A foam mattress can provide superior comfort and pressure-free support. These beds mold to the curves of the body for a weightless sleep that allows your muscles time to repair and rebuild properly. Here are some thoughts about — are foam mattresses safe?
When resting on the right foam mattress, you will experience little to no pressure points, better posture, and fewer aches and pains in the morning.
Because of extreme comfort and less pain, foam beds are often recommended by chiropractors and orthopedic specialists for those who suffer from chronic pain.
But, are these mattresses safe?
The question is one many people have when considering a foam bed — and it’s an important thought to address. The truth is — most high-quality foam mattresses are safe. In the US and Europe, several third-party certifications test these mattresses to ensure they’re healthy for us, and for the planet.
However, cheaper foam mattresses rely on poor quality foam, and some companies don’t always obtain certifications — leaving you to guess what type of materials were used during construction. Low-quality mattresses may contain hidden chemicals that could cause respiratory and skin irritations once they’re indoors.
To take the guesswork out of purchasing a foam mattress, we put together this guide so you can quickly identify a safe, non-toxic foam mattress from one that could compromise your health.
Different Types of Foam Mattresses
As you shop, you will find most mattresses feature either poly-foam, memory foam, or latex foam. Most beds on the market today contain some percentage of foam in their comfort layer.
An all-foam mattress will contain several different types of foam — each ranging in firmness to give you a combination of comfort and support. A hybrid mattress has a base of wrapped spring coils but also features at least 2 inches of foam in the top layer.
Some innerspring mattresses also feature a small amount of foam; however, it is usually only about one-inch thick. To help you recognize the difference between each type of foam, here is the breakdown of the construction and materials of each type below.
Poly-foam (polyurethane foam) is the cheapest and lowest quality foam on the market. This foam contains 100 percent petroleum-based chemicals that can irritate allergies and skin sensitivities. Poly-foam is often used in the comfort layer of innerspring beds, but because poly-foam collapses quickly under pressure, it does not offer the same contouring or targeted support as memory foam and latex foam.
The density of poly-foam may vary depending on where it is used in the mattress. However, even high-density poly-foam lacks the durability of memory and latex foam. Some low-density poly-foam has been known to develop sagging and indentations after just one year of use.
Memory foam (viscoelastic foam) was created for NASA to protect astronauts during flight. But since its invention in the 60s — memory foam has become much safer and more advanced.
Although traditional memory foam relies on petroleum-based oils, there are now less toxic options available. By using eco-friendly manufacturing methods, many companies are creating memory foam that is cleaner and healthier for us to rest on but still offers the same pressure-relieving support.
Memory foam, regardless of density, is also durable — lasting as long as ten years.
Here are the various types of memory foam you may come across.
- Traditional Memory Foam: Traditional memory foam is made with 100 percent petroleum-based chemicals and infused with compounds that give it a slow spring back—making it the perfect material to hug and support joints. However, traditional memory foam relies on only petroleum-derived materials and also tends to trap heat.
- Plant-Based Memory Foam: To create a cleaner, less toxic sleep environment, some companies rely on plant-based memory foam. To create this foam, they replace a large portion of the petroleum-based chemicals with vegetable-derived oils (castor oil). This process results in eco-friendly material that is healthier for human contact. Plus, plant-based foams are more breathable and more responsive, so you never have to worry about overheating or sinking too far down when resting on plant-based memory foam.
- Gel-Infused Memory Foam: To combat heat retention, many companies incorporate cooling gels into their foam. These gels wick away body heat and push warm air out of the bed, keeping you cool and preventing heat retention.
We should mention, all memory foam used in mattresses has an open-cell structure. During your search for a new bed, you may see foam advertised as being better or more advanced because it’s open-cell — all this is is a marketing gimmick. Some brands, however, will design their foam with an advanced open-cell structure, and this means their foam is more breathable and porous than other foams used in mattresses.
For the best memory foam mattress, look for one that features an advanced open-cell structure and plant-based foam. This is the combination you are looking for — offering the best of both worlds — less toxicity and more breathability.
Latex is a durable and natural material derived from the sap of rubber trees. Once gathered, the latex sap is whipped into a foam and baked to create its shape. Latex is also eco-friendly and sustainable because rubber trees don’t have to be cut down during harvesting, only tapped.
Latex mattresses are notably durable, with most of these mattresses lasting around 10 to 12 years. This foam provides a comfort level similar to memory foam but with a slight bounce.
Most latex foam is entirely natural; however, some latex may be infused with toxic chemicals to increase responsiveness and breathability. Therefore, it is best to look for all-natural Dunlop or Talalay latex foam when shopping for a safer mattress.
Components of Poly-Foam and Memory Foam
When it comes to construction, each mattress company uses their own “recipe” and manufacturing process. Therefore, it’s essential to research the materials and construction process for each brand you consider.
Reputable companies will be fully transparent in every detail of development. If you are unable to locate this information on the company’s website, it is best to look elsewhere.
Here is a list of materials frequently used in poly-foam and memory foam mattresses.
- Polyols: Polyols are binding agents that also add bulk to the foam. These ingredients are usually derived from petroleum-based oils, but may also have a botanical source such as castor bean or soybean oils.
- Diisocyanates: Diisocycantes are organic isocyanates that react to polyols and blowing agents to increase the flexibility of the poly-foam. The three most commonly used diisocyanates are MDI (methylene diisocyanates), TDI (toluene diisocyanates), and HDI (hexamethylene diisocyanates). Of the three, MDI is considered the safest and least hazardous. When in their raw form, these ingredients can produce respiratory tract and skin irritation and are considered toxic. However, after manufacturing, they are not reactive and pose a lower health risk. If a mattress is made with one of these agents, they may give off an odor when brought indoors—this is called “off-gassing.” In some cases, off-gassing may produce breathing problems or headaches.
- Blowing Agents: These agents create the cellular structure of the foam. Traditionally, harmful CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) were used for this process, but today many manufactures use water or HFC.
Potentially Dangerous Byproducts and Ingredients
Since poly-foams and traditional memory foams are derived from petroleum-based oils, they can contain chemicals and compounds that are unsafe. Many of the ingredients listed below have been banned or are now screened by third-party testing for safety.
- Formaldehyde: Although formaldehyde is not typically used in foam mattresses, it may be a byproduct of the chemical reaction. Formaldehyde is a known carcinogenic and is believed to cause leukemia and cancer of the nose, throat, and sinuses.
- Methylene chloride: This solvent is known to irritate the mucous membrane. Due to current pollution regulation, it is rarely used today.
- Acetone: Can be toxic when inhaling in large quantities, but shows little health risk in low amounts.
- Dimethylformamide: When exposed to this compound during manufacturing, it may cause organ damage.
- Vinylidene chloride: During manufacturing, this ingredient may irritate the eyes, respiratory tract, and internal organs.
- Methylenedianiline/MDA: This compound is often used in household products and shows little risk in low amounts. However, exposure during manufacturing could result in eye and skin irritation, as well as thyroid and liver damage.
- 1,1,1,2 Tetrachloroethane: This ingredient is known to cause organ damage after long-term exposure. It is now rarely used in the US or Europe.
- Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs): This blowing agent is a harmful pollutant, and environmental regulations now restrict its use.
In the US, every mattress sold must pass flame resistance testing—this means it must be able to withstand an open flame for 70 seconds. To pass these tests, many manufacturers rely on toxic materials. Therefore, something intended for safety ends up causing us harm.
Petroleum products are naturally flammable, so these foams must be treated with a flame-resistant chemical, or they must contain a fire barrier. But because companies are not required to state how they provide flame protection, it is often difficult to find this information.
Companies using safe methods of fire resistance are generally happy to disclose this information; however, those using toxic methods may choose not to.
The following is a list of commonly used fire-resistant materials and chemicals:
- Brominated fire retardants and PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers): This group of substances was commonly used for fire resistance, but was phased out of use in the U.S. for being a known carcinogenic.
- Chlorinated tris (TDCPP): Tris is a commonly used flame retardant chemical that has been shown to cause neurological damage and disruption to the endocrine system. It has recently become less popular due to its toxicity.
- Treated Cotton: On its own, cotton is not flame resistant, but it can be treated with boric acid to achieve fire protection. However, boric acid has been shown to cause organ damage.
- Modacrylic fiber: This manufactured synthetic fiber is known to be toxic due to the use of antimony oxide in its construction.
- Melamine resin: This resin contains formaldehyde and is, therefore, carcinogenic.
- Alessandra fabric: This fiberglass material may be safe on its own; however, it often contains modacrylic fiber and antimony oxide.
Safe Fire Protection Materials:
- Wool: Wool is a natural material that can act as a fire retardant on its own. However, wool is not typically used in an all-foam mattress.
- Kevlar: This human-made fiber is strong, durable, and non-toxic.
- Raylon treated with silica: Both materials are non-toxic and safe for sleepers. Rayon is derived from bamboo, and silica is a naturally occurring compound found in sand.
Risk of VOC Emissions
Most of the materials mentioned above pose little health risks once the manufacturing process is complete. However, some VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) may remain in the mattress and can leach into the air inside your home—causing breathing issues, headaches, and allergic reactions.
The term for this action is, “off-gassing.” It’s often described as a “new” smell and accompanies many products containing polyurethane such as paint, furniture, clothing, and other household cleaners. These compounds are volatile because they break down gradually and at various temperatures—releasing an odor as they do so.
Certain sources produce VOCs that are more harmful than others. Plants and humans release VOCs that are low risk. However, chemicals such as toluene, benzene, and formaldehyde have been shown to release VOCs that cause respiratory issues, throat irritation, dizziness, headaches. Prolonged exposure could also lead to allergic reactions or other sensitivities.
Adhesives and fire-resistant chemicals can also create a strong, unpleasant smell. But by opting for a mattress made with a natural flame retardant and safer manufacturing methods, the mattress will have minimal off-gassing.
To ensure your safety, you can also look for a third-party certification that tests the mattress for VOCs. A CertiPUR-US® certification will guarantee the bed is made with no ozone-depleting substances, toxic flame retardants (such as PBDEs, TDCPP, or TCEP), mercury, lead (and other heavy metals), formaldehyde, or any harmful phthalates. Plus, it will also ensure the mattress is low in VOCs.
Choosing a Safe Foam Mattress
To find the best mattress for you, we have put together a checklist of mattress safety tips. These points will help you find a bed that is less toxic and safe to bring into your home.
- Look for third-party certifications such as CertiPur-US® and OEKO-TEX®. These third-party organizations have set standards on VOC levels and product safety.
- When considering memory foam, opt for a plant-based foam. These foams are more natural and will release little to no VOC emissions when brought indoors.
- Find out the type of isocyanates (reactive) is used in the construction of the foam. MDI is considered to be less toxic than TDI and HDI.
- Consider the type of blowing agents used in the construction of the foam. Gasses such as CFCs and HFCs contribute to air pollution and may cause excessive off-gassing.
- Find out what type of materials or chemicals were used for flame resistance. Rayon treated with natural silica and kevlar is the safest and least toxic option.
- Consider the density of each foam layer. Higher-density foams contain more polymers and may create more off-gassing.
- Find out where the foam layers were manufactured. The US and Europe both have regulations in place to ensure mattress safety.
- Eco-friendly brands go to great lengths to reduce their carbon footprint. They often rely on healthier manufacturing methods, shipping processes, and are made in the U.S. In most cases, these mattresses are safer for you and the environment.
Foam mattresses can provide you with a healthy, non-toxic, comfortable, and supportive sleep space. However, purchasing a mattress is similar to buying a car — a little research will help you understand exactly what you’re getting. After all, you spend a third of your life in bed, so what you rest on each night can affect your health.
Our guidelines above will make the process of purchasing a safer foam mattress less complicated, so you can find a better night’s sleep.