Does anyone really know all the toxic chemicals that can be found in our most immediate surroundings every day? We think... not.
And yet those pesky, easily-overlooked particles are a major culprit behind a plethora of health problems, and even when we’re aware of them, they complicate our everyday decisions. An example would be choosing your next bamboo pillow.
This wellness-enthusiast favourite is hailed for its naturally hypoallergenic properties, but is there more to the story? Are bamboo pillows toxic?
As it happens, the most sought-after bamboo pillows or memory foam pillows are produced in a fusion of natural and synthetic materials - which makes the pillow semi-synthetic. But does that mean it’s toxic?
Simply put - no. But let’s see why.
Are Bamboo Pillows Made of 100% Natural Fabrics?
There are different parts of the bamboo pillow that need to be discussed separately to answer what they’re made of - the cover and the memory foam.
The Bamboo Cover
Most bamboo pillow covers manufactured worldwide are made from viscose rayon, which is a semi-synthetic fabric also used in clothing.
However, there's a popular misconception that viscose rayon is a natural material because it has been labeled as such due to the fact that this material is derived from cellulose.
But what actually makes the fabric semi-synthetic is that pillow companies chemically change the cellulose to create the final product.
The Memory Foam
The pillow's filling material is mostly shredded memory foam, which is primarily made of polyurethane, a man-made material. This material comes in different shapes and is quite adjustable, which is why it’s used in the production of furniture, bedding, and carpet underlay.
According to laws in various countries, however, polyurethane needs to have some kind of flameproofing to ensure the safe egress of residents in case of fire. This is what consumers around the world are mostly concerned about - whether particular manufacturers adhere to safety regulations when it comes to the materials used in the making of memory foams in combination with flameproofing chemicals.
Neither the pillow cover nor the pillow filing in bamboo pillows are made from 100% natural materials. We’ll get into whether that’s a bad thing or not in a bit, but first, let’s get into the nitty-gritty of what most bamboo pillows are made of.
All the Components of a Bamboo Pillow
In order to learn whether there is any chance of toxicity in the pillow, we need to look at its components.
Chemicals Found in the Pillow Cover
- Sodium hydroxide
This chemical can cause corrosion or chemical burns in workers who produce viscose without any protection during the manufacturing process.
- Carbon disulfide
Memory Foam Components
Polyols, or the building blocks of any memory foam, are mainly made out of petroleum oil-derived components with a small dose of botanical sources such as castor beans. They are what gives the foam its ‘bulk’.
This is the chemical compound that reacts with polyols to create adjustable polyurethane foam. The most extensively used sources are methylene diphenyl diisocyanate and toluene diisocyanate. In cases of exposure to large quantities, like during the manufacturing processes, both MDIs and TDIs may cause wheezing, coughing, and even asthmatic attacks..
- Blowing agents
Blowing agents are used to help create chemical reactions that convert liquid into foam. Even though most pillow manufacturers use chlorofluorocarbons, a hazardous agent that can cause skin cancer and cataracts, in the production of memory foam, there are some that use safer alternatives such as water.
Potentially Harmful Byproducts Found In Memory Foam
When manufacturing memory foam, companies use various chemicals including methylene dianiline, vinylidene chloride, and methyl benzene, amongst others.
- Methylene dianiline / MDA
Methylene dianiline may cause irritation in those that are prone to allergies - of course, when in contact with the skin. This means that the main peril is during manufacturing, not after purchase.
- Methyl benzene
The World Health Organization categorizes methyl benzene as a carcinogen. When inhaled, this harmful product can even affect the nervous system.
- Vinylidene chloride
As with MDA, the greatest hazards with vinylidene chloride can happen during manufacturing. Potential health issues include eye and skin irritations, and respiratory diseases.
Acetone can only be toxic when inhaled in high quantities, which again, concerns the manufacturers only.
Are These Components Toxic for the Consumer?
Similar to your drain or upholstery cleaners, when not used correctly, these chemicals can jeopardize the environment or even your health. This is where governments step in.
With their global expectations for the sustainable production of viscose materials, governments put thousands of companies under a microscope in their efforts to prevent pollution and impose regulations regarding safety during manufacturing. Regarding consumer-facing regulations, companies are obliged to fully disclose information when it comes to their manufacturing practices and components used.
Even though there are still instances of reckless production due to some companies wanting to take the cheaper route, stricter regulations have forced an increasing number of companies to work responsibly and safely to ensure compliance.
Additionally, consumers shouldn't be worried about the toxicity of the components in the finished product, as they aren’t exposed to enough of the harmful chemicals while using the pillow in order for these components to qualify as toxic. The ones that should be worried, however, are workers, because the components' toxicity mainly refers to levels found in the manufacturing process. In order to limit workers’ exposure, the majority of manufacturers invest in safety equipment.
There’s one more term that relates to any alleged toxicity of bamboo pillows, and that’s the term volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, which includes all gases that are emitted in the production process used by many memory foam producers. The pillow’s off-gassing scent can be also smelled after production, but it quickly dissipates in the air. Breathing these compounds in high quantities can irritate the nose, eyes, and throat, and cause nausea, or even organ damage.
Luckily, bamboo pillows contain low-levels of VOCs that aren’t enough to cause any of the aforementioned complications.
Upon opening the pillow, however, consumers might notice a chemical smell because all the chemicals break down at room temperature. As they swiftly disperse in the air, they release odor, which evaporates after a few days.
What About Flame Retardants?
Flame retardants refer to a variety of substances that can be found in everyday materials in order to prevent fire from spreading too fast.
In an effort to slow the growth of fire, all polyurethane foams need to go through fireproofing processes. As it happens, different producers use varying approaches to this process which leaves us with one thought - that some might use toxic chemicals.
Polybrominated diphenyl ethers are an example. This hazardous flame retardant can delay puberty, disrupt hormones, or even cause cancer. But luckily, polylactic acid is a safer alternative that companies use more often nowadays.
How to Be Sure That You Are Making the Right Purchase
To make sure that you won't purchase a wrongly processed memory foam, always check for brands that are certified. Our very own bamboo pillows are closely examined to meet CertiPUR-US®’s rigorous standards for durability, materials, and emissions.
Armed with the ironclad knowledge we strove to provide in this article, you can now decide whether or not bamboo pillows suit your needs. Of course, you should make sure to find a trustworthy brand that guarantees quality before any purchase.
Are Bamboo Pillows Environmentally Friendly?
Since bamboo is a sustainable plant that swiftly regenerates itself without fertilizers, pillows made from a bamboo-derived material are considered to be eco-friendly.
Are Bamboo Fabrics Resistant to Dust Mites?
Bamboo materials are known for their antimicrobial properties, which minimize the chances of you getting an allergic reaction due to dust mites.
Are Bamboo Pillows Machine Washable?
Even though you can’t put your bamboo pillow’s filling into the washing machine, you can indeed put your cover or pillow protector on a gentle cycle.
Does Your Sleep Position Matter When Choosing A New Bamboo Pillow?
Yes. Finding the proper pillow to support your head and neck depends on many factors, including your sleeping position. While side sleepers do best with a thicker and firmer memory foam pillow, stomach sleepers need to look for a pillow with medium-firm support that’s relatively flat. If you are a back sleeper, however, you’ll need a pillow with a lower loft than those for side sleepers and a higher loft than those pillows made for stomach sleeping positions.