Memory Foam Mattresses: Are They Safe?
Are chemicals in your bedroom freaking you out? Have you been wondering – are memory foam mattresses safe? If you’re considering buying memory foam or any other type of mattress, you would want to know whether the odor and chemicals in the mattress are harmful to your body.
It is okay to be worried because we spend a big chunk of our time in bed. And again, it’s okay to feel unconvinced about new products or materials as most of them are seemingly harmful to us.
Flame retardants, foaming agents, boric acids – some memory foams make use of these ingredients which have so far raised some eyebrows concerning their safety. So many blogs and websites have discussed the toxins and gases produced by synthetic chemicals, which is why we will emphasize this issue.
Knowledge they say, is power. In this article, you will be more enlightened as we take a look at what’s inside a memory foam, consumer information, and product comparisons to determine how safe memory foams are. Some types of mattresses are safer than others, after reading this article you’ll be able to make your choice easily and tell the differences between them.
What are the Components of Memory Foam Mattresses
So what’s inside a memory foam? Memory foams are comprised of two main components: a polyurethane foam core layer and a polyurethane memory foam layer. These layers are enclosed in some fabric and as a safety requirement; all mattresses are required to have some type of flame-proofing.
Some brands make use of other materials like gel, latex, polyester, wool, etc. which most people are familiar with. However, most people are more concerned about memory foams itself and flame retardants, let’s take a closer look at them below.
Memory Foam Components
- Polyols – they are the bulk ingredient and are usually composed of oil ingredients like soy or petroleum oil-based ingredients.
- Diisocyanates – diisocyanates react with polyol and water in the presence of catalysts to form cells similar to bubbles. These bubbles are further processed with blowing agents to produce polyurethane foam. The most commonly used types of diisocyanates are toluene diisocyanate (TDI), and Methylenediphenyl diisocyanate(MDI), these ingredients in their raw form are very toxic and may be carcinogenic.TDI is more toxic than MDI because of its higher vapor pressure. Most of the toxicity of these ingredients are lost during manufacturing and are inert (low reactivity), but they can still give off gases.
- Blowing agents – they react with bubbles created from diiscocyanate and polyol reactions to create the polyurethane foam. They can be in the form of water, HFC or other agents.
Which Ingredient/By-product should you be worried about?
So which ingredients should we be worried about? Some brands of memory foams make use of other chemicals/ingredients which are not known to us because they are considered trade secrets and not mandatory to be released.
One of the positives is that US laws and voluntary restrictions have revealed the more concerning chemicals that could be in memory foams, this does not necessarily apply to imported memory foams.
These are some of the chemicals that have been or may be found in memory foams and the potential problems they can cause. Please note that each manufacturer has their own formula, so these do not apply to all lines.
- Methylene dianiline (MDA) – liver and thyroid damage if ingested, eye and skin irritation, and suspected carcinogenic properties. It is present in household products at low levels; the greatest risk is during production.
- Vinylidene chloride – can cause damage to organs if ingested, has carcinogenic properties, and can cause eye and respiratory irritation. The greatest risk is also during production.
- Methylbenzene –inhalation can cause central nervous system effects like a headache, dizziness, euphoria, etc.
- Dimethylformamide – possible organ damage and has carcinogenic properties. The greatest risk is during manufacturing.
- Acetone – can be very toxic when inhaled in large amounts, but the effect is limited to low exposure.
- Methylene chloride – Exposure to high concentrations can cause mental confusion, lightheadedness, vomiting, and it is also a potential occupational carcinogen. Its use has declined in recent years due to EU restrictions and pollution regulations.
- Formaldehyde – can be used as adhesives in foams. When formaldehyde is present in the air at low levels, some people may have health issues like burning sensations, watery eyes, skin irritation, coughing, and nausea.
Rarely Used or Banned Chemicals:
- 1,1,1,2 Tetrachloroethane – Long-term exposure to it can cause organ damage, and it is a possible carcinogen. It is rarely used in America.
- Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) – It has rarely been used in the US since the 1990s due to pollution regulations (Montreal protocol). It can destroy the ozone layer which protects the earth from the sun’s harmful UV rays.
Flame Proofing and Its Effects
Sometimes products intended to protect us from some sort of danger can have other ill effects. Fire retardants in some mattresses are such products. Some of them contain harmful chemicals, unless you are buying an organic non toxic mattress.
As a safety requirement, all mattresses sold in the US are required to have resistance to open flame for a set duration. Although this measure is intended to improve consumer safety and lessen mattress fires, not all of these fire retardant chemicals are safe for humans.
Polyurethane foam which is the main component of memory foams is flammable, so they must be treated with chemicals to make them fire retardant. Because it’s a trade secret, some less transparent manufactures choose not to disclose how they make their mattresses fire resistant. Some of the chemicals involved in this process can be toxic.
- Polybrominated diphenyl ethers/PBDEs – they are a group of chemicals used in making fire retardants. They have been found to be carcinogenic and have been banned in many European countries
- Cotton treated with boric acid – this can be harmful to organs when inhaled or ingested in large quantity.
- Chlorinated Tris (TDCPP) – It is a common flame retardant but has possible carcinogenic properties, it can disrupt the endocrine, and is a neurotoxin. A large crib mattress lawsuit was filed in California recently because of this.
- Modacrylic fibre – it contains antimony oxide which is carcinogenic. Antimony is also used in making cot mattresses, and research has shown that it might be responsible for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)
- Melamine resin – contains formaldehyde which can cause health issues like burning sensations, watery eyes, skin irritation, coughing, and nausea when present in the air at low levels.
- Decabromodiphenyl Oxide – it is a possible carcinogen and can cause hair loss and has neurological effects.
- Kevlar – they are strong artificial fibers but are not toxic.
- Alessandra fabric – they are fibreglass fibres and are non-toxic
- Rayon treated with silica – they are produced from bamboo and silica, they are non-toxic
The shocking toxicity of some of these chemicals in fire retardants and other materials has prompted some new research and ideas on flame retardants.
Arlene Blum, a biophysical chemist and visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley says people should ask if its compulsory to use these chemicals and if there other ways to achieve fire resistance without the use of these harmful chemicals.
VOCs and Off-Gassing risks
VOC is short for volatile organic compounds, VOC along with off-gassing are the most hyped dangers of memory foams. They apparently mean the same thing and are a phenomenon of chemicals that break down and disperse into the surrounding air. These gases can cause health issues like breathing issues, allergic reactions, and toxin build-up.
VOCs are very unstable and can break down at normal room temperature, dispersing gases and odors as they do. Most memory foams and other polyurethane containing products have a noticeable “new” odor in the first few weeks of purchase. A more familiar case of VOCs is the smell of new products like paint, furniture, clothes, and other household and industrial products.
Some VOCs are at low-level which makes it difficult for researchers to study them. Their “everywhereness” and time frame it will take to study them makes it impossible to isolate them and their possible effects from every other item we encounter. Isolated, their impact ranges from safe to toxic according to Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS). Sometimes they are not more than just another odor, even humans and plants release some types of VOCs as a part of their biological processes.
VOCs in Mattresses
However, some VOCs (present in memory foams, e.g. toluene, formaldehyde, benzene, etc.) can cause health issues like dizziness, headache, and respiratory irritations. Repeated exposure to these gases can lead to high sensitivity and allergic reactions.
VOC hazards are predominantly higher in raw materials used in the production of products like foams than in the finished product itself. With memory foams, once the chemical ingredients are combined into making a stable product, the VOC given off is greatly reduced. Other components like glues, fire retardants, and un-reacted polymers can give off strong scents and lingering odors as well.
However, some memory foams are plant-based (like those from AmeriSleep), and they give off far less VOCs than memory foams made from synthetics.
Can You Predict If You Will Be Affected?
A very small portion of people have experienced allergic reactions out of the many consumers who have purchased memory foam mattresses. There have been a few complaints online about people experiencing nausea or irritations (nose, eye, throat, asthma) due to the strong odour coming from their mattresses. These reviews are very small when compared to the thousands who have owned memory foams with no complaints over the past 26 years.
Although the amount of odors vary across different brands, avoid buying a memory foam if the company claims it has no VOC or it is VOC free, it is not a credible product given how memory foams are manufactured. Memory foam can have low VOC or be free of toxic VOCs, but it can’t be free of VOCs because almost every organic products have odors that are considered VOCs.
As a matter of fact, the Federal Trade Commission recently sued some companies making the VOC-free claim, and those companies were fined because they could not back it up.
The polyurethane used in making memory foams is the same as the one found in household furniture (e.g. sofas, recliners, and other products lined with foam). A majority of innerspring beds make use of polyurethane and other similar fire retardant materials. So if you experience an issue with spring mattresses or react to odors from paint or new furniture, you are likely to have an issue with high VOC memory foam as well.
If you think you might be affected, it is best to look into natural latex mattresses which do not contain any polyurethane foam. Natural Latex Mattresses use GOTS Organic Cotton for the cover and natural wool as the fire retardant.
Choosing a Safe Memory Foam Mattress
As we mentioned earlier, studying the effect of potential VOC exposure is a very difficult task, there is little-detailed research, and none of them has reported memory foam as unsafe or toxic. Industry groups like the Polyurethane Foam Association as well as the Environmental Protection Agency have both reported finished memory foam as inert and not posing any health danger.
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) after carrying out a study in 2011 concluded that they did not find any scientific connection between respiratory issues and exposure to TDI. ACC also concluded that majority of polyurethane products are inert before they are sold.
As soon as polyols and isocyanates they become chemically inert and no longer pose the threat individual components may have. The US carefully regulates Polyurethane manufacturers regarding components and pollution, and along with the EU, they have banned the most dangerous chemicals and additives in the last ten years. The main concerns for choosing a safe memory foam would include the Vocs odors and chemicals used in adhesives and fire retardants.
Are Memory Foam Mattresses Safe?
Here are a few things you should look out for when shopping for a “healthy” memory foam mattress:
- Ask if the foam is plant-based or manufactured from petroleum. Plant-based foams are better because they have fewer synthetic materials and give off far fewer VOCs. Also ask what percentage is plant-based, this will give you a clear picture what is inside the bed.
- Find out if the foam is made from MDI or TDI. TDI is known to be safer because of its lower vapour pressure.
- Try to find out what type of blowing agents was used in the production, HFCs pollutes the air more. New techniques like Variable pressure do not need chemical blowing agents.
- Check out what the foam is made of, there are some blends made with 20% or more plant-based materials. These blends are better than “petroleum only” based foams.
- Ask how the mattress achieved its flame-proof properties. Kevlar and Rayon treated with silica seem to be the safest fire retardant materials, after natural materials.
- Check if there is any testing standard applicable to the foam. Some foams require a minimum level of VOCs and product safety
- Be informed that bulky foams make use of a greater amount of polymers, so they are likely to give off stronger odours.
- Check the country in which the memory foam and polyfoam layers were made. Mattresses made in the US and EU are made under stricter regulations than most imported foams and might be a safer choice.
Most manufacturers are not open about the components of their products due to trade secrets and standards, many of their salespeople are not aware of this. If you are not satisfied with the answers salespeople give, you can research online or contact the company directly.
Another way to know the safety of a mattress is to read some of the best mattress reviews online and check for the consumer product safety commission records. If too many reviewers complain about strong odors or side effects, then there is a high VOC content in that mattress. If the reviewers mention a light smell or no smell, then the VOC content in the mattress is low. Smell can be very subjective, but if a large number of reviewers complain of effects like irritations, then you should steer clear of that product.
How to Minimize Memory Foam Mattress Odors
You can minimize potential odors or discomfort after a buying a memory mattress by following a few procedures. The best way to reduce odor is to remove all plastics from the mattress as soon as it is delivered. If you don’t want to air it out in your bedroom because of the strong smell, you can air it out in your garage or any open place with enough air and ventilation. If the mattress cover is removable, remove it and allow the foam to breathe. Allow the odor to dissipate (till the odor doesn’t bother you) before moving the mattress back to your bedroom.
What Mattress should I buy?
As a consumer, once you have the basic knowledge about memory foams and how they are made, you can choose a nontoxic and healthy foam for yourself. With this knowledge, you know what questions to ask the manufacturers and which components to avoid. Your bedroom is supposed to be a safe place so look out for what you put in it. At Natural Mattress Matters we recommend to go with a non toxic mattress made from the healthiest materials available.