As a sleeping surface, it is widely accepted that a natural latex foam mattress has no equal. Sumptuous, soft, supple, supportive, the open cell structure of natural latex foam has a lively, responsive bounce and aeration because it is derived from living trees. Many trees in fact, need to be ‘tapped’ for rubber – in order for many workers to make one mattress. Which justifies why this luxuriously desirable material is expensive.
Latex is a thick, milky fluid found underneath the bark of the rubber tree, Hevea Brasiliensis. The fluid contains fifteen proteins1 that repel harmful insects and herbivores that might damage the tree. Knowing about these protective proteins is important, but more on this later.
It takes seven years for a Hevea Brasiliensis to mature and yield latex. On sustainable plantations, latex is still traditionally harvested by making slits in the bark of the rubber tree, so that the white fluid latex seeps out, down a funnel into collecting cups. This wounding does not harm the plant, which typically has more than 25 years of useful latex yielding life while removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
All the cups are collected up and amalgamated for processing to make foam. The latex is literally whipped until it reaches the height of aeration, then both methods of manufacture – Dunlop and Talalay – require the aerated latex to be heated in the presence of sulfur, a process known as vulcanization.
During the various and complicated vulcanization process the aforementioned latex proteins are largely eliminated through the many water rinses and cycles that wash out the rubber residues. The resultant foam has open, supple, breathable spaces.
Natural latex foam is an incredibly durable material, seven times cooler than synthetic memory foam. It feels divine to sleep on because it is highly supportive yet soft. This is ideal for ‘pressure point’ pain, making latex especially favoured by fibromyalgia, arthritis and sciatica sufferers.
Remember that latex has an important function to perform in the plant? It protects the plant from damage by repelling insects and other herbivores. It’s as if the ‘ghost’ of the proteins makes latex bedding materials inherently anti- allergenic. Unlike synthetic latex, made from petrochemicals, only a natural latex foam mattress represents a hostile dwelling place for dust-mites and bacteria, which is a huge benefit for you and I in the fight against the rising assault of indoor allergens.
So, having established that natural foam latex is a highly desirable material for a mattress and pillows, why ask if it is safe?
Well, for a tiny, tiny minority of people (you already know who you are) latex possesses the potential to cause anaphylactic shock – an extreme allergic reaction which can be life threatening. According to the Anaphylaxis Campaign, there are two types of latex allergies – Type I and Type IV.
Allergic to latex proteins – immediate reaction. Symptoms vary from mild to severe, and the potential exists for anaphylactic reaction.
- Difficulty breathing
- Severe Asthma
- Swollen face, mouth and tongue
- Feeling of nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain.
- Urticaria (hives or nettle rash)
Allergic to the chemicals used in manufacturing latex.
Reactions occur within 6 – 48 hours after direct contact.
Symptoms vary from mild to severe – not life threatening2.
- Itchy rash,
Rough, dry scaly skin
Direct skin contact with latex-derived products remains the primary route for developing both types of latex allergy3, due to an overexposure of proteins from latex gloves. Importantly, no-one is born with a latex allergy.
Estimates vary but the UK based Anaphylaxis Campaign say that specific latex allergies effect around 1% of the general population4. Interestingly, in Australia5 and the USA6, the percentage is very similar. However, within this percentage – the overwhelming majority of people are in predictable occupations for latex allergies. Healthcare workers, cleaners, hairdressers and car mechanics – people who spend all day wearing powdered rubber gloves. Here’s why:
From the early 1980’s the rise of HIV and Hepatitis B in the population directly lead to a rise in protective measures for frontline healthcare workers in the NHS. One of these measures included the compulsory use of latex gloves (chosen for their stretch-ability without tearing). In order to meet the ensuing spike in demand for latex gloves, a change occurred in the manufacturing process. Unintentionally but most certainly, rubber gloves that contained high amounts of latex proteins were produced, with dry cornstarch inside that prevented the insides of the glove sticking together and facilitated quick use. Over the next 20 years localized contact dermatitis to the hands and wrists, were reported in record amounts. Soon, discoveries were made.
Now dipped latex products have a porcelain mould (for example; of a hand), which is dipped into the rubber solution during fabrication. It is now known that latex antigens are especially abundant in dipped latex products (gloves, condoms, balloons). These protein antigens were found to leach into the cornstarch powder. Just like pollen, these antigens became airborne when the gloves were frequently pulled off and on all day. People already contact sensitized due to overexposure breathed in these particles, and this eventually led to them owning full-blown allergies. These discoveries led to a move away from powdered latex gloves followed by a significant decrease in the prevalence of latex allergy in the developed countries7. It is now well known that latex allergy is an entirely preventable disorder.
A tiny percentage of sufferers with the most severe Type I allergy need to avoid Latex, yet latex products are ubiquitous. A few examples; Shoes, erasers, condoms, carpets, sports equipment, hot water bottles, glues, underwear elastics, balloons, washing up gloves, car tyres, television remotes
Latex and food: cross-reactivity
Remember the proteins that the rubber plant produces to defend against insect attack? Well, many other plants have very similar proteins for the same reason. These include plants such as Banana, Avocado, Chestnuts, Papaya, Peppers and Kiwi Fruit. Type I people are almost always allergic to these fruits and vice versa8. If you are one of the tiny number of people unfortunate enough to have developed a severe Type I Latex Allergy through occupational exposure you have to take extreme care with what you eat, what you touch, what and where you breathe. These people have a potentially dangerous condition, and a ‘normal life’ is challenging. Latex is everywhere.
When passing a bill concerning latex, the USA House of Representatives stated that ‘latex exposure is ubiquitous and over 40,000 consumer products contain natural rubber latex9,’ so if you are among the miniscule minority of Type I’s diagnosed with a severe form, you are in constant peril. You almost certainly need to carry some type of EpiPen (adrenaline injector). Don’t let some bed retailers talk you into buying a latex mattress. Keep well away. Avoidance remains the first line of defence.
Type IV – Contact Dermatitis. Natural latex foam is safe.
Mild or severe allergic reactions, otherwise called contact or occupational dermatitis are found in Type IV. An itchy rash most often appears on the contact areas of wrists and forearms in a delayed reaction. It is recommended that Type IV people need to avoid dipped latex gloves and not blow up balloons with their mouths. These people comprise by far the largest proportion of the 1% of the population affected.
As mentioned earlier, during the manufacturing process of making latex foam for bedding, the vast majority of the protein antigen residues are washed away during various rinsing cycles. Type IV people are not always directly allergic to latex proteins, but rather to the chemicals used in dipped latex products which is a very different manufacturing process. There is no need at all for Type IV people to miss out on the huge benefits of a desirable sleeping medium by avoiding a latex mattress. Worldwide there has never been a fatality from an allergic reaction caused by a latex mattress. Additionally, the highly respected international company Latexco, who specialise in natural sustainable latex foams for export around the globe, have never heard of an allergic reaction to their latex products, largely due to the care they take in the processes to eliminate the troublesome proteins.
James Feakins, Co-Founder of Sleepbear is on record to say that they chose to do business with Latexco because of their outstanding record on sustainability and safety. James said;
“In the last 60 years that the manufacturer of our latex foam has been in business, they’ve never had one single reported or documented case of a person having any kind of allergic reaction to their latex products.”
No contact with the Latex surface
Having established that latex foam mattresses are completely safe for Type IV people, always choose a latex foam mattress with a ‘sleeve’ that isolates the natural latex from the surface in order to keep it in pristine condition. A good choice is the affordable luxury of a natural latex mattress from Sleepbear. Sitting on top of the mattress sleeve, Sleepbear provide an immediate sleep surface layer with an 89% proven dustmite allergen eliminating probiotic in the weave. This is ideal for sufferers with Type IV contact dermatitis, irritant dermatitis and eczema, who can commonly be cross-sensitised to other allergenic substances – typically dustmites, pollen, dog and cat dander and various airborne moulds. Sleepbear call this material Polartex®. It is manufactured to Standard 100 OEKO –TEX – safe and gentle enough even for a baby’s delicate skin. The Polartex® cover is still effective after removing for machine washing, leaving the breathable sleeve exposed with the latex safe and clean beneath it.
Overall, the sheer luxurious feel of a latex foam mattress is most definitely desirable for almost everybody! Get yours here…