Harmful Chemicals in Mattresses: Are Memory Foam Mattresses Safe for Your Family?

Harmful Chemicals in Mattresses: Are Memory Foam Mattresses Safe for Your Family?

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While there are some chemicals in mattresses you should be aware of memory foam mattresses are safe for the most part.

Our families mean the world to us. We want to do whatever we can to protect them from harm. That’s why we took a look to find out, are memory foam mattresses toxic? You may be surprised to learn what may be lurking in your beds.

The Chemicals in Mattresses

BrandAmerisleepSerta iComfort®Tempur-Pedic®
Mattress TypePlant-BasedGel & TraditionalTraditional
% of Reviews Mentioning Significant Odor<5%6%6%

Data from customer reviews from retail sites and independent reviewer SleepLikeTheDead.com.

Memory foam is safe for the most part, but some are better than others. Memory foam mattresses are made from materials derived from either petroleum-based or plant-based oils. Petroleum, or fully synthetic foams tend to have more reports of offgassing than plant-based foams.

You may have also heard of gel memory foam being used in mattresses. This is made from petroleum-based foam with gels and other chemicals added to help keep the mattress cool. If you want less chemicals in mattresses, these may not be the way to go. The cooling effects seem to be negligible according to customer reviews and often the added materials contribute to more complaints of odors.

Plant-based memory foam mattresses stay cool without all the added chemicals because they have an open-cell construction which allows for better airflow. With little or no synthetic material, mattress offgassing is not a problem. A few manufacturers of this type of foam also focus on using greener materials elsewhere such as in the fire barriers and other fabrics, which can further reduce the chance of odors.

Memory foam is a relatively new material. Let’s take a better look at what it is. 

What is Memory Foam?

To better understand what may be causing that memory foam smell, it will help to understand what memory foam is. It’s a type of polyurethane, a polymer consisting of very long chain-like molecules. It’s essentially made by reacting polyols and isocyanates in a heated and pressure-controlled environment. Once it cools and has time to cure, you have memory foam.

Chemicals in mattresses are generally not disclosed up front. The recipes used in material production are trade secrets and don’t legally have to be divulged. This can make it difficult to learn what chemicals may be in a certain mattress.

Ask the retailer or check their website to see what information the manufacturer provides. If basic information isn’t readily available, they probably don’t want you to know it. The Green Sleeper wrote a detailed article on the various chemicals in mattresses you should be aware of.

While each company may vary the ingredients and additives, here are the three main components that make up these beds:


Another commonly used chemical in mattresses is polyols. These sweet carbohydrate alcohols are not sugars, but some are used as sugar substitutes. This reactant acts as a binding or bulking agent. Usually polyols used for foam are derived from from petroleum, but as mentioned, some are plant based. Soy and castor beans provide the raw materials for these eco-conscious shoppers.


Another reacting ingredient required to make polyurethane are diisocyanates. These highly reactive alcohols are found in many products from spandex to polyurethane paints. MDI and TDI are the commonly used isocyanates in foam. While they can cause skin irritation, respiratory problems and may be carcinogenic, in memory foams they are rendered inert by the time they reach the consumer. The curing process essentially binds them into the foam.

Blowing agents

These materials are used to create the cellular structure of the foam. CFCs used to be used as blowing agents, but have largely been phased out. Now water HFCs are often used, though HFCs are also being phased out because they are ozone depletants. Blowing agents are used to control the density of the foam during the reaction. One unique technique is variable pressure foaming, which uses pressure rather than blowing agents for a greener process.

Chemicals in mattresses

Are the Chemicals in Mattresses Safe?

All this is wonderful, but are memory foam mattresses toxic? The major area consumers are typically concerned with are the fire barrier and the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which may be emitted from your bed. There is legitimate cause for concern, as some of these compounds have been associated with health problems. Here are some things to keep in mind.

Fire barriers

In order to comply with government fire safety standards, mattress manufacturers add a number of different materials to their beds. Some of these materials are completely safe. Others have been linked to a number of health problems from respiratory problems to central nervous system issues and even cancer.

There are detailed lists of these chemicals found in mattresses along with some of their health effects you can read to learn more. Boric acid, PBDEs, chlorinated tris (TDCPP), and modacrylic fiber have all been associated with some type of health concern. Wool, kevlar, and rayon treated with silica are safe options. Ask your retailer which is in your mattress.


VOCs are one of the chemicals in mattresses people worry about. These volatile organic compounds are being emitted in various amounts by all types of materials. VOCs are gases at room temperature and can easily be inhaled. Petroleum-based memory foam offgasses more than mattresses derived from plant materials.

If you are sensitive or concerned with VOCs you should seek out a more natural mattress. These low VOC mattresses are becoming more widely available. Once you get your bed, be sure to let it air out for a few days if necessary.

Avoiding Chemicals in Mattresses When Shopping

When you go shopping for a bed, be mindful of the retailer’s claims. Confirm what you can about the materials within the beds you are considering. A mattress company has a sole function, which is to sell you a mattress. They cannot legally lie, but you’re sure to run into some pretty tall tales. Typically, the more natural a mattress is, the less you have to worry about it.

The beds available to U.S. consumers have some of the most rigorous safety standards on the planet protecting them. Still, there are some things to be concerned about which are easily avoided. Chemicals in mattresses are worth investigating if your loved ones are at risk.

Ultimately, the answer to the question, “Is memory foam toxic,” is that most modern foams, especially from trusted U.S. suppliers, are likely safe and you can get a perfectly healthy bed by paying attention to the basics, checking reviews, and shopping wisely.


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