These days, buying a new mattress can be just a matter of going on the Internet, researching, choosing a product, and then making an online transaction. No driving, no footwork, no showrooms; just a few clicks, and then a few days or weeks of waiting until your new mattress is delivered straight to your doorstep.
Usually, these new e-commerce companies ship their hybrid foam mattress variants compressed and rolled up in a compact package. Part of the fun of buying a mattress-in-a-box product is actually in opening it and watching the mattress expand to its full size. However, upon unpacking to allow the foam layers of the product to decompress, you may notice a faint, chemical-like odor—sometimes referred to as that “new mattress smell”.
Reminiscent of the same odor people associate with new furniture, new cars, or even opening a cans of paint; this smell is actually the result of many chemicals called Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) that have finally had a chance to “off-gas” after being built up from being sealed up during transport. It occurs in many items, and not just foam mattresses; although the packaging techniques applied to and subsequent unboxing process of these new mattress-in-a-box products make it all the more noticeable when it comes to them.
What Is Off-Gassing?
VOCs are found in thousands of modern, synthetic, and manufactured products—from household cleaners and wood glue, to carpeting and furniture, and even electronics and some toys and sports implements. Off-gassing is what happens when these VOCs break down and are released into the air as emitted gases or vapors from solid or liquid products. While it can sometimes be easy to tell when something is off-gassing, especially when it’s new, it can also be odorless and practically unnoticeable if it’s released in minute amounts.
Mattresses are particularly known for off-gassing because they very often have three main components that contain VOCs: the many types of foam used; the glue that is used to hold the layers in place; and the legally-required flame retardant property, which companies often fulfill through chemical or synthetic means. These VOCs include benzene, formaldehyde, methylene chloride, naphthalene, toluene, trichloroethane, and more.
Is Off-Gassing a Health Risk?
The short answer is yes. Some VOCs are safe and nothing more than an odor, but exposure to some VOCs has been associated with a myriad of medical problems; such as allergic reactions, asthma attacks, congestion, coughing, dizziness, fatigue, forgetfulness, headaches, skin irritations, and toxin buildup in the body. More serious issues like a higher risk of cognitive decline, or developing leukemia or lymphomas, have also been observed. However, don’t throw out your mattress just yet.
Here’s the long answer: Yes, but probably only in amounts that exceed levels that you’re exposed to daily. It’s likely that you’ve been using items with VOCs for your whole life without even knowing it. For example: dryer sheets, laser printers, mothballs, nail polish remover—even some clothes you wear, and non-stick pans that you use for cooking! VOCs are definitely more hazardous when you’re in contact or in close proximity to raw materials, as opposed to when you’re using finished products that are more stable and often subject to health regulations. The detrimental effects and health risks depend on many other factors, as well; such as the overall concentration of VOCs in your work and home environment, and both length and constancy of exposure to higher levels of off-gassing.
If you’re particularly sensitive to chemicals, or very allergy prone, you may find that you react more to VOCs than other people. For most, mattress off-gassing is mainly a problem because of the smell. If you are experiencing more than just mild discomfort due to the smell, you may want to look into getting a mattress that is organic; or at the very least, one that doesn’t use a lot of foam, like innerspring variants. After all, although many items have VOCs, you do spend a lot of time in bed and expose your whole body to its surface.
Does the “New Mattress Smell” Go Away?
Odor can be subjective; everyone’s nose is at a different sensitivity. Some people report that the new mattress smell disappears eventually; some can’t live with it and end up returning their mattresses and looking for something else to use. Some say that a faint smell resurfaces from time to time. The truth is that most people don’t even notice the smell after a while, even if it is there.
When you buy a new foam mattress—or any foam item, for that matter—the best thing to do is to let it breathe. Upon receiving it, do unbox it right away. If you can leave it outside the house, do so; but note that the area should not be prone to moisture, as this will give rise to a separate problem of mold or mildew. If not, airing the mattress out in a spare bedroom will do; preferably with a few windows cracked open for ventilation and a cross breeze. A fan for air circulation will also help. This is to allow the smell to dissipate, and can take anywhere from two days to two weeks–even longer for some products. If in an enclosed area, remember to throw away the packaging and take into account the fact that the smell may linger in the air even though it may no longer be coming from the mattress itself. Note that this process will only get rid of the smell; odorless off-gassing can continue for an unknown amount of time.
Mattress protectors and encasements rarely help. In the first place, these products are typically to guard against bed bugs or staining. Ones that are made of breathable material won’t stop the odor from coming out of the mattress; and plastic ones may have off-gas themselves. Even if you do find a plastic mattress encasement that doesn’t off-gas, all it will do is allow VOCs to build up; the concentrated off-gassing from the mattress will be released into the air anyway each time you remove the protector for cleaning or replacement.
What Else Can Be Done?
Short of buying an organic mattress or using a different kind of sleeping surface—like a hammock, straw pallet or a Japanese futon with natural wool or cotton stuffing—the best you can do it to make sure that you are using a foam mattress that has been independently tested and certified by organizations that ensure consumer safety.
Some organizations and certifications you should research and look out for when checking out possible mattresses to purchase: CertiPUR-US, Cradle to Cradle, Eco-Institut, Oeko-Tex, GOLS, and Greenguard Gold. Mattresses with one or more of these certifications are safe for sleeping and guaranteed to not release harmful amounts of VOCs.