On Friday, I posted part 1 our first big announcement of three for March, which was that we finally got some brand new mattresses! I also laid out (hehe) all the reasons why we chose to forgo the conventional interspring mattress in favor of natural latex. For more on why we made our choice, check out the post!
Today we’re going deeper into our research to publish most of what we learned about latex, because there is a lot to learn! There are different manufacturing types, levels of firmness, options for mattress thickness and number of layers, how the layers are fixed (or not fixed) together, methods for wrapping the layers together, and different types of mattress toppers available. So let’s jump right in so you can gain a little insight from all the work we did!
There are two methods for “curing” latex: Dunlop and Talalay. In either case, the white liquid that comes from the Hevea tree is whipped into a frothy mix, placed into a mold, and cooked, much like waffle batter being cooked in a waffle maker. The mold has a bunch of rods in it so that the finished latex has a cellular structure, which keeps the mattress breathable. After the foam has cured, it is removed from the mold and rinsed. From there the latex is cut to mattress size (or part of a mattress, in the case of Talalay) and stacked up with a bunch of other layers, waiting to be combined into a mattress.
The whipped latex mixture being poured into a mold for curing (Image from myessentia.com)
For the Dunlop process, that’s about all there is to it. Dunlop has often been called the more eco-friendly process because it does not add any other chemicals to the mixture and it does not go through any other processing. It is also said to be more economical because there are no additional seams to add (doesn’t increase labor costs) and it creates a more consistent product.
Dunlop is said to be a heavier, denser, firmer, and more durable material. For the most part, the Dunlop process typically deals with 100% natural latex, but it can certainly be mixed with synthetic latex, or it could be a 100% natural layer of latex mixed with synthetic layers. Therefore it is very important to ask the company from which you’d like to purchase to make sure the mattress you’re buying is made of 100% natural, non-synthetic latex.
The Talalay process builds on the Dunlop foundation. After whipping the latex and curing it in the mold, the mattress is then sent into a vacuum chamber where all the air is extracted from the foam. It is then flash frozen with chemicals to stabilize the structure. Carbon dioxide gas is added to help the mattress gel. Finally the mattress is baked at 220 degrees.
Talalay pieces can only be so big because of all the extra processing they must go through, so most beds need to have a seam down the middle where the mattress pieces are glued or stitched together. Glue is often filled with chemicals, so that is something to consider.
Talalay is lighter, less dense, less firm, and has been said to show wear faster (although most manufacturers will state it is just as durable as Dunlop). The manufacturing process takes more energy since there are more steps to go through and labor required to stitch pieces together. There is an issue with consistency of firmness due to the lengthy and variable process. There is also no such thing as 100% natural Talalay latex, since chemicals are added in the curing processes that cannot be washed off, even if the latex that started off the process was 100% natural.
Sap being collected from a Hevea tree (Image from Sumatran Feet)
Besides Dunlop vs Talalay, the next major difference in latex is natural vs organic. This has less to do with the manufacturing process and more to do with the growing process of the Hevea tress, but I thought I’d sneak it into this section anyway. An organic mattress is made from latex harvested from trees that have not been treated with inorganic pesticides or fertilizers, just like our food. A natural mattress uses latex that may have come from trees that have been treated. The cool thing about Hevea trees is that they don’t require fertilizers or pesticides in order to grow to their fullest potential. Hevea trees need to be in a tropical climate, so they are found primarily in the low-altitude, moist rainforests of South America. The only real trouble with the trees is that the moist environment does sometimes cause leaf diseases from mildew. This is usually controlled with sulfur dusts but can be treated with chemicals if the grower choses to go that route. Therefore, the biggest difference I’ve found between the “naturally” grown Heveas and the organic ones is the guarantee that organic trees are not treated with any chemicals that don’t conform to organic standards (keep in mind that there are such things as organic chemicals!). Organic mattresses will also be certified by a third party such as Oeko-Tex. Make sure the certification company is not the same company that is selling the mattress (as that would be a conflict of interest).
Whether you choose Dunlop or Talalay, organic or natural, make sure to ask these questions to ensure you’re getting a chemical-free bed:
- Is any part of the latex in this bed synthetic? Is it a mix of natural and synthetic latex? Are there synthetic layers mixed with a natural layers?
- Any fillers used in the latex milk, like calcium oxide or titanium dioxide?
- Are there any fillers that were used as part of the curing process?
- Was the mattress treated with any waterproofing or fire-retardant chemicals?
- Where is the latex from? What are the farming practices there (pesticides, fertilizers, etc)? This may be a very hard question for manufacturers to answer, but they should be able to at least find the source of their latex.
- If an organic mattress, what third-party company has certified the mattress? (You might want to research the reputation of the certification company if you’re unfamiliar with it.)
Firmness and Layers
Just like conventional interspring mattresses, latex mattress are offered in a variety of firmness options, typically medium firm, firm, and extra firm. Often firmness is controlled with a mixture of Dunlop and Talalay layers, although it is possible to find a 100% Dunlop mattress that is medium firm (we found one and bought two of them!). The firmness is varied by making the mattress more or less dense, but rather than me going into the subject of how latex achieves a certain firmness, I think I’ll just point to this article by Savvy Rest that explains the science and methods better than I could. Plus this post is already getting long and we’re only on the second section!
Firmness is also controlled by stacking latex layers of varying densities. This can also control the thickness of the mattress. In our case, we now have a mattress with two layers of Dunlop latex – one 6-inch firm layer and one two-inch medium firm layer. That gives us an 8-inch thick mattress which is a lot closer to the thickness of our old conventional mattress. We also opted for wool toppers on our beds, which further increases the mattresses thickness. We’ll get to the discussion on toppers in a bit.
Our mattress has one 6-inch firm layer and one 2-inch soft layer
Firm latex mattresses would typically have two layers (or three) of latex with the same density. This type of mattress could be both rotated and flipped if desired. However, latex mattresses don’t need to be flipped! They just don’t wear like conventional mattresses. Latex wears differently, more uniformly. It does not hold body impressions like conventional mattresses do. It doesn’t sag or compress. Since those “impressions” are the whole reason for flipping, then it just doesn’t need to be done with a latex mattress. So there are two reasons latex saves your back – from the comfortable sleep every night and by saving the work needed to flip the mattress!
One more thing to look for about firmness is perimeter support. Some latex mattresses add perimeter support so that you can sit on the edge of the mattress and feel a little more supported, similar to a conventional interspring mattress. The unfortunate thing about added perimeter support in a latex mattress is that it is almost always made of polyurethane foam, not latex. It also reduces the latex sleeping surface by 20% in most cases. If the mattress you’ve found offers perimeter support, ask lots of questions about it to make sure it isn’t spoiling your chemical-free bed. I’ve been sitting on the side of my bed a lot today and I can tell you I feel supported just fine.
Here are some questions to ask about firmness and layers:
- Are there any layers of synthetic latex in this bed?
- Does this mattress need to be flipped periodically?
- Does this mattress have perimeter support and, if so, from what material is it made?
- Does this mattress have a warranty and, if so, how long is it and what does it cover? (Warranties usually cover a certain measurement of compression over time, which is why I’m putting this question here.)
Fixing the Layer Together
There are a couple of options to fix your latex sandwich, if you will. The options depend on the manufacturer of the mattress, but they typically include glue, stitch, and gravity.
The glue option can be risky. Glues typically contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which most definitely release toxic vapors. This basically takes your well-researched, 100% natural latex bed back down a few notches. It’s like putting a GMO- and sugar-filled salad dressing on your beautiful home-grown organic salad. If you choose to go with glue, ask a lot of questions about the type of glue used. Even water-based glues can be trouble, so get informed.
You might be able to have the layers stitched together, which is an especially good option if you’re buying a king-sized mattress that definitely will have a seam down the middle. Stitching involves no glue (make sure this is the case though), so you avoid additional toxins getting into your “clean” mattress.
The layers of my new bed! No glues or stitches needed.
In our case, we don’t have a middle seam in the queen and twin mattresses we purchased and we opted to simply have gravity keep the layers together. If you’ve ever felt latex foam, you’d know how it’s very possible to stack up some layers and not have them move around on each other. The foam isn’t smooth, it’s kind of rough like a cat’s tongue. The layers really aren’t going to be moving around, no matter what kind of movement is occurring on your bed.
When it comes to fixing the layers together, the questions are pretty simple:
- How are layers or sections fixed together?
- If glued, what kind of glue is used? Does it contain VOCs?
- If stitched, is there any glue used as well?
As far as I’m aware, all latex mattresses are wrapped up in some kind of material. Of all the mattresses we researched from local companies, the wrapping options were either cotton or organic cotton. The wrap helps to keep the layers all nice and snug together. It also helps folks who might have a latex allergy, as there’s a layer of material between the sleeper and the mattress. Latex is a contact allergy, so as long as that extra layer is there, folks with allergies shouldn’t have a problem sleeping on a latex bed (of course I’m not a doctor or an allergist so make sure you fully check out this claim and the materials used before committing to purchase).
The latex layers all wrapped up on comfy organic cotton
I don’t know of mattresses that aren’t wrapped, but in my research I found that the wrapping really just depends on the manufacturer. So as you find companies in your area that carry natural latex mattress, be sure to ask what the mattress is wrapped in and do your research on that material.
More simple questions about mattress wraps:
- What material is used for the mattress wrapper/casing?
- Is the wrapper washable and, if so, how easy is it to get back on after being removed? Do you recommend removal or spot-cleaning?
- Does the wrapper claim to protect against latex allergy reactions? (If that is a concern for you.)
- Is the wrapper waterproof or fire resistant? (Watch out again for those chemicals!)
This one can vary a bit too. The mattress topper we saw was primarily wool, but it came in a variety of thicknesses and from lots of different suppliers. Wool is a fire retardant, so if you’re buying a 100% natural latex mattress that is not treated with fire retardants, you’ll either need a doctor’s prescription to get around the federal fire retardant laws or you’ll need a wool topper. As with all these materials, though, it is important to ask probing questions to make sure the wool has not been treated with chemicals, either to make it more resistant to fire or for any other purpose.
Wool toppers have more benefits than just resisting flames! They are great temperature regulators, staying warm in the winter but also cool in the summer. Wool is also resistant to dust mites and it’s moisture resistant. Keep in mind that it is not waterproof, though, so if you have a heavy spill on a latex mattress with a wool topper, make sure to take the topper off and let both surfaces thoroughly air dry to prevent mold.
Wool toppers do need to be replaced about every five years, as they will compress more than latex. Keep this in mind when you’re adding up your investment dollars over the life of the mattress.
Our wool topper, also covered in organic cotton
Other than wool, there are also latex mattress toppers. These are usually a layer of less dense, less firm latex. Most of the latex toppers I’ve seen are Talalay latex, but there are Dunlop latex toppers available. The shop we bought from only sells Dunlop latex and they had several latex toppers to choose from.
In addition to wool or latex mattress toppers/pads, there is a third and final layer that can go on a mattress. We purchased a thick organic cotton pad in an attempt to add more water resistance to our mattress. With a young child in the family, you never know what could spill (or leak) onto our mattress at any time of the night (or day). While our cotton cover still isn’t water proof, it will delay the absorption of water into the wool and latex long enough that we might be able to avoid taking the wool topper off to dry so that mold won’t develop.
The final layer – the organic cotton pad
No matter what, if you choose to have a mattress topper, make sure you ask the same questions about it that you asked about the mattress itself. A 100% natural, chemical-free bed doesn’t account for much if the topper is filled with chemicals. Make sure to ask about the manufacturing process, how (and if) it is secured to the mattress, and if it is treated with any chemicals, fire retardant or otherwise. Also keep in mind that any mattress topper, pad, or cover that is water proof (not water resistant) is guaranteed to have waterproofing chemicals applied to it. So read the labels carefully as well as asking thorough questions of your manufacturer.
Some specific questions about toppers would be:
- What mattress toppers/pads are available? From what materials are they made?
- Are the mattress toppers treated with waterproof or fire retardant chemicals?
- How is the topper secured to the mattress?
Now that you know all these wonderful facts about latex mattress options, where do you go to find one? Just like the beds themselves, there are more options than you might realize.
IKEA: IKEA sells primarily Talalay latex. Their mattresses do tend to be significantly less expensive, but don’t expect to get the longevity from them that you might get from other manufacturers. We read lots of reviews of IKEA mattresses, covering all their suppliers, because we really wanted to get all the benefits of latex for less price. But we found the vast majority of reviewers were only happy with their mattress for about two years. After that, the mattress started to compress a lot and get really uncomfortable. We also read lots of reports of chemical smells coming from new IKEA latex mattresses, which suggests there may be more chemicals used in the manufacture or post-manufacture treatment of the materials. IKEA claims that there have been changes made to the manufacturing processes to reduce chemicals and make the mattresses more durable, but only time will tell if they can really last.
Department Stores and “traditional” Mattress Stores: They will typically sell Sealy, Serta, Memory Foam, Tempurpedic, and other brands that use synthetic latex. Unfortunately it is the big, “trusted” brands that consumers need to check the most carefully when looking for a 100% natural mattress. Ask all the questions – is the mattress material any kind of synthetic blend, is it Dunlop or Talalay, are all the layers made of the same material, were any chemicals used in the manufacturing process, were any fire retardants used to treat the mattress, etc, etc. It sucks that consumers have to be so careful about these things, but these big companies are typically out to make money, not protect our interests. So keep that in mind at the department store (actually keep that in mind at any store!). “Traditional” mattress stores are stores like Sleep Company, American Mattress, your local “Beds R Us,” and any store that just sells mattresses and beds.
Online Stores: There are a lot of great options out there for buying a 100% natural latex mattress online. A lot of them get great reviews, offer a quality product, and their prices are reasonable. However there is a huge downside – you can’t try before you buy! Checking out the bed before purchasing is really important. I was sure we’d all want to go for firm mattresses with soft wool toppers, but once we tried out a few beds we were all sold on medium firm. Look for a store that offers a trial period, a money-back guarantee (with free shipping!), or at the very least an exchange option. Also, make sure you can call a representative who is knowledgable enough to answer all the questions you need to ask to make sure you’re getting a quality, chemical-free bed.
Local Stores: If you can find them in your area, this is by far the best option. Local stores will likely be very closely connected, if not immediately connected, to the manufacture of your bed. If you’re lucky, the bed is also assembled in your local area, which is good for your local economy. In the Portland area we have two stores that are highly recommended for latex, Mulligan Mattress and Cotton Cloud.
Whew! That is a lot of information! I hope it helps you in some way if you have a new mattress purchase coming up. Check out the sources I’ve cited below for EVEN MORE information, if you can handle it at this point.
Buying a latex mattress comes with lots of details, but figuring them all out is totally worth it to get not only a more comfortable night’s sleep but a chemical-free one as well. Best of luck in your research!