If you’re thinking about buying a new mattress then you may be considering a memory foam mattress due to their exceptional ability to adjust to your exact body shape to provide contoured comfort and outstanding pressure relief that’s especially beneficial for side sleepers.
But given that memory foam is derived entirely from synthetic chemicals, you might be wondering if memory foam mattresses are toxic or not.
Memory foam mattresses can be toxic – especially to children – due to the release of VOCs through chemical ‘off-gassing’. However, most memory foam mattresses that are manufactured in the US and are CertiPUR-US®, OEKO-TEX®, and/or GreenGuard certified are relatively safe for most adults to sleep on.
However, not all memory foam mattresses are created equally.
Some are made to strict guidelines and are unlikely to cause any noticeable health issues, whilst others are packed with chemicals that may trigger reactions.
The rest of this article explains why some memory foam mattresses are relatively safe to sleep on whilst others could pose a serious health risk (and may even cause death) in the context of adults and children.
I’ve also included a quick 3 step guide that you can follow to avoid buying a toxic memory foam mattress.
Alternatively: check out my list of the best memory foam mattress alternatives if you’ve already decided that you DON’T want to buy a memory foam mattress.
How Can Memory Foam Mattresses Be Toxic?
Memory foam mattresses are typically made from a range of synthetic chemicals that are toxic in their RAW form, but typically inert and less harmful in their final form inside the mattress.
And when the mattress is finalized, the quantities of the VOCs (volatile organic compounds) that are chiefly responsible for the transfer of toxic chemicals from the mattress to the ambient environment (and potentially inhaled) are typically lower when compared to the manufacturing process because the chemical reactions have already taken place (although some gas can remain trapped in the mattress and may be released over time).
This means that the issue of toxicity is most significant during the manufacturing process; with the risk to the end-user being significantly lower by comparison – making most memory foam mattresses safe when used by an adult.
Furthermore, memory foam mattresses that are CertiPUR-US®, OEKO-TEX®, and/or GreenGuard certified are free form certain toxic chemicals and have their VOC counts reduced to minimal amounts.
However, imported memory foam mattresses may not be made to such standards and may pose a greater toxicity risk.
And even with such certifications, memory foam mattresses are typically unsuitable for young children and babies due to the risk of suffocation.
Whilst adults with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) may not be able to sleep on any memory foam or polyfoam mattress without experiencing an allergic reaction.
In many cases, big brands like Tempurpedic use a proprietary formula to make their memory foam, which makes it difficult to find out exactly which chemicals are being used to make their mattresses.
See below for a more detailed answer that discusses the nuances of memory foam mattress toxicity and safety.
VOCs (volatile organic compounds) are gasses emitted from certain liquids or solids .
VOCs are of particular concern in regards to memory foam mattresses because it’s the VOCs emitted from the substances used to make the foam and other associated chemicals that can lead to the inhalation of toxins and potentially cause health problems.
Exposure to VOCs in large quantities over a sustained period may lead to eye, nose and throat irritation; headaches, loss of coordination, nausea, and damage to the liver, kidneys, and CNS (central nervous system); and possibly even cancer .
For many people, the inhalation of VOCs may not produce any noticeable effects, whilst more sensitive individuals may experience hay fever like symptoms or more serious effects like debilitating weakness, lethargy, and even panic attacks.
Typically, VOCs are released from a mattress in the largest amounts in the immediate hours and days after being removed from its packaging – often leading many new memory foam mattress owners to be taken aback by the strong chemical smell shortly after opening their new memory foam mattress in a box.
However, it’s possible that VOCs are also released over time from your mattress in response to your body heat – since a polyfoam mattress may lose up to HALF its weight over a 10 year period through oxidation.
It’s recommended that you keep your sleeping space well ventilated for up to a week after unboxing your new memory foam mattress to allow the VOCs to dissipate.
You should do this even if there’s not a noticeable smell – since some VOCs can be odorless.
The quantity of VOCs emitted by a memory foam mattress can vary – unless a certification like the CertiPUR-US® certification is present to confirm that VOCs are kept to negligible amounts (more on certifications soon).
Thankfully, however, most modern memory foam mattresses made by reputable brands have very low VOC counts – typically not enough to cause a reaction in most adults.
Memory foam is made from petroleum-derived polyurethane foam (‘polyfoam’) – which contains substances that may potentially be toxic when inhaled in large quantities.
More specifically, polyfoam is made by combining diisocyanates (TDI and MDI) and polyols, with carbon dioxide typically being used as a blowing agent to create the softness associated with a mattress or sofa .
Diisocyanates are classified as potential human carcinogens and may cause occupational asthma, lung problems, chest tightness, difficulty breathing, and irritation of the mucous membranes .
However, the concern with diisocyanates is primarily confined to the manufacturing process where the materials are raw and capable of damage. Conversely, when they are present in a finished memory foam mattress they are inert and less harmful – although they can still off-gas and potentially release toxins to some extent.
Mattresses sold in the US need to be able to withstand an open flame for at least 30 minutes.
And given that polyfoam is derived from petroleum and therefore highly flammable, memory foam mattresses need to be encased in a fire-resistant material (often called a ‘fire sock’ or ‘fire barrier’).
Some mattress manufacturers will treat the fire barrier with harsh chemicals that can be toxic, whilst others may opt to go for a fire barrier that’s comprised of natural materials like wool or thistle.
However, many mattress companies use proprietary formulas that make it difficult to find out exactly what substances are used in the fire barriers of their memory foam mattresses.
Some of the potentially toxic materials associated with flame proofing a mattress may include:
- Boric acid – cotton can be treated with boric acid to make it more resistant to fire. However, boric acid may be toxic to the organs.
- Modacrylic – a potential carcinogen.
- PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers) – potentially toxic to the liver, thyroid, and nervous system. Thankfully, PBDEs were banned in 2004 in the US. However, PBDEs may still be used in mattresses made outside the US.
- Tris(1,3-dichloroisopropyl)phosphate (TDCPP) – a potential neurotoxin, carcinogen, and endocrine disruptor that may disrupt normal development.
Potentially toxic chemicals may also be present in the glues and adhesives used to make some memory foam mattresses.
- Formaldehyde – a preservative that can function as a strong-smelling adhesive and can cause headaches, dizziness, nausea, and irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat.
Fiberglass is commonly used in memory foam mattresses as part of the fire barrier – typically layered beneath or woven into the inner cover out of sight.
Most people don’t realize that their mattress contains fiberglass until they remove the cover and millions of tiny shards of fiberglass are released into their home – where they can potentially cause allergic reactions and may cost $1,000’s to be removed by a professional cleaning company.
However, not all memory foam mattresses contain fiberglass.
Check out my list of the best mattresses without fiberglass to find some high quality options.
Here are a few other potentially toxic chemicals that you may find in some memory foam mattresses:
- Benzene – potentially found in trace amounts in polyfoam and may be carcinogenic.
- Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) – once used as a blowing agent, CFCs have been phased out as part of the Montreal Protocol due to their part in ozone depletion.
- Toluene – a diisocyanate used to make the foam more flexible and is a ‘reasonably anticipated’ potential carcinogen according to the National Toxicology Program .
What Are the Health Impacts of Memory Foam?
The health and safety impacts of sleeping on a memory foam mattress or mattress topper range from almost none at all in most healthy adults to potentially being fatal for babies.
More details below.
Adults – Potentially Severe Reactions
For the vast majority of adults, sleeping on a memory foam mattress won’t cause any noticeable health problems.
However, in sensitive individuals, the VOCs released from the memory foam may cause mild hay fever like symptoms – such as a runny nose, sneezing, and headaches.
But those with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity or a weakened immune system may experience more severe symptoms like chest pain, breathing problems, or changes in heart rhythm – along with the worsening of existing conditions such as asthma .
Babies and Children – Death From Suffocation and SIDS
Memory foam mattresses are not considered to be safe for babies and toddlers because they pose a suffocation risk – according to the Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics .
This is because the adaptive nature of the memory foam means that the sleeping surface may adhere too closely to the child’s face in the prone (tummy) position and impede airflow (leading to suffocation), or a pocket/indentation could form which may lead to rebreathing and death.
Also, because memory foam can retain heat, this may contribute to overheating which may increase the risk of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) .
Beyond this, the potential toxicity of the VOCs released through off-gassing from a memory foam mattress may be amplified when a small child breathes them in.
In summary, memory foam mattresses are not suitable for babies or young children based on the advice provided by the expert sources cited above.
How to Avoid a Toxic Memory Foam Mattress
Not all memory foam mattresses are equal in terms of toxicity potential.
Follow the 3 steps below to reduce the chance of buying a memory foam mattress that’s toxic.
1: Look For the Right Certifications
The easiest way to find a memory foam mattress that’s safe for adults and low in toxicity is to look for the presence of one or more of the following certifications listed below:
- STANDARD 100 by OEKO-TEX® – this certification ensures that ‘every component’ has been tested for harmful substances and is ‘harmless for human health’ .
- CertiPUR-US® – this certification means that the foams used are free from toxic substances like PBDEs, TDCPP, formaldehyde, and is low in VOCs (less than 0.5 parts per million) to combat off-gassing and smells .
- GreenGuard – this certification ensures that products designed for indoor use have chemical emissions below a certain threshold to combat off-gassing .
2: Go For Plant-Based Memory Foam
Plant-based memory foam replaces some of the petrochemicals with natural ingredients like soy.
This can potentially help to reduce the amount of off-gassing through the limitation of substances that may lead to the release of VOCs.
However, you should be wary of mattress brands that claim that their memory foam is ‘organic’ because there’s no such thing as 100% organic memory foam since petrochemicals are required to give the memory foam its adaptive features.
The best you can hope for is memory foam that has a natural component – a ratio of 30% plant-based substances to 70% synthetic components is typical.
3: Choose Natural Fire Barriers
Look for mattress brands that use natural materials in their fire barriers like wool or thistle and refrain from using harsh chemicals.
The product description will often tell you what the fire barrier is made out of, but if not, go ahead and contact the brand’s customer support.
You should avoid mattresses that use fiberglass (‘glass wool’) as part of the fire barrier as a general rule because when this material isn’t woven deeply into the inner cover, it may release into your home and cause health problems.
Consider Memory Foam Mattress Alternatives
If you’re concerned about the potential toxicity of memory foam then you might want to consider a traditional spring mattress with an upholstered top layer, or a mattress made from natural latex foam instead.
With most of the main points covered, I’m going to round-off this article with the answers to some of the most common questions relating to memory foam toxicity and safety.
Are Memory Foam Mattresses Safe?
Memory foam mattresses with CertiPUR-US®, OEKO-TEX®, and/or GreenGuard certifications are generally considered to be safe to sleep on for most healthy adults. However, memory foam mattresses are not safe for babies and young children because they can pose a suffocation risk and may increase the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome due to overheating.
Do Memory Foam Mattresses Cause Health Problems?
Memory foam mattresses may cause health problems in the form of allergic reactions, breathing issues, and irritation of the eyes, nose, or throat in sensitive individuals – whilst many adults may experience no health problems at all.
Can Memory Foam Cause Cancer?
There is no evidence currently available that proves that memory foam mattresses cause cancer.
Are Mattresses Really Toxic?
Mattresses that have the CertiPUR-US®, OEKO-TEX®, and/or GreenGuard certifications are not toxic and should pose little risk to the health of most adults.
Is it Safe to Sleep On Memory Foam?
Memory foam mattresses and memory foam toppers that have the CertiPUR-US®, OEKO-TEX®, and/or GreenGuard certifications are safe for adults to sleep on – however, memory foam is not considered safe for babies and young children due to the risk of suffocation.
Conclusion: The Toxicity Risk is Relatively Low
Whilst some memory foam mattresses can potentially cause reactions in sensitive individuals, the vast majority of adults are unlikely to experience health issues when sleeping on a memory foam mattress that’s CertiPUR-US®, OEKO-TEX®, and/or GreenGuard certified.
Because these certifications ensure that many of the common toxic chemicals are absent, and the VOC counts are kept to negligible amounts.
However, the risk increases when ordering cheap memory foam mattresses made outside the US because they may not be made to the same standards.
In terms of safety, young children and babies should NOT sleep on a memory foam mattress due to the risk of suffocation, SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome), and the amplified toxicity potential associated with the VOCs.
If you’d like to see some memory foam mattress alternatives then click the button below now.
Sources and References
 EPA – What are Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)? Accessed 25/8/20.
 EPA – Volatile Organic Compounds’ Impact on Indoor Air Quality. Accessed 25/8/20.
 Polyurethanes – Science and Research on Polyurethanes. Accessed 25/8/20.
 United States Department of Labor – Isocyanates. Accessed 25/8/20.
 National Toxicology Program – Toluene Diisocyanates. Accessed 25/8/20.
 WebMD – Multiple Chemical Sensitivity. Accessed 26/8/20.
 Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics – SIDS and Other Sleep-Related Infant Deaths: Updated 2016 Recommendations for a Safe Infant Sleeping Environment. Accessed 26/8/20.
 National Institutes of Health – NIH Alerts Caregivers to Increase in SIDS Risk During Cold Weather. Accessed 26/8/20.
 OEKO-TEX® – STANDARD 100 by OEKO-TEX®. Accessed 26/8/20.
 CertiPUR-US® – Overview. Accessed 26/8/20.
 GreenGuard – GreenGuard Certification Program. Accessed 26/8/20.
Dan is the founder and head content creator at Bedroom Style Reviews.
He has been working as a professional online product reviewer since 2015 and was inspired to start this website when he ended up sleeping on a memory foam mattress that was too soft and gave him backache.
Through in-depth research and analysis, Dan’s goal with this website is to help others avoid such pitfalls by creating the best online resource for helping you find your ideal mattress, bedding, and bedroom furniture.
Dan is a qualified NVQ Level 2 Fitness Instructor with 6 years’ experience helping clients improve their health through diet, exercise, and proper sleep hygiene.
He also holds several university-level qualifications in health sciences, psychology, mathematics, and digital media creation – which helps him to publish well researched and informative product reviews; as well as articles on sleep, health, and wellbeing.
Dan also has direct personal experience with insomnia related to anxiety, misophonia (hypersensitivity to sounds), and pain from both acute and long-standing sporting injuries – he enjoys writing insightful articles around these subjects to help fellow sufferers of such conditions.
Learn more about Dan here.