and more.
Everything is made by expert craftspeople and skilled woodworkers in their own workshop in Virginia, USA. Savvy Rest is also an employee-owned and B Corp certified company!
Shop Savvy Rest Use code THEFILTERY20 for 20% off.
This modular furniture is designed to be assembled, rearranged, and reconfigured so that you can not only move from home to home more easily, but you can also change the size of your sofa based on the your family size or living space.
All of Burrow’s sofas are completely free from all PFAS and flame retardants, the foams they use are CertiPUR certified, and the wood used for their frames is (mostly) FSC certified.
The fabric they use is called Olefin, which is a synthetic. But it’s made out of polypropylene, which is one of the safer plastics. The main selling point is that it’s naturally stain-resistant and durable, which means these couches will be able to hold up to a lot of wear and tear without the need for any added forever chemicals.
Burrow’s couches are also pretty customizable, too. You can choose things like type of fabric, leg type, shoulder shape, and more.
Also, note that although Burrow uses solid wood in their furniture, they’re not 100% MDF-free. For most of their furniture, they use TSCA Title VI compliant MDF, which is made in Europe and contains zero formaldehyde. The only exception to this is their headboards. Although they use solid wood for the actual frame part, the headboard is made with regular MDF.
(It’s also worth noting that Burrow has been very transparent with us and our questions. So if you are ever unsure about something, don’t hesitate to reach out and ask them!)
Burrow also offers financing through Affirm, free shipping, and 30-day returns.
Carolina Morning is a yoga-inspired mindful furniture brand that makes cushions, couches, loveseats, and other furniture.
Their modular minimalistic furniture is meant to be used in a variety of different spaces, year after year. It’s made out of locally harvested Appalachian poplar wood and finished with a non-toxic finish. Their cushions are available in various different shapes and colors and are made using 100% certified organic cotton canvas and then filled with natural and eco-friendly kapok fiber.
Carolina Morning’s designs are “inspired from traditional floor-based cultures such as Vedic, Taoist, and Native American who used the floor to create simple and elegant surroundings.” They offer some really unique options—like this Floor Lounge Chair or Floor Couch!
In terms of materials, they use FSC-certified solid wood for their frames, zero-VOC glues, and many natural and organic fabric choices. For their foam cushions, they offer two safer options: CertiPUR-US®-certified foam and certified organic natural Dunlop latex. And of course, it’s all free from any flame retardants.
Medley’s materials come with a variety of different third-party certifications, including OEKO-TEX® 100, CertiPUR-US®, Global Organic Latex Standard, Global Organic Textiles Standard, GREENGUARD Gold, and Forest Stewardship Council. Plus, all of their furniture is California Prop 65 compliant.
All of Medley’s non-toxic sofas, sectionals, sleeper sofas, and ottomans are handcrafted in the USA, in Los Angeles, California.
They also offers financing through Affirm, starting at 0% interest, and a 15-day trial & return policy.
Sabai is another good option for more affordable non-toxic sofas and sectionals, with pricing between $1,000 and $2,000.
Their collection isn’t quite as large as some of the other brands listed here, but they do offer several different customizations, including type of fabric and leg material. They also offer slip covers, which can make it easier to keep your couch clean and/or switch up your look.
None of Sabai’s furniture contains any formaldehyde, flame retardants, or PFAS. Their cushions are made from CertiPUR-US foam, their fabrics (which are recycled and upcycled) are untreated, and the wood used for the frames is FSC certified and finished with a low-VOC stain. And they don’t use any glue at all!
Sabai is leading the way for sustainable sofas with their closed-loop Repair and Replace program, which allows you to repair your furniture as needed to get as many years as possible out of it. They also offer a Revive program, which allows you to re-sell your sofa or buy one secondhand at 30% off.
All of Sabai’s furniture is ethically made in a family-owned factory in High Point, North Carolina. In fact, 90% of their materials are sourced within 100 miles of their production facility!
They do not offer financing at this time, but they do have a 30-day return policy and free shipping.
The Futon Shop’s Natural Home collection offers a few different couches, loveseats, and sectionals that can be custom-made to order.
Instead of petrochemicals and synthetics, they use natural and organic cotton, hemp, linen, wood, latex, coconut coir, and… potato fiber! Third-party certifications include GOTS and GOLS organic, along with OEKO-TEX.
These couches contain zero petroleum-based products and no glues. If you’re extra sensitive and are looking for the most natural and organic couch possible, Natural Home by The Futon Shop is one of your best bets.
The Futon Shop offers financing through Affirm and free shipping. Their return policy is not as generous as most of the other brands listed here, so make sure you review that before making your purchase.
“Okay” Options for Non-Toxic Sofas & Couches
The following brands have several different non-toxic initiatives and are definitely better than many conventional brands, but they do have some shortcomings too (mostly when it comes to their PFAS policy).
Maiden home is one of the best places to find beautiful, non-toxic furniture for your whole home. They carry sofas, sectionals, upholstered lounge chairs, and ottomans for you to complete your whole non-toxic living room setup. All of Maiden Home’s furniture is made without flame retardants, formaldehyde, or other harmful chemicals.
Their cushions are made with CertiPUR-US certified soy-based foams and their fabrics are free of PFOS and PFOA. Some of their fabrics do contain certain stain-resistant treatments, but they are at least GREENGUARD Gold certified. This means that while Maiden Home’s couches are free from some of the “worst” PFAS, they are not necessarily all 100% PFAS-free. We recommend reaching out to Maiden Home before you make your purchase to make sure you’re getting exactly what you want!
Maiden Home also implements other types of sustainability initiatives as well: the wood they use is responsibly sourced and meet the Sustainable Forestry Initiative standards, they use some recycled materials (like steel), and they use water-based, low-VOC glues and stains as much as possible.
PLUS, Maiden Home offers a level of customizability that other brands don’t. You can choose between up to 70 different kinds of fabrics and a practically endless amount of configurations in order to perfectly fit your home.
They also offer financing through Affirm, starting at 0% interest, and a 30-day return policy.
Everything is made by hand by some of the top custom upholstery and wood artisans in North Carolina and Virginia.
Pottery Barn and West Elm are actually owned by the same company, so their products are very similar.
Pottery Barn has a “Certified Nontoxic” collection, but it’s really just their own label; there’s no third-party verifying it. Much of their furniture has some good qualities like being made in America out of low-VOC materials.
West Elm has a “Sustainably Sourced” collection, which includes a lot of furniture that’s handcrafted in the USA out of FSC-certified wood. Some of their products contain organic materials, while others definitely do not. If you look for their products that use Sunbrella fabrics, some of those may be free from PFAS. (Some of Sunbrella’s fabrics are PFAS-free and others aren’t so you will likely have to reach out and ask in order to find out for sure. You can read more in our Sunbrella deep-dive.)
Although we know they don’t use flame retardants, neither of these brands are super transparent when it comes to the other potential materials and additives they do or don’t use on their upholstered furniture, and we’d like to see some more info.
Depending on where you live, you might be able to visit a Pottery Barn or West Elm store to test out their couches before you buy, which might be a selling point. At the end of the day, you just have to look into the specifics of each product and ask the brand for more information about a certain couch before you buy it.
In addition to the ones above, here are a few more brands for non-toxic couches and sofas:
Are IKEA Couches Non-Toxic?
IKEA’s furniture is enticing because of how affordable it is. When it comes to potentially toxic substances, there are pros and cons to this iconic Swedish brand…
One of the best things about IKEA is that PFAS have been banned from their products since 1991! (And they also have “contamination limits” on some of the worst kinds of PFAS.)
When it comes to flame retardants, it’s a little more complicated. Since IKEA sells its furniture in countries all over the world, they have to contend with differing laws and regulations regarding both fire safety and toxic chemicals.
Their website states, “IKEA strives to totally refrain from the use of chemical flame retardants in our products and instead use techniques and materials with flame retardant properties. However, in some countries, chemical flame retardants are needed in specific products in order to pass a local legal requirement. Any products treated with chemical flame retardants meet strict emission requirements.”
So in other words, IKEA’s couches may or may not contain flame retardants. But if you’re buying a couch from IKEA in the U.S. after 2020, it most likely does not contain flame retardants.
What about the other non-toxic materials? Although IKEA does have a lot of good sustainability initiatives for the company as a whole, most of the materials they use for their sofas and sectionals include synthetic foams and fabrics, along with engineered wood and glues.
All in all, IKEA’s couches are not the worst since they don’t contain PFAS, but they can’t really be considered completely non-toxic either. It’s definitely not the worst choice though, especially considering the affordability factor. Click here to check out our deep dive into IKEA’s chemical safety initiatives!
No one wants harmful chemicals all over the furniture where they relax, binge Netflix, nap, and snuggle with loved ones.
This article showed you what kinds of toxic chemicals to avoid in upholstered furniture, what to look for in a non-toxic sofa, and some of our favorite brands that are doing things in a safer and more eco-friendly way.
If you’d like some more non-toxic living tips, news, product picks, and other fun stuff in your inbox once a week, hop on our list for Filtered Fridays!
Some Related Reading You Might Like
If you’re looking for more non-toxic furniture guides, check these out:
- Where to Find Non-Toxic Dressers for Your Bedroom & Living Room
- The Best Non-Toxic & Natural Solid Wood Dining Tables & Chairs
- Where to Find the Best Non-Toxic & Natural Wood Desks
- The Best Non-Toxic Ergonomic Office Chairs (& Cushions!)
- Best Non-Toxic High Chair Brands (+ Boosters and Hook-Ons)
- The Ultimate Guide to Non-Toxic Bedroom Furniture
- Non-Toxic Mattress & Pillow Brands
- Your Guide to Natural & Non-Toxic Bed Frames
Image Credits: all product photos belong to respective brands