If there is one mattress whose popularity has spread like wildfire for its contouring and pressure-relieving properties, it is the memory foam mattress. Its plush softness offers an incredibly comfortable sleep while easing pressure points and relieving the body and joint aches.
Furthermore, it is easy to compress and roll in a box for easy transportation. This makes it the topmost “bed in a box” mattress for anyone to order online and conveniently delivered to the doorstep.
Simultaneously, many sleepers have reservations about buying a memory foam mattress since foam is prepared chemically. A major dilemma is, ‘Are foam mattresses safe?’
Here, we dig out everything about what is memory foam made of and is memory foam bad for you. Stay hooked!
What is Memory Foam?
A type of polyurethane foam, memory foam was originally invented in 1966 by Charles Yost. He wanted to create padded seat cushions for NASA spacecraft that could easily withstand the pressure generated by G-forces during take-off.
The material failed to serve its purpose, but it soon found use in several products like medical equipment, car seats, and then mattresses in the 1990s.
Memory foam differs from other polyurethane foam in having additional chemicals that enhance its viscosity and elasticity. That is why memory foam is also called viscoelastic foam.
Properties of Memory Foam
Memory foam flaunts several properties that make it an ideal mattress material. A few noteworthy ones are:
- Memory foam can stretch into different shapes under pressure and restore to its original form on the lifting of applied pressure.
- It also gets activated by heat. Due to this, it absorbs energy and renders pressure relief, especially on sensitive body parts like the shoulders, back, spine, and hip.
- Memory foam is also excellent in isolating motion transfer and preventing it from passing to another partner.
- The present-day memory foam has improved to retain less heat and facilitate easy bed movement on top.
What Is Memory Foam Made Of?
Each mattress brand manufactures its specialized memory foam by adding or subtracting a few ingredients. Nevertheless, all memory foam has flexible polyurethane foam with few common ingredients that build its structure. They are:
Polyol organic compounds are present in almost everything, from sugar to plastic. It is a petroleum oil-based ingredient that reacts with isocyanates to create polyurethane foam. It is the bulk of the basic building block of memory foam.
Diisocyanates are chemical compounds that react with polyols and blowing agents to yield polyurethane foam. The compound is used extensively to manufacture rigid and flexible foams, adhesives, sealants, etc.
MDIs (methylene diphenyl diisocyanates) and TDIs (toluene diisocyanates) is the leading ‘types’ of diisocyanates used to manufacture memory foam. MDI is used more in home insulation, sealants, etc., while TDI is used more in furniture, bedding, packaging, etc.
Both these memory foam mattress chemicals are touted to be carcinogenic if used in bulk. Nevertheless, they are not used in large quantities to contribute significantly to polyurethane foam toxicity.
3. Blowing Agents
These chemicals trigger the chemical reaction that converts liquid to foam. Traditionally, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were used as blowing agents to create memory foam. However, today, we have transitioned to safer alternatives like water.
Since many of the ingredients used to manufacture memory foam are petroleum-based, many shoppers are confused with queries like, ‘Is polyurethane foam toxic?’
Is Memory Foam Toxic?
It isn’t easy to know the exact makeup of any memory foam mattress as these are carefully guarded trade secrets. The recipe varies from company to company. Why memory foam is bad?
Several reasons have supported arguments that sleeping on memory foam might not be healthy. Let’s walk through a few of them.
Potentially Toxic Materials Used in Memory Foam
Historically, memory foam is crafted from several raw materials that can be potentially harmful to users and can cause certain memory foam mattress side effects. A few common toxic materials that were historically used in the manufacture of memory foam are:
It occurs naturally in petroleum or crude oil and is popularly called toluene. It is a clear liquid classified by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a carcinogen. Its inhalation can potentially damage the nervous system.
It is generally obtained as a byproduct during the foam manufacturing process. Essentially a preservative, it is used as an adhesive in mattresses. It is also called a human carcinogen as its fumes can irritate the mouth, nose, eyes, throat, and skin.
Fortunately, its use and generation during mattress making are a rarity.
It is also a potentially carcinogenic chemical that functions as a reactant during foam manufacturing. It causes skin irritation on contact.
Methylene Chloride or DCM
It is also a potentially carcinogenic chemical used as a solvent during foam manufacturing. Its exposure to the skin and mucus causes severe irritation and other health risks.
It was also used as a blowing agent during foam manufacturing and was a leading cause of memory foam toxic symptoms. The chemical also manifested an ozone-depleting effect.
As research was conducted and the harmful effects of these chemicals came to light, mattress manufacturing companies found and switched to safer alternatives that minimized and negated the memory foam health risks. Green materials like soybean oil are used instead of petroleum products to eliminate toxicity.
Flame Retardants in Mattresses
Another material with potential toxicity in the mattresses was flame retardants. These are additives that slow down or prevent the spread of fire on the mattress. It was all the more essential for memory foam since polyurethane foam is highly flammable.
A law passed in 2007 made it mandatory for all mattresses to have a fire barrier capable of withstanding a two-foot-wide blowtorch open flame for at least 70 seconds.
Hence, memory foam mattresses also mandatorily have a chemical flame retardant. A few of the popular flame retardants used with memory foam are:
Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs)
The most common flame retardant used was PBDEs or polybrominated diphenyl ethers. However, research indicated that it could cause infertility, obesity, cancer, developmental brain disorders, and even neurodevelopmental disorders.
Another widely used flame retardant was boric acid which can contain formaldehyde and damage reproductive organs and even melamine compounds.
Chlorinated Tris (TDCPP)
Once this flame retardant’s carcinogenic properties came to light, it was banned by several European markets.
This flame retardant was also carcinogenic and could rarely lead to sudden infant death syndrome (SIDs).
It was also a possible carcinogenic material which led to a negative neurological effect.
Given that, most mattress manufacturers have switched to safer flame retardants like Polylactic acid or PLA. Manufacturers looking to reduce chemical usage opt for non-toxic fire barriers like wool, rayon treated with silica, Kevlar, etc.
While purchasing memory foam mattresses, you must look for certifications like Greenguard Gold, CertiPUR-US, or Oeko-Tex Standard 100. These are proof that the mattress has non-toxic flame retardants.
What are Volatile Organic Compounds?
Another concern with memory foam mattresses was VOCs or Volatile Organic Compounds. These are gasses emitted by solids or liquids due to their chemicals. The polyurethane foam, alias memory foam, also emitted these VOCs.
Exposure to high quantities of VOCs can irritate the eyes, nose, throat, etc.; it can cause nausea, headaches, fatigue, breathing problems, and even cancer. Prolonged exposure to it can also damage your kidney, liver, and central nervous system.
Given that, you must choose a mattress with no or negligible VOC. Many companies make a false claim that their mattress is VOC-free. But you must be alert if your brand-new mattress smells unpleasant.
You should also check for authentic certifications to ensure that you are not exposed to these toxic volatile compounds.
What Types of Memory Foam Products Are Potentially More Toxic?
The TempurPedic brand launched the first memory foam mattress in the 1990s. Are TempurPedic mattresses toxic? Unfortunately, the initial ones were.
Over time, we have developed greener alternative raw materials and processes to manufacture memory foam that are safe and better to sleep on.
Despite it, many companies have not adopted the healthier path. They continue to use harmful chemicals in memory foam manufacture and offer them to you at meager prices. Using chemicals helps them lower their production cost.
Thus, it is crucial that you thoroughly research the brand and memory foam mattress you wish to buy. You should be wary of cheap pricing. You should also check its certifications to ensure you are investing in a safe mattress.
Likewise, you might be purchasing an old mattress. It would be best if you exercised the same caution here, as it might still contain harmful chemicals that modern-day memory foam mattresses do not have.
It is always advisable to follow all key pointers on choosing the safest memory foam mattress and nail it, even though it might cost more.
Memory Foam ‘Off-Gassing’ Explained
The memory foam off-gassing is a tell-tale clue that gives away the presence of chemicals in your mattress is the memory foam off-gassing. When you unbox a new foam mattress, you will likely find an unpleasant odor coming out of it.
The odor is nothing but off-gassing that results from the release of the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air.
Regardless of how much green material you use to make the memory foam mattress, you would experience off-gassing as it is an inevitable part of polyurethane foams. However, low-quality memory foam will have a much stronger and pungent odor than the greener and safer ones.
Because of the VOC fumes, you might also experience irritation in the eyes, nose, and throat. Nevertheless, the smell goes away in a day or two. It goes away faster if the mattress is kept under the sun.
If you are extra sensitive to the VOC smell, it’s best to unbox the mattress in a separate, well-ventilated room and allow the off-gas to take its course. Once the odor is eliminated, you can shift the new mattress to your bedroom.
Unfortunately, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) cannot regulate VOCs in household products since it is not within their authorization. But you can check for credible certifications like CertiPUR-US, GREENGUARD Gold, or OEKO-TEX. These testify to your mattress having negligible amounts of harmful chemicals, including the VOCs.
Choosing A Safe Memory Foam Mattress
You can enjoy the comfort of a memory foam mattress if you opt for eco-friendly memory foam solutions. It has been made possible by the intervention of the European and North American regulators. They have stopped the inclusion of harmful chemical additives in memory foam manufacture to a large extent.
Let’s walk through some precautions you need to exercise to procure a safe memory foam mattress for yourself.
When shopping for a memory foam mattress, check the manufacturer’s website to verify if the memory foam has plant-based additives. It would imply fewer petroleum raw materials that automatically equates to fewer health hazards, would be free from VOCs, and have minimal off-gassing concerns.
It would also be cooler than regular foams.
While flame retardants are mandatory, choosing a safe and non-toxic one is best. Check out with the sales representative and ensure that your memory foam mattress has non-toxic ones like Kevlar and rayon treated with silica. They should also meet the anti- flammability standards.
We often skip testing organizations’ stamps, but it is of immense value, especially for memory foam. The stamp is the seal of approval that assures that your mattress is clean of toxins and has vital qualities like:
- They are manufactured without phthalates abiding by the regulation of the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
- They do not contain formaldehyde and other heavy metals like mercury, lead, etc.
- They do not have PBDE flame retardants.
- They have negligible to low VOC concentrations, assuring you of no off-gassing issues.
When purchasing online, you generally find the link to the mattress’s certifications. Else, you also find it on the mattress. Few reputed and credible certifications for memory foam are:
Primarily meant for textiles and fabrics, it assures you that your mattress is free of over 100 harmful chemicals. Moreover, the mattress brand must undergo yearly testing to remain qualified for this certification.
This US-based certification holds immense value for memory foam mattresses. It assures you that the mattress was manufactured without the use of
- Ozone depleters
- TCEP flame retardants.
- Lead, mercury, and other heavy metals.
- Phthalates that the Consumer Product Safety Commission regulates.
- Low VOC emissions.
It is the acronym for Global Organic Textile Standard. This certification assures you that no toxic bleaches, dyes, or other harmful chemicals were used during the manufacture of memory foam.
If your mattress has this certification, it means that it has at least 95% organic fiber, is not treated with formaldehyde, has non-toxic dye coloration, and has been manufactured in an environmentally-friendly setup.
The certification extends beyond the U.S. and is recognized globally, indicating its value and weightage.
This certification implies that the mattress is entirely safe for indoor use. Your mattress meets all chemical emission limits and has successfully cleared tests for over 10,000 chemicals, including VOCs.
It would be best to verify with your sales representative or online that your mattress lacks harmful chemical adhesives like acetone or formaldehyde. Your mattress should be without any glue or should be using water-based glue.
It is always safer to choose a memory foam mattress manufactured by a brand with a credible reputation. Any reputed company would always offer you a quality product and would always be known for
- Proper business ethics
- Customer-centric policies and way of working
- Positive business practices
- Social responsibility
You would not like to go for a brand that is only focused on sales and is not interested in hearing from you post-sales.
The above considerations would assure you of the safety of the memory foam mattress. But for a comfortable sleep, you must also look into the following considerations.
The firmness of your mattress is a defining factor for your comfortable sleep. It might look daunting to gauge this while shopping online. Still, you can make an educated decision by looking at the mattresses’ ILD or indentation load deflection.
A higher ILD means a firmer mattress. An ILD rating of 15-30 is comfortable, while 30 to 40 leans more towards the firmer side.
It is crucial for memory foam as it defines its durability and lifespan. The density decides how the memory foam will feel and perform.
A higher density would feel firmer and would withstand more pressure. Your mattress must have a minimum density of 5 lbs./ft3. Values below it are lower quality, and values too high than those means a hard surface.
It is the trial period that any credible manufacturer offers to allow sleepers to experience the mattress firsthand. Moreover, every mattress needs time to break in before it gives its real experience to the sleeper. You should take advantage of it and return the mattress if you do not get the comfort you are looking for within this adjustment period.
It is another vital insight into a quality mattress. The power of the internet has opened you to the honest feedback of hundreds of users. It helps you comprehensively explore your chosen mattresses’ good, bad, and ugly. You can then effortlessly make the right decision.
Apart from it, you can also check on firmness levels, sleeping positions, couple preferences, and several other parameters of mattress buying.
Other Non-Toxic Alternatives
Apart from your mattress, you must also delve into your other bedding and its accessories. Your pillows should also be crafted of non-toxic materials. The same goes for your bedsheets and other bedding accessories.
If for any reason, a memory foam mattress is not for you, you can go for a natural latex mattress. They are a natural, luxury product that gives you a close memory foam feel but with more buoyancy.
You also get a wide plethora of hybrid mattresses crafted of natural products that cater to every single sleeping demand. Choosing organic or green mattresses would always ensure safe and healthy sleep.
Safe and healthy sleep is imperative to all. A quality memory foam can definitely help you with that. Memory foam is not toxic even if its manufacturing process has harmful raw chemical components. The trick is to go for a high-quality, certified memory foam mattress, even at a higher cost.