Are Memory Foam Mattresses Safe?

Is memory foam safe? Generally speaking, yes, although the material may cause health issues for certain users. The most important factors to consider include the foam’s components, the type of flame retardant used to fireproof the material, and the amount of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are emitted from the mattress. Read on to learn more about these issues.

How Is Memory Foam Made?

The polyurethane foam (or polyfoam) used in memory foam is derived from two primary chemical components: multi-hydroxyl alcohols known as polyols and chemical compounds known as diisocyanates. The third component, known as a blowing agent, is carbon-based. The reaction between these three components produces a liquid, which is then cooled and dried into flexible polyurethane foam.

In most memory foams, MDI and TDI are used for the diisocyanates. These materials are thought to have carcinogenic properties, and may cause skin rashes and/or breathing issues; however, they comprise a small amount of the overall mattress. And while memory foam manufacturers have historically used potentially harmful chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) as the blowing agents, most current mattress-makers rely on safer alternatives — in many cases, water.

Flame Retardants

In its raw, newly processed form, polyurethane memory foam is highly flammable. To mitigate fire risks (and meet legal product standards), manufacturers will typically coat the foam in a flame-retardant agent.

Some retardants naturally resist flames and pose no health risks whatsoever. These include wool, kevlar and treated rayon. However, most manufacturers rely on stronger, chemical-based retardants for added fire protection. While more effective, these retardants may contain carcinogens and/or pose certain health risks. Examples include PBDEs, acid-treated cotton, TDCPP, and certain types of resin.

Scientists are still studying the long-term effects of exposure to mattresses that utilize chemical flame retardants. Health issues are rarely reported, but many eco-activists argue that chemical retardants can be harmful to the environment. For this reason, proper disposal of memory foam mattresses is strongly encouraged.

VOCs and Off-gassing

A common complaint among memory foam sleepers is the smell of their mattress, particularly when it is new. This is known as off-gassing, and it is caused by the emission of volatile organic compounds (or VOCs) that break apart and create gaseous odors. In memory foam, VOCs may arise from the diisocyanates, blowing agents, or flame retardants; other materials, such as preservatives like formaldehyde, may produce VOCs as well.

Is VOC off-gassing harmful? Not really. Exposure to VOCs can cause health issues for certain people, such as those with respiratory issues or strong chemical allergies. These symptoms include headaches, nausea, dizziness and irritated sinuses. For everyone else, an unpleasant smell will be the biggest problem. The smell will generally be gone two to three days after the mattress is unpackaged; memory foam buyers are encouraged to keep sheets and other bedding materials off the mattress until the smells have dissipated.

Bottom Line

Despite the presence of VOC off-gassing and potentially harmful chemicals found in polyurethane foam and most flame retardants, health problems linked to memory foam mattresses are rarely reported. Memory foam has also been declared safe by the Polyurethane Foam Association, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Diseases Registry (ATSDR). 

If you experience health problems using a memory foam mattress, immediately contact your physician. You may also want to contact the mattress manufacturer to arrange a mattress exchange if these problems persist.