Is Memory Foam Toxic?

A small percentage of users of memory foam mattresses have reported adverse health reactions to the product. These include headaches, allergic reactions, uncomfortable odors and skin irritation. Over time, this has led to questions about the safety of the material. Is memory foam toxic? The short answer is that it can be. However, there are a number of possible scenarios which affect the probability and the seriousness of such a situation.

In any specific case, it may be difficult to determine exactly how toxic a particular mattress is. This is because of the varying regulatory requirements for products that may be used in manufacture. But first let’s take a look at the substances which may present a problem and then let us determine under what scenarios these should be of concern and also what protections are in place for consumers.

Is Memory Foam Toxic: Potentially Yes!

The base material from which memory foam is produced is polyurethane. This substance is highly flammable. In the US, Federal regulations 16 CFR ยง 1632 and 1633, administered by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), mandate that all mattresses sold in the US meet certain anti-flammability standards. To meet this requirement, many manufacturers add a variety of potentially harmful chemicals to polyurethane in the process of producing memory foam. A number of these fire-retardant chemicals are what are called Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). These are made problematic through the phenomenon of off-gassing, where the chemicals mix into the ambient air producing an unwelcome odor and negative health effects.

What Toxic Substances are there in Memory Foam?

The CPSC does not specify what compounds mattress manufacturers must use to achieve required levels of fire-retardance. In fact it does not even specify that fire retardant chemicals must be used. What it does require is that tested mattresses pass its standards for resistance to flame. How any particular company achieves this is its own business. The practical result of the law is that manufacturers use fire retardants because they are cost-effective. Manufacturers are not required by law to disclose to the CPSC what substances are used in manufacture. So any particular mattress brand may include none or one or more of a number of different compounds. A few of these substances are:

  • Formaldehyde
  • Boric Acid
  • Acetone
  • Methyl Benzene
  • Antimony Oxide
  • Methylene Chloride
  • Vinilideine Chloride
  • Methylene dianiline/MDA
  • Dimethylformamide

Alternatives to Toxic Memory Foam Chemicals

A number of manufacturers are using alternative methods and materials to produce memory foam mattresses. These include organic materials from plants as well as materials such as latex. There are organizations that certify the purity of materials. Of these, GOLS (Global Organic Latex Standard) and GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) being two of the best known.