Latex mattresses have been around for a long time but lately their popularity earned them a few spots on ever-crowded mattress store showrooms. Obviously they offer some great benefits like excellent support and durability, yet they offer unique feel, quite different than memory foam or air/dial beds.
Latex mattresses offer consistent, continuous support by contouring to your body and moving with your body weight. Latex mattresses provide much quicker response and recovery time compared to memory foam, which means they have more “bounce”, that makes turning from one side to another easier, and overall they feel more like traditional mattresses. They are also hypoallergenic and feel quite cooler compared to memory foam.
Customers generally like the idea of latex being natural product providing exceptional durability, but they find more difficult to select an optimal combination of support and comfort, a few citing a “spongy” feel and pronounced rubbery smell within the first couple of weeks. .
Shopping for a latex mattress became quite confusing with more manufacturers entering this category and pushing their “superior products” with marketing. If a brochure or label says Latex, it doesn’t necessarily mean the product is made out of latex and it could merely be one of many components of the product. There are several attributes to focus on when shopping and comparing latex mattresses: type of latex, type of construction, materials used and warranty.
What is Latex
Latex is the stable, complex dispersion of polymer micro particles (proteins, alkaloids, starches, sugars, oils, tannins, resins, and gums) in a liquid medium that coagulates on exposure to air. Latexes may be natural, synthetic or blend of both. The latex of thousands of species contains rubber, though only latex from several species is suitable for commercial production. Natural rubber is the most important product processed from latex. The vast majority of the world's natural latex is derived from a milky fluid of a rubber tree plant Hevea brasiliensis predominantly found in the rain forest of South America, and is further processed to be used as foam in various products.
Types of Latex
Mattresses are not made from of the pure latex but rather from the foams that are derived form latex. Latex foams can be manufactured from either natural or synthetic latex or, as in most cases, the blend of both. They can be manufactured using either the Dunlop or Talalay methods.
Natural latex (sometimes referred to as Botanical latex) is a renewable product produced without synthetic alteration or chemical treatment. It can be harvested from the same trees on a regular basis without harming the living plant. Natural latex is characterized by its elasticity and softness. It is biodegradable and provides natural resistance to bacteria, mold and mildew. On the other hand, as a natural product, it lacks the consistency in quality. Mattresses made only from the natural latex foam are rare and typically the most expensive.
Synthetic latex, engineered version of latex foam is made from petroleum-based materials. It matches the most of physical characteristics of natural latex and its controlled consistency and quality is better suitable for mass commercial production. It tends to provide a firmer feel, and arguably, it can sustain its resiliency for a longer time.
Blended latex,the mixture of both, natural latex and synthetic latex, offers the benefits of both and is the most common material used in latex mattresses. Such mixtures are usually 30% natural latex and 70% synthetic. The mixture of both elements combines elasticity and allergen resiliency of natural latex with consistency and durability of synthetic latex.
Some less expensive latex products can also contain “fillers” small fragments that are added to the foam, making it firmer and less durable. Natural, synthetic or blended latex that doesn’t contain any fillers is often referred to as Pure Latex and can be found in most high quality latex mattresses.
Benefits of Latex
Fast response/recovery time
Long lifespan – up to 20 years
Temperature control - breathability
Construction of Latex Mattress
Latex mattresses, like any foam mattresses, are very simple in their construction. There are typically few (2-6) layers of foam stacked or glued together. The bottom layer (referred to as the Core) is the thickest (4-8 inches) and firmest, providing support for the mattress. Top layers are less dense providing comfort and pressure relieve.
The quality and price of the latex mattress depends on the construction of the core – the support portion of the mattress. High quality mattresses use high-density latex only core (4-8 inches) whereas lesser-quality products (sometimes referred to as latex hybrids) use polyurethane foam as a support layer.
The upper, comfort layers provide the mattress with softer feel and pressure relief and are typically made from lower density latex, memory foam or polyurethane foams.
Latex foams usually contain deep holes throughout the entire layer to provide softer feel. Some products may have various size holes distributed to different parts of the mattress to offer specific zones of support and comfort for different parts of the body. These holes also provide improved ventilation.
Latex foam is based on open cell structure, which allows air to go in and out of single cells, thus enabling the mattress to “breath” and better control body temperature.
Latex Foam Manufacturing
Once processed, latex is poured into molds and vulcanized (treated and heated) to create three-dimensional foam. There are two different processes to turn liquid latex into the foam, which is used to make latex mattresses - dunlop and talalay. Both methods produce high quality mattress foams varying in density and feel.
The older, simpler method is known as Dunlop, where liquid latex is slowly poured into mold layer by layer, where it is allowed to set and harden, and later is vulcanized. Dunlop latex is generally more dense, heavier and firmer and therefor is mainly used in a mattress core. It will hold the shape of the mattress better over time and will be less likely to sag or develop body indentations.
The newer, more sophisticated and more expensive method is known as Talalay, where liquid latex is poured to the mold with extra room left on the top. Mold is then sealed and air is vacuumed out of the mold, so the foam will expand and fill entire mold. In the next step the mold is instantly frozen, so the foam keeps its shape, and vulcanized. Talalay latex tends to be softer, more porous and less dense. It is preferred for use in top comfort layers providing better pressure relief.
Warranty of Latex Mattresses
As the construction varies from model to model so does the warranty. Be extremely diligent to learn about the warranty of any given product. Warranties are design to protect consumer against manufacturer’s defects for certain period of time, and majority latex mattress warranties protect customers against excessive sagging.
Excessive sagging is typically referred to as an indentation/imprint/depression greater than 1.5” for most of the mattresses. Some manufacturers of specialty mattresses like latex, memory foam, air/dial beds consider indentation greater than 3/4" as an excessive sagging under warranty.
Most warranties start with a full mattress replacement for an initial period of time, and change to a limited (pro-rated) warranty as years go by. While comparing latex mattress warranties, you can find full replacement warranties for as little as 2 years and as high as 10 years, with overall warranty duration up to 20 years.
Latex Mattress Shopping Tips
Not all latex mattresses are created equal. There is no rule on how much latex a product has to contain in order to be referred to as Latex Mattress. Be careful to read in between lines of marketing materials and product descriptions. Many of the so-called “latex mattresses” contain only a thin layer of synthetic latex, that doesn’t offer most of the advantages and benefits of latex foam and yet it has a premium price tag. Innerspring mattress with a layer of latex is not hypoallergenic just because it contains latex. It is another deceiving tactic used by the industry to make the buying process confusing. When shopping, just make sure you are comparing similar products.
Top of the line mattresses are built with latex core and latex comfort layers with addition of some premium materials like memory foam. Middle of the road mattresses use high-density polyurethane core with several latex comfort layers on top. The denser the latex foam, the longer it will last, and the heavier it will be. Just like with any foam mattress if the product description doesn’t offer density information try to lift it and “weigh” it yourself relative to a different product.
Be aware of different warranties, typically covering indentations larger than 1.5” over certain period of time. Find out how long is the mattress fully covered, and if the warranty is pro-rated, know what portion of the replacement cost you will be responsible for.
Make sure you ask your store about exchange/return options and exchange/return costs. As much as we believe latex mattresses are great products they provide very distinct feel that will not make everyone happy. Read the fine print of the exchange/return policy before you place an order. It is better to take your time and sift through details than be sorry later.
Always ask for free gifts with a mattress purchase, it is always nice to get free new pillows, mattress protector or set of sheets (or all of them?)