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Any recommendations for a healthy leather sofa that won't offgas?

by LiveModern Webmaster last modified Jan 04, 2012 02:11 AM
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by last modified Jan 06, 2011

I am looking to buy 2 sets of sofas -- for living room and family room. Since leather is more durable, I plan to use it for the family room. How do I find out if the leather conditioning/cleaning cream would offgas? I am in California; any recommendation for affordable green (from IAQ perspective) furniture stores here or online?



Dear Amy,

It is important to look at the components of any product you bring into your home, and sofas are especially complex. Sofas contain:

  • a frame -- made of wood,
  • springs -- made of steel,
  • resilient material -- either an innerspring cushion or foam,
  • padding -- either down, wool or polyester batting, and
  • the surface fabric.

As far as indoor air quality, my greatest concern would be the foam padding, but you also asked about the treatments for the leather.

Leather processing

Most leather is processed using chromium as a catalyst in dying and tanning, and some people develop an allergy to chromium-treated leather or want to avoid the environmental effects of this metal. In fact many car manufacturers, including Volvo, are now avoiding chromium-tanned leather.

  • If this is a concern, you should look for vegetable-tanned leather.
  • However vegetable-tanned leather is less waterproof and less resistant to UV fading than chromium-tanned leather, and thus should be oiled regularly and protected from the sun.

Most furniture uses a top-coated pigmented leather, which is very water resistant. Some low-quality leather furniture is made from "bycast" or manufactured leather. This material is made of low-quality leather or leather scraps, with a polyurethane coating applied to the top. It is good to ask questions to make sure of what you are getting.

My recommendation would be vegetable-tanned leather treated with a natural leather treatment, but this would depend on your budget and your level of concern.

Cleaning and conditioning leather

Leather is one of the few upholstery materials that can be wiped down easily. It also is very durable, and actually looks better with a patina of wear. As with any product, a high quality leather will perform better than one of lower quality.

There are a broad variety of natural leather treatments.

  • They are usually based on a combination of an oil, such as jojoba or mink, and a more solid component such as beeswax. 
  • One such product is manufactured by the BioPro Line, which has achieved certification through the German EcoControl label. 

If there is a specific leather treatment product you want to use, there is some easy research you can do to find out how safe it is

  • Most products have a document available called a Materials Safety Data Sheet (MSDS). This is a product information sheet that contains information known about the components of that product.
  • For example, here is a link to the MSDS for ArmorAll Leather Protectant.
  • A manufacturer is required to report whether there are any known hazardous chemicals in their product, and the MSDS is where you can find that information.

There is a second product information sheet that is available for paints and coatings that discloses any VOCs contained in a product. This is called the Technical Data Sheet (TDS), but I had a hard time finding any for leather treatments.

I would suggest you either use a natural leather treatment, or request the TDS and MSDS for whatever product you want to use.

My greatest concern would be the foam padding

Foam is the other component of a sofa that would create concerns as far as indoor air quality.

Foam does not contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs) but rather semi-volatile organic compounds (SVOCs), usually flame retardant chemicals. These chemicals become airborne, but are heavy enough to fall out of the air and become part of house dust. 

The reason these chemicals are of concern is that they are persistent in the environment, bio-accumulative, and have known health effects on humans.

Unfortunately, they are very difficult to avoid, particularly in California! California has a strict law for upholstered goods, called Technical Bulletin 117, that is being met with brominated and chlorinated fire retardants in foam, often up to 10% by weight. Natural or healthy upholstery lines use latex foam for the upholstery, and wool batting. Wool is naturally fire resistant. Some use foam not containing the fire retardants, and then use a fire barrier cloth underneath the upholstery. Whichever option they use, the healthy upholstery lines are typically more expensive.

Green furniture manufacturers

Luckily, there are many wonderful manufacturers of natural upholstered goods to select from.

  • Furnature on the east coast and Greener Lifestyles in Seattle sell directly to consumers and use natural materials.
  • For a more modern look, Viesso in Los Angeles can be ordered with "green" upholstery. 
  • If you are interested in custom furniture, Ami McKay and Cisco Brothers are both sold through designers -- and have a stylish selection of frames.
  • Since you are in the San Francisco Bay Area, you could visit Reclaim in Menlo Park, which carries a lovely selection of Elka healthy upholstered furniture.
  • I often also re-upholster vintage pieces using natural materials. The upholstery is expensive, but the frame itself is often negligible in cost.

A well-made, healthy sofa will cost more

It is frustrating to me, and I am sure it is to you also, that there are not more healthy options for upholstered furniture that are in an affordable price range. Many of the chemicals that are added to our manufactured goods are added to cut costs and increase performance, often with a positive effect on our products.

  • Unfortunately we are finding that not all of these chemicals are healthy for ourselves and the environment. 
  • I do recommend that my clients pay more and select natural upholstery options, because the concerns about fire retardants are well researched and compelling.

The extra cost for a well-made, healthy sofa is worth it.


For more information:

Read Mary Cordaro's Q&A "Do BFRs (brominated flame retardants) offgas or persist in upholstery? Would they be in the stuffing of a sofa, or in the fabric cover?"

Also, read Miriam Landman's Q&A "Can you recommend sources for green furniture?"




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