What Is Memory Foam? Is It Safe And Good For Sleep?

Not entirely sure what memory foam is? Over the past five years, we have seen a growing trend in the popularity of memory foam mattresses, and for good reason! They provide a unique sleeping experience vastly different from other more common mattress materials such as latex and innerspring. In this article, we will take a deeper look at what memory foam is all about, and how it helps you sleep better at night as a pillow filling and mattress sleeping surface.

What Is Memory Foam?

Also known as temper foam, memory foam was developed by NASA in the 1970s to improve seat cushioning and crash protection for airline pilots and passengers. We now find the material used for many commercial applications, including for building insulation, airplane and automobile seats, helmets, and hospital beds.

What is it made of?

Memory foam is mainly made of polyurethane, a chemical compound also found in things like wheels, adhesives, electronic instruments, condoms, and watch straps. This chemical is used for its highly resilient, durable, and heat resistant properties.

We also find other materials that are included in memory foam ever since the first inception of gel particles fused with visco foam. The inclusion of cooling gel reduced trapped body heat, improved memory foam’s slow responsiveness (springing up after you get off it), and help the material feel softer. This infusion created gel memory foam mattresses.

What is gel memory foam?

The gel infused into memory foam are best described as “beads” that contain phase-change material, or PCM. PCM is most popularly found in reusable ice packs. This material is able to store and release large amounts of heat, providing a better regulated sleeping surface temperature and offering a sort of “cooling effect” as it absorb heat over time.

Since cooling gel have been introduced, we find mattress companies testing different formulas and mixture of other materials including cooling gels. When choosing a mattress, you will find materials such as aloe vera, green tea extract, copper, and activated charcoal combined with foal. These materials on their own provide a wide range of properties, such as reducing odor, providing a fresher sleeping surface, and reduce heat trapping.

RELATED: The Top 5 Best Gel Memory Foam Mattresses for 2018

Is memory foam toxic?

All mattresses sold in the United States must withstand a fire test, as per federal guidelines. The fire test involves the mattress withstanding an open flame for a specific period of time. The way this is done is with the use of fire retardant materials put in the mattress. However, not all fire retardant materials are safe. What makes a mattress possibly dangerous are high levels of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs.

Memory foams and other foam-based materials are certified by a reliable third party called CertiPUR-US. This company is one of many that work with regulatory government bodies to certify the safety of materials used in mattresses and bedding products. Although not all fire retardant materials are safe, when they are combined and fused with other “stable” products, we end up with a significantly minimal amount of VOC.

What you smell from new mattresses is the lingering odor and scent of these VOCs, and nothing more than odor. Humans and plants also release types of VOCs as part of biological processes. Although not all foam is made the same, only a small percentage of consumers who have bought memory foam for beds have had experienced allergic-type reactions compared to thousands who have owned this type of mattress without incident over the past 25 years.

Are Memory Foam Mattresses Good?

In short: YES!

The most arguably best trait of memory foam is its moldability to the unique curves of your body when pressure and heat is applied (both that happens when you lay on it). As the memory foam molds to your body, it captures every pressure applied throughout your body by your own weight and evenly distributes it. This makes memory foam a great candidate for better sleep. If you find yourself feeling pressure on particular parts of your body (pressure points), memory foam can relieve the pressure as the foam softens underneath you. The moment you get up, memory foam returns to its original shape.

Memory foam mattresses are usually made with two or more layers of foam. By combining several layers, mattress companies can create more cushion and provide different grades, density, and construction that can influence the firmness and feel of the bed’s sleeping surface.

Memory foam pillows do the same as well. As we find in mattresses, the material can be changed and infused with other ingredients during the creation and manufacturing process. This gives memory foam material versatility and new dimensions for improvement.

We find memory foam useful for all sleepers and helpful for specific problems, such as:

  • providing support for heavy sleepers
  • relieving back problems and lower back pain
  • supporting side sleepers relieving pressure on their shoulders and arm

Great for sleepers with pain or in need of pressure relief

This type of material does an excellent job for those who are suffering from joint pain and arthritis. Older individuals or anyone feeling aching pain and soreness can benefit from the pressure relieving properties of memory foam.

By itself, memory foam have eliminated the need for pillow top mattresses. Regular foam lacks the contouring capability which padding from pillow top sleeping surfaces aim to provide. However, the inconsistency in design for pillow top mattresses have caused a pain point in consumers, not to mention the quality of padding is more prone to sagging.

With memory foam, we see its incorporation into many mattresses. Innerspring, for example, combined with several supportive, quality memory foam layers create a new category of mattress materials we call hybrid mattresses. This mattress type puts the best of both worlds together, providing pressure relief and bounciness to your sleep.

Great for light sleepers who need minimal motion transfer

If you find yourself frequently waking up in the middle of the night because of tossing and turning, either from yourself or your partner, memory foam can help resolve this movement sensation so you can continue your sleep undisturbed.

NASA created the memory foam material with the intention of reducing the amount of pressure and impact on the human body launching into space. This means a material that is comfortable to sit on and can withstand both heat and absorbing shock without passing it into the body. We find reviewers conducting water cup tests on mattresses as a demonstration of memory foam’s capability to absorb pressure.

As great as the material sounds, there are some drawbacks. For example, they retain heat very well and may feel too hard for some people. We will cover the bad stuff about memory foam in more detail below.

The Drawbacks of Memory Foam

Memory foam is a very popular choice for a mattress material and pillow filling. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean it might be the right fit for you. Let’s take a closer look why memory foam might not be great.

It can be difficult to lift

Most mattresses in general are nowadays shipped in a box, which can make carrying the mattress to your bedroom easier and more convenient. The way memory foam is built makes it much denser than other materials, like latex foam and pocketed innerspring coils. This is great if you are looking for a firmer mattress to support back pain or pressure relief as a side sleeper, but unless you have help, it might be difficult to move on your own.

Although, most mattresses shipped to your home will most likely be a two-person job for safe moving. More premium models of mattresses come with handles sewn into the cover to help make pulling and lifting the mattress much easier. The same also applies for pillows when we might lift the memory foam pillow to place it on the other side of our body.

What’s with the smell?

Memory foam is made with polyurethane and other chemicals so it might not be surprising that some odor exist once the mattress or pillow is unpackaged from its sealed plastic wrapping. Known as “off-gassing”, the fuming smell comes from the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) used to make the memory foam. The smell is comparable to a freshly painted room. The good news is the smell eventually goes away. The bad news is for the sensitive nose, it might not be gone entirely. This can make sleeping unpleasant.

Our best advice for this is to let the memory foam product to sit on its own to air out, making sure you have your windows and doors open for ventilation. It can take anywhere between a day to two weeks before the smell has vanished. If you aren’t already, using bed sheets can also help with the smell. As part of a good sleep hygiene, bed sheets should be changed weekly. If you find the smell unbearable, changing it more frequently can help with the smell. You can also use fragrance or other scents nearby to help with the initial odors of memory foam.

RELATED: How To Get Rid Of Memory Foam Smell

Are memory foam mattresses hot?

Although there have been many improvements to the way memory foam mattresses are built and the introducing of infused materials, memory foam mattresses is relatively warmer and retain heat well. Compared to other materials, memory foam is generally denser and its heat retaining nature makes it great for insulation (which is why we see it being used in buildings and construction).

Things like cooling gel is now becoming common even in lower price classes of mattresses and pillows. We also find the porous air holes being used, open cell structure construction, convoluted layers with gaps for airflow, and other cooling materials being used such as copper, graphite, and other conductive materials for absorbing heat significantly better.

RELATED: Best Cooling Mattresses

Why Do Prices Of Memory Foam Mattresses Vary So Much?

Much of the mattresses on the market cater to particular sets of customers. For simplicity, we look generally at inexpensive mattresses and premium high-class mattresses.

When it comes to cheap and inexpensive mattresses, they are great because of the money savings upfront. Cheaper models tend to include only a thin layer of quality memory foam. From what we have seen, for a 10-inch mattress, a premium would have a full 10-inch set of layers made from memory foam while a low budget model would have 1-2 inches of memory foam with the rest being regular foam.

The difference between regular traditional foam vs memory foam: Memory foam has a different cell structure that allows it to be “responsive” to bodyweight, molding as you sink into it. Regular foam, as most foam can be, lack this ability to respond to pressure and heat, which makes it less pressure relieving but slightly more bouncy. Regular foam is inexpensive to make, and manufacturers of lower class mattresses will use this type of foam to give the mattress a comfortable shape for consumers to get on and off their beds easier.

So regular foam is used more in cheaper mattress models, with memory foam as the upper layer and lower quality material used underneath. We find that cheaper models tend to lose its shape and collapse sooner than premium mattresses, which is why we find warranties have less duration (<1 year) or none at all.

Premium mattresses can last much longer, which can make up for the overall cost year over year. We find the foam used in premium mattresses are much denser, with 100% of the foam being made with memory foam. Denser models provide more comfort and support for proper sleep, and are less likely to develop sagging within a few short years.

We find mattresses priced in the $700 and greater range to have warranties at a minimum of 10 years. Trial periods, as a bonus, tend to be much longer ranging from 90 days and greater, giving you more time to test the mattress and return if it doesn’t work out for you.

There are also a variety of unique mixtures into the memory foam that give it a more “luxury” feel and doing more for your sleep. For example, aloe vera, copper, and cashmere are one of many new ingredients used to enhance your sleeping experience. Quality fabric covers that are built for breathability are also found in more expensive models for cooler sleep experience and feel.

RELATED: Why Are Mattresses So Expensive

How Long Does A Memory Foam Mattress Last?

Memory foam mattresses can easily last more than 10 years. However, over time and depending on how much pressure is being placed on it, sagging can develop and create awkward sleeping positions that can cause aches and pains. As memory foam mattresses are used, they can become compacted and be left with indentation.

We recommended in our mattress guide on how long different mattress materials last that memory foam mattress should be considered for replacement somewhere 6 to 7 years. It isn’t out of the ordinary to hear memory foam mattress owners keeping their beds for more than 10 years.

RELATED: How Long Does A Mattress Last?

Our Final Thoughts

Mattresses made from memory foam can be a great choice for those who have aches and pain when they sleep. Despite the drawbacks of smell and heat, memory foam mattresses are much cooler for sleep with the introduction of new construction, designs, and infused materials. We find mattresses in all price classes, with varying qualities and ways to make your sleep experience comfortable and supportive. If you are considering memory foam mattresses, be sure to check out our memory foam bed buyer’s guide where we dive deeper into reviewing top recommended mattresses we deem the best on the market.

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