What to Look for When Buying Furniture

When selecting furniture for your home or business you will find a plethora of options on the market. So how do you make the best choices for your family’s health?

In recent years you may have noticed headlines and news programs drawing attention to flame-retardant chemicals. Well, it is for good reason. If you like soft furniture, and most of us do, it is important to understand that it has likely been heavily treated.  According to an article from the Chicago Tribune, “the amount of flame retardant in a typical American home isn’t measured in parts per billion or parts per million. It is measured in ounces and pounds. A large couch can have up to 2 pounds in its foam cushions.”  Now, think about how many pieces of soft furniture, including kids furniture, play mats, and mattresses you have in your home.

It becomes even more disturbing when you learn that flame-retardant chemicals are not firmly attached to the furniture. This means they easily detach, float in the air, and settle as dust in your home and office. As a result, researchers have found flame retardants in the blood of 97 percent of Americans tested, with toddlers often having a higher content than their parents. Toddlers and young children regularly spend time playing on floors and soft surfaces where the dust settles. They are also more likely to put their hands or contaminated objects in their mouths.

Beginning in 1975, all manufactured furniture was treated with flame-retardant chemicals to comply with California Technical Bulletin 117.  Then in 2014, the Toxic Furniture Right-to-Know Bill was passed. After proper research and better understanding by the industry, it is now clear that flame retardants cause more harm than good. According to Earth Justice, Flame retardants are among more than 80,000 chemicals on the market that have not been adequately tested for health and safety. Research has linked exposure to flame retardants in upholstered furniture to reduced IQ in children, endocrine and thyroid disruption and impaired development. In addition, furniture treated with flame retardants can actually make fires deadlier by giving off more carbon monoxide, soot and smoke than untreated furniture, as well as toxic byproducts like dioxins and furans, creating hazmat-like situations for firefighters.”  

Several manufactures are now committed to selling furniture without flame retardants. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has a list of manufactures producing furniture without the addition of flame retardants. It is also important to understand that flame retardants can be found in items other then furniture, including building products, electronics, carpets, drapes, and gym mats.

While flame retardants are at the top of the toxic chemical list, they are far from alone. A soft chair or sofa uses layers of frame, padding, springs, wires, and coverings. Each of these components is manufactured using a variety of adhesives, dyes, synthetic fibers, and chemical treatments. Chemicals most commonly found in furniture are outlined below. However, for a more comprehensive list of chemicals to avoid, see the International Living Future Institute – The Red List.


Formaldehyde is often present in MDF fiber board and plywood, which is commonly used in lower-priced furniture. It can be found in shelving, desks, side tables, headboards, and upholstered furniture. Formaldehyde is also used in drapes and wrinkle-free fabrics. It is associated with nasal and brain cancers. Where Formaldehyde is found.


Phthalates can be found in air fresheners, shower curtains, varnish, vinyl flooring, wallpaper, window coverings, carpet, cookware, and toys. They are known endocrine disruption chemicals. Where Phthalates are found.


Perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) are most often used on stain-resistant fabrics and on pans with Teflon coating. They are used to make the products more resistant to stains, grease, and water. However, they are also linked to birth defects and cancer. Where PFC is found.


Perchloroethylene (PCE) is at times added to aerosols, adhesives, and furniture polishes. Textile and rubber manufactures also use this product. It can cause liver damage, memory loss, and cancer. PCE’s are know to be toxic to humans in low quantities and have been banned in Canada and Europe. Where PCE is found.


Triclosan is often used in antibacterial soaps, furniture, textiles, toys and cleaning products.  According to the FDA, Some short-term animal studies have shown that exposure to high doses of triclosan is associated with a decrease in the levels of some thyroid hormones.” Where Triclosan is found.

So what is one to do? A good start is to avoid furniture with pressed MDF boards and synthetic fabrics like microfiber or vinyl. If you like leather, look for products that are not highly processed with chemical treatments. Leather requires a long chemical process to remove hair, soften, and dye with color. Also pass on furniture that has been treated with stain-resistant products or synthetic leather softeners and of course flame retardants.

It is important to do your research before making a furniture purchase. Like your car, you can get a lot of mileage out of that sofa or desk chair. Natural products like kiln-dried wood and plant or animal fibers like cotton and wool tend to contain fewer toxic chemicals. Look for consumer labels like the Sustainable Furnishing Council and International Living Future Institute, Declare Label. Purchase furniture from manufacturers who are committed to sustainable, healthy practices and reducing or eliminating toxic chemicals from their products.

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Earth Justice

SF Gate

Medical Daily


Chicago Tribune


Environmental Health Perspectives

The Spruce

The Smart Living Handbook – Melissa Wittig and Danielle King

Kristina is a Licensed Interior Designer and Certified Health and Wellness Coach. Her passion and dedication to healthy living and the environment began in college as her own health declined. For her, the toxicity of the air, water, food, electromagnetic radiation, building and consumer products found and consumed in our homes and businesses became evident. Kristina realized these issues play a key role in her health and the declining health of our society. Through years of experience and research Kristina has obtained a wealth of knowledge. As the ‘canary in the coal mine’, Kristina has learned firsthand the importance of putting wellness first when creating a balanced and beautiful environment.


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