What is in a Memory Foam Mattress?

What is in a Memory Foam Mattress?

With the growing popularity of the memory foam mattress, consumers are becoming more curious about not only comfort, but about the material itself and what it is made of. This type of bed remains one of the highest rated mattresses for owner satisfaction, due to its ability to conform to each individual and relieve pressure points. But, there is a growing awareness as to potential dangers of certain chemicals to the environment and people as well. In this article, we will look at what goes in to a memory foam mattress, what type of dangers these substances pose, and how to get the healthiest bed.

The Making of a Memory Foam Mattress

In a typical memory foam mattress, you will have the memory foam layer and poly foam base layer, adhesives, a fire barrier, and a mattress cover. Each of these components needs to be considered in order to fully understand what the beds contain. However, mattresses remain one of those products that can be difficult for consumers to research. This is because most brands trademark their lines, making the ingredients and contents a trade secret. And unlike food products, mattress manufacturers do not have to disclose the individual components that create the end product.

Memory Foam & Poly Foam

The creation of a memory foam mattress is a complex chemical process. Manufacturers keep the production relatively secret, but we know that at its most basic the manufacture of polyurethane foams involves isocyanates reacting with polyols. Isocynates can include a variety of chemicals, but the most common are toluene diisocyanate and methylene diphenyl diisocyanate. Polyols also encompass a wide range of chemicals, but common types include dipropylene glycol, glycerine, petroleum derivatives and natural oil polyols (plant-derived). Reaction catalysts include various amine compounds or metals. Along with this reaction, the foam is treated with blowing agents or mechanical frothing to create the cellular structure.

One traditional memory foam mattress may have over 61 chemicals used in its creation. Many of these are relatively innocuous, but a few might be of concern. Each manufacturer used their own “recipe”, so there is much variation in the marketplace. Here is an overview of possible memory foam mattress substances that pose the greatest potential danger.

  • Acetone – Toxic; can cause skin irritation and nervous system side effects.
  • Dimethylformamide – Linked with liver damage and skin irritation, may also be embryotoxic and carcinogenic.
  • Toulene/Methyl benzene – Possible carcinogen. May cause neurological symptoms like confusion and weakness, nausea and light-headedness.
  • Methylene diphenyl diisocyanate – Allergen and sensitizer.
  • Methyl chloroform – Depresses central nervous system, toxic, potential for birth defects.
  • Methylenedianiline (MDA) – Byproduct of formaldehyde. Known carcinogen and known to cause liver damage.
  • Methylene chloride – Used as a blowing agent. Linked with respiratory irritation, central nervous system effects, and possible organ damage with long-term exposure. Possible carcinogen.
  • Vinilideine chloride – Linked with central nervous system side effects and respiratory issues. Possible carcinogen.
  • Formaldehyde – Known carcinogen/toxin. Can cause respiratory issues, headaches, and insomonia.
  • Trichloroethane -Linked with central nervous system depression, known carcinogen.
  • Naphthalene – Linked with cellular damage, respiratory issues, and is a possible carcinogen.

The Adhesives

The separate layers of foam must then be put together in order to make a complete mattress. Almost always, an adhesive is used to bond in the layers of the mattress together. This is true not only for memory foam, but for almost every other type of mattress and home furnishing.

Manufacturers use two general types of adhesives. Regular solvent adhesives are rolled onto the materials for gluing. The other type are called water-based adhesives, which are sprayed onto materials. Both types use the similar chemicals, however with water based the adhesive is diluted for easier application. Chemicals in adhesives can include the following VOCs and toxins:

  • Chlorofluorocarbons
  • Perfluorocarbons
  • Halogens
  • Formaldehyde – Carcinogen
  • Heavy metals (lead, etc)
  • Cynanide

About VOCs: Many of the above chemicals in memory foam production and chemicals identified in adhesives are grouped together under the term Volatile Organic Compounds. These include toluene, formaldehyde, benzene, chlorocarbons and chlorofluorocarbons, methylene chloride and more. Side effects of these chemicals are numerous, ranging from respiratory irritation and nausea, to nervous system impairment and cancer.

How Mattresses Achieve Fire Safety

All mattresses are now required by law to be fire resistant in an effort to reduce the risk of serious injury and increase the amount of time a person has to put out an accidental fire or escape. However, the flame retardant chemicals used by mattress manufacturers to achieve fire resistance also pose risks of their own. This is another gray area for consumers, because again manufacturers are not required to disclose what they use. Here are a few of the ways memory foam mattresses might meet the fire safety requirements:

  • Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers – Carcinogenic; can cause neurological problems, and disrupt endocrine system and thyroid. Banned in European Union, some types still allowed in United States.
  • PentaBDE – Same as above, plus possible links to neurological dysfunctions and child hyperactivity. Use of Penta and Octa BDE is banned in some US states.
  • Formaldehyde
  • Antimony – Known carcinogen. If the material does come in contact with fire, it will also release carbon monoxide gas and cyanide. May be incorporated into a barrier as “modacrylic fiber”.
  • Melamine Resin – Contains  formaldehyde, a known carcinogen.
  • Fire Barriers – Rather then adding chemicals, some manufacturers use fabric barriers or socks. These are often cotton treated with boric acid or rayon treated with silica (sand). Both of these offer much safer alternatives to PBDE’s, antimony and formaldehyde.

The Cover

All memory foam mattresses will have a cover material over the foam itself. This is designed to keep the bed clean and provide additional comfort. Covers can be made from a wide range of material, but are most often blends of cotton and synthetic materials. The more natural materials a cover has, the more breathable it will be. Cotton and bamboo prove complementary for memory foam due their ability to wick moisture and allow air circulation. These two materials are also more sustainable than polyesters.

Differences in Memory Foam Mattress Types

We also looked at a few leading brands and types of memory foam to see what we could come up with regarding the ingredients and materials. Here’s what we found:

Toxic VOCsNOUnknownNO
Chemical Blowing AgentsNOUnknownUnknown
Heavy MetalsNONOUnknown
Flame RetardantGreen Guard Fire SockMostly Cotton/FibersNot Disclosed

Tempurpedic is the traditional standard for memory foam. They keep their formula and ingredients relatively safeguarded. A blurb on their website states that their foams are free of toxic VOCs, chlorofluorocarbons, and formaldehyde. Other than that, it is rather difficult to get detailed information on their lineup, or exactly what they use for flame retardant measures.

iComfort is Serta’s line of gel memory foam which is supposed to be somewhat more healthy than the standard memory foam mattress. On their website, Serta states their mattresses contain no chlorofluorocarbons, PBDE’s, or heavy metals. As for fire barriers, they just give a general description about using cotton or cellulose fiber fabric barriers.

Amerisleep offers plant-based memory foam mattresses. This type of memory foam replaces chemical polyols with plant-based oils. Amerisleep states their mattresses are free of harmful VOCs, ozone-depleting blowing agents, chlorofluorocarbons, PBDE’s, formaldehyde and heavy metals. Their fire barriers are made of cellulose/rayon.

Now you know the nitty-gritty about what goes into a memory foam mattress. While some of the chemicals are certainly concerning, the good news is that manufacturers are making strides to develop safer products. Some manufacturers like Amerisleep are making an effort to be more transparent about what goes in to their beds, as well. As consumers become more aware about the hazards of chemicals in products they buy, the push towards safer products will become stronger and major manufacturers will develop products to meet demand. You don’t have to miss out on the comfort of a memory foam mattress to avoid dangerous chemicals, just be aware of what to check for and do your homework when shopping.

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