If you’ve been looking around at all the different types of mattress, you’ve probably run across the term off-gassing.
This refers to the unpleasant smell new mattresses—especially memory foam ones—can give off.
But unless you’ve gone digging deeper, this might be the first time you’ve heard about volatile organic compounds (VOCs)—the unpredictable chemicals that give new mattresses their signature stink.
In this article, we’ll walk you through an explanation of VOCs, where they come from, and whether you should be concerned about them.
What exactly are VOCs?
VOCs are by-products of the mattress manufacturing process. They can be found in everything from foam to adhesives to flame-resistant coverings.
They’re most commonly found in memory foam mattresses, for the simple reason that most memory foams are made from complex chemicals that produce a lot of VOCs.
They aren’t unique to mattresses, either—the classic smell of fresh paint or a new car is also thanks to VOCs.
So, these chemicals are pretty common—according to one report, hundreds of household objects—everything from electronics to furniture—emit VOCs to one extent or another.
But if they’re all around us, is there any chance they’re unsafe?
Are VOCs dangerous?
Some common VOCs include benzene, polyols, and formaldehyde, all of which are known to have serious health risks.
Seriously, these are some nasty chemicals. With enough long-term exposure, some of them can cause liver damage, nerve damage, or even cancer.
Even short-term exposure can be harmful—overexposure to VOCs puts you at risk for everything from headaches to sinus irritation to asthma attacks.
According to a recent study, though, modern mattresses release VOCs in such small quantities that it isn’t an issue for adults.
Unfortunately, that same study reached an alarming conclusion when they took age into consideration.
Several compounds, including those linked to cancer, approached or exceeded maximum safe levels for infants and young children. Obviously, this is a huge concern for parents!
We’ll talk in just a moment about how to limit exposure to VOCs—for you and for any kids in your life—but first, you might be wondering why this information is so new.
Mattresses are always getting safety-tested for chemicals, but there’s one factor this latest study considered that often gets forgotten.
Instead of testing mattresses alone, they tested mattresses that someone was sleeping on.
The combination of body heat and pressure caused additional VOCs to be released—right next to the sleeper’s nose, where they would inhale the highest possible concentration of chemicals.
Needless to say, that’s a concerning combination.
How to reduce exposure to VOCs
The good news is, there are some quick and easy ways to reduce your VOC exposure.
Experts say the best way to do this is through good ventilation.
Using fans can help, but your best bet is going to be opening up a window.
Fresh air has a much lower concentration of VOCs, so airing out your indoor environment is a great way to—if you’ll excuse the pun—clear the air.
For mattresses in particular, an important step in reducing VOCs is to give your new mattress room to breathe. Seriously! Before you add sheets and start sleeping on it, leave your mattress unwrapped in a well-ventilated area so it can off-gas the worst of the chemicals.
If you’re familiar with mattresses, you’ll know that this is commonly done to minimize the new-mattress smell. But since that smell is caused by VOCs, giving a mattress time to air out can have health benefits!
But, if those tips aren’t enough, you might decide it’s time for a new mattress.
Your first instinct might be to look at the materials to see if it contains any VOCs. Unfortunately, this isn’t a super effective strategy.
Remember, VOCs are chemical byproducts, not the ingredients themselves—you won’t see benzene listed on any mattress’s list of materials, but that doesn’t mean it won’t release benzene.
Since memory foam mattresses are the most notorious for off-gassing, let’s talk about them first.
Just about every reputable manufacturer of memory foam mattresses uses only foams that have been certified by CertiPUR-US.
This means that any mattress you buy from those companies is guaranteed to be free of heavy metals, CFCs, PBDEs, and other dangerous and environmentally-unfriendly chemicals.
They also typically have a lower degree of VOC emissions, but that isn’t a complete guarantee.
The other certification you want to keep an eye out for is the GreenGuard Gold certification, which checks specifically for VOCs.
GreenGuard certification isn’t limited to memory foam mattresses, either—all kinds of mattress can have this accolade.
In fact, as you’ve probably guessed, other types of mattresses are going to be your best bet for reducing VOC exposure.
The best place to start looking is organic mattresses (and you can check out our article for more info)!
More organic materials—that is, stuff that comes directly from plants and animals—in a mattress means fewer convoluted chemicals, which means fewer VOCs.
Here’s a convenient pro tip to help you in your mattress hunting: if a mattress doesn’t have a noticeable “new mattress smell,” that’s a good sign that it doesn’t give off any VOCs.
Mattress companies love to brag about their best features, so if a product doesn’t have any off-gassing, they’ll be sure to tell you.
By that same token, remember that any information you find on a mattress company’s website is, ultimately, advertising. They want you to buy their product.
If they have to exaggerate risks, ignore important details, or cherry-pick the scientific studies that make their mattress look good, they’ll do it.
Sources that aren’t affiliated with a company—that is, sources who aren’t trying to sell you anything—are the most trustworthy places to look for information.
So stay safe out there, and happy sleeping!