What Is Natural Latex?
Natural latex is secreted as part of the natural biological processes of various plants, and most prolifically by Hevea brasiliensis, the rubber tree plant. Natural latex is a mixture of organic chemical compounds produced by specialized cells called lacticifers, which are basically modified phloem cells.
The composition of this liquid botanical latex varies slightly from plant to plant, but mature rubber trees produce latex on a daily basis. Botanists believe latex to be a natural plant adaptation that protects certain species from insect predation.
Harvesting Natural Latex
Natural latex has been grown on rubber estates for commercial production since the 1800s. Liquid latex is harvested from rubber trees without damaging the plant, so a single rubber tree can produce latex for as many as 50 years. According to the College of Agriculture, Biotechnology, and Natural Resources at the University of Nevada, Reno, the commercial genetic lines of Hevea used today were crafted from hundreds of years of seed saving and specialized breeding programs.
Rubber trees can be tapped at around five to eight years of age, according to Purdue University. The liquid is harvested by hand each day by workers, known as tappers, who insert a metal tap into each rubber tree, following time-tested harvesting methods.
Each day, the tappers harvest the latex from collection cups hung below the taps. An experienced tapper can process 200 or 300 trees over the course of about three hours.
The secret to the versatility of latex lies in a cell structure that's adaptable to a wide range of manufacturing processes. Almost every rubber manufacturing process uses some form of vulcanization, which is a means of altering the chemical structure of latex by adding sulfur or other curatives to create to create cross-links, or bridges, between polymer chains. The result is a stronger, more stable, and usually solid rubber structure. The physical properties of the finished rubber depend on the types of additives, the exact vulcanization or curing processes, and any molds or blowing agents used to manipulate the final shape. Read about the different types of latex to find out more concerning the characteristics and end result of each.
Some simple rubber curing processes, like the Dunlop latex foam technique, can take place right on the estate. Botanical latex is treated with anticoagulation compounds (usually ammonia) and transported in its liquid form to dedicated laboratories for more complicated chemical processes—like the cold-dipped vulcanization technique used for stretchy medical-grade rubber, or the patented Talalay latex foam method.
Uses of Natural Latex
The unique properties of botanical latex are adaptable to a wide range of applications. More than a century of practice with creative manufacturing techniques has led to a phenomenal diversity of rubber uses. From pencil erasers to medical-grade rubber gloves to foam mattresses, latex is a major component in everyday items that we take for granted.
Natural Latex vs. Blended Latex
A form of latex can be synthesized using man-made components in laboratory settings. Synthetic latex is a passable imitation of real botanical latex and can be used in many of the same vulcanization processes.
"Blended latex" mattresses contain a mix of synthetic and natural latex. In most cases, this involves a synthetic core to keep down costs, with a botanical latex sleep surface. Natural latex tends to be used for the sleep surface since it has superior loft and support compared to synthetic versions.
If you find a mattress labeled "100% latex" instead of "100% natural latex", it's probably made up of blended latex. Ask questions about which components are synthetic to ensure that you get the best possible sleep experience.
Natural Latex Pros
- Superior loft and bouncy support.
- Renewable resource obtained through sustainable farming practices.
- Natural product that minimizes the use of synthetic chemicals.
Natural Latex Cons
- Premium material comes with a premium price tag.
- Difficult to obtain; most mattresses sold by major manufacturers are blended natural/synthetic mixes or purely synthetic products.
- Less durable than some blended latex products.
Today, with growing health concerns and the rising awareness of "green" social and environmental accountability, latex is growing in popularity. Botanical latex is a sustainable, renewable resource and a natural plant-based alternative to synthetic industrial products.
There's an inherent "bounciness" to natural botanical latex that no amount of laboratory expertise has quite been able to match. If you decide for budgetary reasons to go with blended latex, talk with a sales representative to compare your options and find the variety that's right for you.