Can You Sleep on a Latex Bed if You Have Latex Allergies?
Latex beds have achieved popularity as green and non-toxic mattress alternatives. But for individuals with latex allergies, there are obvious concerns. Latex FAQ: Can a person with a latex allergy sleep on a foam latex bed?
Most latex allergies and latex sensitivities are a reaction to proteins that occur naturally in botanical latex. According to OSHA’s "Potential for Sensitization and Possible Allergic Reaction to Natural Rubber Latex Gloves and Other Natural Rubber Products," latex contains over 60 protein-based allergens. Because of the manufacturing processes that produce latex gloves, condoms, catheters, and other medical materials, these proteins are still present in the finished latex product.
These proteins can be contacted when the rubber glove is touched. They can also be chemically adsorbed to the powder on the inner surfaces of most gloves, released into the air when the gloves are removed, and then inhaled. Allergies can thus present as localized skin reactions, respiratory symptoms from asthma to sneezing and coughing, or even (in rare cases of hypersensitivity) as anaphylactic responses like swelling and the closing of airways.
A Little NRL Background
The thin, stretchy natural rubber latex (or NRL) used in medical supplies like rubber gloves is manufactured through a cold-dipped vulcanization process. The result is a rubber product with high elasticity and a closed cell structure. By contrast, the vulcanization processes used in the production of a foam latex mattress produces a supportive foam with an open cell structure.
The chemistry and engineering behind vulcanization processes are complex topics. If you want a more detailed glimpse into the world of rubber vulcanization, have a look at the "Handbook of Polymeric Foams and Foam Technology" by Klempner et al., available online using Google Books.
The Point Behind the Chemistry
The closed cell structure of thin, stretchy NRL products like latex gloves means that the proteins are retained in the product. In contrast, the production of latex foam used in bedding results in an open-cell structure. This open structure means that some of the proteins responsible for allergic reactions can be washed out of the latex foam structure in the extensive washing process undertaken by mattress producers.
After a block of latex foam is produced, using either Talalay or Dunlop construction methods [link to internal Talalay and Dunlop pages here], it is washed multiple times, usually in a five-stage washer. The open cellular structure of foam latex acts like a sponge, so that the water is pulled into every void in the mattress.
The block is wrung out using massive metal rollers so that all water is compressed from the mattress. The open cell structure of latex foam, combined with the careful washing process, ensures removal of most or all of the protein culprits in latex allergic reactions.
Added Layers of Protection
Additionally, most or all latex allergies are a result of direct contact with the proteins in the latex. Most people don’t come into direct skin contact with their mattress on a regular basis. You’ll rest on a mattress cover, a sheet, and (might) wear pajamas as well.
Add to that circumstance the fact that most latex mattresses are covered with a flame retardant, or FR, barrier, in order to comply with federal laws on mattress safety. The FR barrier may be a separate layer, or built into the chemical structure of the mattress.
If you buy an all-natural or organic mattress, that barrier is usually a layer of natural, high-quality, and minimally-processed wool fibers, which have a high flame resistance when tightly compressed. That FR barrier provides yet another layer of protection between your skin and the NRL structure of your mattress.
Recommendations for Latex Allergy Sufferers
In most latex allergy cases, latex beds are safe for allergy sufferers, especially those that suffer from localized skin reactions or minor respiratory problems when exposed to medical-grade latex. But if you know you have the rare form of latex hypersensitivity that can result in life-threatening anaphylactic shock, speak with your doctor about your condition in relation to a latex mattress, and follow his or her advice with strict adherence.
If you know you suffer from a latex allergy, we’d recommend that you use a mattress cover and hypoallergenic bedding designed to contain any allergens, simply as an extra caution.
If you are concerned that you might have a latex allergy, remember that the FDA estimates the potential for an allergic latex reaction among members of the general public at less than 1%. To help your peace of mind, consider ordering a sample of the actual latex foam in the bed you’d like to buy. You can take the sample to your allergy specialist to get a professional allergy test.
A Hypoallergenic Mattress
In general, botanical latex is an excellent mattress choice for allergy sufferers. Latex foam discourages the growth of mold, mildew, and dust mites and can deter the buildup of other allergens. For most users, especially allergy sufferers, the benefits of all natural latex beds outweigh the risks.