Last Updated On November 1st, 2018

According to some sleep experts, we need to be careful about the materials that we sleep on. Adults will spend on average 8 hours per night in bed asleep, so being connected to a mattress that is bad for your health is the last thing anybody would want. Nowadays, most mattresses are created using human-made products, many of which involve the use of chemicals, machine manufacturing processes and flame retardants. Although some of these ingredients are critical in the manufacturing process, and even for the necessity of creating a flame retardant product, they could, in fact, be harming your health.

For thousands of years, our ancestors have slept on pillows and beds on the ground, and on top of natural materials like buckwheat or wool. It’s only been in the past few decades that we’ve used newer materials like foam and other artificial mattresses. The question is, are these new mattresses safe to use? The debate is still ongoing, but some believe that the adhesives and foam used in many mattresses could pose a risk to some individuals.

In this article, we will discuss one such material, which is the much-loved memory foam mattress. These are hugely popular and always in strong demand. Not only have prices come down in recent years, but they are also without doubt extremely comfortable to sleep on, and particularly useful for people with back problems or some other specific need. Let’s take a more in-depth look into this type of foam mattress now, and the impact on our health:

What Is Memory Foam?

A hand stamp on gel foam

Memory foam is so-called because of its contouring properties whereby rather than compressing directly down under your weight it flexes to surround you. Once you stand up there is a slight imprint of our body which will slowly fade away, hence the phrase ‘memory’ foam.

This type of foam is created using viscoelastic polyurethane foam, which is a low-resilience foam that allows the molecules to contour and twist under force rather than compress directly downwards.

There is also a less common form known as high-density memory foam which works not based just on the weight of your body, but also the heat. Unlike the traditional foam which contours to your body in a few seconds, higher-density memory foam warms up and softens from your body heat, molding to your shape in a few minutes.

Memory Foam and Polyurethane Foam Components

Have you ever wondered what your mattress is made of and whether its safe for you to be sleeping on night after night? Well, memory foam mattresses are typically made using two core components which are polyurethane foam, and then the fabric cover.

Generally, the thick layers of foam which make up the core mattress are wrapped in a fabric cover, typically natural bamboo cotton or perhaps a New Zealand wool blend which is then flameproofed to meet the federal safety laws for mattresses. The mattress cover is more commonly some form of polyester, quilted wool, or premium cotton, however, we will save this topic for a different article.

Depending on the manufacturer or model range, the polyurethane foam mattress layers might also include other ingredients to reduce the toxicity and gear it more towards a plant-infused mattress. For example, the foam may be infused with green tea, charcoal, copper, graphite, castor oil, and many more natural extracts. Each of these has their benefits and of course, will impact the price, longevity, cooling properties, and comfort.

Furthermore to the above, here are the more common ingredients, and more importantly, these are the less advertised ingredients which can potentially be more hazardous than we’d like:

  • Polyols – These are the binding ingredient used in the foam. Typically it’s created out of petroleum oil-derived components, but it’s also possible to build it using natural sources such as castor beans or soybeans. However, most brands use petroleum oil-derived Polyols because they are cheaper.
  • Diisocyanates – This ingredient causes the reaction of the Polyols and the blowing agents to produce the polyurethane foam that is needed for memory foam mattresses. TDI is regarded as the more toxic and dangerous option, while MDI is the least hazardous isocyanate and therefore could be preferable.
  • Blowing Agents – This ingredient is critical for the reaction to create the foam. A blowing agent is a substance that is capable of producing the cellular structure via a foaming process. Often water, HFC or CFCs have been used as blowing agents.

Flame Retardants In Memory Foam

Flame retardant iconAccording to some people, many of the ingredients in memory foam are potentially harmful. However, it’s impossible to know specifically what components are used in each mattress because these are trade secrets which allow them to differentiate their products from the competition.

Fortunately, US laws and regulations have reduced the number of potentially concerning chemicals that have been used in mattresses in the past, although imported products may not meet the same rules. Ironically, the products which are required by the federal government for our safety could be the ones who are most dangerous for us to sleep on. Unfortunately, not all fire retardant chemicals are safe to be around for long periods of time.

According to federal law, manufacturers must ensure that the foam is treated with a fire retardant or covered with fire-resistant fabric, but they don’t need to disclose their process. Therefore, it can be difficult to know precisely what chemicals were used on the mattress.

VOCs And Off-Gassing

A smelly off gassing mattress

The most well-known danger surrounding mattresses is VOCs and off-gassing. VOCs are volatile organic compounds, so-called not because they are dangerous, but because they break down and release odors. Off-gassing is the release of these gases.

VOCs are incredibly common; they are the smell of the new paint that you bought, the interior of a brand-new car, the smell of unworn socks and many other household products that we’ve used for decades.

You might be wondering, are these gases really dangerous for us to inhale? In large concentrations, it’s believed that these gases could cause health problems, but your mattress isn’t releasing huge amounts, it’s a very low level which is difficult to monitor.

As a result, it’s hard for scientists to study the impacts of these gases, notably because they are released together. Some are safe while others are toxic and therefore it’s tough to correlate any results. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that some people can experience dizziness, nausea, sickness and persistent headaches when sleeping on memory foam. Although this would generally point towards an allergy, it’s certainly worth noting the existence of such symptoms.

It’s not unreasonable to think that not only could certain brands of mattress release more gases than others, but some individuals might also be more sensitive to these gases.

Unfortunately, it’s impossible for memory foam mattresses not to include VOCs which release gases because this is how the foam is created. Therefore, you should be wary of companies which claim to be VOC free or contain no VOCs. Recently, the FTC sued and fined a range of companies making these claims because they could not back it up with research.

How To Minimize The Risk Of VOCs

VOC Free LogoTo minimize the risk to you and your family from the release of gases from the VOCs, you want to avoid sleeping on the mattress for the first 24 to 48 hours after unpacking it. Instead, remove all of the packaging and lay out the mattress flat in the position it will stay, i.e., on the bed frame in the correct room. Leave the windows open, allowing the smell and toxins to dissipate into the air. Additionally, it’s a good idea to wait some hours for the mattress to fully inflate into its size (if it was delivered vacuum rolled in a bed-in-a-box solution).

More gas is released early during a mattresses lifetime, quickly decreasing to a much lower level. Therefore, giving it a day or two to air out can not only remove the pungent odor which some detest but can reduce the number of gases that you and your family inhale. Some believe that even over the first few months it’s wise to repeat this airing out for a few hours each week to minimize the number of gases that you’re inhaling.

Toxic Mattress Symptoms

A woman feeling sick because of her mattress off gassing

Most commonly people report problems including morning headaches, muscle pain, nausea, lack of concentration and fatigue. Although these symptoms won’t disappear instantly, they should drastically reduce shortly after leaving your home. If this is the case, it’s a good indicator that it could be related to your sleeping arrangements.

Additionally, if these symptoms are after buying a new mattress, this would be a good indicator as to VOCs being the culprit. If, however, after weeks have passed and symptoms are still present, it could be because of an allergy to one of the ingredients in the mattress.

Conclusion

Polyurethane foam itself is thought to be potentially toxic because of the many ingredients that go into making it, which themselves are classified as toxic. However, many human-made ingredients which we used ourselves around the home each day are also classified as toxic.

It’s difficult to know how toxic this foam is, mainly because the reports of health problems are few and far between, which could indicate that some individuals are more prone than others. However, many online mattress retailers offer sleep trials, and therefore you could consider one, only to return it for free if you notice side effects. Alternatively, to be much more confident in your purchase, perhaps try a toxic-free mattress instead.