Don’t Buy Blind: Some Things To Consider About Latex Mattresses

At Santa Cruz Natural Mattress, we only sell mattresses made from 100% natural latex, covered in 100% organic cotton. There’s no law making us do this. We could – were we inclined – sell $199 economy specials, or extravagant $10,000 Euro-beds stuffed with horsehair and pixie dust. More to the point, we could display and sell a vast array of mattress types: innersprings, so-called “hybrids,” blended foam, memory foam … you name it.

We don’t. Simply put, we believe a 100% natural latex mattress is almost always the better mattress, regardless of price … period.

But you know, even when it comes to latex, they’re not all the same!

You can get “latex” mattresses from any number of retailers, click or brick … but unless you know what to look for, you could get short-changed. So whether you decide to shop with us, or look elsewhere, here are some things to carefully watch for. First, ask some questions about the mattress’s cover:

  1. What kind of fabric is being used?

Some of the prettiest covers harbor dark secrets! Damask – a popular choice – is most frequently made from at least some synthetic fabrics. “Synthetic” in this context most often means “oil.” For the healthiest cover, insist on 100% organic cotton. What you’re trying to avoid are pesticides and other dubious chemicals – including those sometimes used in processing – lingering on the finished product that ends up nearest your skin. Insisting on organic cotton makes that a non-issue.

  1. How was the fabric made?

Beware woven fabrics. “Woven” cotton cloth – even organic – is made such that the stitches stretch in only one direction, parallel to the weave, with tightly-packed threads criss-crossing one another. Such fabrics – like denim, tweed, and canvas – may look nice and have good hand feel, but won’t stretch properly. The result: a fabric that has too little elasticity and pressure relief. Eight hours on that can make you hurt, and in addition it may neutralize many of the benefits of the latex foam underneath.

By contrast, “knit” fabrics are made so they stretch in all directions. The yarn is looped, thus able to bend easily right, left, north or south. This is ideal for a mattress cover because it ensures more “give” and elasticity – a definite plus for all-night comfort. No less important, the elasticity works hand-in-hand with the latex foam underneath, optimizing pressure relief. “Pressure relief” doesn’t only mean you’ll have fewer (or no) sore spots in the morning. It means that there’s far less constriction of blood flow to your neurological system. So your sleep is deeper and more restorative. And here’s a tip: don’t ask a mattress rep “is this cover knit cotton?” Ask instead, “Is this knit or woven?” or “what kind of fabric is this?” If he or she doesn’t know, that’ll tell you something right there.

Coincidentally, knitted covers are also more breathable, with means they offer far superior moisture control while discouraging both mold and heat build-up.

Now move on to the core, the stuff making up the filling of the mattress.

  1. Is it REAL latex, all the way through?

When it comes to what’s inside the cover, there is just one real question you need answered: “Is this mattress filled with only pure 100% NATURAL latex?”

There are plenty of retailers – especially on the internet – who claim their latex mattresses contain only 100% latex. But notice they don’t say “natural.” Thing is, it really IS 100% latex … with 70% of it synthetic, man-made latex, not natural (botanical) latex. It’s perfectly legal to call a blend like this “latex,” because it is. It’s just that 60 to 70% of it didn’t come from a rubber tree, it came from an oil well. Manufacturers like it because, you know, it’s really cheap!

Synthetic latex just doesn’t have the same elasticity, resiliency, and durability of the real thing. It doesn’t provide the same quality of restorative support that the human body needs while sleeping. (And just for extra fun, it’s also full of toxins, and often causes allergies). Blends also, sometimes, include things like clay fillers, synthetic dyes, and other dubious chemicals.

Be aware that the majority of “latex” mattresses sold in chain stores and elsewhere are, in fact, latex blends. They do NOT have to disclose this. To find out, you have to ask, which is typically kind of hopeless in the Big Box stores, and often fruitless even in dedicated mattress stores … because nobody there actually knows.

Here’s another trick to watch for: “Sure, this contains 100% natural latex. A full 2″ of Talalay on top.” That’s fine … except, 2″ would be a mighty thin mattress. So what else is in there? Likely the mattress is a so-called “hybrid,” a layer cake of all kinds of stuff. So, yes, there’s some natural latex, and it’s not a blend. But beneath that might be a 6″ polyurethane foam core, or a coil spring set. Or the latex might be surrounded with a 3″x2″ stiff polyurethane perimeter. Maybe there’s an inch of memory foam (also polyurethane, also made from oil) on top. Or maybe it has all of those things.

In other words, it might be a cheaper mattress that they charge a lot for because it has so many things in it!

(Here’s an extra tip: if the mattress is promoted as having “soy-based foam,” “smart foam,” “temperature-controlled foam,” or a “pressure relieving layer,” then it’s almost certainly a hybrid mattress. It might be a perfectly comfortable, affordable mattress, too … but it won’t last as long, and won’t feel like a true 100% natural latex mattress.

  1. What kind of “natural” latex is in it?

If a mattress is filled with 100% natural latex, and only that, it really doesn’t matter what kind of latex it is. But because some retailers make a fetish about the kind of latex they use, you might want to be aware of the two basic kinds and how they differ.

The two kinds are “Dunlop” and “Talalay.” The raw stuff that goes into both of these products is exactly the same: sap harvested (in much the same way as maple syrup) from the Hevea brazilliensis rubber tree.

Dunlop latex – named after the tire and rubber company  – is the older and simpler method. Latex sap is far too thin right out of the tree to make foam rubber, so it’s run through a centrifuge to concentrate it, remove impurities, and whip it up as a froth. It’s then poured into pin molds for steam baking. The finished pad is then washed – repeatedly! – to remove the long proteins that cause allergies, then graded and shipped out.

Talalay latex is named after the three Talalay brothers, a Russian trio who invented it. The sap is poured into a vacuum mold and chilled before being baked. The finished product is 30% or so lighter than Dunlop. The softest Talalay is softer than the softest Dunlop.

Some manufacturers use only Dunlop. Some, only Talalay (and they invariably brag that fact up). Talalay takes more energy and resources to make, so it’s a little less environmentally friendly and more expensive. It does NOT make a better bed. Here at Santa Cruz Natural Mattress, we use Talalay for the 2″ “topper” – the top layer inside the mattress that’s closest to where you sleep. Dunlop toppers are available by special order, and sometimes make good sense.

Likewise, we use 6 inches of Dunlop for the base core. It provides splendid resilience, support, and life service.

  1. Anything else to know?

Some manufacturers of latex mattresses assemble layers of latex – typically three layers of 3″ material, each with a slightly different density (soft, medium, firm) – without any glue. They say the adhesive is toxic. They say the naturally-abrasive latex layers don’t shift around. And, also, unglued layers are easier to modify from, say, firm to soft.

We don’t entirely agree. We only use two layers of latex in our, and we do use a water-based, absolutely odorless rubber adhesive – about 3 or 4 ounces in a typical queen bed. Our covers are zippered, so we can – if necessary – cut the layers apart to change a firmness level. We use the adhesive because, in our experience, latex layers DO shift around, making for a misshapen mattress. If it’s an issue for you, let us know; we can sew the layers of foam together instead. It doesn’t eliminate shifting, but it does help.

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