Foam mattresses are popular, but with their popularity comes some concerns about their safety. The safety concerns stem from the fact that synthetic materials are used to make some foam mattresses, and chemical flame retardants are used to fireproof them.
There are mainly three types of foam mattresses: polyurethane foam, memory foam, and latex foam. Most latex beds feature all-natural latex foam, and we advise against synthetic latex mattresses because they’re filled with chemicals and break down easily. With that, we’ll be focusing on the components of polyurethane and memory foam in this post. We’ll also talk about what to look for while buying foam mattresses to ensure they are safe.
Components of Foam Mattresses
Polyurethane foam and memory foam contain synthetic materials. But not all synthetic materials are toxic. Foam mattresses are either made completely of polyurethane foam or they include a polyurethane core layer, topped by a memory foam layer. Memory foam is made by adding non-toxic chemicals to polyurethane foam, increasing its density and viscosity.
Memory foam mattresses offer a body-conforming feel and are more expensive than polyurethane foam beds. Polyurethane foam or poly-foam is more bouncy than memory foam. It’s also less durable than memory foam beds.
Considering memory foam is manufactured by using poly-foam, here we discuss the components used in poly-foam. Three components react to produce a liquid which is then cooled and dried to make polyurethane foam. The three components include:
- Polyols: Usually contain petroleum-derived ingredients. But may also include botanical ingredients such as castor oil.
- Diisocyanates: Methylene diphenyl diisocyanate (MDI) or toluene diisocyanate (TDI) are reactive agents. MDI and TDI in their raw forms may be carcinogenic. They can also trigger breathing problems or skin irritation. These chemical compounds have side effects during manufacturing. After reacting with polyols and blowing agents, in the finished product, these chemical compounds are inert. They don’t cause any health issues after the reaction but can off-gas.
- Blowing agents: Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), or water is used as a blowing agent introducing carbon in the chemical reaction. The blowing agents create the foaming necessary for manufacturing poly-foam. CFCs and HFCs were once as blowing agents, but because they cause depletion of the ozone layer, the EPA(Environmental Protection Agency) regulations have restricted their use. Now, mostly water is used as a blowing agent.
These three main components used in all poly-foam and memory foam mattresses don’t cause any serious health problems. They can lead to minor off-gassing. Such off-gassing may cause mild breathing difficulties, skin irritations, or nausea in some people if they don’t properly air out their mattresses.
Off-gassing happens when volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in foam products break down and disperse in the air. VOCs are so-called because they are unstable and break down at room temperature.
You may be familiar with off-gassing as the odor from a new car or upholstered furniture. These odors generally neutralize within a few days, which is why all-foam mattresses must be aired out for a few days before you start using them.
Other Possible Ingredients or Byproducts Used in Foam Mattresses
Apart from the three components mentioned above, there may be other ingredients or byproducts in poly-foam or memory foam mattresses. Mattress manufacturers may not provide information about all the chemicals used in making foam mattresses.
But now there are many regulations in the American mattress industry. The regulations ensure that mattresses have low VOCs and are made without harmful ozone depleters. But these regulations may not necessarily apply to imported mattresses. Imported mattresses may still contain some toxic chemicals which impact your health in the long-term.
Here are some of the chemicals and their potential health hazards that triggered concerns among consumers.
- Methylene dianiline / MDA: If you are exposed to large doses of MDA, usually during manufacturing processes, it may cause liver damage, skin, and eye irritation. In household products, they are found at low levels.
- Dimethylformamide: Like MDA, dimethylformamide can be dangerous when exposed to workers during manufacturing. It may cause organ damage.
- Methyl benzene: Inhaling methyl benzene may affect the nervous system.
- Methylene chloride (Dichloromethane or DCM): Exposure can irritate the mucous membranes. Pollution regulations in the European Union (EU) has restricted its use.
- Acetone: Can cause throat, nose, eye, and skin irritation.
- Formaldehyde: Not used in making foam, but may be found in adhesives used in mattresses. It can cause nose, throat, and eye irritation.
Flame Retardants in Foam Mattresses
According to a regulation passed in 2007 by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), all mattresses sold in the United States must have a flame barrier. Mattresses must withstand a flame test for 70 seconds. This measure aims to reduce mattress fires and improve consumer safety.
Polyurethane foam is flammable. Like all mattresses, even foam mattresses must be treated with chemicals or a fire-resistant fabric. It’s better to know about the chemicals used as fire retardants and how they can affect us.
Both natural and chemical flame retardants can be used on mattresses. But chemical flame retardants are more effective. Some chemicals while being effective flame retardants can impact your health. Not all chemical flame retardants cause health problems. Here are some of the popular flame retardants and their possible health impact:
- Wool: Naturally fire-resistant. Not common in poly-foam or memory foam mattresses. Usually found in latex mattresses. Organic mattresses use organic wool as flame retardants.
- Kevlar: Heat resistant, strong, synthetic, non-toxic fiber.
- Rayon treated with silica: Rayon is derived from bamboo pulp. Silica is derived from glass or sand. It makes a non-toxic flame retardant.
- Cotton treated with boric acid: Cotton is a natural fiber. But treating it with boric acid may cause organ toxicity.
- Chlorinated tris (TDCPP): Potentially causes cancer and affects fertility.
- Decabromodiphenyl Oxide: May affect your nerves. Possible carcinogen.
- Modacrylic fiber: It contains antimony oxide, a carcinogen.
- Melamine resin: Contains formaldehyde, nose, throat, and eye irritant.
- Brominated fire retardants/Polybrominated diphenyl ethers/PBDEs: PBDEs include a group of substances used as flame retardants. Certain variations of PBDEs were found to be carcinogenic, so PBDEs have been phased out in the US since 2005.
What to Consider When Buying a New Mattress
All mattresses may contain chemical flame retardants. Polyurethane and memory foam mattresses are made with chemicals. But not all chemicals are hazardous.
According to the American Chemistry Council, “Many polyurethane products are completely cured and therefore considered ‘inert’ before they are sold, such as mattresses, pillows, furniture cushions, […].” A 2011 study from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) found no scientific connection between respiratory problems and exposure to TDI. TDI is one of the reactive agents used to make poly-foam.
In the US and EU, there are several regulations in poly-foam manufacturing, making poly-foam safe for consumers. Environmental and health concerns have led to the creation of many safety regulations, including banning the use of some toxic chemicals in mattresses.
Here are a few factors to consider when buying a foam mattress:
- Certifications: Check if the mattresses are CertiPUR-US® or OEKO-TEX Standard 100 certified. These certifications ensure low VOC emissions from your mattress. The independent certifying agencies also check for toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde and PBDEs. CertiPUR-US® or OEKO-TEX Standard 100 certified products are safe. They don’t have any health risks.
- Flame retardants: Kevlar and rayon treated with silica are safe flame retardant alternatives that meet anti-flammability standards.
- Plant-based additives: Check with customer service representatives or salespersons in mattress companies if they include plant-based additives in their foam. Plant-based foam has less petroleum content, hence less off-gassing concerns. Plant-based foam is also cooler than regular foam. All our Amerisleep mattresses are made of plant-based Bio-Pur® material.
- Manufactured in the USA: Ask where the mattress was manufactured. If it was made in the US or EU, the mattress should be safe because there are many regulations in these countries.
- Mattress Reviews: If mattress reviewers complain about off-gassing prolonged, avoid it. Always read and compare mattress reviews before buying one.
How do you air out a mattress?
Take the mattress out of its packaging and lean it against a wall to air out. The mattress is ready to use when you don’t smell any strong odors. The odor usually fades in 2 to 3 days. Before using the mattress, vacuum it to remove any accumulated dust.
What is the difference between poly-foam and memory foam?
Memory foam is more dense and viscous than poly-foam. It’s responsive and conforms to your body, relieving pressure. Memory foam beds usually have a polyurethane foam in the base layer. Polyurethane foam is widely used in mattresses and other foam products such as sofa, cushions, and chairs. Poly-foam is cheaper than memory foam but not as durable as memory foam.
Are memory foam mattresses good for you?
Good quality memory foam beds provide excellent pressure relief. Their body-conforming feature enhances lumbar support, making them great mattresses for back pain. Memory foam beds may last longer than traditional innerspring mattresses. Most memory foam mattresses come with a 10 to 25 years warranty.
You spend about one-third of your day in bed. It’s valid to have concerns about the safety of your mattress. Now there are many regulations surrounding polyurethane and memory foam manufacturing, eliminating the use of toxic chemicals. These regulations are mostly in the US and EU. Mattresses manufactured in other countries may still contain some toxic chemicals causing health problems. If you know what to look for when buying a new mattress, you can sleep safely without worrying about toxic chemicals.
This article is for informational purposes and should not replace advice from your doctor or other medical professional.