Latex Foam as a Sustainable Option for Upholstered Furniture

Tapping a rubber tree for latex - used in upholstery foam

Is latex foam truly a healthy and sustainable option for upholstered furniture?

The raw material for latex foam is obtained by tapping rubber trees in much the same way as maple trees are tapped for sap to make maple syrup.

Harvesting latex milk from a rubber tree

The trees are carefully tended to ensure years of productivity. Historically, latex milk was harvested by small holdings in southeast Asia. Today larger plantations have been established to meet the growing demand. The raw material is processed into 100% natural or used in blended natural/synthetic latex. Note that synthetic latex is produced without the milk from the tree. It is a petroleum-based product, often comprised of Styrene Butadiene (not a health friendly alternative).

Latex foam buyer beware:

Latex blends and synthetics are often blanket-labeled by suppliers as “natural”, creating confusion about what you’re actually getting. Be sure to ask for certification if you have any doubts about what your’e getting. Living Home Furniture’s 100% natural latex upholstery foam is certified by Oeko-Tex (the highest environmental consumer product standard) to be free of flame retardants or other harmful chemicals. We also carry GOLS (Global Organic Latex Standard – established in 2012) certified organic latex foam which adheres to the more strict organic standards. For a more in-depth discussion of certifications, check out the Oecotextiles blog.

Talalay process: injection of latex into a pin-mold at the factory

Talalay vs Dunlop latex

There are two manufacturing processes used in the production of latex foam: Talalay & Dunlop. Both processes are used in the manufacture of 100% natural as well as blended (synthetic/natural) latex. Therefore, not all latex labeled as ’Talalay’ or ‘Dunlop’ are 100% natural.

In the Talalay process, only a small amount of ‘whipped’ latex compound is poured into the mold. Air is extracted to evenly distribute the foamed liquid inside the mold and to create a consistent open cell structure. The foam core is then flash frozen to lock the cell structure in place and to prevent the particles from settling.

The Dunlop process is similar to the Talalay process except that the mold is filled to the brim and there is no vacuum or freezing stage. The Dunlop process can create a firmer feeling, denser product, with a somewhat less even distribution of latex.

100% natural latex foam used to pad a chair seat

With either process, you can rest assured that 100% natural Latex foam is naturally hypoallergenic, dust mite resistant and antimicrobial (inhibiting the growth of bacteria, mold and mildew). No chemical additives are necessary to impart these benefits.

What about Latex Allergies?

All 100% latex from the tree has naturally occurring proteins, which can cause an allergic reaction in some individuals. Latex foam goes through a thorough washing process that removes those proteins. The latex gloves used in the medical industry (which are most often associated with latex allergies) often do not go through this stringent washing process, and (unlike upholstery or mattress foam) are in direct contact with the person’s skin. There is a widely-made claim that the particular type of allergy ‘latex allergy (contact or respiratory)’ that can be caused by the raw material natural latex (the sap of the rubber tree) can not be caused by sitting on a latex cushion or sleeping on a latex mattress or pillow, because:

  1. the latex cores are washed thoroughly
  2. the proteins in the natural latex responsible for the possible allergic reaction are destroyed by the high temperatures during vulcanization in production
  3. the cover of the cushion protects the skin against any direct contact

“According to medical literature, not a single case of allergic reaction has ever been reported as a consequence of sleeping on a latex mattress or pillow.” (from Latexco – a latex distributor)

With all of this said, I will leave it to you to make the final judgement, and would still recommend that people with acute or life-threatening allergies should always practice caution and seek the advice of their doctor or health professional. Have you had personal experience with an allergic reaction to latex specifically in a foam mattress or cushion? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Note: originally published in January 2010, this post has been updated to reflect changes in the latex industry and in Living Home Furniture’s product offerings.

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About the Author

CarlaHey there! I'm Carla Pyle. I love the stories that our furniture tells. For me a picture of my Granddaddy Milton's green upholstered arm chair brings to mind the vivid rhymes & colors of 'The Cat in the Hat' and his soft low voice in the telling. I love too that there is always an element of nature in furniture - the warm-toned curving grain of a walnut leg or the reflection of life in a mid-century chrome piece. The best part of teaching & sharing natural upholstery is that it ties all of these things together. Stories - of individual experience and of the planet - help us build happy & healthy homes.View all posts by Carla →

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