Is Memory Foam Toxic? A Look at Chemicals in Mattresses
January 27, 2016  //  By:   //  Mattress Reviews, Mattress tips  //  24 Comments
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Is Memory Foam Toxic?

With so many chemicals in our everyday environment many people wonder, is memory foam toxic to humans or the environment? First off, there are many different types of memory foam out there and there are various other materials in mattresses you may not be aware of.

There are some types of chemicals in mattresses you should be concerned about. Flame retardants, foaming agents, gels and many other materials can be in your memory foam mattress in varying amounts. We’ll go over some of the chemicals in mattresses and let you know what the risks are and what to look for in a safe mattress.

Little or No Memory Foam Smell

While many brands do not release much information about what is inside their mattresses, one way determine if a memory foam mattress is safe is by how much odor it has. Many of the most concerning chemicals are volatile organic compounds which offgas, and produce detectable chemicals smells. A mattress with little detectable odor is not likely to have high levels of VOCs. Consumer reviews are a helpful way to determine if people notice strong unpleasant odors with new foam mattresses.

Here are the top three brands and how they compare in terms of detectable odors by consumers. These are the mattresses that smell the least according to customer reviews.

BrandMemory Foam TypePercentage of Customers Complaining of OdorOverall Owner Satisfaction
Serta iComfortTraditional6%76%
Simmons ComforpedicTraditional6%77%

Is Memory Foam Toxic?

Your bedroom should be a safe place you can rest with no worries. If your mattress is toxic, that obviously presents some problems with respect to safety. So, is memory foam toxic? Well, not all memory foams are the same. There are a few different types, each made from different basic materials. Here are the three main types of memory foam mattresses:

  • Traditional memory foam – Made from petroleum-based polyurethane, these mattresses are the oldest and most common type of memory foam available. Synthetic foams tend to be associated with levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
  • Gel memory foam – Traditional foams have a tendency to sleep hot, so manufacturers began adding gel to help make them feel cooler. The gels have had marginal success, but they do add to the chemical cocktail inside your mattress.
  • Plant-based memory foam – Derived from soybean oil, these mattresses tend to emit fewer VOCs than their traditional and gel counterparts.

What is Memory Foam?

Memory foam was first developed by NASA in the 1960s to make aircraft seats more safe and comfortable. Memory foam is basically polyurethane with some other chemicals added to increase the material’s density and viscosity. You may have heard it called “viscoelastic” foam. These foams tend to soften when body heat warms them and quickly bounce back to their original shape.

The foam starts off as a liquid mixture which is poured into molds and heated. As the mixture heats up, tiny bubbles throughout it start to expand. It looks like a loaf of bread rising. After the “loaves” cure, they look and feel like the memory foams we all know and love.

What’s Inside Your Mattress?

Every mattress is different on the inside. Memory foam mattresses, though mostly foam, may have dozens of different materials in their composition. Typically, there will be a few layers of foams of varying densities and firmnesses stacked atop one another.

Memory Foam Smell

That memory foam smell is usually no more than an annoyance and will typically significantly fade over a week or two. According to, about 15% of memory foam mattress owners report significant odors from off gassing. Only about 2% actually return their mattresses as a result of the smell.

Odor from Off Gassing Reported by Memory Foam Mattress Owners

Chemicals in Mattresses

Chart data provided by

Which Chemicals in Mattresses to be Concerned About

Though memory foam is essentially just polyurethane, each company has a different recipe for their foams. Some have gels or other chemicals added for a number of purposes. These are usually proprietary secrets and don’t have to be disclosed.

Mattress covers are made from a number of different materials such as wool, bamboo, cotton, polyester, rayon or a blend of materials. The components most people are typically worried about are the foams and the fire barriers. We’ll take a look at them here.

Memory Foam Makeup

Is memory foam toxic? There are many different kinds of foams, each with different types of materials added, but there are some chemicals found in nearly all foams. Here are the three basic components that make up polyurethane, or memory foams:

Polyols – these sugar alcohols act as binding and bulking agents. These carbohydrates are made from petroleum in traditional foams and soy or castor bean oil in plant-based memory foams.

Diisocyanates – these react with the blowing agents and polyols to create the polyurethane foam. The most common types are are toluene diisocyanate (TDI) and methylene bisphenyl isocyanate (MDI) which can cause respiratory problems if inhaled in their raw forms. After the foam is cured, they are inert except for limited off gassing.

Blowing Agents – chemicals used to create a cellular structure while the foam is transitioning from liquid to its final solid state. CFCs used to be used, but water and HFCs are more common today.

Potential Chemicals of Concern

The question “is memory foam toxic?” is more complicated than it seems. There are some chemicals in mattresses that are cause for more concern than others. U.S. laws obviously protect consumers from the most hazardous chemicals, but some have been associated with potential health issues.

As mentioned earlier, every company makes their mattresses differently. Some mattresses may be nearly free of hazardous chemicals, but others could have much higher amounts. Here are the chemicals in mattresses you should be wary of:

Methyl benzene – may affect the nervous system if inhaled.

Acetone – toxic if inhaled in large amounts and may irritate skin.

Methylene dianiline / MDA – carcinogen; can cause liver and thyroid damage if ingested. Manufacturing process is much more likely to cause toxic levels of exposure than household contact.

Vinylidene chloride – possible carcinogen; linked with respiratory problems and central nervous system side effects. Manufacturing process is primary time for concern.

Dimethylformamide – linked with liver damage and skin irritation. Possibly embryotoxic and carcinogenic.

Methylene chloride – linked with central nervous system effects, respiratory irritation and possible organ damage with long-term exposure. Not used in current methods much.  

Formaldehyde – not an ingredient, but may result as a byproduct of chemical reactions. Known carcinogen/toxin. May cause headaches and respiratory issues.

Flame Retardants

Other materials in memory foam mattresses may have much more cause for concern. Polyurethane is flammable and products in the U.S. must adhere to fire safety standards set by the government. Some manufacturers have foregone elements of chemical safety in pursuit of a more fire-safe product.

Toxic fire retardant chemicals can be avoided it you pay attention to your mattress components. Here are some chemicals that are used by mattress manufacturers to meet fire safety standards:

Toxic Fire Barrier Materials

Brominated fire retardants/Polybrominated diphenyl ethers/PBDEs – carcinogenic variations of this chemical group have been phased out, but still may be present in older mattresses.

Boric acid – possible organ toxicity. Found in treated cotton.

Chlorinated tris (TDCPP) – Possible carcinogen, neurotoxin and endocrine disrupter.  

Modacrylic fiber – contains antimony, a known carcinogen.

Melamine resin – contains formaldehyde (mentioned above).

Non-toxic Fire Barrier Materials

Alessandra fabric – may contain modacrylic fiber, but can be made safely.

Wool – natural flame-resistant material.

Kevlar – synthetic material used in bulletproof vests.

Rayon treated with silica – rayon is derived from the pulp of bamboo; silica is derived from sand.

Picking A Safe Mattress

So how can you find a bed without toxic chemicals? There are no completely safe beds; even completely natural materials can emit small amounts of toxins and VOCs. Mattress offgassing is reduced with the right bed, however. If you are hoping to avoid a harmful memory foam smell, you just have to pay attention to some details when shopping.

VOCs are the most commonly talked about harmful chemicals in mattresses. Many of the chemicals discussed so far fall into this category or have a tendency to breakdown into one or more VOCs over time. These volatile organic compounds evaporate at room temperature and so are often present in the air, which presents obvious problems.

Effects from VOCs can vary from slight irritation to severe allergic-type reactions. Most people will experience no symptoms at all, but there are some who are sensitive to chemicals who may have adverse reactions. Most VOC side effects are from long-term exposure.

When you are shopping for a mattress, be wary of companies claiming to have no VOCs or a “VOC free mattress.” VOCs cannot be completely eliminated from memory foam. Low VOC polyurethane does exist however, and you should seek it out.

These  low VOC polyurethane mattresses are becoming more widely available. Plant-based memory foams, such as those from Amerisleep, are low VOC polyurethane that are much safer. Make sure to ask your retailer what your mattress is made from and see what they say about the level of VOCs in their product.

Mattress Brands Comparison

The nose knows. One of the best tools for VOC detection is on your face. Some customers complain of a memory foam smell in their mattresses. Below is a comparison table of some popular brands and how they rate in customer odor complaints and overall satisfaction. Take a look at how the compare.  

BrandMemory Foam TypePercentage of Customers Complaining of OdorOverall Owner Satisfaction
Comfort DreamsTraditional9%82%
Sealy OptimumTraditional9%77%
Serta iComfortTraditional6%76%
Signature SleepTraditional10%86%
Simmons ComforpedicTraditional6%77%
Spa SensationsTraditional8%72%

Data is from and mattress retail sites.

Is Memory Foam Toxic for the Environment?

As a Green Sleeper reader, you are probably wondering is memory foam toxic for the Earth? While there are recycling efforts, most still end up in the landfill. There they break down into their chemical components over time. Whatever is in your mattress is absorbed by the local environment. If there are toxins in your bed, they will end up poisoning the area they decompose in. Synthetic memory foams are derived from petroleum and tend to be more toxic than those made from plant-based memory foams.

Avoiding Chemicals in Mattresses

To ensure you avoid a memory foam smell and offgassing, buy a mattress that rates well for odors and is made from low VOC polyurethane. Once you get your mattress home, unpack it and let it air out in a well-ventilated area for a few days. Like any new product, mattresses will have a temporary small odor.

Our regulations are made to keep us safe. Memory foam has been approved for regular use by our government and has been used in homes for many years. While some memory foam beds may be safer than others, none are really dangerous. Be mindful of the hazards and avoid them where you can. Now you know what to say when someone asks “is memory foam toxic?”

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