Memory Foam Mattresses: Are They Really Safe Enough?


In the digital-industrial age, with everything mass-produced, the quantity and nature of chemicals used have become a significant concern for many. Memory foam mattresses are no different.

It’s true that modern mattresses are a thousand-fold more comfortable than mattresses in the days of yore but are they just as safe? This concern is both valid and important because we spend away about a third of our lives sleeping. Nearly every other day, you hear about some chemical killing some poor, old guy.

Memory foam mattresses use a wide array of chemicals, from foaming agents to flame retardants. This cocktail of chemicals is sure to raise some eyebrows. However, identifying the concerns of potential buyers, many websites selling memory foam mattresses openly discuss the different chemicals used in their manufacture.

Nevertheless, it is always better to go for an independent review to get to the bottom of it. In this article, we, as your mattress guide, will take a deep dive into the safety of memory foam mattresses and discuss ingredients, odors, hazards, and safety protocols. By the end, you’ll be able to tell the safer from the sinister.

Disclaimer: To find out about the best mattresses for Australia in 2023, visit our homepage.

Structure and Composition

To answer the questions about the safety of memory foam, one ought to familiarise oneself with its constituents.

They are usually made of two basic components. The first one is usually a PU layer of memory foam followed by another polyurethane foam layer that serves as the core. More often than not, these layers are wrapped up in some kind of a fabric cover. By law, they also have some flame-proofing.

In addition to these basic components, some mattresses also have other materials added to them. Some contain gel beads or are gel-infused. Others put in a latex layer in between the memory foam layers. Some also have protective padding made of cotton or polyester.

The components, however, are well-known and are not usually a cause for worry. It is the fire-proofing agents and the memory foam material itself that is, sometimes, a cause for concern.

Concerning Memory and Polyurethane Foam Components

Let’s look at some of the most important components that can be a cause for concern.


These are the binding ingredients that hold everything together and are used in bulk. They are usually petroleum-based but some contain organic sources such as castor beans.

Blowing Agents

They use carbon in the making of the foam. In the past, dangerous CFCs were used. Today, however, they have been replaced with HFCs, H20, and other materials.


These are the reactive agents that react with blowing agents and polyols to make the PU foam. MDI and TDI are the commonest sources. In raw form, they can cause skin and respiratory problems. They may even be carcinogenic.

MDI is considered to be the isocyanate least associated with deleterious effects, making it a safer option. The major risk with these chemicals is during the manufacturing process. Once the reaction is over, they are inert and largely harmless. However, they may have a bit of off-gassing.

Concerning Ingredients and By-products

While we can point out and discuss the chemicals generally used to make memory foam mattresses, individual brands keep their formulas secret. Hence, pinpointing troublesome agents is not possible.

Both regulatory laws and voluntary adoption of standards and restrictions have led to the phasing out of most of these troubling chemicals in memory foams.

Here’s a list of those chemicals:

Methylene dianiline / MDA

MDA is suspected to be carcinogenic. It irritates the skin and the eye. It also damages the liver and thyroid. Finished products give off very minute quantities of it. The greater risk is during the manufacturing process.

Vinylidene chloride

Vinylidene chloride is a respiratory and eye irritant. It has also been blamed for organ damage and cancer. The major risk is, again, during the manufacturing process. 

Methylene chloride

It is used as a solvent and can irritate mucous membrane surfaces. Cancer is also a risk.

Methyl benzene

Methyl benzene has effects on the nervous system. The mode of action is through isolation.


It can be a by-product of a chemical reaction but is not a direct ingredient.


Dimethylformamide can cause organ damage and cancer.


It can be toxic in large quantities.

Banned and Rarely Used Substances

They are listed as follows:


Chlorofluorocarbons were used in the past to make foam by serving as a blowing agent. Their use has been restricted and banned by regulations such as the Montreal Protocols.


Long-term exposure to this substance can lead to organ damage and, in extreme cases, cancer.

Methods of Flame Proofing

It has been said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Sometimes, actions are taken with good intentions inadvertently lead to harm. That has been the life story of flame-proofing materials.

All mattresses have to be able to withstand and slow down the spread of a fire for a certain period of time, as per regulatory guidelines. That is called “fire retarding”. While this measure has improved consumer safety, not all the materials used are safe for human beings.

PU foams are usually flammable. They must be treated with fire-resistants or fire-retardants. However, the companies don’t need to divulge the details of how exactly they achieve this. As a result, scrutinizing them can be quite difficult. Nevertheless, here are the most dangerous substances that can be used as fire-retardants:


Different variations of brominated fire retardants (PBDEs) were phased out in the recent past.

Modacrylic fiber

With antimony oxide as a constituent, it is a carcinogen.

Boric acid

It is used to treat cotton and can cause organ damage.


It is a dangerous neurotoxin that can also affect the endocrine system. A possible neurotoxin, endocrine disruptor, and carcinogen. 

Alessandra fabric

It contains fiberglass fibers that may contain carcinogenic modacrylic fiber.

Decabromodiphenyl Oxide

It can have serious neurological impacts, cause hair loss, and may even lead to cancer.

Silica-treated rayon

While the bamboo-based rayon is non-toxic, the silica, derived from glass or sand, can be potentially dangerous.

Offgassing and VOCs


VOCs and off-gassing are often cited as the most villainous characters in the array of substances used or produced by mattresses.

Both phenomena involve the breakdown and release of chemicals into the air. Some people attribute them to breathing issues and allergies.

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are unstable substances that break down by themselves. They also release odors during this process. The smell of a fresh coat of paint, new furniture, and many other household items is due to the release of these VOCs.

On their own and in low quantities, VOCs are as common as they are difficult to detect. Even the human body releases some. The point is that most of them, in negligible quantities, is nothing more than a temporary smell. That is also the case with memory foam mattresses.

However, some other gasses such as benzene, formaldehyde, and toluene are irritants and can cause allergies, among other problems.

Finally, the risk associated with VOCs is far greater during manufacturing. Finished products are usually inert and stable. Fire-retardants and blues, however, can pose a problem.

Calculating Your Own Risk

Memory foam mattresses have been in the market for a few decades now. Only a few customers have ever complained of allergies associated with the mattress during this time. These people have reported eye, nose, or throat irritation. People with asthma have also complained of aggravated symptoms.

However, by and large, these people are few and far between. Most reviews are overwhelmingly positive.

One thing to be careful about is false advertising. The memory foam production process does lead to VOC production, however, small the quantity. Beware of companies pitching “no VOC emission”. That is chemically impossible.

Some companies such as Essentia and Ecobaby Organics have been fined for making a wrongful claim about being free of VOCs.

The PU foam isn’t only used in memory foam mattresses. Many furniture items, such as sofas, use it too. If you have had allergy issues related to them in the past, you should be even more careful about buying a mattress containing the same materials.

If this is something that concerns you a lot, buying a natural latex mattress could be the answer to your problem. Not only is it natural, but it is also hypoallergenic.

Certifications to look for

With rapidly improving public awareness regarding personal and environmental safety, the mattress industry has also had to pick their game up a notch. While comfort is still the biggest requirement of most customers, many demand a mattress made of safe and non-toxic material.

The boom of online mattress shopping coupled with stricter regulation has made the industry much more transparent. Here are some of the certifications that you should look for:

  1. Bedfax
  2. CertiPUR-US
  3. GreenGuard
  5. GOLS
  6. GOTS

Mattresses that hold these certifications are sure to produce the smallest amount of VOCs. The materials used can be trusted to be non-toxic and harmless. Thanks to them, you can sleep easily with a sense of security cradling your mind while the memory foam cradles your body.

Selection of a Safe Memory Foam Mattress

Regardless of your concerns, it is a fact that finished memory foam is both inert and harmless. Both industry and environmental groups testify to that.

While substances such as isocyanates and polyols are dangerous, they become harmless after the reaction and don’t pose a threat. There is also a high degree of regulation regarding material quality and pollution.

Most of the hazardous chemicals have been outright banned or phased out. Some concerns that remain are regarding glues, fire-retardants, and off-gassing.

If you want to select the healthiest possible option, here are a few things to do when you go shopping:

  1. Ask if the material is petroleum-based or plant-derived. Plant-based products give off fewer VOCs.
  2. Ask if the foam is MDI or TDI.  MDI is considerably safer.
  3. Get to know about the blowing agents used. Halogens such as bromine and CFCs are dangerous pollutants.
  4. Mattresses that use the newer variable pressure foaming technique should be preferred. Thanks to this, there is no need for dangerous blowing agents.
  5. Always go for memory foam mattresses that have higher plant content. They use a smaller quantity of petroleum-based products.
  6. Make sure to ask about anti-inflammatory materials used in the mattress. Kevlar and rayon are much safer options.
  7. Always keep an eye out for certifications from OEKO-TEX and CertiPUR-US. They ensure product quality and consumer safety.
  8. Asking about the country where the mattress is actually manufactured is also a smart thing to do. Countries such as the U.S. have stringent and enforced regulations and are often safer than products made in completely unregulated industries with no oversight.

It would be a big help if the companies were open about their manufacturing process and materials. However, the market competition does not allow them that luxury.

Another way to ensure that you sleep safely is to check out the reviews by a reliable mattress guide. You can also look up customer reviews and if many of them report odors and allergies, you should be wary of that particular mattress. A negligible smell, however, can be forgiven as a chemical necessity.

Safety of Bed-in-a-Box Memory Foam Mattress

While bed-in-a-box mattresses are like the new kid on the block and vastly different from their traditional counterparts in a number of ways, the characteristics of the mattresses themselves remain quite similar. That is especially true of memory foam mattresses. 

If you are trying to decide if a mattress is or isn’t safe for you and your family, buying online can be a big advantage. That is because companies selling online mattresses (have to) give extensive details about the make-up of their products and help you make an informed decision.

On the other hand, at traditional stores, salesmen pushing snake oil are a big hindrance in getting any important information out of them. As a result, you are left with far too many unanswered questions.

It is always wise to go through the details of mattress materials so that you can sleep both soundly and safely.

Method of Minimizing Mattress Smells

As a customer, you have some options for minimizing your exposure to mattress smells. 

The best way to do that is to remove the mattress from the box and take the plastic cover off. After that, you should open the windows and improve ventilation.

If ventilating your bedroom is not possible, set it up in a garage or open air. The circulation of air and sunlight will do its magic and you’ll get rid of the odious odor pretty soon.

If the mattress has a removable cover, you should unzip and remove it too.


Memory foam mattresses have steadily maintained their place in the heart and home of millions of customers. They often get the highest marks for customer satisfaction. Their features such as contouring, pressure relief, and spinal alignment remain popular with sleepers. And even though there are valid concerns about hazardous chemicals, most modern mattresses have done well to get rid of those problems.

All customers can do themselves a favor by checking out online reviews such as this one. After all, buying a mattress that is safe for both you and your family is your right. Sleep tight!

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