Are There Toxic Materials in a Foam Mattress?



Increasingly, people are eschewing chemical additives in their lives in favor of natural materials. This applies to our diets as much as it does to other products that we consume and use. Products such as clothing, housing materials, and even mattresses. With the increased popularity of memory foam mattresses, you may find yourself wondering what chemicals are used in their manufacturing process, and what these chemicals can do to your health. Mattresses, like other household furniture, are required to be made with flame retardants. Memory foam also comes with the addition of foaming agents. But, what are they made of? Are they toxic?

Dissecting the Mattress

All memory foam mattresses consist of two things: a polyurethane foam core layer, and a polyurethane memory foam layer. These layers are covered with fabric, and as previously mentioned, include a flame retardant.

Each mattress brand has its own manufacturing process. Some advertise using latex foam, padding made from natural or other synthetic materials, or even gel. Memory foam is generally made out of the following components:

  • Blowing Agents – This component is responsible for making the other two components into the foam material used in the mattress. This process is achieved by adding carbon, usually in the form of water.
  • Diisocyanates – This material is used to create a chemical reaction that makes the foam flexible. It is typically present in foam mattresses as MDI and TDI, which are chemicals known to cause respiratory problems when used on their own. They are only considered problematic during the manufacturing of the mattress, and not when the mattress is finished and ready for use.
  • Polyols – This material makes up the stuffing. It binds the other two ingredients and is usually made with chemicals made from petroleum oil. Some companies use natural ingredients like castor beans or soy instead of using petroleum.

Where the Problem Lies

With the high manufacturing standards of the United States, in combination with restrictions voluntarily put in place by corporations, most of the causes for concern have been all but removed from memory foam mattresses. Unfortunately, no process is perfect. Formaldehyde, methylene chloride, acetone, methylbenzene, and other potentially hazardous chemicals are still used in the construction of the mattress or are frequent by-products. The good news is that they are present in minimal amounts which have not yet been proven to cause problems to those who use a foam mattress.

Flame Retardants

As previously mentioned, flame retardants need to be present in almost all household furniture, including mattresses. Foam mattresses without added flame retardants would be too flammable and dangerous. Luckily, all domestically produced mattresses are required by law to address this issue. Unfortunately, the companies are not required to disclose which chemicals they use. There are, however, several industry standards as far as additives go. One such material is known as PBDE. It is one of the several substances used in mattresses, and all known carcinogenic products have been removed from domestic manufacture since 2005. Cotton treated with boric acid, however, is still used and carries with it the possibility of organ toxicity. Chlorinated tris, or TDCPP, may also pose health risks, and as a result, has been brought to court in California.


More than the materials used, people are frequently concerned about what is being called “off-gassing.” If you have ever smelled a new memory foam mattress, you have experience off-gassing. It is the gas and subsequent odor produced by the breakdown of the chemicals used in the manufacturing of the mattress. Off-gassing is suspected of causing respiratory problems, allergic reactions, and organ toxicity.

Safe or Not?

Very few people who make the switch to foam based mattresses have reported significant respiratory issues. Many people who have been affected already suffer from allergies or asthma. If you are part of the population that suffers from these issues, you may want to stay away from memory foam beds. Otherwise, the chemicals used in their manufacture should not pose a risk to you, unless you work in a foam mattress factory.

Different brands use different manufacturing processes and therefore have variable levels of off-gassing. Stay away from brands that advertise that they are free of off-gassing or “VOC.” They can not be trusted. There are no foam mattresses that are completely free of off-gassing.

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