First developed by NASA in the 1970s, viscoelastic, also known as memory foam, is a space-age technology now found in the best mattresses all over the world. The soft, plush material of memory foam lets sleepers enjoy a restful night while easing pressure points and achy joints.
However, some experts suggest that you’re better off avoiding memory foam. For some, the chemicals and odors used in manufacturing memory foam is a non-starter. Today, many think pieces are floating around online discussing the potential harm from “toxins” and synthetic materials in memory foam.
To get to the bottom of this, we’ve put together an in-depth guide to memory foam. In this article, we’ll finally answer the question on so many people’s minds: “are memory foam mattresses safe?”
Can a Mattress Really Be Bad For You?
We spend roughly one-third of our lives on our beds, so it makes sense why we’d be concerned about potentially harmful chemicals in our mattresses. As a relatively new technology, memory foam still feels somewhat risky and untested for many consumers. After all, there are many chemicals and natural latex substances found in memory foam.
At present, three main components are used in the manufacturing of conventional memory foam material. We’ve listed these three elements below for your convenience.
- Polyols: A petroleum oil-based ingredient that acts as a binder or bulking agent in a latex mattress.
- Blowing Agents: Creates foam by introducing carbon to the material.
- Diisocyanates: Reacts with polyols and blowing agents to create polyurethane foam.
So, which of the three components above are the cause of all this concern? The answer, unfortunately, isn’t easy to pinpoint. However, there are a handful of potentially harmful substances that are identified in memory foam mattresses in the past. Some of the more well-known harmful substances in memory foam include:
- Methyl benzene: Potential nervous system damage from inhalation
- Acetone: High toxicity threshold, limited impact at low exposure
- Formaldehyde: Toxin that can occur as a byproduct of adhesives
- Methylene aniline (MDA): Potential carcinogenic substance
- Dimethylformamide: Suspected carcinogenic substance
Although the chemical names above might sound scary, the good news is that the United States and international regulators have drastically reduced or eliminated these substances from memory foam latex mattress production. Today, most memory foam mattresses are 100-percent non-toxic and present no danger to public health.
The Consequences of Flame Proofing
Many memory foam mattresses contain additives that are designed to slow or prevent the spread of flames. These substances are called flame retardants, and although they are meant to quell the danger of a fire, they can cause unwanted side effects and health issues.
Most retardant chemicals used in the manufacturing of commercial mattresses contain toxic chemicals. Since polyurethane foam is a flammable substance, US regulators require all memory foam mattresses to include flame retardants to resist the spread of a fire. We’ve listed the most popular flame retardants used in memory foam mattresses below.
- Chlorinated tris (TDCPP): A common fire retardant banned in several European markets consider carcinogenic.
- Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs): A known neurotoxin that can negatively impact the human body’s endocrine system.
- Modacrylic fiber: A carcinogenic substance that has caused sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) in rare cases.
- Decabromodiphenyl oxide: A possibly carcinogenic material that may have negative neurological effects if consumed.
- Rayon and silica: Non-toxic substances derived from natural bamboo.
Today, public safety campaigns have pushed the negative consequences of flame retardants into the public consciousness. Consequently, scientific research is being undertaken to seek new ways to prevent the spread of fires in memory foam mattresses without exposing consumers to harmful chemicals.
The Risk of Off-Gassing
Perhaps two of the most well-known and often talked about risks of memory foam has to do with volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and off-gassing. Unlike regular manufacturing textiles, VOCs can convert into gaseous form through a physical process called off-gassing. From there, allergic reactions can occur as well as inhalation, which can lead to toxic build-up.
Volatile organic compounds are regarded as dangerous because they’re highly unstable. This class of substances is unique because it can convert into gas form at room temperature, which releases in the form of odor, dust mites and gas. This conversion process may explain why some shoppers note a “new mattress smell” in the first weeks after they buy a memory foam mattress.
Unfortunately, it’s challenging to study the harmful consequences of VOCs and the off-gassing process on consumer products. Although off-gassing is natural and occurs in most biological systems, it can make the ingredients in memory foam easy to inhale and thus lead to health ailments over time.
How To Choose A Safe Memory Foam Mattress
Fortunately, European and North American regulators have cracked down on the inclusion of harmful chemical additives in memory foam mattresses. However, there’s no way to eliminate the risk of carcinogen exposure if you’re buying a conventional piece of memory foam.
If you want to reduce the risk of harmful chemical exposure, shop for eco-friendly memory foam solutions made of natural or organic ingredients. Ideally, search for a organic mattress model that is free from VOCs and has minimal off-gassing potential.
As an extra precaution, you can check the label of the mattress to ensure that no methylene diphenyl diisocyanate (MDI) is contained in the material. Instead, opt for the less-harmful substance toluene diisocyanate (TDI), which has a lower reactivity profile after the manufacturing process.
Frequently Asked Questions
To settle any doubts you might have about memory foam, we listed some of the most frequently asked questions regarding memory foam below. The questions listed below should help readers answer the broader question, “are memory foam mattresses safe?”
Do Memory Foam Mattresses Cause Health Problems?
Lower-end memory foam mattresses or toppers can cause health problems if left untreated. There are several substances in older or cheaply made memory foam mattresses that can cause health problems, such as acetone, benzene, and methylene chloride. However, eco-friendly memory foam mattresses usually do not include these harmful ingredients.
Are Memory Foam Mattresses Really Toxic?
Some memory foam mattresses indeed contain toxic materials. For instance, older memory foam mattresses contain a flame retardant substance called diisocyanates. As such, diisocyanates lower the flammability of the mattress and keep users safe by preventing the spread of fires through cotton. However, these substances are considered toxic by the EPA.
Diisocyanates are reactive substances. These chemicals are carcinogenic and can cause respiratory damage if inhaled. Unfortunately, diisocyanates are necessary additives to create the flexibility of memory foam. However, diisocyanates are only consumable in gaseous form.
Are Memory Foam Mattresses Safe for Babies?
Babies in cribs should not sleep on memory foam mattresses. To prevent sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), babies should sleep on their back and on a firmer mattress material. In case the baby rolls onto their stomach, the mattress material should provide room for the infant to breathe.
Are Memory Foam Mattresses Safe to Sleep On?
Generally, memory foam mattresses are safe to sleep on for adults. However, it is best to use an eco-friendly and organic memory foam mattress option to stay clear of potentially harmful blowing agents and polyols.
Which Ingredients or By-Products Should I Be Worried About?
There are several ingredients used in the manufacturing of memory foam that presents a rightful cause for concern. For instance, some earlier models of memory foam mattresses contain substances banned by US regulators, including oeko-tex, 1,1,1,2-tetrachloroethane and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).
The substances mentioned above not only have toxic properties that can cause respiratory problems if consumed, but they also have detrimental environmental consequences.
So, Are Memory Foam Mattresses Safe?
The worldwide popularity of memory foam has made the material subject to heavy scrutiny in recent years. Critics and environmentalists have panned memory foam for containing toxic substances that can be harmful if ingested or converted into a gaseous form. However, in their regular physical state, the risk of harm from memory foam is minimal.
Ultimately, the question “are memory foam mattresses safe” has no definitive answer. On the one hand, there are several harmful chemical substances used in the manufacturing of memory foam such as blowing agents, diisocyanates, and polyols. However, there are organic and eco-friendly memory foam mattress options that avoid these potential carcinogens.
If you’re going to purchase a memory foam mattress, you can minimize risk by choosing a model made by a reputable brand that contains only non-toxic materials. Also, be sure that you’re only purchasing memory foam for adults—infants should never sleep on memory foam since the flexible material can obstruct breathing if they roll over in their crib.