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Are Memory Foam Mattresses Safe? Exploring the Toxicity of Foam



Is Memory Foam Toxic?

Memory foam mattresses have exploded in popularity over the last decade due to their conforming comfort, pressure relief, and motion isolation, making them some of the best mattress options available. However, concerns exist about potentially toxic chemicals used in memory foam production. This article will break down exactly what memory foam is, the main toxins found in traditional memory foam, safer certifications to look for, plant-based alternatives, and tips for buying non-toxic memory foam mattresses.

What Exactly is Memory Foam?

Memory foam, also known as viscoelastic polyurethane foam, is a unique material with properties that differ from regular polyurethane foam. The key characteristics that set memory foam apart include:

  • Conforming Support is offered by the best mattress designs, including those utilizing memory foam. – Memory foam softens with heat and pressure, conforming closely around body contours before bouncing back to its original shape once pressure is removed. This minimizes pressure points.
  • Slow Rebound – It responds to weight and heat slowly, leading to a feeling of being gently “cradled” for custom support and comfort.
  • Motion Isolation – The conformity and slow rebound reduce motion transfer if you sleep with a partner, minimizing sleep disruptions.

The origins of the first memory foam mattress trace back to 1966 when it was initially developed under a contract with NASA to improve crash protection and cushioning for airline seats. The technology, then called “temper foam,” worked well but was prohibitively expensive for commercial use.

Over the next few decades, formulations improved until memory foam was cost-effective for mattresses and cushions. In the early 1990s, Tempur-Pedic became one of the first companies to introduce memory foam to the bedding market. Since then, memory foam mattresses have continued gaining market share against spring and latex mattresses due to their unmatched comfort and support.

There are a few types of memory foam used in mattresses, with subtle differences:

  • Traditional – The original viscoelastic formulation conforms closely and rebounds slowly
  • Gel – Infused with cooling gels intended to regulate temperature
  • Copper – Contains copper fibers or particles to conduct heat away
  • Plant-based – Derived partially/fully from plant oils instead of petrochemicals

Now that we’ve covered the background on memory foam, let’s get into the safety concerns over chemicals and toxins found in many memory foam mattresses.

What Makes Memory Foam Potentially Toxic?

The chemicals used to make memory foam may include volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and flame retardants. These chemicals can cause health and safety concerns for individuals who sleep on a memory foam bed.

Some studies have suggested that exposure to these chemicals can lead to various health effects, including respiratory issues, allergies, and even potentially more serious conditions.

However, it is important to note that not all memory foam is potentially toxic. There are certified sleep science companies that produce high-quality memory foam mattresses that are safe and free from harmful substances. It is recommended to look for a certified and safe memory foam mattress if you want to enjoy the benefits of memory foam without worrying about potential health risks.

Primary Dangers and Toxins in Memory Foam

While memory foam has benefits, conventional polyurethane foam production involves some nasty chemicals associated with health issues:

Flame retardants added to meet flammability standards.

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) off-gassed from petroleum-based foams.

Potential carcinogens like antimony trioxide.

These toxins are prevalent because government regulations on chemical safety in consumer products are remarkably lax in the US. Without stringent oversight, toxic flame retardants and carcinogens end up in memory foam at concerning levels.

Concerning Flame Retardants Added to Memory Foam

The most common flame retardants found in memory foam are TCPP (chlorinated tris) and TDCPP (chlorinated “Tris”). These are concerning for several reasons:

  • Sprayed or added to foam to meet outdated flammability standards
  • Shown to accumulate in body fat and breast milk over time
  • It is associated with reduced IQ and impaired development, particularly in products without certifications ensuring a mattress made without harmful chemicals.

Flame retardants can cause their own health issues, but also interact with Volatile Organic Compounds emitted by petroleum-based foam. Together, these can compound their negative effects.

Off-Gassing VOCs from Memory Foam

VOCs stands for Volatile Organic Compounds – gases emitted as petroleum-based chemicals break down. Memory foam is made from petrochemical off-gasses VOCs like formaldehyde, benzene, toluene, and xylenes.

  • VOCs trigger that “new mattress smell” – a warning sign
  • Short-term exposure causes eye, nose, and throat irritation
  • Long-term exposure linked to liver and kidney damage

Off-gassing peaks when a mattress is new – many experts recommend airing out foam for as long as possible, preferably in a well-ventilated area. Additionally, using a mattress cover can block continued exposure to evaporating VOCs.

Antimony Trioxide Flame Retardant and Carcinogen

The carcinogen Antimony Trioxide is added to some memory foam to make it fire-resistant. However, antimony trioxide is concerning for a few reasons:

  • Classified as possibly cancer-causing by WHO and EU authorities
  • Found in higher concentrations in memory foam versus baby crib mattresses in one study
  • Respiratory and cardiovascular effects with prolonged exposure

While antimony trioxide may sound scary, regulations have phased it out of children’s products in the US and EU. However, it remains unregulated and is used widely in foam furniture and mattresses. Some brands use safer alternatives, but many still use antimony trioxide to meet flammability standards.

Now that we’ve covered the major toxins found in some memory foams, let’s talk about material certifications that indicate safer, non-toxic formulations…

Certifications for Non-Toxic Foams

Luckily, not all memory foam contains concerning levels of toxins. There are a few respected certifications to look for when choosing memory foam:

CertiPUR-US® is the gold standard for foam with low VOC emissions. Certified foams are:

  • Tested for VOCs and harmful chemicals
  • Made without PBDE flame retardants, heavy metals, and formaldehyde
  • Low VOC emissions for indoor air quality

OEKO-TEX® also indicates foams and fabrics tested and verified as free from harmful levels of over 300 chemicals.

Greenguard Gold certification means grievously low chemical emissions that protect indoor air quality for vulnerable groups like children and seniors.

Ideally, look for memory foam certified by 1+ of these programs to avoid toxic chemicals in your mattress.

Next, let’s compare alternatives to traditional viscoelastic memory foam…

Alternatives to Traditional Memory Foam

In addition to certified foam, consumers have alternatives like “plant-based memory foam” derived partially or fully from vegetable oils instead of petrochemicals.

Benefits of plant-based memory foam include:

  • Fewer VOCs since made with natural oils, not petroleum
  • Renewable resources instead of fossil fuels
  • No toxic flame retardants needed to pass fire safety standards

The feel of plant-based memory foam is similar to traditional. The main difference is it off-gasses little to no VOCs. Brands like Amerisleep, Avocado, and Brentwood Home offer plant-based memory foam mattress options.

On the other hand, plant-based foam may wear down faster or sleep hotter. Not all plant-based foam contains enough bioplastic material to fully replace petrochemicals either. Check certifications to confirm sustainable materials are free of toxins.

Finally, let’s wrap up with tips for finding non-toxic memory foam when mattress shopping…

Tips for Buying Non-Toxic Memory Foam

  1. Ask about certifications & materials – Find options certified by CertiPUR-US and OEKO-TEX or made with plant-based materials.
  2. Air out any new mattress before sleeping on it, ideally for 24-48 hours if possible. This allows VOCs from new foam to dissipate.
  3. Use a mattress protector as an added barrier limiting exposure to any off-gassing.
  4. Research quality signs like material density, warranty length, and durability testing. Higher densities often last longer.

A 10-year or longer warranty also indicates expected longevity. Quality is linked to safety since you won’t need a replacement.

Making an informed decision can lead to years of safe, healthy sleep. While toxins in some memory foam are concerning, options exist without questionable chemicals. Seek out responsible certifications and materials as outlined here and vote with your dollars to encourage the entire industry to rethink outdated chemical formulations. Stay tuned for more helpful sleep tips and advice on selecting quality memory foam for your sleeping needs.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Q1: What is memory foam?

Memory foam is a type of foam that is known for its ability to contour to the shape of the body. It is commonly used in mattresses and pillows to provide support and comfort.

Q2: Is memory foam toxic?

Memory foam itself is not toxic. However, some memory foam mattresses or products may contain potentially harmful chemicals such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) or flame retardants. It is important to choose a memory foam mattress that is certified to be safe and free from harmful substances.

Q3: How is memory foam made?

Memory foam is made from a type of polyurethane foam that is infused with chemicals to give it its unique properties. The foam is created by combining these chemicals, allowing them to react and expand, and then cooling and cutting the foam into desired shapes.

Q4: What are the health risks associated with memory foam?

Some people may experience allergic reactions or respiratory issues when exposed to certain chemicals used in memory foam. Additionally, if memory foam products contain harmful chemicals like VOCs or flame retardants, there may be potential health risks associated with long-term exposure to these substances.

Q5: Are memory foam mattresses safe to sleep on?

Memory foam mattresses that are certified to be safe and free from harmful substances are generally considered safe to sleep on. However, individuals with certain sensitivities or health conditions may need to be cautious and seek advice from a healthcare professional.

Q6: Can memory foam affect sleep quality?

Memory foam has been found to have positive effects on sleep quality for many individuals. Its ability to conform to the body’s shape helps alleviate pressure points and improve overall comfort during sleep.

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