Updated May 20, 2020The memory foam mattress trend has picked up speed in recent years because of the “bed in a box” phenomenon, making quality mattresses readily available to anyone with an internet connection. Memory foam is one of the most popular types of bed-in-a-box mattresses because they are easy to compress and roll up into a box.Memory foam is a favorite material for mattresses because it conforms closely to the body and relieves pressure points, making it the top choice for anyone with chronic pain. It’s virtually noiseless, too, and its responsive structure means it isolates motion much better than traditional innerspring beds.Despite memory foam’s versatility, some shy away from buying it because they are worried about exposure to toxic chemicals. Today, most mattress companies produce their memory foam using natural manufacturing processes, and their foams are certified by various organizations to ensure they are “clean.”This article will go over the basic structure of memory foam, how it’s made, and what to look for in non-toxic memory foam mattresses.What is Memory Foam?Memory foam was invented in 1966 by Charles Yost, who was attempting to create seat cushions for NASA spacecrafts that were padded enough to withstand the pressure caused by G-forces at takeoff. While NASA didn’t end up using his design, it began to appear in other products, like car seats, medical equipment, and eventually mattresses.Memory foam is also known as “viscoelastic” foam— this word belies memory foam’s basic properties: it takes on viscous and elastic qualities when heat and/or weight are applied to it. That makes it excellent for easing pressure on sensitive parts of the body like the back, shoulders, hips, and spine.Memory Foam ComponentsThe basic components of memory foam can help us determine how “safe” it is. All memory foam contains polyurethane foam, which is composed of three different chemical components: polyols, diisocyanates, and a carbon-based blowing agent. When these three components combine, they create a chemical reaction, which then produces a liquid. When that liquid cools, it hardens and becomes foam.PolyolsPolyols come from petroleum, and when they react with isocyanates, polyurethane foam is created. Polyols are responsible for the foam’s “bulk.”DiisocyanatesDiisocyanates are most often used to create rigid and flexible foams (like memory foam products), sealants, adhesives, and more. Essentially, there are two different “types” of diisocyanates used to make memory foam: MDIs and TDIs. You’ve probably seen MDIs in home insulation, sealants, weather-resistant materials, or binders.TDIs are more common in furniture, bedding, and packaging. Both TDIs and MDIs are thought to be carcinogenic, but only in large quantities not found in mattresses.Carbon-based blowing agentsBlowing agents are used in the process of converting liquid to foam. The most common blowing agents used to make memory foam are chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). However, many mattress makers are using safer alternatives for blowing agents now, such as water.The three materials listed above produce volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. A newly opened memory foam mattress often emits a chemical smell— these are VOCs. While exposure to VOCs is not harmful, it can cause irritation for those with allergies or respiratory problems. Off-gassing odors typically dissipate after a day or two, but if they seem to linger, you can open your windows and air out your room.Other Memory Foam ByproductsMemory foam mattresses can contain other materials that may be harmful to the user. If a company claims their mattresses are “green,” that usually means the mattress was made without these toxic compounds— but always double-check to be sure.The following compounds may be present in foam mattresses without any “green” or “clean” certifications and can cause certain side effects:Methyl benzeneMethyl benzene occurs naturally in petroleum (used to make polyurethane). Benzene has been classified by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a carcinogen.AcetoneWhile it’s not found in mattresses, it can be used to clean labs and equipment where mattresses are manufactured, so trace amounts may appear in the foam. Exposure to acetone in high quantities can cause nausea, headaches, and burning or itchiness in the eyes.FormaldehydeFormaldehyde is a preservative— if you ever took a biology class, you’re probably familiar with it. In mattresses, it acts as an adhesive, and it can irritate the nose, throat, or skin. Fortunately, you won’t often find formaldehyde in foam mattresses today.DimethylformamideDimethylformamide is a solvent used for chemical reactions. It is not present in the mattress itself, but it can pose a health risk during manufacturing.Methylene chloride or DCMLike dimethylformamide, DCM is also used as a solvent in the manufacturing process. Exposure to it can cause mucous membrane irritation.If you’re worried about exposure to these or other harmful chemicals in your foam, invest in a mattress with CertiPUR-US® or other green certifications.Flame RetardantsPolyurethane memory foam is highly flammable unless it’s coated with flame retardants (and all memory foam mattresses are). These flame retardant chemicals can pose a health risk, which is why many companies have started using alternatives, such as wool, kevlar, or rayon.As of 2007, all mattresses are required to contain enough fire retardant to withstand a two-foot-wide blowtorch open flame for 70 seconds. The fire retardants commonly used can cause heart and lung damage, memory and hair loss, or lung and kidney damage.PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers) are a common flame retardant linked to hormone disruption, cognitive impairment, delayed puberty, and even cancer. Polylactic acid, or PLA, is a safer alternative.If a mattress company uses alternative flame retardants, they should clearly state what those alternatives are. Look for foam beds that are Oeko-Tex Standard 100, CertiPUR-US, or Greenguard Gold certified, ensuring they are made without these toxic flame retardants.What about VOCs?VOCs, or Volatile Organic Compounds, are gases emitted from solids or liquids, including foam. Exposure to VOCs in high quantities can result in eye, nose, and throat irritation, headaches, nausea, and possibly cancer.Fortunately, most mattresses today are made with low VOCs— not enough to cause any irritation or problems. What’s more, many companies have begun to replace VOC-emitting materials with plant-based materials, reducing the chance of your new mattress producing off-gassing odors.The Federal Trade Commission has come after mattress companies in recent years for claiming their mattresses were made without VOCs, or volatile organic compounds, when they actually did contain VOCs. Look for the trademark symbol next to their certifications and legitimate logos, such as the CertiPUR-US® or Greenguard Gold certification logo.Choosing a Safe Memory Foam MattressThe truth is, you can’t create memory foam without polyurethane. However, companies can substitute some of the petroleum in polyurethane with plant-based materials to minimize off-gassing and other potentially harmful effects.If the mattress adheres to certain certifications, you can rest assured knowing your bed is clean of toxins.The following are the most common foam mattress certifications:Oeko-TexThis certification is attached to textiles and fabrics, and it means the materials are free of over 100 harmful chemicals. Companies with this certification have to qualify for it each year via thorough testing.CertiPUR-US®The CertiPUR-US® certification ensures foam has been made without the following: ozone depleters, PBDEs, TDCPP, or TCEP flame retardants, mercury, lead, and heavy metals, formaldehyde, phthalates regulated by the Consumer Product Safety Commission and low VOC emissions for indoor air quality.GOTSMaterials that are GOTs-certified (Global Organic Textile Standard) are made without toxic bleaches, dyes, and other chemicals during manufacturing. In order to obtain this certification, the product has to contain at least 95% organic fiber, be colored with non-toxic dyes, not be treated with formaldehyde, and must be produced in an environmentally-friendly mill or plant. This certification extends beyond the United States (hence the “global” in the name).Greenguard GoldProducts with this certification have been tested for indoor use. They must meet chemical emissions limits and are tested for over 10,000 chemicals, including VOCs. Other Non-Toxic AlternativesBesides choosing mattresses with non-toxic certifications, we recommend choosing clean bedding, toppers, and protectors. If you’re interested in a memory foam pillow, check for those same certifications to ensure it’s safe for sleeping.Avoid any toppers or bedding made with chemical antimicrobial treatments— instead, opt for 100% natural materials, such as organic cotton, wool, or bamboo.Additionally, look for mattresses made without glue between the foam layers (or, if they do use glue, make sure it’s water-based). Avoid mattresses or covers made with PVCs or vinyl, which can contain phthalates that negatively affect the reproductive system. Instead, look for waterproof protectors made with alternatives like polyurethane laminate.If you’re still wary of memory foam, you can opt for 100% natural latex foam, which is naturally antimicrobial, dust-mite resistant, and made without all the other chemicals present in memory foam. The chance of off-gassing is also much lower with latex foam. Keep in mind that your latex mattress must be 100% natural and not synthetic, or it will not come with these same benefits.FAQsIs it safe to sleep on memory foam?Yes, memory foam is safe. Studies have shown memory foam does not cause cancer or other health issues, although that is a common misconception. The chemical smell that comes with memory foam often dissipates within a few days.Are mattresses really toxic?The flame retardants used in old mattresses are toxic, but today, those chemicals have largely been discontinued in mattress manufacturing. If you’re unsure, check for CertiPUR-US® certifications.Are memory foam mattresses good?Yes, memory foam mattresses are popular for their pressure-relief, responsiveness, and motion isolation.Can memory foam cause health problems?For some, memory foam can cause mild irritation like runny nose, red, itchy eyes, or trouble breathing, but these symptoms are relatively rare.ConclusionEveryone wants to sleep on a safe, clean surface— especially if they are pregnant, nursing, choosing a mattress for their child, or you have health problems that could be exacerbated by exposure to toxic chemicals. The EPA has declared memory foam safe, but if you need extra assurances, choose organic mattresses or brands with green certifications.Additionally, you can look for customer reviews mentioning any off-gassing or chemical smells to make sure the mattress won’t emit any. You deserve the best sleep possible on a clean, non-toxic mattress.This article is for informational purposes and should not replace advice from your doctor or other medical professional. CommentsLeave a comment Lisa Randazzo July 7, 2020 at 8:33 pm ReplyR they flame resistant eachnight July 8, 2020 at 11:16 pm ReplyHello Liza,Good question! Memory foam mattresses are flame resistant. All mattresses must contain a fireguard to meet federal flammability standards. Jeff July 10, 2020 at 2:24 pm ReplyJust to note: We’ve had to had to get rid of two brand name Certi-pur certified mattresses because of the noxious outgassing that did not die down, even after 3 months. And, these weren’t even memory foam mattresses. They just had foam layers on top of coils… Buyer beware. We finally found and bought C.P. Rogers mattresses, which are completely clean of toxins and incredibly comfortable. eachnight July 10, 2020 at 6:27 pm ReplyHi Jeff,We’re sorry to hear about your unpleasant experience with off-gassing mattresses. While the CertiPUR-US® certification is certainly helpful for finding better-quality beds, it only requires mattresses to be low in VOCs — so, unfortunately, what you experienced does sometimes happen. With that, we thank you for sharing your experience for other readers!We’re happy to know you’ve found a better mattress and hope it’s bringing you great sleep! Leave a comment Cancel replyLeave a CommentYour email address will not be published. Required fields are marked * Comment Name Email I agree to the Terms and Conditions of this website.