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Are Memory Foam Pillows Safe? Is The Smell Toxic or Not?


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Memory foam pillows are among some of the most common pillows that are used for sleeping.

They are a good choice for anyone who has general difficulties sleeping comfortably, or anyone with a stiff or sore neck, shoulder or back pain, or suffers from headaches. Because of its synthetic material, memory foam pillows are also among the most affordable pillows.

There are many advantages to having a memory foam pillow. One of the biggest disadvantages though, is the strong, chemical odor (off-gassing) that emits from many of the memory foam pillows on the market.

So, one of the most common questions surounding memory foam pillows, is whether they are safe? There are some health risks associated with carcinogens off-gassing that emits from newly manufactured memory foam pillows. Memory foam pillows are safe once they’ve had the time to off-gas the chemicals that emits during the first few days after production.

We will take a look at not only how serious the health risks associated with the chemical smell in memory foam pillows are, we will look at how the memory foam material came into being.

We’ll learn more about the substances that make up the memory foam, and learn ways to make our pillows healthier by reducing allergens.

The Off-Gassing Period of Memory Foam

Memory foam pillows release a chemical smell when they’re first purchased, this is known as off-gassing. The off-gassing happens when the chemicals in the pillow break down and disperse in the air. These emissions stem from volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

It’s good to note here that most household products emit some form of VOC, to include carpets and furniture. It’s a matter of how harmful those emissions are; some are highly toxic, while others may not be.

The chemical odors from the memory foam pillow do go away in a few days on its own. Most people can use memory foam pillows with no issue, while some are more sensitive to the emissions.

The History of Memory Foam

Memory foam pillows were first developed by NASA in the 70s to help lessen the impact of takeoff for astronauts. The foam proved to be very useful and has widespread commercial applications today.

Memory foam is an excellent shock absorbing material. It offers safety in helmets, pads and plenty of other equipment because it was originally designed to prevent serious injury to humans.

Memory foam has been used in the medical industry for orthopedic purposes and for the disabled. It’s most common uses are for mattresses, pillows, shoes and blankets.

Memory foam has been applied to a large range of uses since its introduction – from revolutionary medical uses to gimmicky new product designs.

Memory foam pillows can be either solid-filled or shredded. Solid fillers give a supportive feel as your head sinks into the pillow, but the fill cannot move. Shredded memory foam pillows also give a supportive feel, but has a fluffier feel, since the fill is not solid.

Memory foam pillows are naturally hypoallergenic and resistant to dust mites and bacteria. They can still trap dead skin cells and sweat.

What is Memory Foam Made Of?

Memory foam consists primarily of a chemical called polyurethane. Memory foam is made by combining water, halocarbons, or hydrocarbons to polyurethane mix.

Other chemicals that are used to make memory foam include polyvinyl chloride, formaldehyde, boric acid, antimony trioxide, and different types of petrochemicals. These products combine to create a foam that’s more supportive than other foams and allows it to mold to our bodies.

Carcinogens Found in Memory Foam

A carcinogen is a substance or radiation that promotes cancer formation or carcinogenesis. They may be natural or synthetic, toxic or non-toxic. Benzene and Naphthalene are two carcinogens found in the making of memory foam.

Benzene is one of the most commonly used chemicals in the U.S. (ranks in the top 20). Natural sources of benzene include volcanoes and forest fires. It’s also a natural part of crude oil, gasoline, and cigarette smoke. Benzene has been proven to cause cancers like acute lymphocytic leukemia and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Naphthalene is made from crude oil or coal tar. It’s found in cigarette smoke, car exhaust, and smoke from forest fires. It’s used as an insecticide and pest repellent. There are over a dozen products containing naphthalene, including mothballs. Animals studies have also suggested that naphthalene can cause cancer.

Symptoms of Exposure to Carcinogens and Long-Term Health Effects

Benzene

People who breathe in high levels of benzene may develop:

  • Drowsiness
  • Dizziness
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • Headaches
  • Tremors
  • Confusion
  • Unconsciousness
  • Death (at very high levels)

Some long-term health effects of exposure to benzene include:

  • A decrease in red blood cells, leading to anemia (after long-term exposure of a year or more).
  • Irregular menstrual cycles for women, and a decrease in the size of their ovaries.
  • Can cause leukemia, a cancer of the blood-forming organs (after long-term exposure of a year or more).

Naphthalene

People who breathe in high levels of naphthalene may develop:

  • Fatigue
  • Lack of appetite
  • Restlessness
  • Pale skin

Exposure to large amounts of naphthalene may cause:

  • Confusion
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Blood in the urine
  • Jaundice
  • Cancer (type unspecified)

Other Health Issues Related to the Memory Foam Smell

Most people do not report any health issues or side effects from sleeping on their memory foam pillows. However, there are reports of individuals having headaches, nausea, and allergic reactions from the odor by other means.

Not only can off-gassing lead to chemical odor, but it can cause dizziness and respiratory problems for some people. It can also lead to toxic build-up and can have serious health consequences. Here are other chemicals used in memory foam that can have serious health issues.

  • Mercury – can lead to brain and liver damage.
  • Lead – can lead to brain and nervous system damage.
  • Phthalates – can harm the liver, kidney and the productive system.

Are Chemicals Only Found in Memory Foam Pillows?

Most pillows, even natural or organic, contain some form of chemical in either their processing or composition.

  • Memory foam pillows haves the highest amount of chemicals.
  • Latex pillows, whether blended (synthetic and natural), or all-natural, contain fewer chemicals than memory foam.
  • Down and feather pillows are clean, free from chemicals.

The fillers that are cleanest (from a hypoallergenic and chemical standpoint), are buckwheat, wool, kapok, organic cotton and millet. Note that they may be treated with chemicals for a variety of reasons.

Natural Alternatives to Memory Foam Pillows

If you enjoy the comfort and support memory foam pillows provide, but want to avoid the chemical smell, there are some alternatives.

Buckwheat pillows are natural, and are chemical-free. Pillows filled with down, cotton, wool, latex, kapok or millet hulls can also be considered good alternatives to memory foam.

How to Mitigate Allergens in Your Pillow

Allergens (dirt, body oils, dust mites, mold and fungi) and unnecessary chemicals in our pillows can be toxic or can cause an allergic reaction. This can make for unhealthy, unsafe sleep at night. To keep your pillow as healthy as possible, try doing these:

  • Wash your pillowcases and sheets as often as recommended.
  • Use pillow protectors, and wash them often.
  • Buy high-quality pillows that can be washed or cleaned.
  • Keep your pillow dry to avoid mildew. When you wash them, make sure they are 100% dry.
  • Vacuum your bedroom often, and dust your bedroom furniture.
  • Keep pets off the bed.

Chemicals Will Disipate From The Pillow After a While

Lastly I want to mention that even though a memory foam pillow isn’t the most healthy choice out there, the chemicals will disipate after a while.

The MemorySleep pillow that we sell don’t leave the manufacturer until after the off-gassing period. This means that after production all the pillows get placed in a special warehouse where they off-gas before they get shipped.

my-own-memorysleep-memory-foam-pillow
My own MemorySleep pillow. With no weird smell since day one!

So in summary, memory foam pillows are safe once they’ve had the time to off-gas the chemicals that emits during the first few days after production.

Interested in getting a memory foam pillow that will help you sleep better and more aligned? Then check out the completely safe MemorySleep pillow here.

Niklas Lampi

My name is Niklas and I'm the author and content operator at The Bedding Planet. I've always had a big interest in bedding and more specifically sleep. If I find something that makes me sleep better, whether that's a lifestyle change or a better bedding environment, I'm ready to share it with the world!

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