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Toxic Materials in Foam Mattresses? Are We Safe?

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Memory mattresses are popular within the bed-in-a-box market as they’re known for their ability to reduce pressure on stiff joints and absorb motion. Typically, these beds feature an all-foam construction in which memory foam is on top and denser poly foam is below it. 

Another perk to these foam mattresses is that they tend to be less expensive than some other mattress types. In some cases, though, you may come across ultra-cheap foam beds, and that’s where some safety concerns can come into play.

For example, we generally don’t recommend buying a memory foam mattress that is less than 500 dollars or a memory foam pillow that costs less than 50 dollars. That’s because, often, products below these price points tend to be less regulated when it comes to the foams that go in them. We will go into more detail about the safety of memory foam mattresses, including the risks and concerns regarding the materials in them.

Infographic Toxic Materials in Foam Mattresses

How Was Memory Foam Invented?

Memory foam was first invented by aeronautical engineer Charles Yost1. He was commissioned by NASA to design airline seats that would offer better impact protection for pilots, as well as more comfortable seats for passengers sitting for long periods of time. This foam, initially called “tempur foam,” was a new type of flexible polyurethane foam. Its special ability was that it could conform to whatever was pressing into it and return to its original shape afterward.  

As it is, memory foam is an excellent shock-absorbing material. Today, it is used in all kinds of materials, such as helmets, sports padding, bulletproof vests, motorcycle seats, shoes, and of course, mattresses.1

The first memory foam mattress2 was released in 1991 by Tempur-Pedic, and these beds are now a staple in the bedding industry. Memory foam mattresses are sought after by people who experience joint pain and need extra pressure relief, those who want a mattress with minimal bounce, shoppers looking for a less expensive bed, and co-sleepers who need a mattress that isolates motion well.

Memory Foam Construction & Makeup

Memory foam is a type of polyurethane foam, and so the main ingredient of memory foam is polyurethane. Polyurethanes are polymers that are formed by combining certain chemicals3. They can be created to be flexible and soft, or hard and unyielding. No matter how firm the foam is, most of the polyols that are used in the creation of polyurethane are derived from petroleum feedstocks.3 Because of petroleum’s negative impact on the environment, though, there is a push to create poly products using more green and bio-based polyols, but at the moment, their creation is still heavily reliant on petroleum.3 

During the process of making a memory foam mattress, polyurethane is often mixed with other chemicals4 in order to make the mattress more comfortable, durable, and flame retardant. Chemicals like PBDEs can help mattresses be less flammable, however, they are also toxic and dangerous to human health.4 Mattresses that include polyurethane can also emit chemicals5 like formaldehyde, a range of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), and semi-VOCs, including phthalates, and isocyanates, in addition to flame retardants. 

In fact, in the book Toxic Bedrooms, Walter Bader discusses how he sent several memory foam mattresses to an Atlanta-based lab to be analyzed for toxicity. The results showed that one mattress model emitted 61 different chemicals6, including the carcinogens benzene and naphthalene. 

So we now know that memory foam mattresses are made from a combination of chemicals, many of which are emitted into the air after you unpackage the mattress; but what, exactly, are the potential impacts on human health? 

Memory Foam Safety Concerns

In 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a detailed 800+ page report7 about the impacts that the flame retardants used in polyurethane foams have on human health and the environment. In short, they found that many of the chemicals are harmful to the eyes, skin, immune system, and respiratory system. They also found that they increase the likelihood of developing cancer and certain neurobehavioral disorders, and they are harmful to the environment, including the oceans and marine life.7 

The EPA is not the only organization concerned about the chemicals used in making polyurethane foams. There is growing evidence8 that early life exposure to certain chemicals can cause neurodevelopmental and neurodegenerative diseases. The Autism Community in Action organization points to the correlation between memory foam mattresses and the chemicals used in their creation, and the later development of neurodevelopmental disorders.6 

Earlier, we mentioned that some mattresses contained PBDEs as flame retardants. While many manufacturers have moved away from PBDEs, some have replaced them with other materials that could still be harmful. 

Fiberglass, for example, is used in many different types of mattresses, including memory foam mattresses. This flame retardant9 is made from silica sand, limestone, recycled glass, and soda ash. Fiberglass is an inexpensive material, which is why you might find it in cheaper mattresses.9 

It can be irritating to the skin, eyes, and lungs – especially if you open up your mattress cover.9 Mattress companies do not always easily disclose whether they use fiberglass, and so their labels may or may not include the words “fiberglass, glass fiber, or glass wool.” Another hint might be a tag that says “Don’t remove the mattress cover.”9

Looking for a fiberglass-free mattress? Explore our best mattresses without fiberglass.

Diisocyanates10 are also used to make polyurethane foam more flame-resistant. Diisocyanates are highly reactive compounds that can cause health issues11 like respiratory problems, skin damage, eye damage,  nausea, vomiting, or abdominal pain, as well as increase the likelihood of cancer. Public Health England states that the level of exposure to diisocyanates from mattresses is likely too low to cause long-term effects, though more evidence is needed.11

The most common way people are exposed12 to these harmful chemicals in mattresses is if they become airborne or collect on dust particles that we breathe. This is what volatile or semi-volatile organic compounds (VOCs or SVOCs) are – airborne chemicals that we can breathe and become exposed to.12 

Often in our mattress reviews, you’ll see us use the term “off-gassing.” This is a period of time in which a foam mattress noticeably emits VOCs into the air13. These chemicals have a strong smell, which is detectable for a few days (the off-gassing period), but the mattress is actually emitting VOCs for about 31 days.6 

One study14 found that VOC emissions actually increased during sleep due to elevated heat in the room and on the mattress, as well as increased humidity and CO2 concentration in the room.  The reason this is concerning is that exposure to VOCs can cause immediate negative health effects15, including eye, nose, and throat irritation, headaches, damage to the nervous system, dizziness, fatigue, and allergic skin reactions, among other things. 

This is why, if you do buy a new foam mattress, it is important to let the mattress air out for the first few days, before you sleep on it.13 

The upside, though, is that many mattress manufacturers have taken steps to limit their levels of VOCs, which is why you’ll want to pay strict attention to whether a foam bed is CertiPUR-US®-certified.

What Memory Foam Mattresses Are Safe?

To help make memory foam mattresses safer, many manufacturers are going through a third-party organization called CertiPUR-US®. This organization tests foams in mattresses to ensure they meet strict health and safety standards. A CertiPUR-US®-certified foam16 will meet the following criteria:

  • No ozone depleters
  • No PBDEs or Tris flame retardants, including TCEP, TDBPP, TDCPP, or TEPA
  • No mercury, lead, and other heavy metals
  • No formaldehyde
  • No phthalates regulated by the Consumer Product Safety Commission
  • Low VOC emissions for indoor air quality (less than 0.5 parts per million)

Therefore, if you want to get a foam mattress, make sure it comes with a CertiPUR-US®. Most quality beds will have this certification, and in some cases, they may feature additional certifications for organic and natural materials, as well as sustainable manufacturing practices. 

However, some ultra-cheap brands that don’t have this certification for their beds may compromise their manufacturing safety standards. The good news for consumers, though, is that most reputable brands that have this safety certification for their beds are affordable, making it easier to attain a quality memory foam product.

Memory Foam Side Effects 

If you have recently purchased a mattress containing polyurethane foam and are noticing any of the following symptoms, you could be having side effects from the chemicals used in the polyurethane. 

  • Irritated eyes15
  • Irritated nose15
  • Irritated throat15
  • Rash or skin irritation15
  • Headaches15
  • Dizziness15
  • Fatigue15
  • Behavioral or developmental issues6

If you have concerns about fiberglass exposure, we recommend either looking for a bed that’s not made with this flame retardant or investing in a mattress that uses wool17, which has become a popular alternative flame retardant among many mattress brands. 

Learn More: Memory Foam Allergy Symptoms


If you are set on a memory foam bed, only opt for quality-made products from trusted, established manufacturers. Additionally, you should make sure the mattress at least has a CertiPUR-US® certification to ensure the foams meet strict third-party safety regulations. However, most trusted brands will have this certification for their foam products.

Another tip is to let your foam mattress air out before using it, though if you’re particularly sensitive to off-gassing or want to avoid memory foam mattresses altogether, consider investing in an eco-friendly mattress that utilizes more natural and organic materials.

Jill Zwarensteyn

Jill Zwarensteyn


About Author

Jill Zwarensteyn is the Editor for Sleep Advisor and a Certified Sleep Science Coach. She is enthusiastic about providing helpful and engaging information on all things sleep and wellness.

Combination Sleeper


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