Summary: Regular (non-organic) cotton sheets are made from pesticide-laden cotton and a variety of harmful chemicals. Current regulations are inadequate to protect us from such sheets. Organic sheets could also, however, be unsafe. They use natural pesticides that are often more toxic, and use stronger chemicals during processing. The most reliable way to buy organic sheets that are safe is to look for sheets that have both the GOTS and Oeko-Tex certifications.
Read on to find out:
- Are organic sheets softer than regular sheets?
- Are organic sheets chemical free?
- Are organic sheets just a marketing gimmick?
- Are organic sheets worth the money?
- Should you buy organic sheets?
- What should you look for when buying organic sheets
- Which are the best organic sheets out there on the market?
Top 3 surprising facts about regular (aka non-organic) sheets:
1. A surprisingly large quantity of pesticides goes into regular cotton sheets.
Cotton sheets are natural. But they are unsafe because of one reason:
Pesticides. Cotton is grown using excessive amounts of pesticides.
What is surprising is the amount of pesticides used in growing cotton.
Cotton is considered the world's dirtiest crop due to its heavy use of pesticides. In fact, cotton farming uses 24% of the world’s insecticides and 11% of the world's pesticides including herbicides and defoliants.
Just how much pesticide are we talking about?
About 10 ounces of chemical fertilizer is used to make one cotton bed-sheet.
Residues of those pesticides are in constant contact with your skin for several hours each night.
2. Regular sheets are made using a lot of chemicals.
Plenty of chemicals are used in the manufacture of regular sheets:
- Optical brighteners
- Wetting agents
- Sequestering agents
- Complexing agents, etc
Exactly how much are we talking about?
27% of your regular sheets by weight is made of chemicals, according to one study. What kind of chemicals could you find in your sheets?
- 14% urea formaldehyde
- 8% dyestuff
- 3% softening agents
- 2% polyacryl
- 0.3% optical brighteners
3. Current regulations aren't enough to protect us from harmful chemicals in regular sheets
More than 2000 chemicals are used in making sheets, according to the American Association of Textile Chemists & Colorists, These chemicals can cause cancers, autoimmune diseases, infertility, etc, as they accumulate in our bodies over time.
Why doesn't the government protect us from these chemicals?
- Long-standing chemicals are considered safe: If a harmful chemical was being used in sheets before 1976, it was "grand-fathered" in without testing. Most of 60,000 chemicals were labeled safe without testing under the Toxic Substances Control Act.
- Chemicals are innocent until proven guilty: Today, the government has to prove actual harm caused by a chemical before any controls can be put on that chemical.
- Sheet manufacturers can hide harmful chemicals: Manufacturers are allowed to keep ingredients secret. As a result, your favorite blue sheet could have a harmful ingredient called Blue Dye #3 whose chemical composition only the manufacturer knows.
And this is all perfectly legal.
Top 3 myths about organic cotton sheets:
Myth #1. Organic sheets don't have harmful chemicals.
Only two conditions need to be met by a cotton sheet to be labeled organic, according to regulations:
- no GM (genetically modified) cotton is used
- no synthetic chemicals are used in the cultivation of the cotton
Chemicals are used to make organic sheets, even if the cotton is organic to begin with.
In fact, most organic sheets use more chemicals than regular sheets.
Why is this?
Because the finest quality cotton cannot be grown using organic methods. Such cotton is too delicate to grow to maturity without the help of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.
Organic cotton is therefore coarser than regular cotton. To be converted into a soft sheet, it is processed using harsher chemicals.
Myth #2. You can just wash out the chemicals from regular sheets.
My grandmother washed her new sheets with vinegar to get rid of the chemicals.
My nana was a smart woman, but unfortunately for us, manufacturers got smarter.
Manufacturers now use chemicals that can't be washed out. For instance, fibre-reactive dyes chemically bind with individual fiber molecules, and can't be washed out.
Specifically, wrinkle free, permanent press and easy care sheets are made using formaldehyde resin, which as the New York Times confirms, is a toxic chemical that is designed to not be washed out.
Why do manufacturers use such chemicals? They invest millions of dollars in designing no-wrinkle sheets, for instance. They don't want those sheets to start wrinkling after a few washes.
Myth #3. Organic cotton sheets are softer than regular sheets
A lot of organic sheet fans swear that their $400 organic sheets are much softer than the regular sheets they used to buy.
Unfortunately, this is not true. Even after scientifically testing hundreds of sheets - both regular and organic - we haven't found this to be consistently true.
This is not surprising because, as we've seen, the highest quality cotton is hard to grow using organic methods. It lacks the robustness to flourish without the protection of pesticides.
Then why are organic fans sure that organic sheets are softer than regular sheets?
It's probably because of confirmation bias - they love all things natural and organic, and expect organic sheets to be softer than regular ones. So when they go out and buy expensive organic sheets, they look for evidence that supports their beliefs.
Top 3 half-truths about organic sheets:
Half-truth #1. Organic sheets don't have pesticides.
Organic means no pesticides, right?
Except, it's a bit more complicated.
- Organic sheets are made using more toxic pesticides: Organic farmers use natural pesticides that don't have synthetic chemicals. Research quoted by Scientific American has shown that organic pesticides can be more toxic than synthetic ones.
- Organic cotton needs larger amounts of such pesticides: Since natural pesticides are not as effective as synthetic ones, farmers need to use 3-4 times as much organic pesticides to get the same results.
- You can't be 100% sure that your organic sheet is really organic: No regulator can physically go to the remotest corners of India, Egypt or Pakistan to confirm that the farmer is actually not spraying synthetic pesticides on his "organic" cotton. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying.
Certifying agencies rely on third parties in those countries. These third parties conduct surprise checks and regular audits. But there have been cases of fraud, contamination (synthetic pesticides meant for an adjoining crop 'accidentally' ending up on an organic crop), etc.
Half-truth #2. Organic sheets are a good choice if you have a skin condition or sensitive skin
People with sensitive skin or conditions such as eczema and psoriasis need sheets that are chemical-free. But we now know that a lot of chemicals are used in making organic sheets. Any one of these chemicals could react adversely with your skin.
If you do have sensitive skin, what you need is a sheet that is specifically certified as chemical-free.
Half-truth #3. Natural-colored organic sheets have fewer chemicals than colored organic sheets.
If you compare two identical organic sheets - from the same company, the same finish, etc - and one of them is natural-colored, it will have fewer chemicals than the colored sheet. This is because the dyes that are used to color a sheet (or to whiten it) have chemicals in them.
But certifying agencies have seen plenty of natural-colored sheets fail organic tests, so natural colored sheets are not perfect.
What should you look for when buying an organic sheet, now that we've clarified these common beliefs about organic sheets?
Buy a GOTS certified organic sheet if you primarily care about the environment:
GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) is the most popular standard for organic textiles. It ensures that:
- at least 90% of fibers used are certified organic
- harmful chemicals have not been used at any stage of the manufacturing process
- water used in the sheet manufactring process has been treated to a high standard before release
- minimal level of working conditions has been ensured during manufacture
GOTS uses a trust-based system - it relies on third party certification to ensure that the cotton fiber itself was grown without the use of synthetic pesticides.
It's main drawback is that it does not actually test the final product for harmful chemicals. So you just have to trust and hope that the sheet does not have any harmful chemicals.
Buy an Oeko-Tex certified sheet if you primarily care about your health:
Oeko-Tex tests for 300 harmful chemicals in finished sheets to make sure they are safe for you. So while the cotton may have been grown using synthetic pesticides, the final sheet does not have dangerous levels of those pesticides. Oeko-Tex is a great choice for people with skin conditions.
Manufacturers keep substituting chemicals with alternatives just so that they can pass such certification tests. Oeko-Tex keeps updating the list of chemicals they test for, to catch harmful substitutes.
Oeko-Tex uses a test-based system to help you find you find the safest sheets.
Its main drawback is that sheets with an Oeko-Tex certification are not organic sheets at all, they're just sheets that don't have toxic chemicals in them.
The best thing is to buy sheets that have both GOTS and Oeko-Tex certifications.
Having to choose between the environment and your health is like asking you to choose one of your kids as a tribute for the Hunger Games.
Look for sheets that have both the GOTS and Oeko-Tex certifications. These are sheets that have the world's most reliable organic certifications, and have also been tested thoroughly for the presence of potentially harmful chemicals.
Our recommendations for organic sheets:
Perfect Linens will soon offers sheets with both the GOTS and Oeko-Tex certifications, which have also done very well in our in-house scientific tests for softness & other feel attributes. We will update this article as soon as we have those sheets on board.