A closer look at whether or not memory foam mattresses are bad for your health and the planet. Find out if your mattress meets the criteria, what chemicals to watch out for, and what regulations apply to the manufacturing industry.
By Riley Richardson
Memory foam mattresses are becoming more popular among people who want to enjoy a good night’s rest. While the comfort they offer is hard to dispute, some consumers are concerned about the potential health risks posed by chemicals used in the manufacture of some mattresses. The big question here is, “Is memory foam really toxic?”
The grim reality is that some memory foam mattress manufacturers do use potentially harmful chemicals in the manufacturing process. Rather than being absolutely necessary, those chemicals help to lower costs and to cut corners in the process.
Take a closer look at memory foam, how it’s made, what’s in it, and whether you should have concerns about mattresses made from it.
A Closer Look At Memory Foam
Memory foam is a type of polyurethane foam that contains additional chemicals to enhance elasticity and viscosity, which is why it’s also known as viscoelastic foam. Like other foam, memory foam compresses when pressure gets applied.
However, unlike other foams, memory foam can stretch into various shapes before returning to its original form when the pressure gets removed. This is the reason why the substance is good for relieving pressure. When you lie on a memory foam mattress, your body heat activates it, and it molds to fit the shape of your body, offering “tailor-made” support for your body shape.
NASA developed memory foam in the 1960s and used it for cushioning to protect spacecraft from vibrations and potential crashes. The substance was put to use in later years to protect patients who could not move for long periods of time from developing bedsores. The first commercially available memory foam mattress made its debut in the 1990s.
What Memory Foam Is Made Of
Almost all flexible polyurethane foams are made with the same basic ingredients. That said, different companies may use various specific ingredients in their manufacturing process. The basic ingredients in most memory foams include:
Blowing agents: Water is the most common blowing agent, which helps create the chemical reaction necessary to make memory foam. Most traditional chemical-based blowing agents are potentially toxic.
Diisocyanates: Methylene diphenyl diisocynate (MDI) and toluene diisocyanate (TDI) are the most common diisocynates utilized in manufacturing memory foam. They are a chemical compound that reacts with polymers in the manufacturing process.
Polyols: Polyols are organic compounds that contain more than one of the alcohol chemical groups known as a hydroxyl group. Wide-ranging, polyols are found in plastic, sugar, fruit and vegetables, sugar-free sweeteners, and various other products.
One of the reasons some consumers are concerned about the potential toxicity of memory foam is that various substances in the manufacturing process are petroleum derivatives.
Potentially Toxic Memory Foam
In the past, memory foam contained numerous potentially toxic substances, but that is not necessarily the case today. A growing number of manufacturers have stopped using chemicals that research has shown to be potentially toxic.
Diisocyanates are among the chemicals that may be toxic. In addition to causing eye, mouth, and nose irritation, some diisocyanates (specifically TDI) may be carcinogenic. Let’s explore the toxic chemicals that were historically used to make memory foam mattresses:
Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs): Chlorofluorocarbons were a popular blowing agent, but their use is now limited for various reasons. One of those reasons is that CFCs contribute to the depletion of the ozone layer. Another reason is that they can affect the nervous system and heart rhythm, and can cause skin irritation.
Formaldehyde: Depending on how memory foam is made, formaldehyde may be one of the by-products. The substance is carcinogenic, and its fumes can cause eye, mouth, and nose irritation.
Methylbenzene: Also known as toluene, methylbenzene is a clear liquid found naturally in crude oil. The substance is toxic when large quantities are inhaled.
Methylene chloride: Another former blowing agent, methylene chloride can negatively affect your eyes, heart, liver, and skin. The substance can cause dizziness, drowsiness, nausea, numbness, and tingling in your arms and legs. Plus, it may be carcinogenic. Severe exposure to the substance may cause unconsciousness and/or death.
Methylene dianiline: Methylene dianiline acts as a reactant when making some memory foams. The substance causes skin irritation, and it is potentially carcinogenic.
Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs): Most memory foam mattresses contain flame retardants. PBDEs were one of the substances commonly used for this purpose. They may cause cancer, developmental brain disorders, and infertility, among other issues.
Boric acid: Boric acid is another flame retardant in some foam mattresses. The substance may cause reproductive organ damage.
Melamine compounds: Melamine compounds are used as flame retardants in some mattresses. The compounds may contain formaldehyde (see above).
Most memory foam manufacturers regard the blend of chemicals they use in the process as a trade secret, which means they seldom list the exact ingredients. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) cannot regulate volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in household products, and not all harmful chemicals are banned from use in manufacturing memory foam and other products.
This does not mean you need to fear memory foam. There is a way to tell whether a mattress contains the most common potentially toxic chemicals.
Some memory foam mattress manufacturers voluntarily submit their products for third-party inspection and certification. CertiPUR-US is one of those third parties.
CertiPUR-US tests and analyzes certified flexible polyurethane foams twice in the first year, and once a year thereafter. The organization’s technical guidelines were guided by the global foam industry, the mattress and upholstered furniture industries, and an advisory panel of academics, environmentalists, scientists, and consumer group representatives.
Certified memory foam mattresses meet the organization’s standards for content, emissions, and durability. Certification also indicates that the foam was made without CFCs and other ozone depleters, PBDEs and other flame retardants such as TCEP and TDCPP, formaldehyde, heavy metals such as lead and mercury, and phthalates regulated by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. They also have low VOC emissions.
Memory Foam Can Be Safe
As you can see, some memory foams, especially older foams, can contain various potentially toxic chemicals. However, you can use CertiPUR-US certification to find mattresses made of memory foam that meets stringent health and safety standards.
What’s more, some manufacturers have started producing bio-based foams that use soybean oil instead of the more traditional petrochemicals. You can also find natural alternatives made of natural latex, as well as hybrid beds that have an innerspring core and layers of cotton batting, feathers, or wool.
Buying a memory foam mattress is just like purchasing anything else in life. There are sustainable, eco-friendly options available, you just need to know what to look for.