Should Memory Foam Smell?

Memory foam mattresses are an absolute godsend for people with back problems. Unfortunately, during the initial couple of weeks that you have one, they tend to make a particular smell.

That memory foam smell is caused by a process called off-gassing and will go away with time. 

There is more to know about memory foam, though. There are health concerns to address, alternatives for those who want chemical-free bedding, and more. So let’s get down to it, shall we?

What’s the Memory Foam Smell?

Just like a new car or fresh coat of paint, new memory foam mattresses have a particular smell associated with them. In short, this is caused by the volatile chemicals used in their manufacturing process escaping, or off-gassing. This happens with the aforementioned smells as well, you just didn’t know it. 

While some people may actually like this smell, others have reported several medical concerns such as lightheadedness, dizziness, nausea, headaches, and/or an allergic reaction.

Why Does Memory Foam Smell?

The process of off-gassing is caused by the chemicals used in the manufacturing process. Memory foam is made of and with petrochemicals (compounds made from petroleum and natural gas). If, however, the smell coming from your mattress is a more… natural one, consider reading our article about how to get wee out of your mattress.

Memory foam is made by adding chemicals to polyurethane to make it dense and more viscous. Often, this is accompanied by a fire-retardant treatment which can use a number of chemicals. These chemicals build up when the mattress is packed, and release when unpacked from its wrapping.

Is Memory Foam Toxic?

The unfortunate truth is that we don’t really know for certain. While some now-defunct manufacturing methods used genuinely toxic materials, most modern processes have changed. 

One such chemical is polybrominated diphenyl ether, AKA Pentabde. This is part of the PBDE family of chemicals, which are used in a wide variety of fields.

Its use was discontinued in 2004 when it was discovered to be toxic to your lungs, liver, thyroid, and nervous system. This CDC study breaks down the details more clearly, but in short – anything with PBDEs is generally not great for your health.

Many mattress retailers will tell you that their mattress isn’t actually toxic and this smell is totally fine. While that may be true, go with your gut. If it is making you feel ill, don’t wait around to find out how toxic the mattress is. 

In general, memory foam mattresses are safe – once they’ve been aired out. So don’t plan on sleeping on it the same night that you buy it. Keep your previous mattress around and allow your new one to air out in safety.

Will the Memory Foam Smell Go Away?

Allowing your mattress to air out in a room with opened windows will allow these chemicals to escape. 

Once the smell is no longer noticeable, you should be safe to sleep on it. If the smell doesn’t leave within two weeks, it’s likely that your mattress has something wrong with it. Whether this is a manufacturing defect or the manufacturer used toxic materials, it’s better to play it safe here.

This is where companies who offer a trial period on their mattress are great. If you notice issues, you’ll be able to return your mattress and shop around without hassle.

Alternatives to Memory Foam

There are three main alternatives to memory foam, varying in the degree of how “natural” they are: Geltex, latex, and buckwheat hull (though this is only for pillows). Here’s more information.

Geltex

Geltex is a breathable foam that’s mixed with gel. This results in a surprisingly firm yet forgiving surface that, most importantly, is breathable. There are three main benefits to this:

  1. Geltex is air-permeable, meaning it’s much more breathable than other materials. This allows it to cool off easily and off-gas more quickly and easily.
  2. Due to the above fact, it’s often less likely to heat up quickly. 
  3. It’s also harder for dust mites to target and get into than foam or a traditional mattress, allowing you a bit of cleanliness inherently.

Latex

Latex is a naturally occurring part of the rubber tree. The sap of the tree is processed into latex, and it doesn’t kill the tree, making this an environmentally friendlier choice. This results in a supporting and comfortable memory foam alternative.

The other benefits of latex mattresses include:

  1. No off-gassing; it’s a natural substance with no consistent chemical treatment. It will smell like latex, but that isn’t going to cause harm.
  2. It’s a great choice for those with allergies (assuming latex isn’t one of them). Because its creation process doesn’t require as many chemical additives, it’s less likely for you to have adverse reactions to a latex mattress.
  3. Again, dust mites won’t have an easy time finding a home in latex mattresses. 
  4. They’re generally vented and more breathable, allowing a cool surface to sleep on and preventing moisture buildup.

Buckwheat Hull

This is another natural alternative to memory foam, though it only applies to pillows at the moment. These are made from, you guessed it, buckwheat. So bad news to those of you (like me) with severe allergies. But for those lucky individuals out there with no allergies to worry about, this is a great all-natural alternative.

Among the benefits of buckwheat hull pillows are the following:

  1. All-natural, chemical-free, and soft bedding
  2. Breathability beyond that of a foam pillow. The shape and actual makeup of buckwheat mean that it leaves a good amount of air between the filling. This keeps it dry and cool. 
  3. More adaptability in shape. Memory foam is generally only a single shape, unlike buckwheat-filled pillows. Because they’re filled, you’re able to adjust the size and shape as needed throughout the night.

Final Thoughts

New memory foam mattresses and pillows have a signature smell created by off-gassing. This is the process of volatile and potentially toxic fumes leaving the foam as it expands. 

While there are some materials that were used in older mattresses that we now know to be toxic (Pentabde), generally they are safe for use after airing out. 

The most important thing here is that you listen to what your body is telling you. Feeling ill or as if you just huffed paint is not good. That’s your body telling you something is wrong and that you need to get fresh air. Even if your mattress manufacturer swears that there are no harmful chemicals in their product, the science simply can’t back it up. 

But saying “we don’t know if it’s toxic” is a lot less likely to get a purchase than, “Oh, absolutely not!” So be sure to ask what the treatment process looks like, and if you’re not confident, consider a natural alternative. One way or another, you deserve a good night’s sleep – so go find a healthy and comfy place to get it.

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About the Author Harry Thompson

Involved in home renovations throughout his life, Harry is an expert in everything to do with home and garden DIY. In his spare time, he enjoys cooking and tending to his garden.