Is Memory Foam Pillow Toxic?

What is memory foam?

According to Wikipedia, memory foam is “polyurethane with additional chemicals increasing its viscosity and density.”

Did you dream of becoming an astronaut when you were a child? Even if you never made it to space, if you purchased a memory foam mattress you have a piece of NASAcertified technology in your home. Originally created to keep astronauts safe, memory foam has become popular among the earthbound masses. Touted for its comfort and support, memory foam can be found in many homes today. Because memory foam is so different from other mattresses, you may wonder, “Is memory foam toxic or safe?”

The short answer is, it depends where you get your memory foam from and what it’s made of. Reputable memory foam mattress companies, use CertiPUR-US foams which are certified to be safe. On the other hand, there are some companies that use questionable materials and chemicals in their construction process.

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Certain pillows release a chemical smell when you first purchase them, known as “off-gassing.” Memory foam pillows in particular are known for off-gassing. This happens when the chemicals present in the pillow break down and disperse in the air.

These emissions stem from volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs are organic compounds present in objects that transform to vapors or gases. Keep in mind that almost all household products emit some form of VOC – even fruit emits VOCs. It’s really a matter of how harmful those emissions are. Some VOCs are highly toxic, while others have no known ill effects.

The odor from pillows that off-gas usually dissipates within a couple weeks. But keep in mind that some of these VOCs are actually odorless.

Memory foam pillows generally contain more chemicals than other types of pillows. However, the VOCs in the finished product (ie: the pillow) are considered to be stable, thus minimizing how much VOCs are released. While the majority of people can use memory foam pillows with no issue, some people are particularly sensitive to these emissions.

The topic of VOCs and off-gassing is a complicated one, and if this is a concern, we recommend that you look for certifications that signal a level of safety and purity, as well as low VOC emissions.

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What causes memory foam smell?

Memory foam smell comes from a reaction called “off-gassing.” If you have ever smelled fresh paint, dry cleaning, or the inside of a new car, that is off-gassing.

New foams and many other manufactured products experience off-gassing. It happens when “volatile organic compounds” (VOCs) break down. As opposed to being stable, these “volatile” (or unstable) compounds break apart, most commonly forming gasses — hence the term off-gassing.

In mattresses, the most common place to find VOCs is in the foam and adhesives. They can include chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), formaldehyde, benzene, methylene chloride, toluene, trichloroethane, naphthalene, perfluorocarbons.

Is off-gassing from memory foam toxic or dangerous?

The short answer is no. While the odor from mattress off-gassing is unpleasant,for most people it is not harmful. A small percentage of owner’s report difficulty breathing, headaches, nausea, eye and throat irritation, and asthma. The symptoms stop when the person is no longer near the mattress though, and go away once it airs out.

Also, despite the fact that some of the chemicals that cause mattress off-gassing odors are classified as carcinogens or potential carcinogens, no studies have shown memory foam is toxic or causes cancer. Still, many people choose to reduce their chemical exposure as a lifestyle choice, and want to sleep on a mattress as chemical-free as possible.

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How can you avoid memory foam smell and off-gassing?

Each memory foam mattress brand uses different materials and methods to create their products. That means some have significantly more problems with mattress off-gassing than others.

Research has also connected higher density foams with increased rates of odor complaints. Therefore brands using foam over 6.0lbs will likely smell worse.

Unfortunately, most mattress brands prefer to limit the information they share about what goes into their products. They claim it is to protect their trade secrets. That also makes it hard for consumers to feel confident they are choosing a relatively chemical-free mattress though.

Looking for certification from independent organizations like Certi-PUR can help. Because they independently test mattresses for VOCs and other chemicals, they give prospective buyers the information they need to make the best choice.

Here are some tips for purchasing pillows that contain fewer toxic chemicals:

  • Choose high-quality pillow types that use lower levels of chemicals from manufacturers that care about safety and sustainability
  • Look for third-party, independent certifications that indicate the pillow has been tested free of certain chemicals. Again, two of the more common certifications to look for include OEKO-Tex and CertiPUR(for foams)

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