Latex foam is a manufactured foam product popular in a wide range of cushions and mattress products. All-natural botanical latex is a natural, renewable product secreted in fluid form by a multitude of plant species; most latex used in foam manufacture is harvested from the prolifically productive rubber tree plant, Hevea brasiliensis. There are engineered, synthetic versions of latex foam, but none have managed to match the natural characteristic of real botanical latex.

Hevea BrasiliensisHevea Brasiliensis and Rubber Estates

The rubber tree was originally discovered in the forests of Brazil. Once the value of latex was discovered for a range of manufactured products, the farming of rubber trees took off. A rubber tree blight combined with mobile business speculators in the 1800s and early 1900s led to a glut of large-scale rubber tree estates throughout Asia.

Dunlop Latex and Talalay Latex

Latex foam is produced through one of two manufacturing processes:

  • Dunlop: In the Dunlop production process, first invented in the early 20th century, latex is poured into molds, vulcanized (usually with sulphur), and allowed to dry. In the early days, particulate settling would lead to a Dunlop latex foam that was firmer and denser on one side than the other. These days, with improvement in manufacturing techniques, that unevenness is minimal or even nonexistent.
  • Talalay: In the Talalay production process, perfected after World War II, the latex is first whipped for aeration, then poured into molds where it's flash-frozen and subjected to vacuum suction. The result is a soft, space-age material that usually contains more air than Dunlop latex and is usually more expensive, even though there's less latex and more air in the final product than in Dunlop mattresses.

Both Dunlop latex foam and Talalay latex foam are available in a range of densities and firmnesses, from soft to firm. Dunlop can be firmer than Talalay, and Talalay can be softer than Dunlop. In the mattress world, most superior mattresses are made using layered Dunlop and Talalay, with Dunlop on the bottom for support and Talalay on top as a "comfort layer". Latex FAQ: Is Talalay latex better than Dunlop (or vice versa)? The question really should be centered more around how to use Talalay and how to use Dunlop.

Synthetic Latex vs. Real Botanical Latex

Natural latex is a coveted foam bedding that offers body-contouring support and pressure-relieving comfort, all in the same space-age yet sustainable, environmentally friendly material. But not all latex foam beds are created equal. Here are the types of latex mattresses that you might find on the market:

  • Synthetic: Synthetic foam mattresses tend to be less resilient and less comfortable than real foam and may break down more quickly. Pure synthetic Dunlop is such a poor-quality bedding that you'll rarely find it on the market, but you will occasionally find all-synthetic Talalay.
  • Blended: Blended latex is usually 70% synthetic latex and 30% natural latex, and can be processed using either the Dunlop or Talalay methods. Blended latex still doesn't have the plush, buoyant feel of 100% natural latex beds, but it's a closer approximation than purely synthetic options.
  • Hybrid: Hybrid mattresses are a latex "comfort layer" over some other interior support, either a polyurethane core, a traditional inner spring mattress, or even an air mattress. A latex memory foam mattress is a particularly comfortable hybrid form, made up of a memory foam interior sandwiched between a latex sleep layer and a polyurethane core.

Every Option Has Its Upsides and Downsides

  • 100% natural botanical latex mattresses are the holy grail of the premium mattress world. But as such, they're very expensive. And not all all-natural beds are ideal an all-Talalay bed may sound extremely comfortable, but be more likely to sag over time, since the Talalay process incorporates so much air.
  • Synthetic beds can be less comfortable, less resilient, and have shorter lifespans. While synthetic latex may be more affordable, it may not be worth your money on its own. Order samples or lie on a floor model before you buy to be sure you're happy with the quality.
  • Blended latex is a compromise on all fronts. It's an all-latex mattress at a lower price and a reasonable approximation of all-natural latex qualities. But it sleeps like a shadow of an all-natural latex bed almost comparable, but never quite.
  • Many people swear by hybrid beds, and they can be quite comfortable and often more affordable than other options. Still, inner springs can sag over time, and a firmer polyurethane core can cause your latex comfort layer to bottom out? over time, so that you're basically sleeping on the harder polyurethane layer.

And watch out! A bed labeled "100% latex" can be 100% synthetic latex. Look for a 100% natural (or at least a blended latex) bed instead. Take your time, read the fine print, and know your product. As a savvy consumer, you're sure to find an affordable latex mattress that will serve you well for years to come.