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What is Memory Foam?

Lara Vargas

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If you’re on the search for the best mattress, memory foam beds have undoubtedly crossed your mind. Memory foam is known for its conformability, support, and pressure relief, which makes memory foam an ideal material for mattresses.

Even though memory foam is considered one of the most popular mattress materials, you may hesitate to buy anything memory foam if you’re aware of the material’s drawbacks. Memory foam can retain heat and sometimes causes uncomfortable sinkage, which can make a sleeper feel “stuck” in the mattress. Other consumers hesitate because of the chemical manufacturing process.

To know if memory foam is right for you, you need to do a bit of research, starting with the material itself.

In this article, we’ll discuss the components of memory foam, the different types of memory foam, and its benefits. We will also address some concerns by outlining its drawbacks.

What is Memory Foam?

Invented in the 1960s for NASA, memory foam was first created for space shuttle seats, but was later adopted by the mattress industry in the 90s. After the invention of bed in a box mattresses, memory foam quickly rose in popularity for its ability to reduce pain and pressure, helping a sleeper get a good night’s sleep.

Memory foam is a polyurethane foam (a petroleum-based foam) made with additional chemicals, making memory foam elastic and temperature-sensitive.

As a viscoelastic foam, memory foam reacts to heat, causing it to give way to bodyweight and contour deeply. The material bounces back to its original shape after pressure and heat are removed from its surface.

While memory foam isn’t as springy as polyurethane, it is more contouring, pressure-relieving, and supportive.

Types of Memory Foam

There are several different types of foam materials to choose from if you’re looking to buy a memory foam mattress. Some offer deep compression, while others are better for the environment — keep in mind your preferences as you shop.

Traditional

The first memory foam introduced to the mattress industry is called traditional memory foam. Traditional memory foam mattresses mold deeply to the body and offer a hug-like sensation to relieve pressure and pain, although the same qualities may cause people to sleep hot and make it difficult to move around.

When the material gives way to pressure, it compresses and cuts off air circulation, leading to heat buildup.

Open-Cell

The design of open-cell memory foam combats heat retention so well it has replaced traditional memory foam on the market.

Open-cell memory foam has tiny air pockets to increase airflow and wick away heat. The porous structure produces a material less dense than traditional memory foam, which decreases the material’s longevity; although, open-cell memory foam still lasts between 7 and 10 years if maintained properly.

Plant-Based

Plant-based memory foam has the same structure as open-cell memory foam. The only difference is it’s manufactured using coconut foam, soy, and other plant materials, to reduce the number of petrochemicals used. As a result, plant-based memory foam is cooler than open-cell memory foam with a decreased risk of chemical odors.

Gel-Infused

Gel microbeads are a common cooling technology used in foam beds, mattress toppers, and foam pillows— the gel pulls heat from the body. It’s affordable, so it’s often included in budget mattresses.

Solid gel memory foam contains gel beads evenly dispersed through the memory foam layer. Of the two cooling gel technologies, solid gel foam wicks away heat better.

Swirl memory foam has the gel dispersed unevenly through the foam, so the gel appears in a swirled pattern.

While gel is the most popular conductive material to keep a sleeper cool, other types of infusions wick away heat as well, including copper and graphite.

Pros and Cons of Memory Foam

Memory foam mattresses became popular for a number of reasons, including pressure alleviation, motion isolation, and durability. There are, however, drawbacks that come with memory foam beds.

Pros

Temperature and Pressure Sensitive

The additional chemicals used to create memory foam make the foam heat sensitive, which gives the material its contouring abilities.  Even though the memory foam lacks the springy or bouncy qualities of regular polyurethane, you can get greater comfort on a memory foam mattress because the cushioning material adapts to most sleeping positions and body types.

Pressure Point Relief

If you’ve woken with sore muscles and joints or pressure points, it’s probably a result of sleeping in an unnatural position or placing too much weight on one area of the body over another.

Your sleep position can influence how much stress is placed on areas where your body meets the mattress. For example, side sleepers have more pressure points in their shoulders and hips because they balance their weight on one side.

Memory foam’s contouring properties can release stress on pressure points and offer lumbar support, decreasing back pain risk.

Motion Isolation

Memory foam absorbs shock at the point of impact, which reduces the effect of motion transfer. For couples, motion isolation can reduce sleep disturbances from your partner switching positions or getting out of bed during the night.

Chronic pain sufferers may also find memory foam mattress’s motion isolation improves the quality of their rest by preventing joint pain sudden movement. Those with arthritis or fibromyalgia often get jolted awake from the pain, which can limit sleep hours and cause daytime sleepiness.

Durable

The denser memory foams can conform and support the sleeper better. A memory foam mattress’s density also contributes to its longevity. In other words, memory foam with a higher density will last longer.

While high-density foams are long-lasting, they’re also heat traps. The denser the foam, the harder it is for heat to escape. Even though it may seem like finding a bed with high-density foams is a steal (because it should prevent you from needing a new mattress anytime soon), these beds can cause uncomfortable, hot sleep. We suggest finding a mattress with a mix of high- and low-density foams for good support and temperature control.

Hypoallergenic Antimicrobial

Memory foam isn’t hypoallergenic in the sense that it wards off allergens, but its density doesn’t allow allergens to penetrate its surface. As long as memory foam is regularly maintained, the material will continue to keep allergens out. If allergens are allowed to stay on the mattress surface for a prolonged period, the debris can get ground into the mattress and change the feel of your bed.

Memory foam’s antimicrobial properties come from its density as well. The dense material makes it difficult for dust mites, bacteria, fungi, and other indoor allergens to thrive.

Cons

Sleeps Hot

As we said previously, memory foam has the tendency to sleep hot because its density prevents airflow when compressed.

Heat retention can cause discomfort and disturb sleep; however, many memory foam mattress companies address the concerns of heat retention by using plant-based memory foams and conductive infusions.

Potential Off-gassing

When the petrochemicals used in the manufacturing of memory foam mattresses break down, they produce a smell called off-gassing. New memory foam mattresses often emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) after being removed from the packaging, often leaving people wondering if memory foam mattresses are safe.

VOCs are a chemical compound that can become a vapor of gas. If you’ve ever smelled fresh paint or gasoline, you know what off-gassing smells like. Inhaling VOCs can cause dizziness, nausea, headaches, and allergic reactions.

Off-gassing should go away within 7 to 10 days, although there are ways to get rid of the smell sooner. Keep the mattress in a ventilated room under direct sunlight to neutralize the off-gassing smell. You can also sprinkle the mattress with baking soda to absorb the odor.

Is Memory Foam Toxic

While it’s true harmful chemicals are used when manufacturing memory foam, these chemicals are only dangerous in their raw form or when reacting to other chemicals. In other words, the chemicals only pose a risk when someone is exposed to them during the manufacturing process.

After the chemical reactions have stopped, the chemicals are no longer harmful, although off-gassing may cause sensitivities for asthma and allergy sufferers.

If you’re still worried about buying a toxic memory foam bed, you can look for third-party certifications such as CertiPUR-US® and OEKO-TEX®, which ensure foam products are made without harmful chemicals such as ozone depleters, formaldehyde, mercury, lead, phthalates, and PBDEs.

Other Mattress Materials

To make an informed decision when mattress shopping, you should know about other types of mattresses.

Innerspring

Innerspring mattresses are made with coil systems and a thin comfort layer made of polyester, cotton, and wool.

The coil system makes up the bulk of the mattress. Pocketed coils are the most commonly used in innerspring mattresses for their ability to circulate air and isolate motion, although innerspring mattresses are not as good at isolating motion as memory foam mattresses.

Hybrid

Hybrid mattresses are made using coil systems and memory foam comfort layers. This bed has the support and bounce of an innerspring mattress, but the motion isolation and conformability of a memory foam bed.

Latex

Latex mattresses are the most supportive type of mattress on the market and rival memory foam in conformability.

Natural latex mattresses are made with rubber tree sap. They are hypoallergenic and antimicrobial. The Dunlop process doesn’t use chemical additives and produces a firm, dense, and inexpensive latex foam. The Talalay process uses chemicals to produce a light and springy foam.

Synthetic latex is made with a chemical compound to mimic latex properties, which makes it a great option for latex allergy sufferers.

Blended latex mattresses are made with a combination of natural and synthetic latex. While blended latex beds have antimicrobial and hypoallergenic properties, they aren’t as potent as if the bed was entirely natural latex.

We highly suggest making sure any latex mattress made with synthetic material has a CertiPUR-US® certification to ensure the mattress doesn’t contain harmful additives.

Conclusion

Memory foam is a great mattress material, especially if you’re looking for a new mattress to relieve joint and muscle pain. Keep in mind, there is more than one type of memory foam. If you find one foam doesn’t give you the sleep you need, it’s possible another type of memory foam can.

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