I field a lot of questions about mattress manufacturers’ and retailers’ claims that their product is “all-natural” and “chemical-free.” Recently, a customer was confused about flexible polyurethane foam versus latex mattresses. “Is it true that latex is “chemical-free” and more “natural”? she asked.
First, let me clarify that we only certify flexible polyurethane foam, which comprises the far greater share of the bedding market. We do not certify latex foam. However, some of our participating foam producers do produce latex, and there are mattresses sold today that are made with both flexible polyurethane foam and latex foam layers. So, we are not anti-latex — just anti-misleading claims!
It has become increasingly difficult for consumers to navigate through the labyrinth of sometimes inaccurate and exaggerated claims that can be a minefield when shopping for a new mattress.
It is our policy to adhere to facts and to abide by the Federal Trade Commission Green Guides. These guides set guidelines for advertisers and were designed to prevent marketers from misleading consumers with hyperbolic and/or unsubstantiated claims. Among the claims we caution our participants not to use are terms like “chemical-free,” and “natural.”
Be wary of marketers that try to trick you into buying their products by talking badly about competitive products. Some who promote latex and cushioning materials other than flexible polyurethane foam make false or misleading claims about polyurethane foam to promote the materials they sell.
Unfortunately, some marketers will stretch factual boundaries to get your business. This is true across many industries, of course. Many consumers are led to believe that “natural” and “chemical-free” and similar buzzwords are credible claims made in association with mattresses when often they are not. The term “organic” in advertising, for instance, is often misused and largely unregulated. I’ll discuss mattress products that are called “organic” in an upcoming blog post.
The website Aeon offers this:
“The distinction between natural and synthetic chemicals is not merely ambiguous, it is non-existent. The fact that an ingredient is synthetic does not automatically make it dangerous, and the fact that it is natural doesn’t make it safe. Botulinum, produced by bacteria that grow in honey, is more than 1.3 billion times as toxic as lead and is the reason why infants should never eat honey. A cup of apple seeds contains enough natural cyanide to kill an adult human. Natural chemicals can be beneficial, neutral or harmful depending on the dosage and on how they are used, just like synthetic chemicals. Whether a chemical is ‘natural’ should never be a factor when assessing its safety.
Educating consumers that ‘natural’ products are not always safe will encourage smarter healthcare choices. Tighter regulation of marketing terms is also important. The global market for ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ personal care products is projected to reach $16 billion by 2020, even though those products generally have no demonstrated safety advantage over their ‘synthetic’ equivalents. ‘Pure’ should refer to single-ingredient products only. ‘Natural’ products should be sold exactly as they occur in nature, and ‘natural’ should be forbidden as a marketing term for cosmetics and other products. Finally, the use of ‘chemical-free’ — a logical impossibility — on product labels needs to be stopped.”
Here are some facts about the manufacturing process of both latex and flexible polyurethane foam (which includes conventional foams, memory foams and other innovative formulations).
- Latex originates as a milky white liquid tapped from the trunks of rubber trees. Latex foam rubber used for mattresses can be rubber that comes from rubber trees, synthetic rubber or a blend of the two. Without getting into the differences between Dunlop and Talilay latex manufacturing processes (which produce slightly different “feels” of springiness and bounciness), both rely on a chemical process called “vulcanization” to transform from a liquid to a solid substance. People who have a latex allergy may experience an immune system reaction to the proteins in the latex foam that comes from rubber trees. These allergic reactions to latex can range from a mild skin irritation to life-threatening shock.
- Flexible polyurethane foam, which includes memory foam (also called viscoelastic foam), is made from an entirely different process, which is designed to give it an almost infinite variety of “feels,” support and durability. It is made from a chemical reaction between raw materials that react and completely consume themselves in the process. Polyurethane foam is not a chemical. It is a manufactured product. It is light, quiet, hypoallergenic and has good resistance to mildew growth. It is the cushioning material of choice in most mattresses and upholstered furniture. Flexible polyurethane foams that are CertiPUR-US®-certified come with an additional layer of protection, having met our stringent Technical Guidelines and testing requirements.
Here’s the bottom line: Neither the latex nor the flexible polyurethane foam manufacturing process is “chemical-free.” That’s the simple truth. You should be suspicious of companies that claim their product is chemical-free. If they will tell you that, what else are they claiming that may not be true? See my blog post “Don’t Be Duped by Chemical Free Claims.”
In choosing a mattress and considering different cushioning materials, it truly comes down to your own personal preference, budget and other considerations. Do your research, try a variety of mattress types and styles if possible and make an informed decision — but don’t fall for misleading claims purely designed to lure your business with deceptive statements.
Ensuring that chemicals of concern are not in the foam you bring into your home in bedding products or upholstered furniture is exactly why the CertiPUR-US program was established in 2008.