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While memory foam mattresses typically top the charts in comfort and satisfaction ratings, one of the few complaints owners do have about this type of bed can be odor. Typically these last for 1-4 weeks and are caused by components used in manufacturing. Not all memory foam mattresses will be equal when it comes to off-gassing however. Learn what causes these odors, risks, and how memory foam types compare.
This is the term used to describe the chemical odor that new foams and many other manufactured products give off. Off-gassing specifically refers to the breakdown of volatile organic compound (VOCs). In mattresses, VOCs can be found in foam and adhesives. These can include chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), formaldehyde, benzene, methylene chloride, toluene, trichloroethane, naphthalene, perfluorocarbons and other chemicals that can range from innocuous to concerning.
As opposed to “stable," volatile means these compounds tend break down into other forms, usually gaseous, which results in an odor. If you have ever smelled new paint, aerosol sprays, new wood furniture, new car smell, or dry cleaning, you’re familiar with VOCs and off-gassing.
Off-gassing odors come specifically from the breakdown of VOCs. However, a new mattress can also have a general “new” smell not attributable to harmful chemicals. Even basic products like plant oils, fabric fibers, latex, and non-toxic adhesives can have detectable odors. The difference is that VOC odor tends to be stronger and longer lasting, and may generate more concern among owners.
While just an annoyance for most, the detectable odors from VOCs can have potential side effects for some people. A small percentage of people report difficulty breathing, headaches, nausea, eye and throat irritation, and asthma. The symptoms typically fade when the person is no longer near the off-gassing source or when the bed has sufficiently aired out. While some chemicals that can contribute to off-gassing odors are classified as carcinogens or potential carcinogens, no scientific studies have been conducted showing a definite link. However, more and more consumers are opting to reduce chemical exposure as a preemptive measure or lifestyle choice.
All new mattresses will have some type of odor for a short time after they are manufactured. To reduce your exposure to harmful chemicals, look for a mattress made without the worst offenders and plan to let the bed air out for 3-7 days in a well ventilated room or garage. Certi-PUR® certified foams are independently tested for harmful VOCs, phthalates, CFCs, heavy metals, formaldehyde and PBDEs, and only beds with very low VOCs will receive the certification.
Each memory foam manufacturer has their own “recipe” and thus the odor level can vary significantly between types. Research has also correlated higher density foams with higher rates of odor complaints, so brands using 6.0lbs and higher may be prone to stronger odors. Manufacturers also may prefer to keep information about their products limited to protect trade secrets, so it can be difficult to find out what may or may not be in a particular foam product. In addition to the manufacturer’s own claims, independent organizations like Certi-PUR® can tests for VOCs and other chemicals and provide consumers information.
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