How Mattresses Can Make You Sick- And Where To Buy The Safest Mattress We Can Recommend

As CEO of several mattress companies, both online and brick and mortar, I’ve designed and marketed over 50 beds and sold $40 million of my mattresses all over the United States. My name is Marc Anderson, and I’m the founder and senior editor of The Mattress Buyer Guide. I’m an expert in bedding materials and mattress design. I also know how unsafe some of the ingredients used in mattress manufacturing can be.

Most consumers have little or no awareness of the fact that potentially harmful materials, including adhesives, foam layers, textiles, and other components, are key ingredients in the mattresses that we are in intimate contact with for up to eight hours a night.

A mattress, primarily because our nose and mouth are literally in direct contact with it, presents a huge concern when the materials used are off gassing hazardous fumes that can be potentially life threatening. 

If you’re shopping for a foam “bed in a box” style mattress, that is a mattress that can be compressed and rolled, then unboxed and expanded on your end, it is very likely that some of the components could be hazardous to you. 

I helped a large online memory foam mattress company develop a prototype mattress for their lineup of beds. It was a memory foam mattress, and this was about 20 years ago, when memory foam was a novel concept and people couldn’t get enough of it. 

That image of the handprint on the surface of a piece of memory foam intrigued many people, and the material was truly amazing, immersive, pressure relieving, super soft and nest like. 

Around 1998 though, when I was involved in the project, the intense chemical smell that was enough to turn your head and make you cough on site, just as you removed a sample from its shipping sleeve, was something we just dealt with in the mattress engineering business. 

The few companies that made the material simply told us to “let the stuff air out”, and that the smell “would go away” after a customer opened up the mattress.

And, generally, the smell would clear out, especially if a customer who purchased one and noticed a strong smell, would drag their mattress outside and let some atmospheric ozone chip away at it for a day or so. Often this did the trick and you never heard from the customer again. 

Still, we received a fair number of calls from people who had allergic reactions or even rushed themselves to emergency rooms complaining that they couldn’t breathe. But why did this kind of foam, along with other petroleum based extruded foam bedding make people sick?

All Bedding Foams Are Made Using Petroleum Based Products

One of the first things to understand about literally every single kind of foam material used in bedding, is that they are all derived from petroleum distillates. 

As an example, the primary ingredient of memory foam is polyurethane, specifically referred to in the business as a “urethane foam”.  This compound comes from petroleum as a byproduct, which is extracted during the refinement process of crude oil.

To obtain the end product that behaves like memory foam and to achieve the “open cell” structure that allows the foam to collapse and then expand again, requires some pretty slick chemistry.

 If you have ever mixed a few ingredients together for fun, or watched a can of expanding insulation foam morph into a giant blob twenty times the size of the container, that’s how extruded foam is made. It’s foamed out and then pushed through special giant nozzle and poured into a big vat. 

Once it dries, this giant cube of extruded foam, now called a “bun”,  is then removed and sliced into thinner layers for use in laminating a mattress together. Besides polyurethane, there are a number of other toxic chemicals include many harmful compounds. Polyvinyl chloride, formaldehyde, boric acid, antimony trioxide and different types of petrochemicals.

In 1999, a lab in Atlanta analyzed several mattresses made of what was described as memory foam material. It found them to emit 61 different types of chemicals. Some of these materials were carcinogens including benzene and naphthalene.

Diisocyanates are also found as ingredients that increase flame resistance in foam mattresses and were added around 2004 when mattress flammability laws were updated and it became more difficult for manufacturers to get their mattress prototypes to pass very challenging mattress burn tests.

Diisocyanates are highly reactive compounds. In their raw forms, these can cause respiratory and skin damage. And if that alone isn’t bad enough, they can be 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.

Other chemicals that are released from VOC (volatile organic compounds) derived foams include heavy metals like mercury and lead, ozone depleters, PBDE’s (polybrominated diethyl ethers), formaldehyde, and phthalates.

Duke University completed clinical evaluations researched certain components used in foam mattresses. 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.

So-called plant based foams, like “soy polyols” and other “clean and green” materials still contain mostly petroleum based products, up to about 80%.

Walter Bader, the author of the book “Toxic Bedrooms”, wrote about the dangers of volatile chemicals found in mattresses.  As for the primary 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, and occasionally, when we began designing memory foam mattresses, occasionally customer would call us, describing these issues and reporting rashes, hives, and occasionally burns. 

Polyurethane foam can cause severe respiration problems for those particularly sensitive to fragrances or smells in general. Isocyanate compounds irritate skin and are harmful to human health. 

Early on, we found that about 3 out of 100 of our customers would have to return their mattresses because of issues with fumes and off gassing with our first memory foam mattress designs. 

But even for those who did not call and complain of obvious symptoms, we worried about the vast majority having long term effects that might cause lung problems, neurological problems, and other medical issues.

Creating Safer, Non-Toxic Foams And Adhesives For Mattress Making

Around 2003 or so, I was continuing to design mattresses with the current inventory of products we had to work with as mattress engineers. One of the more dangerous ingredients we had to use was a solvent based adhesive used to glue the opposing layers of a foam mattress together.

Keep in mind, when you buy a foam mattress online for example, it is typically made of 3-5 layers fo various kinds of foam. You might have memory foam, a firmer bottom support layer made from dense polyurethane foam, a layer of natural latex, and other kinds of foam, all placed in strategic order to create a specific “feel”, referred to as the “cake recipe” for that particular design.

The glue that almost every fabricator used was a toxic, formaldehyde based adhesive that was either sprayed on or rolled on, layer by layer. The fumes were over powering, but the advantage to using the eye-watering glue was that it set very fast. 

Production could be increased dramatically, and you could pump out mattresses by the dozens all day long. The was the golden era of “bed in a box” mattresses, and I was a pioneer, although in the beginning we really didn’t understand just how these mattresses would hold up her the long haul. 

The glue problem became evident when production became so intense, that we were shipping out mattresses literally the same day they were glued together, with no drying time, even though the glue had set. In fact, the glue was often tacky, and the entire industry was using this technique. 

So, here’s what we were dealing with- a mattress stuck together with a wet, formaldehyde laden glue that was wafting fumes and was often so overwhelming, that customers would have the mattress removed from their homes within hours. 

This would happen only periodically, again to customers who ere extremely sensitive to chemical smells. But what about everyone else who was breathing this fumes in and perhaps just didn’t notice it as much?

I became concerned and began looking for a solution to the problem. The answer: a small company began to get noticed around 2004 and I stumbled upon them a trade show in Las Vegas, eager to find an alternative to the glue problem as well as the foam issue.

The company was Simalfa, a Swiss based operation that was dabbling in water based adhesives that were completely non-toxic. In fact, there were two glues that we began using immediately made with natural ingredients. One contained pure, tree tapped natural latex, and the other was a synthesized version of natural latex. 

Both of these adhesives could be easily sprayed, had high “stick” factor (very sticky), and when it dried, it was more like a weld, and didn’t crack or split during folding, rolling, and compression. The only downside: it took about 12 hours for it to fully dry, vs. 10 minutes. 

This meant that we had to alter our assembly line and create a staging area where mattresses could dry, exposed to circulating air. At first it was tedious and slowed down shipping times, but like anything else, once we started working with the safe, non-toxic Simalfa adhesive, it changed our entire approach. 

It made us more confident as manufacturers, and people loved it. We were doing the right thing for our customer base. Soon, almost every other fabricator I knew was using it.

Finding Safe Foams And Our Favorite Non-Toxic Mattress

Today, a lot has changed in the “bed in a box” mattress category, and if you are shopping for a safe mattress, and you’ve hung in there with this article, you’re likely a consumer who seeks out products that are safer, and companies that spend a lot of time insuring that their products answer to a higher calling. 

After 20 years of mattress design, engineering, and sales, I’ve seen a lot of change. Foam manufacturers were keenly aware of the issues with VOC foams, and have been eager to make their products safer. 

A handful of manufacturers began to sit around at annual meetings and conferences until one group realized that certifying many of the materials used in the manufacturing process could be viable, even profitable. Today, one organization rises above the rest for certifying and providing their stamp of approval on safer, cleaner, non-toxic ingredients used in mattress manufacturing.

The Gold Standard For Safer Ingredients In mattress Making

Certi-Pur® is a not-for-profit company that administers a certification program for foam manufacturers. The organization is widespread in the industry now, and many of the most responsible  manufacturers in the U.S.A. comply with Certi-Pur®’s strict requirements. 

The organization has almost single handedly eliminated the use of toxic foams in the mattress fabrication industry, and has three components in the reach of their operations. 

Foam producers send samples to Certi-Pur®’s labs for testing and certification, manufacturers and retailers register to use the name in their advertising and product descriptions, and consumers are shown were to buy mattresses made using Certi-Pur® rated materials. 

We began using Certi-Pur® rated components in our mattresses around 2010, and for 7 years, we could clearly see and benefit from our customer base seeking our safer, non-toxic mattresses and other products.

Here’s what sets apart Certi-Pur® certified foams from imported foam products, often used in the mattress industry today.

CertiPUR-US® certified foams are:

✓ Made without ozone depleters

✓ Made without PBDEs, TDCPP or TCEP (”Tris”) flame retardants

✓ Made without mercury, lead, and other heavy metals

✓ Made without formaldehyde

✓ Made without phthalates regulated by the Consumer Product Safety Commission

✓ Low VOC (Volatile Organic Compound) emissions for indoor air quality (less than 0.5 parts per million)

Learn More About CertiPUR-US® Certified Foam

Most of our recommended dealers, which number only about 40 out of hundreds of candidates, utilize CertiPUR-US® certifications for their components. Our most popular licensed dealer, Puffy Mattress, offers three memory foam mattress designs which are made using safe, non-toxic foam components.

To build a mattress using CertiPUR-US® materials costs significantly more than using imported and unregulated foam, so we advise considering this when making a purchase. Remember that you and your family are in direct, intimate contact with these materials and your lungs and respiratory system need a constant flow of fresh, chemical free air as you sleep and restore your boy and brain each night.