Is Memory Foam Toxic? Memory Foam Health Risks & Solution

Since we spend at least a third of our life on our bed, it is natural that we would want our mattress to be comfortable and safe. Though memory foam mattresses have gained popularity over the years, there have been some concerns about their safety as they are made up of synthetic materials like polyurethane, blowing agents, etc.

These chemicals are volatile organic compounds, which break down and release chemicals into the air. So, this fact brings us to one important question – is memory foam toxic?


Let us learn more about the harmful chemicals used in some of these mattresses and memory foam health risks and ways to avoid them.

The history of memory foam

Memory foam was invented under a NASA contract in the 1970s. NASA wanted to improve the seat cushioning and crash protection for its pilots, and this foam proved to be very useful.

It was later used for many purposes like orthopedic seating pads, custom molded seating for the disabled and mattresses. However, memory foam does contain some synthetic materials which may not be suitable for prolonged use.

What is memory foam made up of?

Memory foam mattresses are made up of three main elements- polyol, isocyanate, and water. Though different memory foams use different materials, a few components are common to almost all of them.

Polyurethane: Polyurethane is a combination of polyols and diisocyanates. This compound is a by-product of the refinement process of crude oil.

Blowing agents: These chemicals are used to transform polyurethane into memory foam. Different memory foam companies use different chemicals for this process. Polyvinyl chloride, formaldehyde, boric acid, antimony trioxide are some of the chemicals that are used to make memory foam.

Fire safety materials used in memory foam

Since 2004, US law requires all mattresses to be fireproof to a specific temperature. However, this doesn’t mean that the fire-retardant materials used in the beds are safe. In fact, these have made the mattresses even more unsafe than before.

While some fire-retardant options like rayon with silica and Kevlar are safe, others like polybrominated diphenyl ether can cause health issues.

Many of these options have been recognized as toxic and are no longer considered to be safe for use in the US. PBDEs, Penta, and octaBDE, are not manufactured in the US anymore.

The diisocyanates that increase the flame resistance in memory foam are known to cause respiratory, and skin damage and are also considered carcinogenic.

Research on the toxicity of mattresses

A lab in Atlanta analyzed several memory foam mattresses manufactured in the US. The lab found the mattresses emit 61 different types of chemicals, some of which are highly toxic. Benzene and naphthalene are considered to be carcinogenic.

The isocyanates found in the memory foam mattresses can be very harmful. They can irritate the skin and cause respiratory problems. The Environmental Protection Agency has also agreed that these chemicals are toxic.

Another research was done by the Duke University on the harmful effects of acetone, benzene, ethylene oxide, formaldehyde, methylene chloride and 1,1,1-trichloroethane.

This research discovered that even brief exposure to these chemicals could cause issues like asthma attacks.

Another animal study was done to check the effects of breathing volatile organic compounds (VOC). The results showed that memory foam mattresses could have adverse effects on the respiratory system. It irritated the lungs and reduced the air flow to the lungs by one fifth.

Health concerns of memory foam

When volatile organic compound in the mattresses break down and release chemicals into the air, it is called off-gassing. Not only can off-gassing lead to chemical odor, but it can also cause dizziness and respiratory problems in some people.

This exposure to chemicals can also lead to a toxic build-up in humans and can have serious health consequences. Here are some of the chemicals used in memory foam mattresses that can have serious health issues:

  • Methyl Benzene: Breathing this chemical can affect your nervous system.
  • Methylene chloride: This chemical is carcinogenic.
  • Mercury: It can lead to brain and liver damage.
  • Lead: It can lead to brain and nervous system damage.
  • Phthalates: It can harm the liver, kidney and the reproductive system.

Toxic mattress symptoms

Some of the more common side-effects of memory foam usage include headaches, muscle pain, nausea and lack of concentration. Some people also report a loss in cognitive ability in children and reduced intellectual performance in adults.

How to buy a safe memory foam mattress?

Here are a few things you should check before you buy a memory foam mattress:

  • Check if the foam is plant-based or chemical-based.
  • Ask what kinds of blowing agents are used. Variable pressure blowing dues do not need chemical agents.
  • Check on how the mattress reached anti-inflammatory standards. Rayon treated silica and Kevlar fabrics are safer than the others that use polybrominated diphenyl ether.

Over to you

As a consumer, you can protect yourself by understanding the science behind the memory foam mattress and avoiding using the mattresses that contain toxic components.

Choose a safer and a healthier mattress. Avoid low-quality memory foam mattresses. Choose a quality mattress that is made up of eco-friendly materials.


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