It seems most products are made through chemical processes. Chemicals may produce durable and cheap products, but we have to wonder if they are healthy and safe for us to use. This is a genuine concern, especially when it comes to products we spend one-third of our lives sleeping on.
Everything from flame retardants to memory foam itself is created using chemicals, which brings up the issue “are memory foam mattresses safe?”
To get straight to the point, yes, memory foam mattresses are safe to use. The materials may cause health problems for some individuals, but as long as the material passes standard requirements, the foam should be safe.
In this article, we will discuss how memory foam is created, the components used to create the material, what chemicals you should be concerned about, and how to choose a safe memory foam bed.
Memory Foam vs. Polyurethane Foam
First, we should discuss the difference between memory foam and poly-foam. Memory foam is an elastic foam that reacts slowly to pressure. It contours to the body when activated by body heat and relieves pressure points. Poly-foam or polyurethane isn’t elastic and reacts quicker to pressure if it has a low density. Poly-foam isn’t as supportive or pressure-relieving as memory foam, either.
Now that you know the difference between memory foam and poly-foam, you should know memory foam mattresses are made using both materials. The comfort layer is made of memory foam comfort layers, while the support core is made from polyurethane.
Some mattress bands will have gel, copper, and graphite infused into their memory foam to draw heat from the sleeper. Others will have padding layers comprised of polyester fibers, wool, or cotton to wick heat.
All of these layers are coated with a flame retardant, so the mattress meets federal safety laws. The mattress’s layers are then wrapped in a fabric cover provide a soft barrier between the sleeper and the bed.
However, when it comes to the safety of memory foam mattresses, most people are concerned with the chemicals used to make memory foam and its fire retardants.
Memory Foam and Polyurethane Foam Components
Companies use three common chemical agents to create memory foam. While these agents can produce harmful effects, injuries can only be sustained when the individual encounters these chemicals during a chemical reaction is a person breathes in the fumes or makes contact with the chemical.
Polyol is a binding ingredient comprised of a petroleum oil-derived ingredients but may include plant materials such as soy or castor beans. It makes up the bulk of the memory foam.
Diisocyanates react to polyols and the blowing agent, causing the foam to become stiff. Alone diisocyanates can cause respiratory issues and skin sensitivities, although it’s still known as the least hazardous organic isocyanate (a highly reactive chemical). The only hazard diisocyanates chemicals may present is during the manufacturing process.
Blowing agents are used to introduce carbon into the material, creating foam. Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were once used as blowing agents; however, mattress companies now use healthier options such as water and Hydrofluorocarbons (HFC).
Possible Ingredients/ Byproducts of Concern
Since most brands trademark their foam’s components and are not required to release them, pinpointing the material’s chemical makeup can be difficult. However, U.S. laws and voluntary restrictions have eliminated possible toxic chemicals that could be used in memory foam production.
Below are possible chemicals that are used in memory foam manufacturing; Remember, each company uses its own mixture and may add or omit chemicals to create their memory foam.
- Methylene dianiline/ MDA is a carcinogen (or a substance capable of causing cancer), it may cause eye and skin irritations as well as liver and thyroid damage if digested; although, this chemical poses the greatest health risk during production, if an individual is exposed to the fumes at the time of the chemical reacts. Memory foam produced with MDA emits low volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which isn’t harmful.
- Vinilideine chloride may cause eye and respiratory irritations, organ damage, and is a possible carcinogen. Again, Vinilideine chloride is mostly hazardous during production.
- Methyl benzene may cause possible organ damage and is a carcinogen, but the chemical is only harmful during manufacturing.
- Dimethylformamide may cause organ damage and is a carcinogen, although it’s only a health risk if the person is exposed to the fumes during the chemical reaction.
- Acetone is toxic when inhaled in large amounts. If a memory foam mattress contains acetone, look for a certification stating the product is low in VOCs, which will limit harmful side effects.
- Formaldehyde is not added to memory foam during production but is a byproduct (a secondary product made during the chemical reaction). To make the product safer, a manufacturer will remove formaldehyde from the memory foam. The CertiPUR-US® certification ensures a mattress is free from formaldehyde.
Rarely Used or Banned
1,1,1,2-Tetrachorethane is a possible carcinogen and can damage internal organs with long-term exposure; however, it’s rarely used in the United States.
Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were used as a blowing agent. American pollution regulations have restricted the use of this chemical and other toxic halogens since the 1990s. Now, mattress manufacturers use other gasses and pressurized foaming systems to make memory foam instead.
Methylene chloride can irritate the skin and is a potential carcinogen. Methylene chloride use has declined after the European Union placed restrictions and pollution regulations limiting its use.
Polyurethane, in its raw-processed form, is highly flammable. To minimize fire risks, manufacturers coat the foam in a flame retardant.
Natural retardants such as wool, kevlar, and silica-treated rayon will resist flames without posing a health risk.
Stronger flame retardants (brominated fire retardant/ polybrominated diphenyl ethers or PBDEs, cotton treated with boric acid, chlorinated tris or TDCPP, modacrylic fiber, melamine resin, decabromodiphenyl oxide, and Alessandra fabric) are chemical-based. While chemical flame retardants are more effective, they may contain carcinogens and pose other health risks.
Chemical flame retardants have few health issues reported, although eco-friendly conservationists claim the retardants harm the environment, which is why pollution regulation highly encourages proper disposal of memory foam mattresses.
What Are the Risks of VOCs and Off-gassing
New memory foam mattresses often emit an odor called off-gassing when removed from their packaging (even the best mattresses are not totally free from off-gassing odors). Off-gassing is caused by the emission of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as diisocyanates, blowing agents, and flame retardants that break down. These odors are normal and should dissipate after a few days; however, if the chemical-like smell never fades, we suggest contacting the mattress brand and expressing your concerns.
VOCs can cause health issues for individuals with respiratory problems and strong allergic reactions to chemicals. Symptoms can include headaches, dizziness, and irritated sinuses.
For most people, the largest problem is the unpleasant smell, which is generally gone within two or three days after unpacking the mattress. Memory foam mattress buyers are encouraged to keep sheets off the mattress until the odor has subsided, although you may get rid of the smell by keeping the mattress in a breezy room or sprinkling baking soda over the bed’s surface to absorb the smell.
To ensure your buying a safe mattress, you may look for certifications such as CertiPUR-US®, GREENGUARD Gold, or OEKO-TEX to ensure the mattress meets VOCs safety regulations.
- The CertiPUR-US® certification tests a product to ensure it’s made without ozone depleters, phthalates, formaldehyde, PBDEs, TDCPP or TCEP, flame retardants, mercury, lead, and other heavy metals.
- OEKO-TEX states the textile has been tested for harmful substances and found the material safe to use.
- The GREENGUARD Gold certification states the interior product has low chemical emissions to preserve air quality.
You may also consider purchasing a plant-based memory foam, as plant materials partially substitute the harmful chemicals in the manufacturing process, which reduces VOCs emissions.
Choosing a Safe Memory Foam Mattress
There is little research on VOCs’ harmful effects, and none of the research shows memory foam is unsafe. The Polyurethane Foam Association and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) both agree that finished memory foam does not present a health hazard because completely cured memory foam has fully reacted and, therefore, is inert and non-toxic.
Even though there is no specific evidence VOCs cause harmful side effects, the United States and the European Union have banned most dangerous chemicals and additives due to residual concerns.
When choosing a memory foam mattress, you’ll want to avoid high off-gassing odors, chemical adhesives, and fire retardants.
- Look for plant-based memory foams as the foam has fewer synthetic materials and emits fewer VOCs.
- Determine if the foam is made with MDI or TDI. MDI is a safer option.
- Ask what type of blowing agent is used to create the memory foam. Halogen gasses and CFCs/HFCs can pollute the air. Variable pressure foaming is a technique used to reduced air pollution and eliminates the need for chemical blowing agents.
- Ask how the company achieves anti-flammability standards. Currently, treated rayon and kevlar fabrics are the safest chemical options.
- Ensure the memory foam is OEKO-TEX and CertiPUR-US® certified to minimize VOCs levels.
- Ask where the foam is manufactured. If the manufacturing process took place in the U.S. or EU, the foam is considered safer than imported materials due to the stricter material regulations.
Memory foam is safe in its cured foam when all chemical reactions have stopped. In other words, by the time the memory foam is shipped to the customer, the chemical reaction has ended and the memory foam material is completely safe.
You may have to deal with off-gassing after unpacking the new mattress, but as long as you air the bed out in a ventilated room, the smell should go away in two or three days. Look for CertiPUR-US® and OEKO-TEX certifications to ensure foam products meet required standards.