Choosing your next mattress? The most important ingredient is the foam it contains. Today, most mattress stores feature a bewildering array of foam varieties—and terms. Here’s how to decide between two popular contenders: latex and memory foam.
Latex comes in two basic categories—natural or not.
Synthetic or blended latex
Synthetic latex is made of petroleum-based oils and chemical additives. Some blends include a small amount of rubber. Chemicals typically added include formaldehyde and flame retardants, which have been proven dangerous to health. They increase risks of cancer, obesity, infertility, and developmental brain disorders such as autism and ADHD. Some synthetic foams (with names such as “bio”, “hybrid”, “eco” or “soy” foam) also contain a small percentage of plant oils.
Chemicals from these foams migrate into household air and dust, either as off-gassing vapor or in microscopic particles released every time the foam is pressed with use. The micro-particles are absorbed into ordinary house dust--dust flecks act like tiny chemical-absorbing sponges. Infants and children receive the greatest exposure and carry the highest chemical load in their bodies.
Natural latex is made from rubber tree sap that is whipped into liquid foam in a centrifuge, poured into molds or continuously onto a belt tray and steam baked. The highest-quality natural latex foam contains at least 95% pure rubber. Some natural latex producers have qualified for organic certification. Tiny amounts of antioxidants and additives are added to produce natural latex foam; chemical flame retardants are not.
Brands advertising “100% pure” or “100% natural” latex are using inaccurate language, because “100%” is an absolute term. If “100% pure” rubber sap were baked with no additional ingredients, it would turn into unusable goo that could not be processed into foam. A simple analogy would be putting “100% milk” into the oven expecting a fluffy custard to come out.
Detecting the difference
The best way to confirm whether natural latex is being advertised honestly is to view objective, independent certifications.