Instead of bringing sweet dreams, one of the latest popular luxuries — memory foam bedding — seems to be giving many people headaches, and not only because the products are expensive. As the ads say, memory foam conforms to a sleeper’s shape — a characteristic that many people find comfortable (though I’ve heard others complain that it is cloying and/or hot). What the ads don’t say, however, is that memory foam is made with potentially harmful chemicals, such as petroleum-based polyurethane. Of course, plenty of other common products (from paints to shoes to the seats of your car) are made with the same chemicals, but they may be more irritating in bedding — not only because we spend so much time in bed, but also because nocturnal hormone fluctuations make vulnerable people even more reactive to allergens and irritants.

While I’ve seen no scientific studies linking memory foam bedding to health problems, I did see a recent report summarizing the many consumer complaints from purchasers who have developed skin rashes, difficulty breathing, disorientation, dizziness, nosebleeds, nausea, diarrhea, flulike symptoms, asthma attacks and other symptoms (including strange dreams, depression and anxiety) that they believe were caused by memory foam — especially in the first days or weeks of use. I queried Daily Health News contributing medical editor Andrew L. Rubman, ND, who affirmed that this can indeed be quite a serious problem.

“Off-Gassing” a Chemical Cloud

When you purchase a memory foam mattress, mattress pad or pillow, you may notice that the product emits a strong chemical odor when first unwrapped — it’s called “off-gassing.” Manufacturers have gotten better at masking these odors, but Dr. Rubman told me that even the products that don’t smell bad contain potentially toxic chemicals — and lots of them. One lab tested a memory foam mattress and detected 61 chemicals, including the carcinogens benzene and naphthalene. Specifics may vary from one product line to the next, but possible components include…
  • Formaldehyde, a preservative that is used as an adhesive to hold mattresses together. Exposure can cause swelling of the eyes, redness, itching and blistering in susceptible individuals. (For more on the dangers of formaldehyde, see Daily Health News, May 14, 2009, “Allergic to New Clothes? Formaldehyde Finish May Be the Cause.”)
  • Polyurethane, which emits volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that irritate the respiratory system, skin, eyes and lungs and is linked to asthma.
  • Cotton pesticides and toxic flame-retardant chemicals that are linked to cancer and nervous system disorders.
Another problem: Some patients who sleep on memory foam develop a skin condition called bromine dermatitis, that looks and feels like a bad case of eczema. It’s caused by a form of bromine that was used in flame retardants in memory foam mattresses manufactured prior to 2005.

Limit Your Exposure

Sleeping in bedding that gives off even low levels of hazardous chemicals can translate to an alarmingly high level of exposure over time. If you’re thinking of buying memory foam bedding, explore other options as well — there’s a growing selection of mattresses, pads and pillows made from natural latex (rubber) or organic cotton or wool. They don’t feel exactly like memory foam, but some quite nicely solve what Dr. Rubman calls “the pressure point challenges” of standard innerspring mattresses.

If you really want memory foam, Dr. Rubman recommends thoroughly airing your new bedding before using it. Stand the mattress or pillow on its side outdoors or in a warm room with an open window for a few days or weeks until the odor fades. Sleep with your window cracked open to facilitate air circulation — it can take months or even years for the chemicals to evaporate completely.

Like many luxury products, these are enticingly advertised. At a time when many of us could really use a better night’s sleep, I think it is important to be aware that this solution may not be as sweet as it seems.