Toxic Materials in Foam Mattresses? Are We Safe?

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Their incredible popularity seems to be unstoppable. Seeing how most of the homeowners are switching to foam mattresses – we have to stop and ask ourselves. Are these synthetically based mattresses safe for human use?

This question is sound and logical. Especially, since the materials used in making memory foam mattresses (learn more) are artificially made. And by themselves can be harmful to human health. But, the reality is not that gloomy.

High-quality, foam-based products are now available for way less money than before and with “green” and eco-friendly manufacturing process. We do not recommend that you opt for any mattress that's below $400 or pillow that costs less than $50. But, in order to learn why cheap products can be harmful, we have to get to the bottom of this issue.

Most of the cheaper memory mattresses come from polyurethane foam. This substance is not safe for use in the U.S. since 2004 due to health concerns. Even the more expensive brands contain some of the most toxic substances. The health concerns are great. Given no testing was conducted only time will tell on how effects of their use impact human health.

In this article, we will explain the main components of cheap foam mattresses. How do they exactly affect human health? We will question their safety and expose possible concerns about their use.

How Was Memory Foam Invented?

The nature of the process of using compounds to make memory foam is troublesome. We can hardly say that it is meant for use as a mattress. Or any type of product where humans would be longer exposed to it, for that matter. Memory foam was first designed for NASA space program.

Its primary function was to keep astronauts safe during missions in space. As it is, memory foam is an excellent shock absorbing material. It offers safety in helmets, pads and plenty of other equipment. This is because of its design to prevent serious injury to humans.

nasaThe structure of memory foam displaces under pressure or applied force. The small cavities inside of it compress and change shape. This works great for spreading the force throughout its surface area.

This fact is often used for marketing purposes. Mattress companies advertise memory foam mattresses as being great for pain relief. We agree that it does work wonders for those that experience pain. This ability to spread pressure over entire its surface helps people with back pain.

It also helps people with injury to sleep with great comfort.

But, this doesn’t change the fact that it contains compounds which are unfit for human use. Let alone long exposure over time.

What Is Memory Foam Actually Made Of?

The main ingredient of memory foam is polyurethane. This compound comes from petroleum as a byproduct. Extracted during the refinement process of crude oil.

During the process of making a memory, foam polyurethane is often mixed. The number of other toxic chemicals include many harmful compounds. Polyvinyl chloride, formaldehyde, boric acid, antimony trioxide and different types of petrochemicals.

Since 2004, by law, the U.S. requires all mattresses to be fireproof to a specific temperature point and ever since the toxicity levels in foam memory mattresses have increased. This makes foam mattresses very harmful.

All memory foam comes from using various heavy industrial chemicals. It is no wonder it is unfit for human use.

toxic bedroomsA lab in Atlanta analyzed several mattresses made of memory foam material. It found them to emit 61 different types of chemicals. Some of these materials were carcinogens including benzene and naphthalene.

This was first announced by Walter Bader, the author of the book “Toxic Bedrooms”. It is remarkable that no one is actually letting the public know about this information.

As for the main ingredient polyurethane, its use isn't monitored at all. It was not regulated by OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administrations), even though it is well known that it can be dangerous when combined with other chemicals.

Some of the isocyanates found in memory foam mattresses can cause harm to the skin. These can also cause respiration problems. Isocyanate compounds irritate skin and are harmful to human health.

Toxic compounds make toxic products

EPA (Environmental Protection Agency)findings confirm the toxicity of these materials. These volatile organic compounds make their way in almost all manufactured household products, including carpets, furniture and of course mattresses and even pillows. Go figure.

Duke University completed clinical evaluations researched certain components used in memory foams. Those included isocyanates. The isocyanate compounds researched were acetone, benzene, ethylene oxide, formaldehyde, methylene chloride and 1,1,1 -trichloroethane. What they discovered was that even the brief exposure caused damage. Even the minimal amount of toxicity of these compounds causes asthmatic attacks.

Diisocyanates are also found as ingredients that increase flame resistance in foam mattresses. They are highly reactive compounds. In their raw forms, these can cause respiratory and skin damage. And if that alone isn’t bad enough they are carcinogenic to humans. During the manufacturing process, many compounds mix together. Diisocyanates react with polyols to produce the flexible memory foam. Polyols are binding compounds that are essential to creating the polyurethane foam.

Safety Concerns

Most of the materials go through the off-gassing phase during the time of their use. So, this is when side effects of the use of toxic compounds start to show.

Especially on the health of the more sensitive individuals. People with the weaker immune system are first to show symptoms. During the home use, these substances can release their gaseous compound derivatives.

This causes the appearance of bad odors and obnoxious smell during use. Not to mention the harm that these gases cause to the lungs and the rest of the respiratory system.

Chemical breaking down of volatile organic compounds causes a toxic buildup in humans. This can have serious consequences for human health. These byproducts get dispersed into the air of the bedroom and can build up.

This causes harm to breathing and induces many allergic reactions. These unstable substances are the main cause for the rapid degradation of health. Even though VOCs are more stable in finished products such as memory foam they can still release. This happens only in certain conditions during use.

They are usually detected by strong odor found in the air around the products. Usually from those made from polyurethane.

Researchers were using lab mice to measure the effects of breathing VOCs. And from the four different mattress manufacturers, the results showed that all the memory foam mattresses caused respiratory problems. Irritation to lungs was so bad that it reduced the air flow to lungs of the mice by the fifth of total intake capacity.

Recognizing the Side Effects of Your Memory Foam Mattress

You can recognize the symptoms of exposure to the harmfulness of foam mattresses. These include morning headaches muscle pain, frequent nausea and the lack of concentration. The reduced cognitive ability is most often reported in young children. Especially in those that have been using memory foam beddings. They suffer from the lack of concentration, frequent headaches, and respiratory issues. Some can exhibit allergic problems too. Many adults reported reduced intellectual performance and recurring respiratory problems.

It is not surprising at all that these health issues are starting to increase in scope. Especially since more and more homeowners opt to replace their regular spring mattresses with brand new memory foam ones as a result of that law enacted in 2004.

Even these standard spring-based mattresses needed to follow fire safety regulations. And so they too got treated with harmful fire retardant compounds.

Memory foam production is unsupervised

It is mind boggling how this law creates both ecological and health concerns. Given its purpose of increasing safety for citizens' homes. We are facing a serious health threat, and it seems no one from the industry is taking notice. Some manufacturers opt for not using harmful compounds. No regulatory commission tracks the safety standards. Nor does it perform checkups of the manufacturers and their practices. Consumers are now on their own and what is even worse, most of the public – are unaware.

Doctors are unable to diagnose people coming in with some of the symptoms. So most patients with these symptoms are ill without any solution in sight. The government even appears to turn a blind eye to the many studies.

These studies show the negative effects. They show harm in using industrial waste- grade chemicals for furniture and accessories. So, even the manufacturers do not pay attention to the long-term effects their products will have on their consumers. In a world where profit matters more than human health, this does not come as too surprising.


We have to conclude our findings with a wholehearted warning for low-quality products. The thing is if you opt for higher-end products you will get eco-friendly materials and production process, better cooling and airflow and overall comfort and support. The only issue with chemicals and flame retardants is with low-end memory foam based products. Even if you are on a budget, there are many good choices, so make sure to take a look at our reviews, and I'm sure you will find one that you like.

Author: Mark Reddick

When I’m not learning about sleep, you can find me hanging out with my wife and close friends.

I absolutely love entrepreneurship and learning how to improve yourself daily. We only get one life, and I want to make it the best one possible.

I hope that everyone that finds our site takes a new approach to sleep. The world needs to stop thinking about it as something “we just do,” but rather something that allows us “to do every day.”

  1. Reply
    Villi December 11, 2017 at 9:36 pm

    Hi. Thank you so muchf or your exelent explanation on this matter. You are absolutly right.
    But I would want to add one comment.
    The skin is the biggest inhaler.
    If you make your bed in the morning, the bed shead intakes the voc from the warm mattress during the day.
    So when you go to sleep in the night you get infected through all your body skin and your breathing.
    Can I please use your text and translate to Icelandic to warn the Icelandic public?
    I started a Facebook group for this matter and 3% of the Icelanders are in it, so this is big health problem here and all over the world.

    • Reply
      Sarah Cummings December 13, 2017 at 6:35 am

      Hey Villi,

      Thanks for your comment. It is scary and that’s why we wanted people to know about this.

      Regarding translation. Our content is copyright of the Sleep Advisor but you can change the wording a bit and translate it like that, no issue 🙂


  2. Reply
    Roxanne Pierce January 16, 2018 at 9:50 am

    I have purchased a very inexpensive memory foam mattress being on a fixed income. Since, i have been experiencing headaches, sore throats, nasal congestion and swollen glands. I have contacted the company i bought my mattress from and they told me that i am the only one who has complained. I am assuming my systems are from this mattress now i am at a loss as to how to replace it being on a fixed income I’m considering demanding a refund.

    • Reply
      Sarah Cummings February 8, 2018 at 9:12 am

      Hey Roxanne, sorry to hear that but it’s a common problem with cheap foam products. I’d rather opt for cheaper coil bed instead, at least I know it’s not toxic.

  3. Reply
    Jesse Merrell March 9, 2018 at 6:05 pm

    I purchased a memory foam mattress, allowed it to air out for 2 days before i started sleeping on it. After the second day I started experiencing shortness of breath, tightness in my chest and a general feeling of sickness and light headedness. I didnt even consider it being the mattress because I didnt smell any odor at all. After the second night of sleeping my throat was closing up and i coudn’t breathe at all waking up gasping for air. I ended up in the E.R where they did all testing and told me I was fine.I thought it could be allergies due to the change in season however I am not allergy prone I am young and very healthy. I didnt sleep for 3 days because of the breathing issue. I was worried sick booked an appointment with my doctor to see what else it could be After talking to a couple people and reading reviews about foam mattresses I realized it must be this mattress and slept on the couch the next night and all the symptoms went away. I cant even believe they can sell this garbage.

    • Reply
      Jesse Merrell March 9, 2018 at 6:06 pm

      BTW I purchased this Mattress from Lucid.

  4. Reply
    Clif May 20, 2018 at 1:03 am

    Are there any foam mattresses that are not full of chemicals?

    • Reply
      Sarah Cummings June 18, 2018 at 2:13 pm

      We have a full list of our best picks for Best Eco-Friendly Mattress. Be sure to check that out, Clif.

      • Reply
        karen December 20, 2018 at 11:07 pm

        On mothers day 2018 I got rid of my living room furniture. As it turned out was the day I finally figured out what has had me sick several years. I am not going into the full story, but, there was an actual gas like substance in the air in my living room. I actually a called the supertintentendent in my building to find out what it was. Of course he did not know, but I went and turned on a fan on exaust, following day same gas in the air, that was mothers day, I decited to remove the covers from the seats of couch and thats when it hit me, the smell of the foam, sincwe then I have contacted foam fanufactures and have been on an informative crusade including FB, I call every furniture co. on the internet and ask the question, ” is it in compliance with the CA proposition 65″, well, I have had to educated them , some have contacted me back some dont, Ikea supposively is getting in on the Green, but you have to call on and ask about the product, which of course, they have to ask the manufacturer In India, cause that is where most of Ikeas furniture is produce. We must embark publicly and pushed further for the New Prop 65, Needless to say, as soon as my couch was out, I headaches stopped, my skin reactions got better, my respiratory problem got better.

      • Reply
        Shauna September 8, 2018 at 3:28 pm

        Where can I find the list of best picks?

        • Sarah Cummings September 10, 2018 at 10:28 pm

          We have several best lists. It depends on what you’re looking for. 🙂

  5. Reply
    Kristen G May 20, 2018 at 1:26 pm

    So what should I look for in a foam mattress? I need brand names! Thank you

  6. Reply
    Stef June 13, 2018 at 5:39 pm

    I’ve recently started reading labels of the products in our home. I’ve found our pillows material is “polyurethane.” This article however, speaks of “cheap” products being more harmful. So my question is, is my pillow (made with polyurethane) which cost almost $300.00, just as toxic as cheap pillow? I mean it’s still made from that material right.

    • Reply
      Sarah Cummings June 18, 2018 at 2:18 pm

      The term “polyurethane” covers a wide variety of products and not all of them are manufactured with the same methods. You should definitely check out which are certified by third-party organizations that have tested the products for safety. Price is not always indicative of quality, and there are definitely more eco-friendly products on the market if this is something that concerns you. Thanks for reaching out!

  7. Reply
    juli clay October 13, 2018 at 3:06 pm

    I bought my daughter a mattress topper for college and now a otherwise healthy child is dealing with a chronic illness. Could it be from the memory foam topper that she is sleeping on? The symptoms described are similar. Thanks for any thoughts you might have.

    • Reply
      Sarah Cummings October 16, 2018 at 8:52 pm

      We would urge you to seek the advice of a medical professional for any and all choices that may have lead to concerns with your daughter’s health and seek a more informed diagnosis and opinion. In the meantime, we hope your daughter gets to feeling better really soon!

  8. Reply
    Paula October 30, 2018 at 11:58 am

    Since sleeping on a new mattress topper the past three weeks i have had vivid dreams, one after the other, all night long, every night. What most concerns me, though, is that from the minute I wake up from these dreams my brain is racing, like cranked to hyperspeed, and noticeably so all day long. Tai chi, mindful meditation, a peaceful walk in the woods, forget it! Not going to happen! Im getting rid of the topper today and hope it hasn’t ruined my bed.

  9. Reply
    mfeelngs December 10, 2018 at 5:37 am

    I’m concerned with my mattress that says it’s certified by “CERTiPUR-US” actually the mattress cover has the label stating that. Also it says %100 polyurethane. However lists none of the chemicals included in making polyurethane. I thought mattresses in california we’re required to have a tag on them. is the cover only required? it’s a foam mattress. also says manufactured in “china #2 factory”. then lists “desert imports” as the distributor. How am I to know what this mattress is made of. of course it can say %100 polyurethane but I thought if anything is made using the lists of toxic substances….don’t they have to list those. Also is the label requirement for the cover or does the foam mattress have to have a label regardless if the cover is to remain on it. the mattress itself has absolutely no label of any kind on it.

  10. Reply
    LL January 24, 2019 at 5:15 pm

    Can you advise if memory foam and/or cooling pillows have chemicals that are dangerous to our health? My pillows were produced in the USA with China covering. Can allergy-preventing pillow covers help prevent the offgassing that could occur?

    • Reply
      Sarah Cummings January 28, 2019 at 9:19 pm

      Hi LL, if you’re concerned about off-gassing, we’d suggest letting your product air out for a day (or perhaps several days) before using as this smell will often dissipate in that amount of time. As for which are the safest, look for certifications that the brand offers and testing that was done on the product as these can tell you what, if any, safety precautions were taken in their production.

  11. Reply
    David Venegas March 7, 2019 at 1:24 am

    Sarah – you mention numerous times that there is somewhere a list of best mattresses that are eco-friendly, but you never provide link or how to obtain that list. Can you please tell us how to obtain this mysterious list that’s out there somewhere. Please!


    • Reply
      Sarah Cummings March 12, 2019 at 12:38 am

      This list is under “organic” so if you search that term, you should get the list pretty easily. Thanks for your interest, and we hope you find a great bed!

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