Q. I am in the market for allergen-proof pillow and mattress covers, but am confused by the various types available. What are the different types of encasings? And do they vary in effectiveness or comfort?

A. There are four basic types of materials commonly used to manufacture allergen-barrier encasings: vinyl, laminates, woven microfiber fabrics, and non-woven microfiber fabrics. Within each material type there are further differences in fabric quality and sewing construction.

Vinyl encasings are inexpensive and effectively block allergen escape. But because they are stiff and noisy, and do not allow air or water vapor passage, they are uncomfortable to sleep on. They are suitable, however, for encasing a box spring, as a person would not sleep directly on the plastic. The vinyl should be of sufficient thickness as to not tear easily.

Laminate encasings are made by fusing a plastic-type membrane, usually polyurethane, to the bottom surface of a fabric. The membrane acts as an effective allergen barrier. Although less uncomfortable than vinyl, they are generally somewhat stiff, have only very minimal water vapor permeability, and are not air permeable. An additional problem with laminate encasings is that with washing and drying, the urethane membrane may separate from the fabric onto which it had been coated, making the encasing unusable.

Woven microfiber fabric encasings are woven from special yarns, each of which is made up of 100-200 ultra-thin filaments. Because the tightly woven microfiber fabric itself acts as a filter that prevents allergen escape, no plastic membrane is needed, and air and water vapor can pass freely through the fabric, making it very comfortable for use. Unfortunately for the consumer, microfiber fabric encasings vary considerably in the tightness of their weave and therefore in their effectiveness as allergen barriers. Some woven microfiber encasings block only certain allergens, while higher quality woven microfiber encasings prevent the passage of all types of allergens. A high quality woven microfiber encasing is the state of the art for comfort and allergen blockage.

Non-woven microfiber fabric encasings are not woven on a loom, but rather are manufactured by fusing a mass of randomly crisscrossing short filaments to each other with heat, glue, and pressure, resulting in an embossed pattern on their surface. Although inexpensive, these fabrics are deep enough to allow dust mite growth and high levels of allergen accumulation on their surface, but are not washable. These facts suggest that non-woven microfibers do not succeed in reducing allergen exposure, and should not be used for allergen avoidance.

Note that encasings of any fabric type can differ in the quality of their sewing construction. Desirable features include bound seams, no gap at the edges of the zipper, a barrier fabric flap beneath the zipper to prevent the escape of allergen through the zipper webbing, and an extra-long zipper for easier placement of the encasing on a mattress.

Q. A few months back I heard an allergist on television talking about the Ionic air filters being toxic to the lungs. I have had these air filters for a few years in every room, and have Copd caused by allergies. I was wondering where there was a resource of which I could find out more information as to what problems these air filters cause,as I certainly don't need anymore problems with my lungs. I have searched the internet but the only thing it brings up is sales of these air filters, even though I put in toxic lungs etc when searching.

A. These are not really air filters. They are usually advertised as ‘clean air machines’ or ‘air purifiers.’ The ionization changes the charge on the particle and it sticks to the next thing it comes into contact with. There is usually not enough air flow to effectively filter many particles, so they provide minimal benefit as air cleaners. The health risk comes from the ozone they produce which is toxic to the nose and lungs. Here is a link to the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) web site on this: http://www.epa.gov/iaq/pubs/ozonegen.html

The better thing to use is either a HEPA room air cleaner rated with a Clean Air Delivery Rate (CADR) for the size room you are using it is. For central air cleaning a furnace filter with a MERV rating of 11 or 12 will help filter the particles blown through heating and air conditioning system.

Q. Are air purifiers to the benefit of the asthmatic patients?

A. I am assuming that he’s asking this question in the context of using an "air purifier" in the home.

  • There are no magic "air purifiers".
  • It is better to think of how can we move air through a filtration device to reduce the amount of allergens or irritating particles in the air which may be breathed in and trigger symptoms in the asthmatic.
  • Filtration can be either free standing (room air cleaners) or part of the forced-air heating and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems.
  • The best room air cleaners have HEPA filters and are rated by independent test to have a CADR (Clean Air Delivery Rating) to clean certain size rooms. There are several good brands available. (Hunter, Honeywell, and Austin Air to name a few) They are most effective in removing fine particulates and allergens like cat allergen. These are good for use in the bedroom.
  • Any type of machine that generates Ozone should not be used. The ozone may be irritating to the airways even at low levels. There is no such thing as "good" ozone.
  • High efficiency furnace filters can also help reduce particle and allergens in the air. They are rated by ASHRAE by Minimum Efficiency Rating Values (MERV). The most efficient filters available for home use have MERV 12 ratings. Brands include AllergyZone or 3M Filtrete
  • Using a combination of a HEPA room air cleaner in the bedroom and a efficiency furnace filter is the best approach.

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