These days, most products are made through chemical processes to increase durability and keep prices low. Synthetic materials are known to emit gasses, which prompts the question, “are these products safe?”
Since we spend a third of our lives asleep, memory foam mattresses are among the products most widely discussed in terms of safety. While memory foam mattresses are safe to sleep on, the foam’s components can cause harm if a worker is exposed to the chemicals during the manufacturing process.
In this article, we will examine what memory foam is, what materials you should avoid, and how to select a safe memory foam mattress.
What Is Memory Foam?
Memory foam was first developed in the mid-60s as a way to absorb shock in NASA’s airplane seats. Manufacturers have since applied the material to shoes, helmets, furniture, and mattresses.
All memory foam is processed polyurethane foam, poly-foam for short; however, not all polyurethane foam is memory foam. Memory foam has chemicals added to the foam during manufacturing, which makes it elastic and responsive.
Memory foam mattresses contain both memory foam and polyurethane to build a comfortable and supportive bed. Memory foam mattresses have memory foam in the comfort layers and high-density poly-foam in the bottom layer for durability, deterring sagging.
Memory foam is conforming and elastic when a sleeper applies body heat and pressure. As a result, the material relieves pressure points and prevents pain.
Many people also sleep on a memory foam mattress for its hypoallergenic properties —the material’s density naturally keeps out dust mites and other allergens.
What Goes Into Memory Foam
Mattress manufacturers use three chemical components to create a memory foam mattress:
- Polyol acts as the binding ingredient and makes up most of the memory foam. Typically polyol comes from petroleum oil, although companies substitute some plant-based materials such as soy or castor beans to make the memory foam eco-friendly.
- Blowing agents add carbon to create the foam. Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were once commonly used, although many manufacturers now substitute other healthier alternatives, such as water.
- Diisocyanates react to polyol and blowing agents to create rigid and flexible foams. Diisocyanates can cause skin irritations and respiratory issues if inhaled, though this is only a concern during the manufacturing process.
Potential Ingredients/Byproducts of Concern
Finding out a memory foam mattress’s exact makeup is difficult, as the formulas are guarded trade secrets, and each company’s recipe is different. Laws and voluntary restrictions have phased out the more dangerous ingredients, but you might still find some of them in lower-quality foam mattresses.
- Methyl benzene: Also known as toluene, methyl benzene occurs naturally in petroleum. It’s a well-studied neurotoxin, and most harmful exposures come from inhaling it.
- Acetone: A material absorbed through inhalation, ingestion, and touch. While not a standard mattress material, it’s a common cleaner for labs and other industries, so residue can get into the foam. Look for low VOCs mattresses to limit harmful side effects.
- Formaldehyde: Primarily applied as an adhesive in mattresses, although few manufacturers use it today.
- Methylene chloride or DCM: DCM dissolves other substances during manufacturing. It’s absorbed by inhaling it or skin contact. Exposure to high amounts can cause lightheadedness, nausea, headaches, respiratory problems, and eye irritation.
Common Fire Retardants
All mattresses are required by law to resist an open flame for a certain length of time, and many mattress companies add retardant chemicals to reduce flammability — not all of these chemicals are the safest.
Fire retardants of concern include:
- Cotton treated with boric acid, though most concerns about boric acid come from ingestion.
- Brominated fire retardants/Polybrominated diphenyl ethers/PBDEs as potential carcinogens.
- Chlorinated tris (TDCPP), another potential carcinogen.
Many mattress companies now use fire retardants such as kevlar, wool, and rayon with added silica to reduce the risk of cancer and other health problems.
Off-gassing is the chemical smell some memory foam mattresses have when first opened. The odor comes from volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that break down at room temperature.
According to Sleep Like the Dead, around 1.5 percent of memory foam mattress owners experience symptoms such as headaches, nausea, sweating, respiratory problems, and irritation in the eyes and throat. These symptoms lessened as the mattress finished off-gassing, which should take three to seven days in a well-ventilated room.
If you want to ensure you’re buying a safe memory foam mattress, look for certifications. To receive these certifications, mattress companies pay a third-party organization to examine their manufacturing process, ensuring no dangerous chemicals are present.
CertiPUR-US® ensures foam products are made without ozone depleters, PBDEs, TDCPP or TCEP flame retardants, heavy metals, formaldehyde, and phthalates. It also certifies the foam as having low VOCs.
CertiPUR-US® has a list of certified companies for your fact-checking convenience.
Oeko-Tex® is a partnership of 18 research and test institutes in Europe and Japan. These facilities examine textiles and leather products.
GREENGUARD tests the chemical emissions of various indoor household products. GREENGUARD Gold is the highest grade certification and guarantees the product has low VOCs emission.
Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)
GOTS only certifies textiles products that contain a minimum of 70 percent organic fibers. All dyes and chemicals must comply with specific environmental criteria. GOTS also certifies if working conditions meet the standards of the International Labour Organization.
Choosing a Safe Memory Foam Mattress
If you want to sleep on a memory foam mattress, there are steps you can take to minimize health risks:
- Consider a plant-based memory foam mattress. Not only do they cut back on petrochemicals, but their added breathability creates a cooling mattress.
- Look for a CertiPUR-US® certification to ensure the foam is free of toxic chemicals and low on VOCs.
- Ask what materials make the mattress fire resistant. Materials such as wool and kevlar are safer than many chemical options.
- Avoid chemical adhesives, which may contain harmful chemicals such as acetone or formaldehyde. Look for mattresses that do not use glue or only water-based glue.
- Find out where the company manufactures its foam. Foams made in the United States and Europe have to comply with stricter regulations than imported foams.
What if Memory Foam Isn’t for Me?
If you want the conforming feel of a memory foam bed but are still wary of potential health risks, you might consider a natural latex mattress. While latex is a bouncier material than memory foam, it still contours close to the body for pressure and pain relief.
To create natural latex, organic mattress companies process rubber tree sap with a foaming agent such as natural soap and sulfur to create a dense, resilient foam. These leave it free of possibly toxic chemical additives.
There are two other types of latex on the market, synthetic and blended latex. Manufacturers make synthetic latex from chemical compounds. By mixing synthetic latex with natural latex, manufacturers make blended latex.
These both contain additional, potentially harmful chemicals, so we can only recommend 100 percent natural latex as a chemical-free mattress.
Frequently Asked Questions
How long does it take for a memory foam mattress to off-gas?
Most memory foam mattresses should finish off-gassing within 3 to 7 days. Some owners keep the bed in a separate room while it goes through the off-gassing process.
Do you need to wait 24 hours for a memory foam mattress to expand?
No. You can sleep on your new mattress anywhere between a few minutes to a couple of hours after opening it. Walking and rolling around on the mattress will help it expand faster, although the bed is more comfortable once it finishes expanding.
Did We Help?
Memory foam mattresses are not toxic. The raw chemical components of a memory foam mattress are harmful, but only during the manufacturing process. Certifications such as CertiPUR-US®, Oeko-Tex®, GREENGUARD Gold can reduce off-gassing and help an owner feel secure in their mattress choice.
The best mattresses leave us not only rested and refreshed but feeling secure as we sleep on them night after night. We spend a third of our lives in bed, so naturally, we want a safe sleeping surface.