Are Memory Foam Mattresses Safe?

Updated on January 18, 2021

If you’ve bought a new mattress in the last ten or fifteen years, you’ve probably tried a memory foam bed. These popular mattresses conform to the shape of your body while you sleep, which makes them comfortable and alleviates any pressure points that might develop in other types of beds.

However, some people worry that the materials that make up these beds aren’t safe. In fact, they wonder if memory foam could be causing cancer, hormone malfunction, and other problems. If you worry about these things, keep reading for an in-depth examination of memory form.


What is Memory Foam, Anyway?

Scientists at NASA originally designed memory foam to protect astronauts. Because the spaces in the foam can compress and change shape, the material offered more impact protection than other materials.

Most of the components of memory foam derive from polyurethane. It is extracted when crude oil gets refined. However, mattresses aren’t made from polyurethane alone. In the process of creating foam that’s right for a mattress, all sorts of other chemicals can be mixed or added to help the foam achieve maximum compression and absorption. These include boric acid, formaldehyde, antimony trioxide, and more.

In the end, you get a foam that is perfect for sleeping! Because of how it responds to pressure and heat, it distributes the weight of the body evenly. This means that people with bad back or other injuries often sleep better on foam than on other materials.

What are the Dangers of Sleeping on Memory Foam

Because we spend nearly ⅓ of our lives asleep, it makes sense that we want to sleep safely. Since we sleep with our bodies literally mashed up against the materials that make up our mattress, we want to make sure that we are touching and breathing in something that is healthy for us.

This problem becomes more complex when you realize that mattress companies are not required to tell you what they use to make their beds. These proprietary formulas are kept secret. Theoretically, this is so other companies can’t copy the idea. However, it can also make it hard for consumers to make informed choices when they buy.

The major concern about these chemicals is that prolonged exposure can cause cancer and hormone disruption. Some are also possible neurotoxins, though this is much harder to prove.

In general, research the following chemicals before you buy a bed that contains them.

  • Methylene dianiline (MDA): If ingested, this chemical can damage the liver and hamper thyroid function. It is also a suspected carcinogen.
  • Formaldehyde: With memory foam, this is more likely to be a byproduct of other chemical reactions or present in the adhesive between layers than it is to be directly added to the foam. When present in the air, it can make the skin, eyes, and nose burn, and cause damage to the lymphatic system.
  • Methyl benzene: This can affect nervous system function if inhaled over a long period of time.
  • Acetone: It is toxic if inhaled in large amounts, though most mattresses don’t contain nearly enough to cause problems.
  • Antimony: This chemical is similar to arsenic and can cause reproductive problems.

While those chemicals are enough to put a scare into you, consumers can find comfort in knowing that the greatest danger most of these chemicals pose is during the manufacturing process, not after. This doesn’t spell good news for those who work in mattress factories, but it does mean that the danger is largely over once your bed takes its final form.

What About Flame-Retardants?

In 2004, the United States passed a law requiring mattresses to be flame-retardant up to a specific temperature, for a set period of time. Many mattress materials are highly flammable, and the government made the law to protect people who are caught in fires while asleep. Having flame-retardant mattresses gives them more time to wake up, get out of bed, and escape the flames.

However, the only way to make most mattresses flame-retardant is to add even more chemicals to them. Some of these may be harmless, but many are known to be dangerous to humans.

The problem is complicated by the fact that mattress companies are not required to tell you how they are making their mattresses flame-retardant. This is also considered a proprietary formula, so they don’t have to disclose it.

However, it’s possible to make an educated guess about what chemicals the companies are using, simply because these chemicals are used in other circumstances to make things flame resistant, and there is a limited number of things that have those properties.

PBDEs, or polybrominated diphenyl ethers, are some of the most dangerous fire-retardant chemicals out there. They are being phased out in the United States but may still be present in your mattress. Other dangerous fire retardants are those treated with antimony oxide, boric acid, and formaldehyde. Chlorinated Tris (TDCPP) is a fire-retardant that is also a possible neurotoxin, as well as a hormone disruptor.

It’s difficult to buy a mattress without some sort of flame-retardant treatment, since getting an exception to that law is hard. Your best bet is to look for non-toxic flame retardants like wool (unusual in memory foam beds, but possible), kevlar, silica-treated-Rayon, and Alessandra fabric.

What is Off-Gassing?

Some of the materials present in most memory foam mattresses can break down into Volatile Organic Compounds, or VOCs. These are what create that “new” or chemical smell almost anytime you buy furniture, a car, and other items.

VOCs can smell bad, depending on which ones are present and how concentrated they are. However, this breakdown usually only happens when the mattress or other item is brand new. While off-gassing can smell unpleasant, it is mostly harmless. Most people, while they may notice the smell, won’t suffer any ill effects from inhaling these chemicals.

However, if you have a sensitive respiratory system or a weakened immune system, VOCs can make it harder to breathe for a short time. It can trigger asthma or allergy attacks, and it can also make you feel nauseated or give you a headache. Even for sensitive people, though, these effects tend to wear off over time.

Fortunately, you can combat the effects of off-gassing by letting your mattress air out after you get it. Leave it unwrapped in the garage for a few days, or place it on your bed stand and open all of the windows in that room. After a while, you shouldn’t smell much.

If the smell still bothers you, encase the mattress in a protector that also keeps the chemical smells in. You can buy one of these online or through a local mattress store.


Finding a Safe Mattress

If you have sensitive airways or sleeping on foam will make you nervous, you can always choose another kind of bed. Organic latex beds offer support similar to that of memory foam, but they are made from all-natural materials and so don’t have many of the problems that synthetic materials have.

However, if you struggle with pain that only memory foam can alleviate or you don’t want to give up your foam, there are a few things you can do to find a safe mattress.

  • Try to find a mattress without added flame-retardants. You can also research which types are acceptable for you and try to find a bed that only has those. Keep in mind that, while house fires are rare, a bed without flame-retardants will burn quickly. If you get one without these added chemicals, you may be trading one hazard for another.
  • Do some research. Unfortunately, mattress companies don’t have to tell you the chemicals they use in their mattresses or during the manufacturing process. However, the internet will tell you which beds you can trust and which manufacturers are more transparent about these things.
  • Talk to someone about your concerns before you buy. If you’re buying in a brick-and-mortar store, speak with your salesperson about your concern. If you’re making your purchase online, email, chat, or call a representative and let them know what you’re thinking before you buy. Do keep in mind, no matter who you talk to, that they don’t have to reveal anything and their goal is to get you to buy a mattress. If you feel like they aren’t giving you straight answers, find another source.
  • Google your mattress. Once you think you know which bed you want, run a few online searches for reviews. You should be able to get a feel for whether people generally think the mattress is safe, or whether they had problems with it. Do remember that most people are more likely to review a product when they’re unhappy with it, so a series of poor reviews doesn’t necessarily mean much.

Whether you choose memory foam or not, you should be able to buy a mattress that alleviates your pain, fits in your budget, and that will be safe for long-term use. Be smart about your purchase and you may soon be getting the best sleep of your life.