Mattress Guides

Do Mattresses Contain Flame Retardants?

Flame retardants can protect your mattresses in case of fire, but are they dangerous for your health?

By Alex Reale

Mattress construction has evolved over the years to make mattresses more comfortable, more durable, and much safer. When looking into the composition of a mattress, you may notice that it contains certain chemicals known as flame retardants, which are beneficial, but may be slightly concerning. Take a look at this overview of flame retardants and their role in mattress construction, as well as an analysis of whether they’re dangerous for sleepers.

What Are Flame Retardants?

Flame retardants are materials added into the construction of certain combustible objects that are designed to lower flammability and slow down the start or spread of a flame. You’ll find that most furniture and electronics made in the past few years contain some form of fire retardants in order to mitigate fire-related disasters, especially around the home. That extra layer of protection can increase the potential escape time for people in the case of an accidental fire that warrants them to leave the home.

Flame retardants are also sometimes made from volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are known to contribute to mattress off-gassing, the act of a mattress releasing chemicals into the air.

Why Do Mattresses Contain Flame Retardants?

According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) flammability standards of 2007, all mattresses must contain flame retardants in their construction so that they can withstand exposure to open flames for a certain period of time. This was done in order to maximize people’s safety and to give everyone peace of mind knowing that there is an extra fire barrier while they are asleep. Mattress pads and toppers may contain harmful chemicals, but they typically aren’t subjected to CPSC regulations.

Although flame retardant chemicals are shown to offer extra safety in flame tests, there is still concern about introducing these chemicals into mattress construction. Since the CPSC added this new safety standard, people have been curious about the necessity of flame retardants and whether these toxic chemicals are dangerous to them. 

The truth is, it’s a bit complicated.

Are They Dangerous?

The term, “flame retardants,” encompasses a wide range of chemicals and materials, so you cannot say that all flame retardants are safe or all flame retardants are dangerous. There are certain harmful chemicals and materials that are indeed dangerous and should be avoided. While shopping for a new mattress, avoid the following flame retardants that can pose health risks.

Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs)

PBDEs were part of the first wave of flame retardants introduced in the mattress industry and are typically found in polyurethane foam. These chemicals are very dangerous as they can be absorbed into other materials, including your own body. PBDEs can dissolve into your tissue and stay there, accumulating over your lifetime and possibly causing health issues later on in life.

Fortunately, PBDEs were banned in the United States in 2005, which means there is very little concern as to whether your new mattress will have them. However, if you’re purchasing an old or used mattress, or if it was made outside the United States, then you’ll want to do your research and proceed with caution.

Boric Acid

Boric acid, most often found in roach killers and pesticides, is a water soluble chemical with a high level of toxicity that can also be absorbed by your skin, just like PBDEs. Long-term exposure to this substance can eventually cause kidney damage, and certain studies have indicated that it can also result in impaired fertility and even cardiovascular issues.

Antimony Trioxide

Antimony Trioxide is labeled a toxic substance according to the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). It is slightly water soluble like boric acid, but it is usually airborne, especially in mattress use. Excessive inhalation of this chemical can lead to problems like respiratory irritation, intestinal inflammation, and pneumoconiosis. High levels can also lead to Adam-Stokes syndrome, which affects heart activity and circulation.

Decabromodiphenyl Oxide

Similar to PBDEs and antimony trioxide, decabromodiphenyl oxide (also sometimes referred to as Deca) can be water soluble, and substances like sweat or saliva can bring it to the surface of the mattress, which can lead to your body absorbing it. Deca has also been found in samples of breast milk, meaning it can be transferred to young children from their mothers. Exposure to Deca can lead to liver tumors, neurological issues, and even reproductive problems. Deca is banned in several U.S. states, but not in the entire country, so you will want to carefully inspect your mattress’s composition.

Melamine

Out of all the flame retardants mentioned so far, melamine is one of the most water soluble, making it easy to be absorbed by your skin while you sleep. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), absorbing melamine into your bloodstream can lead to kidney malfunction, bladder cancer, and reproductive system damage. 

Vinylidene Chloride

Vinylidene Chloride is not as commonly used as other flame retardants, but it’s still something to watch out for while doing your mattress research. It is water soluble and can rise to the surface of the mattress and be absorbed by your skin. High exposure can impact your central nervous system, leading to spasms, convulsions, inebriation, and more. It is declared a potential carcinogen according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Nontoxic Flame Retardants

It seems like there are many flame retardants that are toxic, which may concern you, but fortunately, there are healthy, nontoxic options made of natural materials as well. See below for some organic mattress options.

Latex

Natural latex mattresses are typically the most organic bedding option, created using the sap from the rubber tree. They can be cooler, softer, more fire-resistant, and possibly safer alternatives to memory foam mattresses or innerspring mattresses. However, synthetic latex mattresses may still contain some flame retardants, so it’s recommended that you carefully read the label to get a better understanding.

Wool

More and more mattress manufacturers nowadays are utilizing organic wool in their construction due to its lighter composition and its naturally flame retardant properties. Wool consists of numerous microscopic scales covering each fiber, and it requires a significantly higher temperature to ignite, making it an excellent fire resistor.

Rayon

Rayon is a more affordable alternative to wool but still features many of the same flame retardant properties. While wool is more natural, rayon consists of regenerated cellulose fibers bonded to silica. Although this means it’s not entirely natural, it’s still usually free of carcinogens.

Summary

Flame retardants in mattresses are designed to protect you, but not all of them are made the same in terms of safety. As you shop for your new mattress, make sure to conduct thorough research to ensure you’re getting a non-toxic mattress that is completely safe in terms of fire protection and chemical composition.