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Warnings & Wisdom on Buying a Latex Mattress - by an Ex-Mattress Salesperson

Mattress Comfort Materials - Polyfoam, Memory Foam and Latex.

Mattress Comfort Materials - Polyfoam, Memory Foam and Latex.

I had a mattress shopping consulting business where I went along with mattress consumers in the Seattle area to help them find that hard-to-find, elusive 'best mattress' for them. Sorry, I shut it down because I ended up with far more long email exchanges with people who didn't want to pay for such a seemingly-ridiculous service. And, these articles will tell you most everything you need to know about buying a new mattress. All you have to do is read them. ;)

My first few clients were interested in latex, so I had opportunities to actually see for myself what other mattress sales people in the area are saying to customers; and how they are selling these beds - as opposed to simply hearing feedback about their sales tactics.

Selling latex mattresses has become quite the slippery slope... What is the truth about the different types of latex? Is it a safe material to be used in mattresses? What makes latex so special to sleep on? How can you tell the difference between a good latex mattress and a painful waste of hard-earned money?

Please note that this information is based on my knowledge of selling all kinds of different mattresses for five years - and writing about them since then. There are many latex articles out there filled with 'facts' and statistics. This isn't one of them - although you will find much validation surrounding many facts you've probably come across if you've already done some research.

Latex Closeup

Latex Closeup

The History of Latex Mattresses

One of the problems I have with the way latex salespeople try to sell latex mattresses today is that so many of them are trying to sell latex as if it is a NEW material that has recently been discovered as an 'eco-friendly' option for the green mattress movement.

As a result, salespeople seem ignorant about the history of latex, how long it has been around, and what the experience of latex is like for the average sleeper. This makes it easier for them to ramp up the issues surrounding what is 'good' latex and what is 'bad' latex for unsuspecting, eco-contentious consumers.

Yes, latex just happens to be an environmentally-sustainable & non-toxic material produced from the rubber tree. But did you know... Solid Core Latex Mattresses (that have no innerspring) have been around longer than Polyfoam mattresses?

Latex was invented during WWI (and has ancient history before that), but Scientists perfected it in WWII. It was widely used before Polyfoam was invented in mattresses, seat cushions and couches, etc. After Polyfoam was invented as a cheaper material - it replaced latex as the comfort material of choice to use in mattresses & furniture.

Dunlop Latex mattresses came first and continues to be used the most, still today. Once purchased, people had to remove the cover that the latex was wrapped in about every five years or so, depending - and took them back to the place it was purchased from for a 'refill' at a lesser cost.

It used to be a normal thing to do.

Also, many of our Grandparents and Great-Grandparents still have their original Talalay Latex mattress from DECADES ago; and really lose heart when they have to replace them - because they aren't typically made as well anymore and these types of Latex Mattresses are hard to find.

Because, unlike Polyfoam, once a Latex Mattress 'dies' - it becomes almost completely useless fast, losing resiliency or the ability to support or 'bounce back'. It has to be replaced - even if you're 80 years old and you're sure you're not going to live long enough to wear out a new one. (Come on, how do you expect a mattress salesperson to respond to that, ha!)

Honestly, even though most of the time customers didn't want to fork out that kind of money for another one that late in life - older customers often made the leap.

Yeah, they are that worth it.

But, this is what I have been hearing over and over again from Seattle's various mattress stores: "This latex has petroleum in it - this other latex is much better for you because it doesn't contain petrol (or not as much)."

This kind of sales tactic seems to be the only way for them to differentiate themselves from each other. Saying 'the right things' about latex will hopefully make you want to buy a latex mattress from their store as opposed to another one.

But, they all pretty much sell the same latex - there are not many companies that produce latex around the world; and mattress manufacturers (especially in the United States) pretty much all get it from the same place through various distributors - just like polyfoams, coils and other mattress-manufacturing materials.

Liquid Rubber being collected.

Liquid Rubber being collected.

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The Difference Between Good Natural Latex & Bad Latex

Good latex is made from rubber trees by tapping the trees for their milky white liquid rubber - similar to collecting maple sap for maple syrup from Maple trees. Most latex sold in the United States comes from Latex International which has a good reputation for producing good quality latex materials.

If you're buying latex that is almost entirely synthetic - that's bad latex. Purchase a mattress from a REAL mattress store in order to ensure that you're getting real ingredients. Lower-end department stores, big box chains and some places online can sometimes be a source of 'lesser' quality latex mattress options.

I heard this a couple times while I've been out shopping for latex mattresses with clients: "There are only three companies in the world that make Talalay Latex - that should tell you something." (Mattress salespeople often visit-spy on each other to get information - and sometimes steal each other's sales tactics. ;)

This statement is being made in order to ramp up Dunlop Latex - which is what is used in most latex mattresses, today. But, the only thing this information tells me is that Talalay Latex is much more expensive to produce - not because it isn't as good as Dunlop.

This simply is not true - TALALAY is the preferred latex because of its reliable consistency and long-lasting benefits. Dunlop is a more dense latex rubber - which makes it more susceptible to forming impressions with the weight of a body on top of it over time.

Pure, All-Natural, Talalay Latex Exists!!

From Latex International - Information on how they manufacture their latex and the different versions of latex that they make using both Dunlop & Talalay processes. Apologies, this link is no longer active as of 2015; and I have yet to find a replacement link.

However, as of January 2016 - I have had confirmation from my *ahem* 'contacts' that LI does still make it.

CONSUMER HEADS UP: The thing about solid latex mattresses in the Seattle area is - some people have seriously begun to wonder if their mattresses were actually the cheaper blend; instead of the more expensive 'all-natural', NR Talalay solid Latex mattress that they intended to purchase... It is a really good question.

Seattle suspicions abound... If you have purchased a solid talalay latex mattress in the Seattle area (this could happen in any city, actually); you might want to see if there is a way to verify the expensive contents.

IF the NR Talalay Latex has been exchanged with the cheaper blend - that would leave a much bigger profit margin for any dishonest mattress store to claim.

Natural Rubber Talalay Latex DOES EXIST Beyond the Synthetic Blend

Talalay or Dunlop Latex refers to which manufacturing process was used - we'll get into that. But, the ingredients between the two ways of processing are relatively the same; and they can BOTH be made with very little (and some claim no) petroleum and are referred to as 'natural' latex or NR which stands for Natural Rubber.

Many mattress sales people are trying to convince their customers that Dunlop Latex is the only all-natural Latex. It certainly is cheaper. But Latex International started making an all-natural version of Talalay in 2005 when consumers in the green movement wanted a mattress that was less dependent on petroleum. YES, they did and DO make it.

Btw... Our grandparents were sleeping on the natural-synthetic blend. There wasn't as much talk about mattresses being toxic back then; and the new, all-natural, man-made synthetic formula that had been invented in WWII to improve on latex worked well. Why mess with a good thing?

Very few people were aware of the issues of offgassing 'back in the day', ha!

The reason why natural rubber is not as widely marketed or sold is because it IS more complicated to manufacture an all-natural rubber foam - whether we're talking about Dunlop or Talalay. You almost always have to request NR Talalay - although there are a few mattress makers around the country who consistently use it.

The latex liquid has to be at a certain density in order for it to successfully be processed into rubber. This is harder to achieve without using synthetic ingredients; and each batch of latex is adjusted accordingly depending on the original quality of the liquid rubber due to environmental factors while it was in the growing phase.

This is also why it is more expensive than synthetically-blended Talalay Latex - however, it is not as expensive to do with Dunlop Latex; so the manufacturer produces more all-natural latex through this process than Talalay.

Image Capture of an old Latex International marketing poster.

Image Capture of an old Latex International marketing poster.

What's the Deal with Synthetically Blended Latex?

You can get some bad latex... I've already said that.

But, there is also Talalay latex that is blended with natural liquid rubber and a man-made synthetic chemical called SBR (Styrene Butadiene). This type of blended Talalay Latex is often found in the US (and also produced by Latex International) as "Talatech" Latex - which is simply their name to identify it as being 'blended' as opposed to all-natural. (Petroleum is not dumped in as part of the recipe - some NATURAL petroleum by-products are separated from the petrol and used to create synthetic rubber.)

The BEST latex for any latex mattress is NR Talalay - and only ONE company in the world makes it, Latex International. Yes, they make TWO different types of Talalay - blended and all-natural. NR Talalay is more difficult to find, but not impossible, especially in the Seattle area - and most other cities, I would imagine. I have also seen it available online.

Some places WILL try to pass blended Talatech Latex off as all-natural Latex - because it is also considered to be all-natural from a manufacturing perspective. Yes, you need to be aware of that.

But, it IS possible to acquire all-natural Talalay if you are an uber-granola who wants that kind of 'pure', natural mattress. Insist on it - most places can get it for you with a little extra effort. (Probably not the big name brands because many of them have their own 'blends' that they acquire from pre-established sources - but maybe, ask.)

How can you tell if you're getting all-natural Talalay or 'blended' Latex?

Where is the latex in the mattress sourced from? If it is from anywhere other than Latex International - its not all-natural Talalay, it WILL be a blend. However, some of these 'blends' are very high-quality. If you can help it, don't dismiss them.

Unfortunately, there is no 'certificate' that is given along with the bed so that you can validate a source claim. My advice is to shop at a reputable mattress store that is less-likely to be dishonest to their customers. Most of these types of stores WILL be willing to put it into writing themselves for you if you want that kind of assurance and insist on it. (Only request this if you are the hopelessly untrusting sort. You might get some strange or hesitant responses just because it isn't a 'normal' thing for them to do - not necessarily because it's not the real deal. ;)

Despite the fact that Talatech Latex is blended - it is cheaper and lasts just as long if not longer (because of the extra man-made ingredients) with the same 'non-toxic' characteristics. Choosing between these two different kinds of latex is a consumer decision: do you want a mattress that is more or less natural? How much does this matter to you if they both give you the same kind of sleep surface?

For some mattress consumers, the difference is a very big deal - to others, it doesn't matter as much.

BOTH types of Talalay are considered to be 'natural' because of the way they use natural ingredients - whether some of those ingredients are synthetically-incorporated or not. Reminder: Petroleum is a natural, organic product.

Both types of Talalay mattresses WILL eventually die out after a decades-long life at which point you can throw it into a landfill so that it can decompose as naturally as any other organic thing - leaving little or no effect on the environment.

Because of this, both types of Talalay Latex mattresses are good; and Talatech or 'blended' latex can be a SMART way to use petroleum - if it is good quality - for our over-indulging planet.

  • Talalay Latex vs Dunlop Latex
    Which lasts longer? Which is more comfortable? We found some latex cores that had been stored compressed for years. We opened them up... even we were surprised.

Why is Talalay Processed Latex Better than the Dunlop Process for Mattresses?

The difference is like pound cake vs. angel food cake.

Dunlop Latex 'batter' is poured into molds and allowed to dry naturally - as opposed to Talalay batter that is poured into molds, air is removed, then the rubber foam is flash-frozen to hold its shape. This ensures that the batter is evenly-distributed throughout the mold.

Because of the way the drying phases affect liquid rubber - Dunlop turns into a more dense foam similar to pound cake; while Talalay has a more airy consistency like angel food cake.

Because it is more dense, this can cause Dunlop to lose its resiliency or 'bounce back' benefits earlier; and a body impression can form into it, eventually - especially for heavier bodies. Dunlop is still better than regular polyfoam, however - so it CAN still be a good option for people who need to save money on a good mattress.

But, Dunlop Latex can also 'accidentally' dry with air gaps because of the way it is processed - and many times you won't notice any irregularities until you've been sleeping on it for a few years. Talalay Latex has all the air removed to prevent this from happening. This is what makes Talalay Latex a more consistent rubber foam both in feel and quality.

This is ALSO why you often find a layer of Talalay Latex on top of Dunlop Latex in so many mattresses, today - because it provides a consistent feel and it may help the Dunlop Latex below last longer.

While this type of mattress may be a good way to save money - don't expect it to last for the full 20+ year warranty that many are claiming. Even cheaper ways to produce a 'latex' mattress is to put a few layers on top of an innerspring or regular polyfoam as a 'solid foam' bed. If the latex layers on top are thick enough, that might work for awhile, too.

Because on the flip side... It isn't necessarily important for a mattress to last that long. Sometimes you don't mind paying less for something that you will have to replace in five to fifteen years as long as you are getting a good night's sleep.

How much did your laptop cost? How often do you think you will replace it?

So yeah... Layered Dunlop/Talalay Latex mattresses and innerspring latex hybrids are still a good option for many mattress consumers.

Here are some things to watch out for when trying to weed out the best latex mattress options as you are shopping for them:

Solid Latex Mattresses & Latex Innerspring Hybrids

If you want the least-bouncy sleep experience with a latex mattress - get a solid core. Because it doesn't have innersprings inside of it, there is naturally less bounce. (This is true for any all-foam bed.)

A solid core Talalay Latex mattress will also give you the longest life. They should easily have at least a 20-year, non-prorated warranty - and they will often last a decade or two (or even three) beyond that.

I sleep on a solid Talalay Latex mattress and have for years... And I heard this last week from a salesperson... "Latex will get softer where you sleep just like polyfoam will."

This is true, but it is NOT 'the same kind' of deteriorating, 'dip-forming' impression as with what happens with polyfoam. A new latex mattress is like a new pair of jeans - it will loosen up and soften a bit, but it will only go 'so far'.

It's rubber. According to my former Latex International rep - it is IMPOSSIBLE for good Talalay Latex to form body impressions or get much softer than its ILD. There are exceptions with extreme use, of course (much more abuse than a body sleeping on it every night); and every once in a while they will get a batch of bad foam. In this case, the latex will fail almost IMMEDIATELY (I've seen this happen) - within days/weeks. The mattress is simply replaced and the problem is corrected.

But, after you've been on it for awhile it will not continue to get softer and softer UNTIL it starts to die. Then - as I said earlier - the support in the mattress goes fast as it loses its resiliency.

Decades of people sleeping on these mattresses DO NOT LIE. I am not making this up, folks... Ask your grandparents if they have had a latex mattress and try it out if they are lucky enough to still have it.

Also, Latex NEEDS to be a certain thickness in order for it to support a body. Latex comes in slabs 6" thick - which is an ideal thickness of support for most people.

The thicker latex is, the more supportive it is. The thinner it is, the less-supportive it becomes. For instance, 4" of ILD 28 Talalay Latex will feel more soft like an ILD 19 (which is the softest ILD you want. Anything less is 'pillow-soft' and too soft for a mattress.)

This makes a 4" Talalay Latex Topper in ILD 28 a good option - because it is a little softer than a full 6" core. 6" of ILD 28 might feel too firm as a topper - but 4" of it can be ideal. (ILD 19 is also a very popular choice for latex toppers.)

Talalay Latex comes in ILDs 19, 28, 32, 36, 40 & 44. 44 is the most firm with 40 not being that much softer. The firmest ILDs are NOT recommended for a mattress unless you are putting a softer topper on top because they are too firm. They are made for things like seat cushions to support more concentrated weight.

For these thicker/thinner reasons... When you come across a plush or pillowtop mattress with layers of latex mixed in with other polyfoams - if the latex is too thin - those other layers of polyfoam WILL start to form an indent where you sleep. Because latex that is too thin can't keep the other foams from compressing.

Just because there is latex in a mattress doesn't mean it will last longer - but you can bet mattress salespeople are all over that selling point if they can see you are interested in the mattress for that reason.

There is one popular mattress manufacturer that is consistently-faced with consumer complaints about their latex mattresses - I used to hear feedback about them all the time. I hesitate to name names, because there are other brand names out there guilty of this that are less popular.

Just watch out for these kind of latex mattresses...

What happens is... the latex is too thin and the polyfoams underneath start to form a dip. But a customer NEEDS to be able to send in an image of the 'indent' to prove to the manufacturer that the comfort layers are failing.

But the customer CAN'T take a good image of the foam that has failed UNDERNEATH the latex rubber foam because the latex keeps 'bouncing back up' into place. And since you can't use anything to help you take the picture - like a weight to hold down the latex so you can get a good image of the dip - you can't prove that the mattress has failed.

And some of these mattresses are very expensive - too bad for you.

Latex should be at least 3" thick within the comfort layers of a mattress - but 4" is ideal, and hard to find. A SOLID 4" - not 2" or this and then another 2" of that mixed in with other polyfoam layers.

It is even hard to find 4" latex toppers - but you can find them.

Sometimes latex can be a little more thin depending on the construction of the bed. I saw a good one this weekend that was really comfortable and seemed like it would hold up well - with only 2" of Talalay Latex on top.

But, there wasn't any other polyfoams and it was on an individual pocketed coil for extra room for the parts of your body that stick out to conform to the mattress.

I liked it.

What Makes Latex Mattresses So Great to Sleep on?

1) Latex LASTS! Have I already said that? Even Dunlop Latex will last you a good five to ten plus years - Talalay is made to last 40ish years and can last longer. (I've seen a couple solid Talalay Latex mattresses fifty PLUS years old still in good condition.)

2) Latex adjusts to your weight to keep your body & back properly aligned.

It is a material that literally 'pushes back' up against your skin like rubber - because it is rubber. It both supports curves while allowing for pressure point relief for the parts of your body that sink deepest into the mattress.

Polyfoam doesn't do this as well and Memory Foam does this AFTER you get up off of it.

Correct Back & Body Alignment includes the best of both worlds - good support & soft comfort layers for pressure point relief.

Correct Back & Body Alignment includes the best of both worlds - good support & soft comfort layers for pressure point relief.

So, if you are considering an Innerspring Latex Hybrid Mattress - you would be getting back support not only from the Innerspring in the mattress, but ALSO from the Latex comfort layer(s), itself (if they are thick enough).

But latex doesn't NEED an innerspring to be a good support system. That's why solid core latex mattresses are also a good option.

It does not matter what you and/or your partner weigh - the two of you could be on two different ends of the scale. A Latex mattress will support you both equally by adjusting to whatever your weight is.

The main difference between a lighter person and a heavier person - is that the density will feel different to each body type. For this reason, latex can turn out to be a great compromise mattress for couples who want two different 'feels'.

The most recommended ILD combination for a good 'generic' solid core latex bed is an ILD 32 base mattress (usually 6-8" of latex) with 2-4" of softer ILD 28 + 2" of ILD 19 for the top comfort layer. You can also just choose 4" of one of the softer ILDs for the top layer - but, if you're a side sleeper, thicker is usually better. (Heavier people might prefer an ILD 36 base, but not necessarily. The best advice is to find a place where you can test them out.)

If you can find a mattress that has the comfort layer as a separate topper - then you have the option to replace / refresh that bed with a new topper in a decade or so if you ever get tired of it. The mattress underneath will be about as supportive as the day you bought it.

3) Latex BREATHES. Many people get Latex confused with Memory Foam because those two materials often get combined together within mattress comfort layers like salt & pepper. But, they are two entirely different things. GOOD Latex is a natural, open-celled material with all kinds of holes permeating through it from the mold for additional airflow.

That does not mean that latex will not 'heat up' like any other kind of foam - it's not like it sleeps cooler than regular polyfoam.

If you are a naturally hot sleeper - there are probably not many mattresses out there that will not sleep warm for you. There are many cooling sleep products out there on the market - look around for a good fix that will work. You'll probably sleep much better if you do.

4) It is naturally hypoallergenic - dust mites and mold, mildew don't like latex. It is also non-toxic for breathing into your lungs. Really, my NR Talalay Latex mattress is going on 10 years old - it has a VERY faint, sweet rubber smell, not 'industrial' smelling at all. It smells fresh to me.

I can only barely smell this odor when I put my nose into it. I do not smell it when I'm laying down on it at all. It is practically odorless. Older latex mattresses that we had removed from people's homes did not have a smell at all - completely odorless, I checked because I was curious, ha!

Latex Rubber Bands are different.

Latex Rubber Bands are different.

What About Latex Allergies?

Most people who are allergic to latex are allergic to things like rubber bands and rubber gloves, etc. This is because it is processed differently and the proteins in this kind of latex can cause a reaction.

However, most people who can't handle rubber gloves CAN handle natural Talalay or Dunlop latex without having an issue - many places have samples, give them a feel if you're brave. I've had many latex-sensitive customers do this with surprise and glee.

Plus, since the latex layers are covered in a mattress ticking, you're not in direct contact with it. I have never had a problem with a customer having a reaction to a latex mattress. However, I have had customers decline to give it a test-feel because they were sure it wouldn't make a difference. You know your body best. You might not want to try it if you are prone to extreme allergic reactions.

What About the Industrial Smell that Fresh Latex Gives Off?

I've already told you that I sleep on a latex mattress... I SWEAR to you that I cannot smell it at all anymore (except. like I said - sticking my nose into it, it has a fresh, clean sweet-rubber scent that is not at all 'industrial').