How To Create a Non Toxic Baby Nursery

Closeup of early 30's couple making decisions about what color their walls should be. They are in empty bedroom brainstorming about the design and colors, many paint cans are on the floor next to them.

Creating a nursery involves a roomful of new furnishings – and a lot of decisions. Bassinet or crib? Changing table or dresser? Then, you finally choose the perfect rug, unroll it and… wait, what’s that icky smell? Is that safe for my baby to breathe?

The substances that make modern living possible – strong wood glues, fire-engine red paint, comfy foam mattresses – add up to a long list of chemicals and other toxins that continue to off-gas into the environment long after your nose stops noticing. Babies’ small, developing bodies are more vulnerable to the potential effects of these chemicals. But thanks to the demands of thousands of concerned parents, manufacturers are getting the hint and are now selling safer versions of just about everything.

Read on for advice on how to eliminate toxins from your nursery. And breathe easy; even one small change – like an organic mattress – can make a big difference.

Baby Furniture: Simple and Safe

Back when you were a kid, the plywood and engineered woods (composite board, particle board, MDF or fiberboard) that were used to make your little tables and chairs were bound with toxic formaldehyde-based glues. Since the ‘80s, manufacturers have gradually reduced the level of VOCs in these products; they’ve also paid more attention to sealing the woods to minimize off-gassing. And today, some children’s furniture designers are using woods bound with new nontoxic glues. To avoid the formaldehyde, look for:

  • Vintage pieces made of solid wood (but make sure they comply with federal safety regulations).
  • Furniture made of natural woods, and nontoxic glues if the product has MDF or particleboard components.
  • Cribs finished with nontoxic paint or sealant since the top rail is likely to double as a teething aid.
  • Pieces made with a steel or wood frame and organic cotton.
  • If you’re up for investing for the long term, check out brands like Argington, DucDuc, Oeuf, Stokke and Nursery works.

Paint and Wallpaper: A Fresh Coat

A bevy of chemicals help paint flow smoothly, cover well, dry efficiently, look good, wipe clean and resist mold and mildew. But companies have started figuring out how to produce paints that get the job done without fuming us out of the house.

Paint cans, paint roller, and brushes on the old wooden background.
Oil-based paint is the biggest VOC culprit.

Low and no-VOC Paints

Oil-based paint is the biggest VOC culprit, so opt for latex instead – the newer low-VOC latex versions are capable of providing a hard, enamel-like coat, cost around the same as regular paint and come in a full range of colors. Better still – and as much as double the price – are zero-VOC paints. Look for the Green Seal stamp, a voluntary certification program that sets VOC-level standards. For nontoxic, washable interior paints in great nursery colors, check out Yolo Colorhouse’s Sprout Collection yolocolorhouse.com

Ceramic Paint

Made by suspending miniscule ceramic beads in a latex base, ceramic paint has a hard, scrubbable surface. Hand prints and crayon scribbles? No problem.

Organic Paint

Made with substances like milk protein, lime, beeswax and natural oils, organic paints are free not only from VOCs, but also from other chemicals, including those that contribute to good flow and coverage. Neither will you find a bubble-gum pink or lime green among them, since they’re pigmented with pure mineral dyes. Still, you can’t get much healthier than these paints.

Wallpapers and Decorations

If you’re into pattern or need to hide an ugly surface, you’ll be glad to know that the wallpaper industry has reduced the amount of solvents in its products, and a new low-VOC paste is available. Or you can use this recipe to make your own paste. Another option: use low-VOC chalkboard paint or whiteboard paint to make a large blank canvas on your baby’s wall. You can even get magnetic chalkboard paint!

Flooring: Good Foundations

What you might consider a surface made for feet is your kids-whole-body playground. So if you’re thinking about creating a healthy room, the floor’s not a bad place to start. Best of all is bare floor – carpet traps dust, mold and allergens that do children no good. But if you want your baby to play on a soft, warm surface, there are options.

Synthetic Carpet

Synthetic carpets release a toxic mix of formaldehyde, VOCs, benzyne and toluene into the air and trap dusts, molds and other allergens. Still, things are looking up for synthetics. Green Label Plus-certified carpeting uses lower-toxicity adhesives and padding. Some manufacturers are recycling old carpet and making new backings out of recycled materials – check out Flor www.flor.com, which has reasonably priced low-VOC carpet tiles. Another choice is carpet made from PET, the plastic created from recycled soda bottles. It’s soft, tough and naturally stain resistant; Mohawk has a line that costs $25-$30 per square yard.

Woman in nightgown and slippers walking upstairs
Wool is more eco-friendly than synthetic carpets.

Wool Carpets and Rugs

Wool is more eco-friendly than synthetic. At an average $40 per square yard, it’s a bigger investment, too. But it lives far longer, so you can save money in the long run. And wool is also warm and insulating. Look for carpet that’s undyed, uses natural vegetable dyes. Choose backings made of natural jute fiber or latex adhered with natural glues.

Cork

Soft and durable, cork is naturally non-allergenic and fire-resistant. You can find cork in a variety of colors and patterns from sources like Globus corkfloor.com. Choose no- or low-VOC water-based adhesives and urethanes for gluing and finishing your tiles.

Cotton Rugs

Cotton is known to be one of the most heavily sprayed crops, but environmentally friendly cotton products are going mainstream. Look for recycled or organic cotton, undyed or vegetable-dyed. Green your rug even more by using a natural rubber grip pad underneath 1earth1design.com.

Bedding: Sweet Dreams

Babies spend at least 60 percent of their first year sleeping, breathing in whatever is emitted by her mattress, sheets, comforter, pad and other accoutrements. This fact alone has helped lead to changes in the bedding department, with a move toward natural and chemical-free fibers.

Mattresses

Some commercial manufacturers have started using naturally flame-resistant fibers like wool instead of chemicals to create retardant barriers in their mattresses. If you want to avoid synthetics altogether, splurge on a true eco-mattress ecobaby.com has a selection; these are filled either with cotton and wool batting over steel coils, or natural latex from rubber trees. Latex is the firmest option and has anti-allergenic and mold-resistant properties.

Linens

Easy-care polyester and poly-cotton blends are totally last century; now everyone wants 100-percent cotton sheets for their children. But since manufacturers often give cotton a formaldehyde finish to prevent wrinkling, you might want to check out chemical-free linens. You’ll find traditional styles for kids on consumer sites devoted to allergy sufferers. Organic lines for babies are suddenly everywhere, from major retailers to young design companies like Argington and Q Collection Junior. Also check out the affordable BambooBaby sheet sets in breathable, naturally antibacterial bamboo jersey bamboosa.com.

About Gina Russell

Gina Russell is a lover of Thai food, feminist prose, and music of the indie rock persuasion. When she’s not writing or reading up on health and education, she’s drinking coffee or binge watching “The Office."
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