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Memory foam mattresses are often referred to as the best mattress choice for everyone.
And for a reason: they are unbeatable when it comes to pressure relief and a comfortable cozy feel.
However, memory foam is a synthetic compound and can hide some harmful chemicals inside, which can cause health problems in the long run.
In this article, we’ll take a look and the most common symptoms of toxic mattress exposure and teach you how to spot and prevent them, so you can sleep healthy.
Can Memory Foam Be Toxic?
The short answer is: yes.
Memory foam is defined as “polyurethane foam with added chemicals that increase its viscosity and elasticity”.
All the modern memory foam mattresses are made using this material, but their formula can differ depending on the brand, and the reaction byproducts can have different levels of toxicity.
Here are some of them:
- Formaldehyde. Formaldehyde isn’t added to memory foam during production, but it’s a common component of glues that secure the layers together. Or, it can release as a gas with the adhesives begin to break down over time.
- Isocyanates. Urethane, which is used for making synthetic foams, can itself release volatile chemicals called isocyanates, which are mainly responsible for the strong foam odor and has carcinogenic properties (1). If you get exposed to isocyanate in the long run, it can disrupt the function of your immune system.
- Benzene. Benzene typically occurs during the foam production process and is an active irritant that can affect eyes and mucus membranes if a person gets exposed for too long.
- Acetone. Acetone is a solvent used for making the foam structure more homogenous, and, aside from the strong odor, it can irritate skin and eyes. The highest risk is during production, but even low concentration can impact health during long-time exposure.
These are only the tip of the iceberg: the analysis of the memory foam samples found that in a memory foam mattress, toxic symptoms can be produced by as many as 60 different chemicals!
And the worst thing is that mattress brands often keep their foam ingredients in secret, so it’s impossible to figure out any possible dangers.
Other Materials Inside the Mattress That Can Cause You Harm
Another toxic component of a memory foam mattress is flame retardants. These chemicals are added to the memory foam at the production stage and help slow down the ignition in the presence of the fire.
Flame retardants reduce the spreading of the fire either by binding to the flammable materials to create an inflammable compound or by acting like a protective barrier that prevents the oxygen from reacting with the mattress materials and igniting them.
However, some flame retardants can release volatile organic compounds and cause harm when you inhale them.
Fiberglass (Silicon Fiber)
Fiberglass seems like a perfect fire barrier. It doesn’t release harmful chemicals and just melts by itself around the mattress, thus encasing it and preventing it from catching fire. That’s why most modern and inexpensive mattresses coat the foam layers with fiberglass for cheap and chemical-free fire protection.
However, fiberglass strands are so thin that they can easily escape through the pores in the mattress fabric, especially when they start to wear out.
Fiberglass can cause severe itch and irritation and even small cuts if you accidentally rub your skin against it. Plus, the fibers are so lightweight, they can easily spread around the house, and you can even inhale them, which can cause irritation and allergy-like symptoms.
Chemical Flame Retardants
Okay, but you can choose a mattress without fiberglass, right?
Yes, there are a lot of options that don't include fiberglass and use chemical flame retardants instead.
The main difference is that chemical flame retardants are dissolved in the memory foam to coat every pore from inside. This is made at the production stage, and the most common compounds used are polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs).
PBDE is a volatile organic compound, meaning that it has an unstable structure and can evaporate from the inside of your mattress into the air or dust (which is why you need to clean your house thoroughly).
One of the ways how PBDE can enter your body is through dermal absorption — when you’re lying on a mattress (2). Also, this compound can accumulate in your body over time and result in a vast array of adverse health effects:
- impairment of cognitive functions and memory loss;
- endocrine system disruptions;
- changes in the reproductive system;
- carcinogenic effect.
PBDE is banned in the European Union, but in the USA, some mattress and furniture brands are still using it as a flame retardant. That’s why you should always double-check independent certifications and don’t spend money on unclear mattress brands.
What Are the Signs of Toxic Mattress Exposure?
Now, let’s see how to spot the main toxic mattress symptoms and differ them from actual diseases or health conditions.
So, since the VOCs are released from the mattress with off-gassing, they can enter your body either through inhalation, eyes, or skin exposure. Thus, these parts of your body will be the first to react.
The main symptoms of exposure to the toxic chemicals inside your mattress include:
- Troubled breathing: the feeling of tightness or irritation in the chest, coughing.
- Allergy-like symptoms: puffy eyes, runny nose, and swelling.
- Skin problems: rashes, irritation, dermatitis.
If these symptoms occur when you sleep on your mattress and worsen over time, but you immediately start feeling better if you sleep elsewhere or leave your room, then your mattress might be the one to blame.
How to Choose a Safe Mattress?
Unfortunately, if your mattress has some harmful chemicals inside, the best way is to replace it. Putting a mattress protector may not work because they all are made with breathable fabrics, which means that they still can let some of the chemicals into the air and you will get exposed.
Here are some ways to get a safer mattress:
- Go for mattresses without memory foam. Yes, there are some foam-free models on the market. They can be made of latex or other hypoallergenic materials and use non-harmful flame retardants.
- Choose mattress brands with certification. Certification is made by third-party independent organizations and ensures that the mattress manufacturers meet the required federal standards on volatile organic compounds. Look for the labels like CertiPUR-US, GOLS< GOTS, and GreenGuard.
- Choose safer foams. If you cannot afford more expensive organic mattresses, go for plant-based foams as an alternative. Plant-based foams replace petroleum with soybean or castor oil, which drastically reduces the number of harmful components in the final product.
- Don’t purchase imported mattresses. China-based or India-based mattress manufacturers can have different production standards, and their mattresses may contain harsh chemicals. So be sure to look for the reviews, especially if you need a cheaper mattress.
What is the most dangerous chemical inside your mattress?
Formaldehyde. It isn’t directly added to the memory foam, but can be released through off-gassing when the adhesives inside the mattress start to break down. Formaldehyde is toxic, and prolonged inhalation can cause cognitive impairment and kidney damage.
Which mattress brands use fiberglass as a fire retardant in mattresses?
Many mattress brands use fiberglass because it’s cheap and non-toxic, but the most active users are Zinus and Linenspa. These manufacturers make budget-friendly foam and hybrid mattresses, and some of their models may have a fiberglass layer.
Sometimes your memory foam mattress can hide unpleasant bonuses in its layers. However, now you know how to spot them and what to do next.
Be sure to double-check the mattress certification, and don’t spend money on mattress brands with unclear history, and you’ll be fine.
Have you known about toxic mattresses before? Share your story in the comments?
- Marilyn Diamond (2011, June 4). Four Tips To Eliminate Chemical Poisons From Your Mattress. Retrieved from https://www.prweb.com/releases/2011/6/prweb8554183.htm
- Samantha Jakuboski (2015, September 1). What's in YOUR Mattress? Part II: Flame Prevention and PBDEs. Retrieved from https://www.nature.com/scitable/blog/green-science/whats_in_your_mattress_part_228632/