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What Is A Latex Mattress?

Aug 01, 2023

Choosing the right mattress can affect your sleep and health, so you want to choose wisely when it comes to every feature and option. That means making big picture decisions, like whether you want a hybrid or all-foam option, as well as smaller ones, like the material you’d like in the cover. Latex is one popular mattress material, but it’s less common than memory foam—and it can be hard to know if a latex mattress is right for you when you don’t know that much about it to begin with.

Latex is a pressure-relieving mattress material that's also known for its inherently cool feel.

Latex has a very long and rich history—taking sap from the humble rubber tree and turning it into a usable consumer product is a tried and true process that’s been around for hundreds of years. Back in the 1990s, a study by MIT researchers found that an ancient civilization was processing rubber to produce latex, all the way back in 1600 B.C. Of course, latex manufacturing has changed substantially through the years, and now it’s a common material in some everyday products, including mattresses.

Here’s everything you need to know about latex, from why you might want a latex mattress to how the material is actually made.

Latex is thought to offer better pressure relief than synthetic materials, including polyurethane foam. One study found that a latex mattress reduced body pressure on the torso and butt. The researchers also found that the subject’s pressure profiles had more low-pressure regions on latex than on the polyurethane mattress used for the research.

Natural latex has an inherent ability to regulate temperature, as well. “Rubber is a very stable and consistent temperature regulating polymer,” says George Matthew, vice president of sourcing and certifications for Avocado Green Mattress. “The structure of the latex foam itself allows for good ventilation,” he explains. This is in part due to the channels left behind by the pin cores that are used in manufacturing (but we’ll get into that later).

Finally, natural latex is typically considered a fairly environmentally friendly material, especially in comparison to other synthetic products, like memory foam. That’s in large part because the natural latex is made from trees that can be harvested for years. There’s also some notion that latex and latex foam is more biodegradable than other materials—however, these claims haven’t really been researched and proven, according to Tom Marsh, chief technology officer of Advanced Sustainable Polymers.

In addition, some manufacturers, like Avocado, implement other sustainably sourced materials throughout the production process, too. Avocado uses wood from expired latex trees and steam collected from rainwater ponds to heat the ovens for cooking the latex foam, according to Matthew. Of course, it will depend on the latex manufacturer, but know that even how the material is made can be efficient.

Avocado is just one of many mattress brands which offers latex mattresses.

You’ll find that many of the best organic mattresses use latex, in part because it’s a material that can be produced organically. (That’s not really an option when it comes to memory foam, which is derived from fossil fuels.) Even organic latexes will still contain some chemical agents, which result from the foaming process, and help cure the latex in a solid, but spongy, form. As a consumer, you’re unlikely to be exposed to these, as latex is thoroughly washed during its production process.

Another related bonus of latex mattresses according to Matthew? They don’t off-gas, or release smelly chemicals after being opened and decompressed on your bed frame.

There aren’t many drawbacks to latex. For many consumers, the material’s more eco-friendly nature, the option to find organic and vegan mattresses with it and its natural cooling make it a no-brainer.

But it does have a few pitfalls that are worth mentioning. The material is, in general, inherently more firm than memory foam, which may make it unappealing to those who prefer a soft mattress. That said, you can often find softer latexes in mattresses, or choose between different firmness levels. While latex offers great pressure relief and competes with memory foam in that regard, if you like the sink-in sensation of memory foam, latex might not be your best choice.

It also tends to have a bouncier feel than other materials, including memory foam, which can spell more motion transfer if your partner rolls around on the bed at night. Depending on your sleep set-up, and whether you share the mattress, this might be worth weighing in. This will vary depending on whether the mattress is entirely latex, or if it’s a hybrid that combines latex with other materials.

Finally, not all latexes are created equal. For eco-conscious consumers, shopping for a natural latex mattress, as opposed to one that uses synthetically produced latex, is key.

The general consensus on the dangers of latex in mattresses is that they’re negligible. Latex allergies are caused by a protein present in latex, not the latex itself, according to the New York State Department of Health. (The site doesn’t even list latex mattresses as a potential allergen.)

According to Matthew, most companies—including Avocado—subject latex to a rigorous washing process that’s designed to remove, or decrease, the amount of these allergy-triggering proteins, as well as other impurities. But before the latex is even baked, Avocado puts it into centrifuges, “where impurities are removed and protein allergens are greatly diminished,” he says. After the latex is produced, it is “completely submerged, rather than just being rinsed, in several tanks with fresh water,” he explains. Both steps “help prevent allergies by extensively washing away any free proteins.”

There’s limited research on whether latex mattresses can trigger latex allergies—most of it is from more than 20 years ago. Allergies may be less likely as you’re not sleeping on the latex, itself, but rather the mattress’s fabric exterior and (hopefully) a sheet and mattress protector above that. If you have a severe latex allergy, or are concerned about whether a latex mattress might trigger a reaction, consult with your healthcare provider.

There are two types of latex: Dunlop and Talalay.

Now, let’s dive into the technical side of latex. You can find two types of latex in mattresses: natural and synthetic. The main difference is the source of the liquid rubber that goes into the latex foam, though the longevity of the materials differs, too.

Natural latex is made from a liquid sourced from trees. The primary tree used to produce latex is Havea Brasiliensis, aka the Brazilian rubber tree. Though it’s native to the Amazon Basin, today these trees are grown worldwide for latex production. They’re particularly prominent in parts of Southeast Asia and Western Africa.

Latex is harvested like maple syrup, by tapping the tree. “The milky white sap, known as latex … flows freely from the tree,” according to the Forest Sustainability Council. Other plants, including the milkweed family, and mulberry family, also produce latex—but the only commercial source to date is the Brazilian rubber tree, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

Latex harvesting doesn’t require major tools or technology, which cuts down on pollution. Avocado, one of the most prominent latex mattress brands today, is distinct from many others because it manufactures its own latex. The company taps its trees by carving a shallow cut that forms a winding channel on the tree, a process that Matthew says does not harm the tree. At the end of winding channel, a small metal cup collects the latex as it drips. Trees can be harvested this way for a long time—as much as 25 years, according to Matthew.

Though much of latex’s feel and longevity are determined by the manufacturing process, “natural latex usually will stretch [more] and will have more strength,” Marsh says. This also means that the material can last longer than its synthetic counterparts, according to Marsh.

Synthetic latex, on the other hand, is typically sourced from petroleum-based oil rather than trees. The oil is used to make synthetic isoprene, a chemical compound that’s an alternative to the natural isoprene found in the latex sourced from plants. This type of latex is less common in mattresses—most major direct-to-consumer mattress brands use naturally derived latex. If you want to avoid fossil-fuel based products, look for mattresses that are billed as containing natural latex, in particular.

Natural latex starts off with sap harvested from a tree.

Latex—both natural and synthetic—starts out as a liquid. But it’s no secret that mattresses are not a liquid. When you put one on your bed frame, it’s pretty clearly a solid. The difference between the raw ingredient and final product is some chemical magic and a multi-step manufacturing process.

Latex is commonly produced using one of two main manufacturing methods: Dunlop and Talalay. Though the base materials are similar (if not the same), the end products have a few key differences that make them unique.

Dunlop latex dates back to 1888, when veterinarian John Dunlop developed a rubber tire that ignited the latex industry. Now, a number of manufacturers and mattress brands, including Avocado Green Mattress and Awara, exclusively use Dunlop latex in their products. The manufacturing process starts out with two key ingredients: a raw latex liquid and a frothy foaming agent.

The two are combined to create a liquid mixture that’s then pumped into large molds with “pin cores,” says Matthew. The pin cores are cylindrical metal components in the mold that create small channels which promote airflow in the final product. They also help with the next step in the process: baking.

The filled mold is baked in an oven at 350 degrees for an hour, Matthew says. (Keep in mind that the exact temperature and timing varies depending on the manufacturer—these values are specific to Avocado’s process.) Afterwards, the foam is rinsed and forced through steel rollers to squeeze out the water and wash away allergy-triggering proteins, he says. From there, the foam is dried and tested for its weight and density.

Of the two latex manufacturing processes, Dunlop is thought to be more efficient. This process also involves fewer steps. “The Dunlop process is less complex and more energy efficient. In general terms, Dunlop could be made in small batches,” per Matthew.

According to documents obtained from the University of Akron Archives, Talalay latex was first developed and patented in the 1930s. It was first used for upholstery and toys, such as rubber balls, and at some point it became a popular mattress material, though it’s unclear exactly when.

Talalay manufacturing begins similar to Dunlop—the liquid latex rubber is mixed with a foaming agent and then the mixture is put into a mold. But that’s where the production processes diverge.

This type of latex goes through a few additional steps. The mold is subjected to a vacuum, which provides a more uniform dispersion of the material according to manufacturers, which include Talalay Global.

After a mold is vacuumed, it’s flash frozen. “The Talalay process is totally unique,” Marsh says. “[In part] because it does both flash freeze, and then sort of flash heat in a matter of minutes… It's an amazing process to see because … you take [the molded mixture’s] temperature and go from minus to plus.” The quick transition helps manufacturers maintain a uniform dispersion throughout the next step, the baking process, according to Talalay Global.

Following those two steps, the rest of the process is similar to the way Dunlop latex is manufactured—the filled mold is baked to set the latex and transform it into a solid, which is later washed and tested for weight and density, according to Talalay Global.

The firmness and sensation of a latex mattress depends slightly on the manufacturing process, but is more correlated to production. “The feel of a latex foam or pillow is a function of the density or weight of the raw material used,” Matthew says.

That said, there are a few ways to easily differentiate the two types of latex. Dunlop is generally thought to have a more dense and firm feel, whereas Talalay has a softer feel. This is because Talalay latexes generally have a more airy and buoyant structure, in part thanks to the vacuum sealing stage in manufacturing. However, both latexes can be made to feel differently depending on the volume of material used, and the ratios of rubber to foaming agents.

In some mattresses, a piece of Talalay is reserved for a top comfort layer, while Dunlop is used for thicker support layers within the mattress. Other mattresses use just one type of latex throughout. It boils down to the specific model and brand you decide to shop from.

A latex mattress isn’t ever just latex—latex is often just one of several layers. At a bare minimum, you’ll be contending with latex foam and the mattress cover, usually called ticking. Even in these latex-only mattresses, there are often several pieces of latex that create a more or less firm sensation, and offer stability at the base of the mattress, or cushion at the top.

Some latex mattresses are hybrids. These combine a base layer of springs with one or several layers of latex foam to make your nights well supported and comfortable, at the same time. These can be a great option for folks who want a bit more support as well as the temperature regulating and pressure relieving benefits of latex, which we got into earlier.

Ah, the question you’ve probably been waiting for. At the end of the day, whether or not a mattress is a great fit for you will depend on what you need. Latex might offer the right amount of pressure relief, but feel a bit too bouncy for your liking.

What Is Latex?How Are Latex Mattresses Made? So, What Is a Latex Mattress?