Latex is quite a complicated subject to cover with regards to mattresses, and is probably one of the most confusing for the consumer. This is due to the number of ways that many manufacturers and retailers try to mislead their customers.
How is latex foam made?
There are too different basic methods for manufacturing latex foam for use in mattresses. For both methods the main ingredient is the sap from rubber trees. The trees are milked by a process which involves cutting a spiral groove in the bark so that the white milky sap trickles down the groove, and then drips into a collection vessel. The process doesn’t harm the tree as it will continually produce more sap to replace any that is lost. This is similar to the process for collecting maple syrup. The liquid latex is then whipped up to create a foam. Then from this stage the two methods vary:
As the name suggests this method was developed by Dunlop who have been manufacturing latex foam since 1929. The whipped up liquid latex is poured into a mould, and then steam baked. Due to the bubbles in the mixture rising during this process, the Dunlop foam is far denser at the bottom than it is at the top.
With the Talalay method there are two extra steps introduced to the process. The mould is in this process is a vacuum chamber. So when the air is removed from the mould then the bubbles in the latex expand so that the foam fills the mould. The foam is then flash frozen before it is baked, in order to maintain the size of the bubbles. This process gives a softer foam with a wider range of densities than the Dunlop method. And gives a far more even density through the foam.
With either of these methods some manufacturers add synthetic additives in varying quantities. This is almost always done to make production cheaper. Although you will often see various excuses for the introduction of synthetic additives.
How much of my mattress is actually latex?
Due to the high cost of latex foam production, you will find very few mattresses that are made from natural latex foam only. As with memory foam mattresses most have either a reflex foam or a spring base. And in fact it is considered that the best support would be from a pocket sprung and latex foam mattress. However as with pocket sprung and memory foam mattresses, you need to avoid the reflex foam encapsulated pocket springs which I talk about near the bottom of the ‘Springs’ page.
Many manufacturers (especially some of the big brand names), only use a very thin layer of latex, which is often no more than 1” (2.5cm) deep. And sometimes it doesn’t even cover the full sleeping surface of the mattress. I have seen manufacturers use fancy terms like ‘zonal support’ amongst others, that actually means that the latex only covers part of the sleeping surface. This is then usually bulked out with reflex foam, which can cancel out the cooler feeling often associated with latex foam, because reflex foam can be hot and sweaty. Ideally a mattress should have at least a 2” (5cm) layer of natural latex to receive the full benefit.
Another thing to watch out for is manufacturers who use other trade names for their latex. You can often find in these cases that if you do a bit more research, that the latex is actually either synthetic, or a blend of synthetic and natural latex. Or it may be mixed with other ingredients like graphite. These synthetic latexes or blends won’t give the same support and cooling properties as natural latex, and despite many excuses for the other ingredients being used, the truth is usually that they are included to make the latex cheaper to manufacture.
You may find mattresses described as containing natural or pure latex. This is sometimes a play on words that can mean that the latex used contains a mixture of natural latex and other additives. Although to follow the letter of the law, natural latex should contain a minimum of 80% natural latex. And surprisingly for latex to be called ‘Pure latex’ it only needs to contain at least 20% natural latex..
What is considered the best specification for a latex mattress?
The exact optimum specification for a latex mattress would depend on personal preference. However the optimum basic specification would be a mattress that contains full size steel pocket springs, with a 2” deep full layer of natural latex, preferably on both sides, so that it can be turned and will last far longer.
You will probably find that retailers who only sell non turn latex mattresses will come up with all sorts of reasons why non turn is better than two sided. The truth is that two sided is always better, and there is no reason against two sided mattresses (except for maybe price). Any mattress that is turned will last far longer than a non turn mattress.
Advantages of Latex Foam over Memory Foam.
Natural latex is far cooler than memory foam. So for those people who are very sensitive to heat should consider latex .
Latex has more bounce, unlike the slow reacting feel of memory foam.
Electric blankets can be used on latex mattresses.
Natural latex is a natural product, unlike memory foam which is synthetic.
Latex is very expensive
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