About Polyurethane & Memory Foam

Virtually all mass market mattresses feature significant quantities of polyurethane or memory foam, making this article an excellent resource in helping to understand what these materials are all about.

This is an in-depth article of approximately 2,500 words. The links below skip directly to various sub-topics.

What is Polyurethane Foam?

Polyurethane is a polymer material made from reacting different monomer materials; isocyanates and polyols both derived from refined crude oil. Polyurethane foam is the most common upholstery material used today. It is found in almost all mattresses, sofas, the seats in your car, spray foam insulation and more. The main chemical ingredient is made of an isocyanate (toluene diisocyanate or methyl diphenyl diisocyanate being the most common). These chemicals makes up approximately two thirds of the weight of the finished foam.

One third of the finished weight of memory or poly foam is created from Polyols. This is a form of alcohol, which is almost always made entirely from petrochemicals. There are some polyols containing plant based alcohols (soy, castor bean, tea tree, aloe, et cetera), in very small percentages. These foams are often labelled as natural, which we feel is entirely misleading as the vast majority of the finished product is not natural and there is zero health related benefit to using plant polyols in polyurethane foam production.

The other critical part of making all polyurethane foam is a blowing agent. This is a chemical in the form of a gas which is blown into the mixture to turn it into foam, essentially aerating the mix. Different types of polyurethane and memory foams simply use different blowing agents. Some foams are water expanded, which is another clever way of suggesting that somehow the foam is natural. This is simply green washing. The process of making polyurethane is typically not as sophisticated as most would think. Although there are other methods for making ‘continuous’ pieces of foam on more expensive machinery the crude single batch method in the video below can produce foam of the same quality.

Video of Polyurethane Foam Production

CBC Marketplace Investigation

CBC article on spray polyurethane foam insulation making some homes unlivable

When installed incorrectly, spray foam insulation can result in a strong, unpleasant fishy smell from off-gassing that has driven some people from their homes, some complaining of difficulty breathing and other health problems. When contractors fail to address installation problems, homeowners can have little recourse. - excerpt from the CBC article

What is Memory Foam?

Simply stated, memory foam is polyurethane foam. Essentially, there are different primary ingredients involved in the mixture, and different blowing agents in the foaming process. Memory foam may also be called viscoelastic foam.

Memory foam is an improvement upon standard polyurethane as it is more durable and also offers moderately improved pressure relief and support. The enhanced durability is not because of the "memory" and is actually a result of the density of the material. Typical polyurethane foam used in mattresses is 0.8 to 1.8 lbs ft3 while most memory foam is 3.0 to 5.0 lbs ft3.

The "memory" in memory foam is actually due to the 'viscoelastic' nature of memory foam versus traditional polyurethane foam. Both varieties of foam will try to return to their original shape. Memory foam and polyurethane foam do break down over time. The only difference is that memory foam typically takes longer wear out. A high quality memory foam mattress usually provides 6-8 years of optimal support and comfort compared to the average life span of 3-5 years for traditional pillow top-variety mattresses.

Usable life spans are merely averages. For every person finding 8 years of good support from their memory foam mattress there would be just as many receiving only 2 years. On a daily basis we encounter folks who are replacing their pillow top or polyurethane/memory foam upholstered mattress in as little as 6 or 12 months.

Polyurethane Foam Durability

To simplify, the more dense polyurethane or memory foam is, the more durable it will be. The challenge with regular polyurethane foam is that as we increase the density, it becomes more brittle. As the density increases so too does the firmness, which creates the unfortunate side effect of the foam no longer being comfortable. This is the primary reason why most high density polyurethane foams are of the memory foam variety. Memory foam is more apt to offer additional flexibility and forgiveness as the density increases.

The limitations of this material in relation to density results in the vast majority of mattresses and sofas being made with low-density foam in an effort to ensure these products are comfortable to use. The issue is that this is the least durable way to upholster such products. The optimal support of mattresses and sofas with large quantities of low density foam is often measured in months and not in years.

Is Polyurethane Foam Flammable?

Whether intentional or not, many mattress salespersons will wrongfully inform their customers that mattresses are not treated with chemical flame retardants. This is simply untrue. As all forms of polyurethane foam are made up of hydrocarbons, they are exceptionally flammable. Thus, chemical additives are required to ensure the foam is less combustible.

Formaldehyde is the most common chemical flame retardant used in mattresses containing polyurethane or memory foam. This is because formaldehyde is abundant and very inexpensive. Less common today than it was even just 5 years ago PBDE's (polybrominated diphenyl ethers) can also be used as fire retardants in polyurethane foam; PBDE's are less common now than formaldehyde based fire retardants as they are known to bio-accumulate in breast milk, blood and fat tissues. This is a major concern as PBDE's can affect the brain and nervous system while in developmental years, as well as disrupting the thyroid and estrogen hormonal balance in humans. For any polyurethane foam that is actually produced in North America PBDE’s are now banned from use in production. However, some polyurethane foam products that are imported from other regions often do still use PBDE’s as a fire retardant.

If you have concerns about chemical flame retardants we suggest reading the law tag on the mattress. Even though there are no specific requirements for listing the chemicals inside the mattress, there is fortunately a law requiring the finished components to be listed on the tag. Thus, all we need to look for is "polyurethane foam." If this material is listed on the law tag, the mattress contains chemical flame retardants. It truly is this cut and dry, regardless of claims made by retailers or manufacturers.

There are alternative means of meeting fire safety regulations such as using Kevlar, boric acid, saline solutions, et cetera. Natural mattresses use sheep's wool in the external quilting layers of a mattress to provide a natural fire barrier.

Read More on Chemical Flame Retardants

Polyurethane Foams & Memory Foams Are Sensitive to Moisture

Moisture will speed up the degradation of all polyurethane and memory foams. It is important to keep moisture out of this material and to ensure the area around the material may breathe and have adequate air circulation. In the case of caring for your mattress, using natural materials such as sheep's wool is very important.

What is Natural Memory Foam?

There are two categories of "natural memory foam"

Slow-response latex
One variety of natural memory foam is actually a slow-response latex foam aggressively marketed as "natural." This slow responding latex foam contains additional chemical additives needed to inhibit the slower, "memory foam" type of responsiveness. This material does contain some natural content; however it still contains styrene and butadiene. These two chemicals are both volatile organic compounds (VOC's) and as such we feel it is inappropriate to market this foam as "natural memory foam." One must simply read the ingredients list to verify these two VOC's are present in this "natural memory foam."

This foam has been independently lab tested showing that the finished material contains approximately 3% bio based ingredients. However, the mean result is +/- 3%, which indicates the material tested is either as much as 6% natural based material or as little as 0%. PDF of Lab Report

On July 25, 2013 the Federal Trade Commission in the United States barred three different companies from advertising mattresses as free from VOC's. View the report here.

Plant-based foam
Some polyurethane foams incorporate plant alcohol in the chemical mixture. These sources can be soy beans, caster beans, tea tree, aloe and many others. As we touched on earlier, it is important to remember that these polyols can only be a very small percentage of the finished product. Although marketed as natural, we feel this is inappropriate. The Mattress & Sleep Company simply labels these foams as "Plant-based foam" to denote that in the products we offer with this material, a portion of the polyol has been replaced by a plant-based alcohol.

The only truly all-natural foam available today is natural rubber tree latex.

About Latex Foam

Does Polyurethane Foam Produce an Odour?

Yes. All varieties of polyurethane foam (including memory foam) produce an odour. All plant-based polyurethane foams (soy, castor bean, tea tree, aloe, etc) produce an odour, regardless of product claims.

This odour is commonly referred to as "off-gassing." The odour will dissipate with time. As each person is different, sensitivity to off-gassing will vary. There are also many chemicals used in polyurethane foam which have no odour, or no noticeable odour when the concentration in the air becomes low enough, which explains why the really noticeable odours dissipate with time. In truth the actual chemical off-gassing will never go away completely. If you are concerned about off-gassing, natural rubber tree latex foam is an alternative which does not contain harmful chemicals to any significant extent.

Note: Natural rubber tree latex foam also has an odour, although the key difference is that this odour is naturally occurring. This odour is not offensive for the overwhelming majority of our clients and is almost never noticeable unless you are inspecting the rubber without coveringsNatural rubber should not be confused with synthetically blended latex foam, which although may be considered "low VOC" by some measurements is still made from various petrochemical sources. The key consideration for those with multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS) is to avoid products which emit high levels of VOC's.

Does Polyurethane Foam Sleep Hot?

Yes. Polyurethane foam (including memory foam) is primarily a closed-cell foam. This means that neighbouring cells are walled off from each other, which does not allow much airflow. Although certain memory foams claim to be open-cell, the level of breathability in the real world is minimal. See the video below comparing the Vita Talalay latex found in our Berkeley Ergonomics mattresses compared to the most popular memory foam on the market.

This lack of airflow causes polyurethane foam to retain a great deal of heat. When a mattress is hot, the sleeper perspires more, disrupting deep sleep. Only a small number of polyurethane foam mattresses incorporate wool or other breathable natural fibres, and most of the time, these natural fibres are 5-10% of the overall blend, with the rest being polyester.

The Mattress & Sleep Company offers a variety of bedding products designed to help alleviate temperature concerns with memory foam mattresses. It is common to add natural fibres to a foam mattress to improve airflow.

When we sleep too hot, we perspire. How your mattress and bedding deal with this moisture is critical. This is why the optimal sleeping environment should incorporate layers of natural animal fibres such sheep's wool, alpaca, horse tail or camel hair. These natural fibres hold between 25 and 40% of their weight in moisture, whereas synthetic foams and fibres such as polyester can typically only absorb up to 1% of their weight. Also, natural animal fibres are scientifically proven to regulate temperature and steady the heart rate.

Learn more about non-allergenic wool

Another contributing factor to sleeping hot is that most mattress stores convince their customers to purchase a waterproof mattress protector. The issue here is that no matter what the marketing message claims, a waterproof mattress protector isn't very breathable. What ends up happening is that with minimal air circulation, you overheat easily and then your body perspires more to try and cool down. This moisture has nowhere to go since you're right up against a waterproof layer. This leads to a clammy feeling, which severely fragments sleep.

Waterproof mattress protectors should only be used when it is absolutely necessary. As a healthy alternative, The Mattress & Sleep Company offers both a Natura wool puddle pad and a Sleeptek organic wool puddle pad, which are very-nearly waterproof, yet crafted only from pure sheep's wool which will still regulate temperature and humidity while providing excellent moisture protection for your mattress.

Perhaps most important of all, your mattress protector, sheets, duvet and pillow all play just as significant a role in your sleeping temperature as does the mattress.