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Are Memory Foam Mattresses Safe?

Written by Tuck Staff

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.

Other Possible Ingredients or Byproducts

The materials listed in the above section cover the most common byproducts and ingredients in memory foam mattresses that could cause concern. However, there are other elements you should look out for as well.

Here are some of the less common byproducts and ingredients to know before picking out a memory foam mattress:

  • Methylene diailine/MDA – MDA is an organic compound that looks white solid or colorless. This compound is usually produced for industrial usage. MDA has shown up in low levels in household products, but you usually won’t encounter it at dangerous levels. People who are part of the manufacturing process face the biggest risk to exposure.
  • Methyl Benzene – This compound is a colorless liquid that smells like gasoline. It’s highly flammable and most often used to make styrene. If you inhale this compound, you may risk damage to the nervous system.
  • Acetone – This chemical compound is often used to clean labs. It can mix with water and highly flammable. Low exposure carries limited risk, but inhaling large amounts can be toxic.
  • Formaldehyde – Formaldehyde is well known as a preservative, sometimes used for human embalming. Sometimes formaldehyde results from adhesives or chemical reactions. However, you typically won’t find this compound in foams. Getting formaldehyde on your skin can cause irritation of the nose, throat, and eyes.
  • Dimethylformamide – This organic compound is often used as a solvent for chemical reactions. It’s mixable with water and colorless. Similar to MDA, the biggest risk of being exposed to this compound comes during the manufacturing process. Organ damage can occur with dangerous levels of exposure.
  • Methylene chloride/DCM – Methylene chloride (otherwise known as dichloromethane or DCM) is also used as a solvent. It has a sweet aroma and is colorless. Pollution regulations in places like the EU have limited the widespread usage of this chemical as exposure can cause mucous membrane irritation.

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.

How to Choose a Safe Memory Foam Mattress

Unfortunately, it’s hard to know exactly which chemical and organic compounds a manufacturer decides to use in their foams. And by extension, it’s even harder to know which chemicals will come out as a byproduct of their manufacturing process.

The good news? You can better inform yourself by finding answers to specific questions. This is your best bet in finding a quality memory foam mattress to bring into your home.

A rundown of some things to look for when shopping include:

  • What is the memory foam made of?
  • Should I get plant-based foams or petroleum?
  • What do they use for anti-flammability?
  • Are there any testing standards they adhere to?
  • How dense is the foam?

Traditional memory foam beds are often made of polyurethane along with polyols like petroleum and glycerin. If you’re concerned about these materials, choosing a mattress with more plant-based materials may be an option.

Petroleum-based polyurethane is the main material used in traditional memory foam mattresses. They chose this material because it’s the ideal material to evenly distribute your weight and contour to you as you sleep. Polyurethane also reacts to temperature by changing form and has pressure-relieving properties.

Regardless, petroleum mattresses also come with complaints from some consumers, including chemicals, odors, and too much viscosity. Plant-based memory foams replace some of the petroleum of oils derived from plants instead.

Some consumers have found that this combination of materials has the same benefits as traditional memory foam mattresses with improved breathability. Best of all, they’re free of a wide range of chemicals, such as formaldehyde, PBDEs, phthalates, and CFCs.

Many of the compounds used to create memory foam mattresses are highly flammable. For that reason, some manufacturers decide to put some kind of flame retardant on the mattress to prevent it from easily going alight. However, these flame retardants can pose their own danger. Some certifications ban dangerous flame retardants.

There are several popular testing standards and certifications that can give you peace of mind when selecting a memory foam mattress. A few of them include:

  • Oeko-Tex – Oeko-Tex prohibits dangerous flame retardants and sets limits on emissions on compounds such as formaldehyde. While there’s no organic materials requirement, this certification still helps with overall safety assurance.
  • Certi-Pur – Certi-Pur bans the use of certain chemicals like PBDE flame retardants. However, it should be looked upon with some doubt — the creators of this certification are members of the foam industry.
  • GOTS – GOTS certifications are for textiles. This certification requires that some chemicals are prohibited, and that a mattress is made of at least 95% organic materials.

High-density foams have many benefits — they can be more durable, resilient, and comfortable. That said, high-density foams often come with more polymers (meaning stronger odors coming off the mattress). Choosing a less dense foam means you’ll likely have a product with less off-gassing materials.

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.

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