Taking Toxins Out of the Guest Experience

by | May 4, 2020 7 Ideas

With the COVID-19 pandemic wreaking havoc on the hospitality industry, how will hotels encourage guests to return once shelter-in-place orders are lifted? While the obvious solution is touting the amount of bleach and cleaning agents used on every surface in the room, we see a long-term emphasis on guest health and safety. In the first of our two-part blog, we’ll talk about solutions that address the common toxins found in guestrooms.

In the past decade or so, our understanding of how materials impact human health has become much clearer. We’ve come to know this concept as the “body burden,” or the chemicals and pollutants that our bodies carry around. Scientists estimate more than 700 substances can be found inside of us – many of which we know little about, especially regarding their effect on our overall health.

Recent focus has been on the six classes of chemicals with known negative impact: PFAs, antimicrobials, flame retardants, Bisphenols + Phthalates, solvents and some metals. Even more recent is the focus on COVID, its rate of contagion and its longevity of life outside a human host. These chemicals (and viruses) get into the body in a variety of ways: through inhalation, contaminated food and water, and absorption through the skin. And they can lead to a variety of health impacts such as asthma, cancer, high blood pressure, memory, lowered IQ, infertility and death.

It’s easily overwhelming, but fear not! Scientists are beginning to explore two approaches that provide healthier solutions: Green Chemistry and Biomimicry. For now, we’ll focus on Green Chemistry and how this field has provided safe alternatives to the typical toxic chemicals found in guestrooms.

Green Chemistry is “the design of chemical products and processes that reduce or eliminate the generation of hazardous substances,” according to the EPA website. “Green chemistry applies across the life cycle of a chemical product, including its design, manufacture, use and ultimate disposal.”

Flame retardants

One of the most prevalent toxins in our environment today comes in the form of flame retardants. These chemicals are applied to many elements in a guestroom and, unfortunately, in almost all our home environments. They’re found in and on mattresses, sofas and lounge chairs, baby clothing, sleepwear and drapery. But ironically, most flame retardants have been determined useless in flame protection, which makes their application both unnecessary and harmful.

But coupled with other building systems, such as sprinklers and smoke detectors, designers can select non-toxic alternatives that perform just as well, if not better, than traditional flame retardant-treated items.

This revelation has resulted in a burgeoning change in the industry, as consumers begin to demand chemical-free alternatives. For example, we can use natural latex or wool cushions, and drapery fabric made from natural wool or inherently flame-resistant polyesters such as Avora and Trevira. All of these solutions provide a safe and flame-retardant-free design without chemical additives!

Bisephenols and Phthalates

Concrete floors take the place of carpet or vinyl, and offer a modern touch in the Hyatt Centric Portland.

Other high-impact toxins present in products and surfaces throughout hospitality design are Bisphenols and Phthalates. These chemicals add strength and flexibility to vinyl, a product commonly found in our homes and businesses too.

Recently, we’ve started seeing the use of luxury vinyl (“wood-look”) flooring in guestrooms. The idea behind it makes sense on the surface: By replacing carpet with vinyl, we’re saying goodbye to allergies and hypogenic concerns. But in reality, vinyl adds a large amount of chemicals which are constantly off-gassing into the room.

But progress is being made here too. The vinyl flooring industry has taken note of a mandate by the influential large-scale retailer Home Depot, which in 2018 eliminated Phthalates from all vinyl flooring sold in the United States. That’s a big step! However, while manufacturers are looking for viable, non-toxic solutions, Bisphenols are still used as a top-coat wear layer on most vinyl flooring.

Currently, there are few Bisphenol-free alternatives available commercially.

Vinyl upholstery – another source of Phthalates and Bisphenols used prolifically in guestrooms – is also starting to share the market with less- and non-toxic alternatives. Available for years, polyurethane is a prominent vinyl alternative, but has its own chemicals of concerns and carries the stigma of being less durable. Phthalate-free vinyl is another alternative, but this still can contain toxic chemicals. The most promising alternative was developed using the tenets of green chemistry, using natural, non-toxic elements and relying on their inherent properties for its performance benefits: silicone and silicone-coated fabrics have no PVC, no harmful chemicals, no solvents and have the added benefits of being inherently anti-microbial and anti-bacterial.

In this changing environment, material specification has become more complicated even as our knowledge grows. How can a designer sort through all the information and begin to make more informed choices?  Over the past decade the movement toward transparency has taken off, with groups dedicated to giving designers safer, healthier product options. One such initiative is mindful Materials (mM), a free platform with information on human health and environmental impacts for products from manufacturers, vetted by experts. Check out these past posts for more background:

♦ Let’s Be Clear: A Brief Guide to Material Transparency

♦ Product transparency: mindful MATERIALS

Now published: Read Part 2 of our blog, on creating healthier guestrooms with nature!

Authored by Becca Dobosh and Courtney Laird



  1. The emphasis on using healthy materials, especially in this day and age, should be a priority. We’ve never talked more about the health of our society and the importance of being healthy. So understanding what is in our products, good and bad, gives us the option to make smart choices. Thanks for educating us on this complex topic!

  2. Scott Shumaker says |

    Thanks for the great info. Very intriguing to see this is being addressed. Do you think hotels will start having a wellness certification so travelers know what to expect during their stay? Looking forward to part 2 of your blog!

    • Becca Dobosh says |

      I actually think the WELL Building standard and/or Fitwel will begin to pop up more regularly on hospitality projects. When WELL was first introduced a block of rooms at the MGM Grand adhered to the standard but it was not widely adopted. Now that WELL is getting more momentum across industries, I think it will be happening on more hospitality projects as consumers become savvier about health.

  3. Suzanne Blair says |

    So informative! I’ve noticed a significant de-prioritization of sustainable choices over the last several months as we all focus on virus spread and prevention. I’m excited to see ideas about how to integrate everything we know about WELLNESS (physical, psychological, and emotional) with our focus on HEALTH. It’s great to better understand the design choices we can make that informed recommendations and choices.

  4. David Stephenson says |

    This is such an important topic! The A&E industry needs to continue to do what it can to advocate for healthier building materials, particularly in this day of COVID. I’m curious if there is potential for more synergies between healthy materials and the reduction of the spread of viruses. Something to consider.
    Looking forward to reading part 2!

  5. Alisha Burkman says |

    Great information and perspective, hitting on several crucial discussion points for hospitality teams in the design industry at this time. I certainly hope we see a stronger shift towards the adoption of holistic wellness in design, construction, services, and operations over the coming months & years. Thank you for sharing. I’ll be on the lookout for part two next week!

  6. Keith Fugate says |

    Great write-up on an important subject that building owners/ operators deal with on every project- and one that will become even more important now. Selecting materials that are durable (concrete) and those that naturally resist bacteria (linoleum) are going to make even more sense going forward.

    Looking forward to part 2!

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