What is in a Latex Mattress?
The latex mattress is regarded by most as the crème de la crème of mattresses, and they remain one of the highest-rated types of beds overall. Their buoyancy provides a resilient support which helps alleviate pressure points and provides natural support, and the material is highly durable. But, what goes into the mattress can affect aspects like comfort and durability, so being informed proves critical when shopping.
Since you are likely to spend one-third of your day in bed, you should know what is in a latex mattress or any mattress before buying. All types of unsavory chemicals can be lurking in beds, from petroleum by-products to chemical flame retardants. Latex mattresses are typically regarded as a healthier option, but there are differences among different types and brands. Understanding the differences between natural and synthetic as well as the processes used to create a latex mattress will help consumers make the best choice for their needs.
What Goes Into Natural Latex Mattresses vs Synthetic?
Labels can be difficult to understand, particularly with products such as latex. When they say 100% latex, it can be mean synthetic, natural or a blend. The label of all-latex merely means that the bed uses only latex foam (as opposed to latex over polyurethane foam or innersprings). The term synthetic means they are produced from chemicals while, natural comes from trees. Blends consist of the two different types in varying percentages, typically with more synthetic latex than natural.
Natural Latex Mattresses
Natural latex foams are created from the milky-white liquid of the Hevea brasiliensis, commonly known as the rubber tree. These were originally grown in Brazil; however they are now cultivated on plantations in numerous countries specifically for the purpose of creating latex. Many of these modern plantations utilize sustainable growing methods, tapping the trees for up to 25 years and continuously replanting. More recently, natural latex sap can also come from certified organic trees.
The process for both types of production begins with the removal of a thin strip of bark from the rubber tree. This allows the latex liquid to collect, very similar to the way pure maple syrup is collected. Ammonia may be added at this point to prevent coagulation while the “sap” is being transported to the manufacturing plant, however this will be cooked out during the process.
The white liquid derived from these trees is liquid latex and is used to manufacture all types of rubber products, including natural latex foams with only a few additives that might include sulfur, waxes, fats, resins and water. The materials added prove necessary to obtain the frothy consistency and yield the foam-like structure required for beds. Luckily, these additives should all be non-toxic (check with the manufacturer), and many will be washed out or evaporated during the manufacturing process.
Synthetic Latex Mattresses
Synthetic foam is created using chemicals, including styrene and polymers to reproduce many of the natural qualities of latex at the atomic level. This began during the 1940’s during WWII when supplies of natural latex were low due consumption and wars in latex-producing regions. The upside of synthetic foam is that the initial cost is less than that of natural latex foam, however the longevity and durability tend to be considerably less. There is also an off-gassing from new mattresses that releases residue into the air, and possibly chemicals into your body. Manufacturers can use fairly innocuous ingredients in synthetic foams like resins, oxides, and sulfur, but they can also use petroleum fillers and potentially harmful chemicals as well (most manufacturers will not reveal their formulas as they trade secrets).
Blended Latex Mattresses
Blended latex mattresses are perhaps the most common type on the market, and can technically be called natural latex when there is at least 70% natural latex in the foam. Blends of synthetic and natural latex foams may also be present as natural latex over a synthetic core. In general this type of blend does not rank much better than synthetic, as the offgassing and durability is affected by the inclusion of synthetic latex. If brand simply says their latex is “natural”, not “100% natural”, than chances are it is blended.
Hybrid Latex Mattresses
These types of beds have sprung up in an attempt to lower the costs of latex mattresses. The two most popular variations include latex on top of a spring support base and latex over poly base foam. Ratings for these types of beds prove consistently lower than all latex, and again they compromise the natural and durable benefits experienced from all-latex beds.
Production of Latex Foam – Dunlop vs Talalay
Dunlop and Talalay are different methods for manufacturing latex foam, though both types typically begin with same materials. The key difference is that the Talalay process includes additional manufacturing and washing phases.
The Dunlop Method has been used since the late 1920’s to create natural latex mattresses. In this process the sap is combined with air and frothing agents and whipped into a frothy foam, then poured into an open mold. Mattress forms are then heated, in a baking process referred to as vulcanization which in essence is creating a solid from the liquid latex. It is allowed to cool, thoroughly washed and dried, and a new latex mattress is born.
Dunlop foam costs less time and energy to produce, and fewer chemical additives, making it more eco-friendly and also more cost-effective. Dunlop latex is also the only type that currently meets Global Organic Latex Standard’s certification criteria for organic latex foam. But, foam from manufacturers with lower quality standards could have some settling and unevenness, as well as limited firmness options. Higher quality manufacturers are capable of producing consistent Dunlop foam in a range of firmnesses, however.
The Talalay production method begins in the same manner as Dunlop. Upon aspiration into the mold, it is vacuum sealed to create a uniform foam structure. Then, the latex foam is flash-frozen with CO2, which acts as a gelling agent, to prevent residue from settling. The mold is then processed using vulcanization, washed several times and dried.
The extra steps in the Tally process can create a more even cell structure throughout the foam, and the pressure-controlled process allows for more customizable firmness. While Talalay creates a finer, more durable cell structure it can be more expensive than Dunlop manufacturing techniques. It is also not quite as eco-friendly, more difficult to find in 100% natural configurations.
Getting the Best Latex Mattress
Not too long ago, we created a guide offering things to avoid when shopping for a latex mattress. These included synthetics and fillers, glues, and flame retardants. We conducted a review of six popular online retailers, and found that Astrabeds.com offered the best overall value with their 100% natural, organic latex mattresses with organic cotton covers and wool fire barriers. The brand notes that their beds are free of toxic flame retardants, glues, carcinogens, fillers, and other toxic chemicals, and the mattresses receive VOC-free certification from the Eco-Institute.
Knowing the properties of this material is essential when purchasing a latex mattress. If you are going to spend the money, opt for an all-natural latex mattress with high-quality foam and fabrics.
Remember, only beds that say 100% natural latex or 100% organic latex are truly all natural. The initial cost of synthetic and blended latex may be less than a natural latex mattress; however one must take into consideration health and environmental concerns, and longevity. Natural latex is one of the healthiest mattress options around in terms of limiting chemical exposure, allergens, and dust mites, and not many other materials can claim those properties (including synthetic latex).
However, picking the best mattress for your needs will depend on your budget, how long you want the bed to last, and how important natural products are to you. Knowing what goes into a latex mattress offers a useful starting point for comparison and research, and can help you pick a better bed.
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