What’s in Your Sofa? Examining Polyurethane Foam

Most of us spend around a third of our time in bed. Some of us spend more time on the sofa streaming entertainment than we care to admit. Then there are home office chairs, patio chairs, poolside loungers and other furniture where you work or unwind.

In other words, we spend a considerable chunk of our lives on our furniture. Is that safe? That depends on the furniture. Unless you’ve already opted for eco-friendly furniture that promotes good health, your sofa and mattress are most likely filled with polyurethane foam.

At FoamOrder.com, our team often gets the question: is polyurethane foam toxic? After all, if you’re constantly sitting or lying on a certain material, you don’t want to be worrying about health and safety issues the whole time. Our experts have examined this topic and whether it’s safe to use a polyurethane foam mattress or sofa.

Rolls of polyurethane foam stacked in a shelf.

What is Polyurethane Foam?

Polyurethanes were invented in 1937 by the German chemical company IG Farben. While originally created as a substitute for rubber, these versatile plastics have a wide range of uses. This is because the process can result in various chemical structures for creating foams, varnishes and other materials.

Since World War II, polyurethanes have found their way into everything from adhesives and shoe soles to airplanes and wood floors — and even to padded bras. Furniture manufacturers are crazy about polyurethane foam. Even coil spring mattresses are typically padded with it.

Polyurethanes are elastic polymers that start their life as liquids. In their natural state, they are biochemically inert and don’t cause problems. Transforming them into foam, however, introduces blowing agents and other additives. The chemical reaction may produce toxic gases and residue. Are these emitted in homes over time?

No one argues that polyurethane foam is flexible, comfortable, and highly durable. Even so, with decades of use now behind us, health and environmental concerns have been raised. Behind them is the question of whether polyurethane is toxic to humans.

Cubes of polyurethane foam.

The Problem With Polyurethane Foam

Actually, there are several problems. For one, polyurethane foam derives from petroleum, which is not sustainable. It is therefore not environmentally friendly.

But that’s the least of your worries. This foam can release volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, that have been linked to a host of health problems. According to The New York Times, both the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency have looked into the dangers.

The two worst offenders in the production of polyurethane are quite a mouthful: toluene diisocyanate, or TDI, and methylene diphenyl diisocyanate, or MDI. You’re not likely to be exposed to these chemicals in your home as they are inert in the final foam product. That being said, “off-gassing” can occur where leftover compounds are released into the air; this is a possible concern if you have pre-existing respiratory sensitivities.

The bigger concern is for workers and the communities in which polyurethane is manufactured, which are warned of the health risks. TDI has been identified as a carcinogen. MDI irritates the lungs, throat, eyes, nasal passages, and skin. Allergic reactions are not uncommon. Some workers experience asthma, decreased lung function and other respiratory problems when exposed to even low concentrations of TDI and MDI.

Additional Concerns

Polyurethane foam is extremely flammable. That’s why chemical flame retardants pose the biggest threat in homes. Journalist Wyatt Andrews of CBS reported in 2008 that hundreds of millions of pounds of these toxic chemicals have been accumulating in American sofas and mattresses for more than three decades. Since we tend to keep furniture items for years, these chemicals inevitably find their way into our bodies.

Testing on exposed animals has produced grim results that don’t bode well for humans. Traces found in human breast milk are especially worrisome. Presumably, flame retardants can be transferred to infants that way.

Polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, were once the main ingredients in flame retardants. After mounting evidence that PBDEs thrive in the environment and embed themselves in organisms, they were discontinued in the U.S. in 2004. The EPA reported that long-term exposure to these toxic chemicals could result in liver, thyroid or neurodevelopmental damage. PBDEs were also shown to affect brain development and the reproductive system.

Icon depicting PBDEs free.

Alternatives were found, but they’re not much better. One compound, known as chlorinated tris or TDCPP, was voluntarily removed from kids’ pajamas around 40 years ago. In 2012, the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science & Technology published its findings on TDCPP. According to scientists who conducted studies of foam in couches, there are plenty of reasons for concern. The consumer advocacy group Toxic-Free Future has chimed in as well:

  • TDCPP has a negative impact on animals that includes cancer, reproductive issues and DNA mutations.
  • The Consumer Product Safety Commission has concluded that it increases the risk of cancer.
  • California has identified it as a carcinogen under Proposition 65.
  • High-level exposure alters hormone levels and reduces sperm counts.
  • Exposure to TDCPP and other flame retardants is linked to lower IQ.

How People Are Exposed to Toxins in Furniture

Polyurethane foam is an ever-present danger because it’s in such a wide range of products. In addition to padding your furniture and mattresses, it’s used in car seating, carpet underlay, packaging and sound insulation. It’s even in the casings of electronic equipment like TVs. Flame retardants like TDCPP are especially prevalent in products for infants and children such as car seats, changing tables and nursing pillows. Again, though, couches and mattresses pose the greatest risk for polyurethane toxicity because we spend so much time on them.

Here’s how exposure occurs:

  • Treated products release TDCPP into indoor air and dust.
  • People inhale the contaminated air and dust.
  • People touch contaminated surfaces and absorb TDCPP through the skin.
  • People swallow TDCPP when they snack or prepare food after their hands have been contaminated.

Not surprisingly, toddlers are at heightened risk. They love bouncing on sofas and beds, rolling around on the floor, and putting everything in sight into their mouths. If that’s not enough to persuade parents to go organic, we don’t know what is.

TDCPP isn’t the only culprit. Since PBDEs were phased out, it’s been a musical chairs game of flame retardants. A scientific study of 102 couches found that more than 40% bought between 1985 and 2010 contained TDCCP. Another 85% contained other flame retardants, many of them untested. In all, close to 40 different compounds were discovered. The irony is that the U.S. Consumer Safety Commission has found that flame retardants in couches and mattresses do little to protect people in a fire.

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Going Organic: Peace of Mind in Daytime and Better Sleep at Night

The benefits of going organic are almost too numerous to list. Natural products could make all the difference in your family’s health, your peace of mind and the quality of your sleep. Let’s look at some of the ways an organic couch, mattress or chair can make a positive impact.


If you always aim to put safety first, there’s really nothing to discuss. When it comes to your health, 100% organic materials — latex, wool, cotton or a combination — beat synthetic ones hands down. They are not processed using harsh chemicals. They are not treated with toxic flame retardants. The result is a non-toxic couch or mattress that you can confidently relax on.

Here are some additional selling points

  • Organic latex is naturally hypoallergenic, anti-bacterial, anti-microbial and water-resistant. Say goodbye to fungus, mold, mildew and dust mites. Say hello to better respiratory health.
  • Thanks to wool’s considerable moisture content and a protein called keratin, wool gets high marks as the only fiber that’s inherently flame-resistant. It even has a protective coating of lanolin that makes the chances of combustion very slim.
  • Wool in its natural state is hypoallergenic. A built-in ventilation system, so to speak, fans out excess moisture that is so inviting to dust mites and mold, then takes it up in vapor form. Wool fibers contain many tiny pores. That’s why wool is semipermeable and “breathes” so well. It is a natural temperature regulator.
  • Organic cotton doesn’t contain irritants like dyes or bleach. Dyes are usually chock full of metals that trigger allergies.


As for durability, you can’t beat organic materials. Natural textiles take much longer to break down than their synthetic counterparts. Wool fibers are astonishingly resilient. They can bend tens of thousands of times without breaking. Ordinary cotton clothes and linens last for years, so just imagine how long a dense, quilted weave will stand up to years of wear and tear.

Constant use is hard on couches. Organic foam can take all kinds of abuse and still bounce back to its original shape.

Better Sleep

Organic materials naturally wick moisture. They perfectly regulate temperature, eliminating hot and cold spots, so that beds are uniform and comfortable. Blanket and thermostat wars are a thing of the past. Mattresses and couch cushions stay cool in summer and warm in winter.

Wool especially circulates dry air around the skin. If you’re tired of waking up hot and sweaty or cold and clammy, organic is the way to go. The lower humidity level could even reduce your heart rate for better sleep. Organic fibers are also sturdy and flexible. They conform to the body and support the neck and spine.


Finally, organic products are infinitely better for the planet. Organic latex, wool and cotton are sustainable, renewable and biodegradable. You can own great-looking furniture and do your part to preserve the planet all at the same time.

Organic Latex

Organic latex is extracted from rubber trees that quickly heal and go on to produce sap for up to 30 years. Later, harvested trees are used to make furniture. Rubber plantations must meet strict federal standards.

Organic Wool

Wool farmers are highly respectful of their flocks. The sheep that provide organic wool graze freely and are shorn yearly in stress-free environments. Wool is never dipped into harsh chemicals that pose a threat to people and pollute the environment.

Organic Cotton

Non-organic cotton is one of the most eco-unfriendly crops on earth. It is severely chemically dependent, requiring around a fourth of all insecticides for all crops of any kind grown around the world.

Those nasty chemicals strip the soil of nutrients crucial for soaking up water. The insecticide-laced water just runs off and potentially ends up in the local water system. Insecticides are terrible for soil, cotton harvesters, communities and consumers who buy non-organic cotton products.

Happily, more and more farms are converting to organic methods. Organic cotton is not exposed to harmful pesticides or synthetic fertilizers in the soil. It initially requires more water until nutrients are replenished. After a couple of years, however, farmers who convert to organic methods find that their crops require less water than non-organic crops.

Out With the Old

Conscientious consumers like you have increased demand for transparency and safer solutions from manufacturers. In passing Proposition 65 in 1986, California led the nation in identifying chemicals around the house — including toxins in furniture — that cause cancer, birth defects or reproductive issues. The list of toxins must be updated yearly, and it’s up to 900 and counting.

When it comes to full disclosure about flame retardants, though, many states lag far behind. Unless a sofa is certified as 100% organic, you might have to badger the maker to find out what’s in it. The manufacturer might proudly tell you that one scary chemical, like Firemaster 550, is not in your couch. Just cross your fingers and hope that a very similar chemical isn’t in it, either.

Until that changes, there’s a better way. Don’t let an outdated mattress keep you up at night or a polyurethane foam couch distract you from your favorite show. Replace it with the real deal. Swap your sofa cushions for custom-made, certified organic foam. You’ll feel safer whenever you slide between the sheets or tear the couch apart to find the remote.