Is your sofa harming you? Your furniture might be toxic, but there are some safeguarding things you can do

Toxic sofas are a furniture danger we never knew we had to worry about - until now

A brown sofa against a neutral background
(Image credit: Thomas Richter. Design: White Arrow)

Our homes are the one place in the world where we're meant to feel safest. While we all take pride in our designs, we also want to make our homes happy, healthy spaces that promote our physical and mental wellbeing. But, there could be a silent killer lurking in your living room. That's right - your sofa could be harming you.

You likely spend a lot of time on your sofa - be it late nights snuggled up with a film or hosting guests after a dinner party, this integral piece of furniture sees a lot. All the more reason then, that it should be a part of the home that promotes our health rather that threaten it. What you might not know is that our couches, and other furniture items, can contain toxic chemicals that are released into the air.

In a process called off-gassing, the glues, sealants, and fabric materials used in the manufacturing of your furniture release toxic chemicals into your living room. Formaldehyde, acetaldehyde and benzene are just a few of the harmful compounds that are often found inside our homes. They're known to cause headaches, asthma, allergies and are even linked to more serious diseases like cancer.

To understand why these toxins are used in so many popular household items, as well as which safe alternatives are out there, we've consulted some toxic-free home experts and sofa manufacturers who reveal all you need to know about the menacing furniture lurking in your living room.

Lilith headshot for bio
Lilith Hudson

Lilith is an expert at following news and trends across the world of interior design. She's committed to sharing articles that help readers make the best choices for their homes not only from a design perspective, but with health in mind, too. For this piece, she spoke with bloggers and sofa manufacturers to learn all there is to know about toxic furniture as well as the alternatives available. 

What are toxic sofas? 

Curved red sofa and patterned ottoman with a spherical light above

(Image credit: Future)

Toxic sofas are any sofas that have been manufactured using harmful chemicals that are slowly released into the air or transferred onto our skin or clothes. The toxins are usually a result of solvent based upholstery seals, like flame retardants or water resistant sprays. 

'The primary concerns with toxic chemicals used in sofas are per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), polyurethane (PU) foam, and flame retardants,' explains Abbie Davidson, Editor at The Filtery. 'PFAS chemicals, which are linked to a wide range of health concerns including cancer and birth defects, are often added to sofas to make them resistant to spills and stains.'

She continues: 'PU foam, which is a petroleum product and is what most couch cushions are made out of, can "off-gas" toxic volatile organic compounds (VOCs) like benzene, toluene, and formaldehyde.' According to Abbie, flame retardants are also linked to a wide range of longterm health concerns, but are no longer used in couches sold in the U.S. as they were a decade ago. 

It's also important to note that everything off-gases, but, as Adam Green, Marketing Director at sustainable sofa brand Habbio explains, the distinction needs to be made for how harmful the vapors are.

So where are these chemicals lurking in our sofas? 'The foams, glues, stains and engineered wood can all offgas VOCs,' explains Corinne Segura, blogger and owner of My Chemical Free House. 'The good news is that sofas offgas very low levels of VOCs and most of the materials are relatively quick to finish offgassing.'

Adding to the list of materials that can harbor VOCs, Adam notes dyes and pigments, composite timber boards, metals and some plastics commonly found in a standard sofa. 

This could be a good time to look at the latest sofa trends, so as to upgrade and ensure your sofa is safe.

What are the regulations around the manufacture of toxic furniture?

A living room with a grey sofa and a large book case in the background

(Image credit: James Merrell)

If these chemicals are known to be harmful to us, you're probably sat there wondering why they're still used in the manufacture of our furniture. The good news is that there are now tight regulations surrounding the use of some of them.

'Flame retardants are neither banned nor required,' explains Corinne. 'But since 2015 when they were no longer required, all brands in the US moved to discontinue foam made with flame retardants.'

Some states, like California, have their own laws banning all flame retardant chemicals at levels above 1,000 parts per million (ppm) in children’s products, mattresses, and upholstered furniture. 'Because of this (combined with increased consumer pressure over the last couple of decades), most furniture manufacturers have removed synthetic flame retardants from most of their sofas and other types of furniture,' says Abbie. 

For our safety, there are also regulations that require a certain amount of flame retardancy to be used in our sofas, but brands are now able to meet those regulations using healthier, more natural materials. According to Abbie, wool is one such material as it's naturally flame resistant. As she explains: 'Specific legal requirements on flame retardancy vary depending on the product category and the country where the product is being sold.'

When it comes to PFAS and PU foams however, there are currently very few regulations in comparison, so most furniture brands still contain these chemicals.

According to Adam: 'While the UK has some of the most stringent flame retardant laws in the world, there are no fixed UK regulations on the use of formaldehydes, VOCs, halogens, rare earths, Isocyanates and other toxic chemicals in sofas.' But the main concern lies with low priced, imported sofas from competitors who manufacture their products in east Asian countries where there are hardly any regulations at all. 

Do non-toxic sofas exist?

Blue sofa with tiled floor, yellow wall and green painted panel in the background.

(Image credit: James Merrell)

When it comes to choosing the best sofa for your space, you might want to find one that's guaranteed to be non-toxic. Fortunately, there are a few options out there on the market that are manufactured without the use of PFAS or PU chemicals. 

You'll be pleased to know that these sofas are still perfectly safe when it comes to fire risks too. 'Since PU foam is very flammable, using natural materials such as latex is one way to develop a sofa that is less prone to catching on fire,' says Abbie. 'Adding a layer of wool, which has natural flame resistant properties, is another way of meeting U.S. federal fire retardant regulations without synthetic chemicals.'

Adam at Habbio stresses the importance of still satisfying local flammability laws meaning they still use flame retardants on fabrics, but these are naturally derived. 'Our flame retardants are halogen free or made from fruit extracts meaning they are natural, non-toxic and biodegradeable.'

Habbio have also removed the harmful polyurethane foams and replaced them with a hypoallergenic and non-toxic material made from recycled plastic bottles. 'Our adhesives, stains and lacquers are also all water based with less than 1% VOCs and certified non-hazardous to human health,' says Adam. 'And, our plywood is the highest rated on the market for low formaldehyde content, which means there is more formaldehyde in a tomato than in our sofas.'

For more inspiration, check out Medley's non-toxic sofas which are the perfect modern sofa for your space made without any harsh chemicals or unnatural flame retardants.

Color & Trends Editor

Lilith Hudson is the Color & Trends Editor at Livingetc. Writing news, features, and explainers for our digital platform, she's the go-to person for all the latest micro-trends, interior hacks, and color inspiration you need in your home. Lilith discovered a love for lifestyle journalism during her BA in English and Philosophy at the University of Nottingham where she spent more time writing for her student magazine than she did studying. After graduating, she decided to take things a step further and now holds an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London, with previous experience at the Saturday Times Magazine, Evening Standard, DJ Mag, and The Simple Things Magazine. At weekends you'll find her renovating a tiny one-up, one-down annex next to her Dad's holiday cottage in the Derbyshire dales where she applies all the latest design ideas she's picked up through the week.