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Are Latex Mattresses Toxic?

Concern about toxicity in your mattress is a serious matter. You’re going to spend a third of your life on your mattress; therefore, it’s a smart idea to make sure the material you’re sleeping on isn’t going to make you sick. 

So, are latex mattresses toxic? It depends on the mattress in question. 100% natural latex mattresses are not toxic and are not known to off-gas when you unwrap them. However, latex mattresses that use synthetic chemicals are prone to off-gassing: a process that releases volatile organic compounds, which are known to be toxic

Since the question of toxicity with a mattress is mostly related to the possible off-gassing that can occur after a new mattress is opened, this article will explore how this process relates to a latex mattress. The extraction and forming process to make latex mattresses will also be explored to further discover if any chemicals used could cause toxicity. 

How Are Latex Mattresses Made?

A rubber tree being tapped for latex sap.
A rubber tree being tapped for latex sap. Image: Canva.

Latex is a substance that is formed from the sap of a rubber tree (hevea brasiliensis).

This milky white sap is completely natural and can even be categorized as organic if the growing process of the rubber tree is free of insecticides and chemical fertilizers. 

You are likely wondering how latex could potentially be toxic if it’s made from a natural and organic tree. Well, not all latex mattresses are processed in the same way. 

There are two ways to make latex mattresses: a wholly natural process and a process that uses additional chemicals. 

100% Natural Latex Mattresses

The process for creating a latex mattress is divided into two types: the Dunlop and Talalay methods

  • The Dunlop method is the most common method, which involves whipping and pouring the latex into a mold where the latex is then baked.
  • The Talalay method involves vacuuming the latex for expansion into the mold. Once that’s done, the latex is frozen to lock all of the particles in place. 

This is interesting, but where does toxicity come into play? 

Latex mattresses can only become toxic when chemicals are added during the mattress creation process. 

Synthetic, All-Natural Latex Mattresses

A mattress can release toxic fumes through off-gassing based on certain chemicals used in the production process.

When latex mattresses are made, despite a small number of latex mattresses not having added chemicals, most are aided by the inclusion of polyurethane, which is a compound that is used for binding and forming substances – in this case, latex. 

This is a relatively safe substance until the polyurethane and other chemicals are released in off-gassing. These synthetic compounds coalesce into gaseous chemicals known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs). 

The gases are activated even further due to body heat being released during sleep. VOCs can be harmful to a person’s health and are classified as toxic. This is where the toxicity of a latex mattress is evident. 

Do All Latex Mattresses Contain VOCs?

A study published in Environmental Science & Technology found that synthetic latex mattresses emitted a variety of VOCs. 

Note: The term “VOCs” actually refers to a group of compounds. Here are some of the VOCs most commonly found in latex mattresses:

The study found that while the emission of these VOCs was below the “No Significant Risk Levels” guideline set by the state of California, the levels of emission did become concerning if the person exposed to them was very young. 

The main concern is that all of the aforementioned VOCs are linked to the formation of cancer, and that any babies who use synthetic latex mattresses will have an increased risk of cancer later in life. 

However, it’s not all bad news. 

As mentioned above, not all latex mattresses will contain VOCs that contribute to off-gassing. For example, latex mattresses that do not use polyurethane and opt for 100% latex will not emit off-gassing to noticeable levels of toxicity. 

Note: It’s not enough to trust the “100% natural” label. Many natural latex manufacturers claim that no additives are included in the production process. However, this is misleading since chemical agents are needed to help the latex form properly in the mold. 

Therefore, claims made that state a latex mattress is completely additive-free should be taken with a grain of salt. 

That being said, it is possible to find completely natural latex mattresses. If you go with a reputable brand, you shouldn’t have an issue finding a genuine 100% natural latex mattress. 

Unfortunately, you’ll need to be prepared to spend a bit more if you want an all-natural bed. This is because a latex mattress needs to be breathable and durable to hold up as a viable mattress for long-term use. 

By simply filling the molds with latex and baking it, the latex has difficulty expanding and molding properly into a typical mattress structure. As such, the manufacturing process is a bit more involved, and thus raises the cost of the mattress. 

Does a Latex Mattress Release More Toxins Than a Memory Foam Mattress?

Latex and memory foam mattresses are often confused, but there are distinct differences between the two. 

The primary difference is that memory foam relies heavily on polyurethane and other chemicals to mold the mattress, whereas a latex mattress can be completely natural. 

Since a 100% natural latex mattress is going to release potentially fewer VOCs than a memory foam mattress, you are certainly better off with all-natural latex if you want to reduce the risk of inhaling toxins. 

However, if you’re stuck between a synthetic latex mattress and a memory foam blend, it’s a toss-up as far as toxicity is concerned. For latex mattresses that rely heavily on blending additional chemicals into the production process, the toxins released in off-gassing will generally be about the same as those seen in similarly made memory foam mattresses. 

In the end, a latex mattress that has been made with only latex and small amounts of chemicals is less toxic than a memory foam mattress; even though both are very comfortable, memory foam uses a more traditional mattress manufacturing process.

The Bottom Line: A Latex Mattress Can Be Toxic

There is a lot of confusion pertaining to latex mattresses and toxicity levels regarding off-gassing.

And it doesn’t help that there are so many different labels attached to latex mattresses in the first place, meaning that deceptive advertising is common with this type of mattress. 

If you are able to find a latex mattress that has “all-natural” in its title, there is a good chance that only a tiny amount of chemicals were used in the production process, if at all. 

Any latex mattress that isn’t all-natural will likely contain a fraction of latex in conjunction with a range of chemicals that will cause the release of toxic VOCs. 

As such, you should try and find a latex mattress that uses as few polyurethane-like chemicals as possible during the molding and baking process. As is the case with many things, organic is always best.

Conclusion

So, there are two types of latex mattresses to look for to avoid the least amount of potential toxins during off-gassing: 

  • 100% All-Natural. This type of label likely ensures that only trace amounts of chemicals were used during vulcanization to mold the mattress. 
  • Organic Latex. This is similar to all-natural, just using the word organic in place of all-natural. 

Going with a synthetic latex mattress will give you the same level of comfort at a lower price, but you might be trading your health in return. 

Sources

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