Latex Mattress Consumer Buying Guide

Many terms and catch phrases are used to describe latex mattresses in today's marketplace. They are interchanged, taken out of context, or misused unknowingly or intentionally. With this going on, how in the world can a consumer compare? As I see it the confusion results when retailers, wholesalers, and manufacturers, mix terms, which then causes the consumers to arrive at incorrect conclusions. In addition, we find latex rubber being confused with memory foam, which is the prime component in the much advertised "Tempur-pedic' mattress line. LATEX FOAM RUBBER IS NOT MEMORY FOAM. THEY ARE AS DIFFERENT AS NIGHT AND DAY. Latex foam rubber is classified as a natural product in the "Rubber" family-even when blended with a portion of synthetic latex. Memory foam is classified as a man made synthetic product in the "Foam" family. There is nothing about memory foam or any foam product that would ever fall into the "natural" category.

In this latex buyers guide I will stick with latex and start with an overview of concrete facts. I hope the following information will assist you in making your buying decision by adding clarity and understanding about what latex is, how it differs from other cushioning materials, and its benefits.

100%NATURAL LATEX...using the “DUNLOP PROCESS.” from the sap of the rubber tree manufactured using the dunlop process. Only 40% of the milk of the rubber tree is latex and must be extracted prior to undergoing the dunlop process of pouring and curing. Early natural latex would vary in consistency and quality from manufacturer to manufacturer, because there was no standard for how much of what was tapped from the rubber tree was used. Some companies might use a greater percentage of the sap instead of reducing it down to its purest form. Thus a company using 70% of the sap would have a lower cost in their finished product than the company using the latex reduced to its purer 40% of the sap from the tree.

BLENDED LATEX...using the "DUNLOP PROCESS."   In order to develop a more consistent latex and adopt some sort of standard measuring stick manufacturers began blending natural with synthetic latex. Synthetic latex has the same cell structure as natural and is stronger, but lacks the elastic properties of natural latex. They would take a certain amount of the purest latex (the reduced 40% of the milk) and mix it with a certain amount of synthetic. This mixture could still vary from manufacturer to manufacturer but at least we were closer to a standard, knowing that the natural content in the latex core was the purest.

BLENDED LATEX...using the "TALALAY PROCESS." Ninety-seven percent of the time the term "Talalay Latex" means the latex is a blend of approximately 70% synthetic latex ,and 30% natural latex. (Three percent of the time it refers to 100% natural.)  The "Talalay manufacturing process" is a very expensive process and is what really separates the men from the boys when it comes to producing latex that will last the longest and have a wider range of firmness, from super soft, used in pillows, to extra firm used in a super firm mattress. Currently there are only three Talalay manufacturers in the world: Latex International, Radium Foam, and a new plant in China as of 2010.

A problem with the dunop process of manufacturing, either all natural or a blend, has been the inability to produce a very soft latex that would last over many years of use. If it was too soft using all natural, (below 22 ILD), it would wear out faster. It was also difficult to achieve a soft latex with the blended latex using the Dunlop process, although the blended was still superior because of its consistency and increased durability due to stronger cell structure of the synthetic portion.

In the past a mattress manufacturer would pay 25% more for blended Talalay latex than they would for an all natural latex produced using the Dunlop process. In the past two years, with the increased demand for more "natural products," the two products cost about the same.

100% NATURAL LATEX... using the "TALALAY PROCESS." Is very rare in the marketplace although you might think, from the marketing, it is the most used. Only two companies make "100% all Natural using the Talalay process: Radium Foam, and as of 2005, Latex International. Talalay Natural latex is a blend of approximately 98% natural and 2% synthetic. The 2% synthetic is needed as a bonding agent in the "Talalay" process, and obviously does not alter the fact that it is classified as 100% natural. Of all the talalay processed latex produced by Radium Foam and Latex International, only about 3% is 100% natural. It will always be priced higher due to steps in the process that take longer and slow down the production process. The reason for higher cost is difficulty of using the talalay process with 100% all natural latex. The Talalay process is highly technical and involves huge outlays in equipment.

What is the Best Latex Value?

When deciding on which latex to select between, blended Talalay or natural Talalay, this is what I tell my customers. Let's say I have a tire for sale, at $100, that will last 50,000 miles. I also have another tire that will probably last you 55,000 miles. The second tire will cost you $130. Will you pay $30 more, for a possible 10% more in the life of the tire? The same applies to Talalay blended, and Talalay natural, because they both feel the same. Sooo.... What’s the best value? Do you really want them to think about it, and go look at prices, and compare? Or build trust through the previous statements, and provide the answer here?

(e.g. The bleded Talalay, is cheaper than the natural Talalay, but it will last longer, links to products).

There Are Only 2 Types of Latex

There are only two basic types of latex: "natural latex" which comes from the rubber tree, and synthetic latex which is man-made and produced using chemicals and petroleum products. The chemicals in the synthetic latex are used as catalysts, and disappear or are washed out at end of manufacturing process.

The two types of latex have the same properties except the synthetic latex has superior strength compared to the natural. The natural latex has more elasticity (softer), but will tear easier. Thus the accepted standard for quality latex used in mattress manufacturing became a blend of natural latex and synthetic latex, to combine the best of both.

The confusion in recent years has been in the labeling of blended latex as "synthetic latex," and then branding all blended latex mattresses as "synthetic".

100% Natural latex is harvested from the sap of rubber trees, grown mostly in tropical regions of the world. Natural latex is not a perfect product by the vary nature of its being natural. The sap harvested is affected by soil conditions, amount of rain, and other factors that make one batch better than another. The degree of difference is not great, but it’s enough to make it a necessity for purchasers of the raw material to test for quality.

It is much like buying coffee beans to arrive at different blends. Natural, and synthetic, rubbers have differing properties. Natural rubber is very soft and elastic, synthetic rubber gives the foam good hardness and processes better (is easier to work with) in production.

The difference in quality is derived from the process used to produce the latex mattress cores. Compounders tend to use blends of natural, and synthetic, to get the best overall properties, and to stabilize prices. When natural rubber is tapped from a tree it is very dilute, the rubber content being only about 30%.

It has to be concentrated before use to above 61.5% solids. Of these solids 60.0% is rubber, the remaining 1.5% are compounds that are unique to natural latex (proteins, phospholipids, carbohydrates, amino acids). These unique ingredients are very important in explaining the behavior of natural latex.

Before the Second World War, virtually all latex used in production was natural. During WW2 supplies of latex from the Far East were very restricted, hence the search for a synthetic alternative. Scientists tried to copy natural latex (derived from cis-polyisoprene) and largely failed: the latex produced was inferior to the real thing.

Instead, they developed a latex based on a synthetic polymer that behaved in a similar way. The word ‘polymer’ simply means a compound made up of long chains of molecules, each link in the chain being derived from simple chemicals known as ‘monomers’. A number of synthetic latices were developed, the most useful one being made by polymerizing Styrene (a liquid) with Butadiene (a gas) to give Styrene-Butadiene rubber, abbreviated to SBR.

There Are 2 Manufacturing Processes

The two main manufacturing processes used by latex manufacturers are the standard process, and the talalay process. In reality there are a multitude (I've been told up to 40) of variations of the standard process by lesser known manufacturers. Someone is always trying to cut corners or substitute one step or procedure for another to save money.

STANDARD PROCESS: (sometimes called the dunlop process) the less expensive process for manufacturing latex mattress cores. This process blends a combination of synthetic and natural latex liquid together, which is forced into individual molds approximately 6" x 80" x 39" and put thru specific steps to arrive at finished latex mattress cores. The standard process is a superb process but the talalay process delivers more consistency of firmness throughout to entire core. This process produces a finished product that has a firmer feel.

TALALAY PROCESS: the most advanced process for manufacturing latex mattress cores. This process blends a combination of synthetic and natural latex liquid together, poured into individual molds approximately 6" x 80" x 39" and put thru specific steps to arrive at finished latex mattress cores. The talalay process delivers more consistency of firmness throughout to entire core. It produces latex cores superior in comfort, durability, and in a greater range of firmnesses...from very soft to super firm. The three manufacturers in the world using the talalay process are: Latex International, Radium Foam, and as of 2010 a new China latex manufacturer. It is unlikely that there will be new latex manufacturers using the talalay process because of the much higher expense in equipment and technology. The cost per mold is 10 times greater between the talalay process and the standard process.

Blended Latex

If there are only two types of latex and basically only two methods of manufacturing then why all the confusion. As you research latex mattresses many terms and phrases are use which would lead you to believe there are many different qualities and types of latex. The problem is many words are used incorrectly or in the wrong context. I will give some examples, but first we need to get an overview of all the latex sold in the United States.


  • Natural latex means the product does not contain synthetic latex only natural.
  • Most "natural latex cores contain only 85% latex with the remaining 15% made up of fillers.
  • 98% of all natural latex is produced using the standard process.
  • 2% of all natural latex is produced using the superior "talalay process. Radium Foam and Latex International are the only producers of "Natural Talalay" latex.
  • Standard process natural latex, is less consistent in firmness throughout the mattress core. (98% of natural uses standard process)
  • Technology in recent years has narrowed the quality gap between the standard and talalay process
  • Natural latex rubber contains natural proteins which some people are allergic too. No case of allergic reaction to a latex mattress has ever been documented.
Natural, to Blended, Latex Pie Chart
  • Blended latex means the latex product contains a percentage of both natural and synthetic latex. The percentage varies from manufacturer to manufacturer. The usual blend is 80% synthetic 20% natural.
  • 80% of all blended latex is produced using the standard,less expensive process.
  • 20% of blended latex is produced using the more expensive superior "Talalay Process"
  • Talalay process latex produces a superior cell structure
  • Chemicals are not an issue in blended latex. Memory foam and regular poly foam, found in all traditional innerspring mattresses, have far more chemicals than latex. The chemicals used in the manufacturing process dissipate or are washed out during the washing process. (see How Latex is Made below)

Examples of Confusing Statements

All the mattresses we sell contain 100% natural latex

The fact is all the latex from the major latex manufacturers contain at least 20% natural latex blended with 80% synthetic, regardless of the process or the blend. Yes it does contain 100% natural latex, but the mattress is not 100% natural. It is easy to interpret the above statement to mean all the mattresses are 100% natural when in fact they are not.

Natural Talalay Latex

This statement is used all too often and incorrectly about 99% of the time. As stated above, latex that is both 100% natural and also produced using the superior Talalay process is very rare. I am going to take the high road and say the retailers making this statment in their marketing just don't understand the product, as opposed to intentionally trying to mislead. Only about 3% of talalay latex sales are in fact "talalay natural", so if that is what you are looking for you should ask the seller specifically: is the entire product 100% natural, is it made using the talalay process, and who is the manufacturer? Currently there are only two: Radium and Latex International.

Summary

In today's fast pace world I believe we as consumers suffer from "option overload". Smart marketing targets not only demographics of age, sex, income, etc., but also the values within the demographics. If a person is to market their product successfully they need to separate themselves from the pack. To do this retailers offer what is perceived to be an option that really is not. In the case of latex I believe the very best value in terms of comfort, consistency, durability is still blended talalay latex. I believe more than 10" of latex in a mattress is unnecessary in terms of comfort and support. I believe that the technical advances and improvements made in the last 10 years have narrowed the quality gap between the dunlop process and the talalay process.

Common Terms

  • Pure Latex Which can mean a blend of natural and synthetic that can contain as much as 80% synthetic and only 20% natural
  • Natural Latex A blend of approximately 20% synthetic, 80% natural. This can vary from manufacturer to manufacturer
  • 100% Natural Latex 100% latex from rubber trees & manufactured using standard process.
  • 100% Natural Talalay Latex a rare product and only produced by Latex International and Radium Foam
  • Talalay Latex refers to a manufacturing process, not to a type of latex. Talalay is a blend of natural and synthetic, which is not stated on most websites.

How Latex is Made

Synthetic rubber

Before the Second World War, virtually all latex used in production was natural. During WW2 supplies of latex from the Far East were very restricted, hence the search for a synthetic alternative. Scientists tried to copy natural latex (derived from cis-polyisoprene) and largely failed: the latex produced was inferior to the real thing.

Instead, they developed a latex based on a synthetic polymer that behaved in a similar way. The word ‘polymer' simply means a compound made up of long chains of molecules, each link in the chain being derived from simple chemicals known as ‘monomers'. A number of synthetic latices were developed, the most useful one being made by polymerizing Styrene (a liquid) with Butadiene (a gas) to give Styrene-Butadiene rubber, abbreviated to SBR.

Natural Rubber

Natural and synthetic rubbers have differing properties. Natural rubber is very soft and elastic, synthetic rubber gives the foam good hardness and processes better (is easier to work with) on production. Compounders tend to use blends of natural & synthetic to get the best overall properties, and to stabilize prices.

When natural rubber is tapped from a tree it is very dilute, the rubber content being only about 30%. It has to be concentrated before use to above 61.5% solids. Of these solids 60.0% is rubber, the remaining 1.5% are compounds that are unique to natural latex (proteins, phospholipids, carbohydrates, aminoacids). These unique ingredients are very important in explaining the behavior of natural latex.

Soaps – Potassium Oleate

This stabilizes the mix, i.e. it prevents it from coagulating until we are ready for it to do so, when the foam is in the mould. Soaps also assist the latex mixture to foam up when air is introduced in the foaming machine.

The latex compound is foamed up to the correct foam density, then the required amount metered into the mould. The mould is closed and the Talalay cycle begins. The mould is cooled and a vacuum is applied, which causes the foam to expand to fill the mould completely. A disposable paper gasket prevents latex entering the vacuum lines and a rubber gasket seals the mould from the outside world.

Gelling

This is the key step in the foam making process. It is at this point that a phase change occurs and liquid foam becomes ‘solid' foam, and the foam sets or ‘gels'. In the original Dunlop Process, the foam is set by addition to the wet foam of a small amount of gelling agent (sodium silicofluoride or SSF). In the Talalay process the foam is frozen at 0°F then carbon dioxide gas (an acidic gas) is passed through the foam to lower its pH & set it.

This means that on warming up again the foam does not revert to liquid. The foam at this stage is however very weak and could not possibly be removed from the mould intact. The strength is built in during the next stage - vulcanization.

Sulphur and vulcanization

Sulphur is added to the mix during compounding. Without sulphur in the production process, the foam would resemble chewing gum and would have little resilience. The double bonds in the rubber molecule are utilized by sulphur, which forms bridges with adjacent molecules, known as cross-linking. This process gives the product its familiar properties of elasticity and resilience.

The process of heating rubber with sulphur is called vulcanization or ‘curing', and was discovered by Charles Goodyear in 1839. This is a fairly slow process, even at a temperature of +240°F so certain accelerators are required in the production process to make this happen quickly. A very small addition of these reduces the time required for curing from about 25 minutes to about 8 minutes. At the end of this time the mould is cooled, opened, and the product is removed and sent to the washer.

Washing

This removes soaps, ammonia and anything else water soluble, which have served their purpose and are no longer required or desirable. If they were not removed they would contribute to discoloration, odor and could leave the product feeling tacky.

Drying

This removes all water from the block and completes the vulcanization process, thus giving the product satisfactory physical properties (compression set, tensile strength, elongation at break, pounding and indentation set). The dried products then arrive at Inspection for weighing, hardness checks and grading.

Antioxidant

Any double bonds in the rubber which are not used up by the sulphur are at risk from attack by oxygen and ozone in the atmosphere, particularly when catalyzed by the presence of UV light. This is why latex will deteriorate in sunlight. A small amount of ‘antioxidant' is added to the latex during compounding. This is a substance which is preferentially oxidized (& therefore sacrificed), thus affording some protection to the rubber. Eventually however it becomes depleted and deterioration of the rubber then occurs. Latex foam must never be cleaned with solvents (dry-cleaning): this would remove any antioxidant completely, deterioration would then be very rapid.

Moulds and Heat transfer

Moulds are made from aluminum (very good heat transfer properties) and are hollow, with channels within their walls so that a heat transfer fluid can circulate through them.

Since latex foam is a very poor conductor of heat a large number of ‘pins' are present to enable heat/cold to get into the heart of the foam. The resulting pinholes then play another very useful role in that they make it much easier to remove moisture during the drying process.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q. If your beds contains the same type of latex as most major brands, then why are you so inexpensive compared to them?

A. This question must be answered in two parts because it infers that we may not use as good latex as the major brands. No major mattress manufacturer surpasses the quality or the quantity of the latex we use in our Select Sleep latex mattresses. We use only latex manufacturer by the talalay process as compared to latex manufactured by the standard process. In addition their mattresses are usually a combination of regular foam, blended latex using the standard process, and blended latex using the talalay process. Our latex mattresses are 100% talalay process blended latex top to bottom, edge to edge. The end result is we put more of the best latex into every mattress. The talalay process requires more advanced and complex manufacturing facilities and more steps in the process, thereby raising the product cost over the standard process. But the manufacturing process is only one aspect of comparing latex to latex. We must also take into consideration the percentage of latex that is natural and the percentage of latex that is synthetic in each latex mattress core. Ninty nine percent, ( 98%), of all talalay process latex is a blend of natural and synthetic, with the blend being 70 to 80% synthetic and 20 to 30% natural. There are many reasons why the blended is superior but here are the most important. 1.) durability-lasts longer, 2.) more consistant cell structure throughout the entire core 3.) stablizes price, 4.) diffuculty of using all natural with the superior talalay process.

The second part of the answer to this question seems rather simple. We are doing the same thing as the major manufacturers, making mattresses. The difference is we are selling direct to you the consumer. They, on the other hand, are selling to stores and sleep shops, who then must double the price to cover large overheads. It should be simple to understand they are selling to middlemen who then sell to you at higher costs. We sell direct at lower costs. The only problem with buying factory direct is finding companies who are "true factory directs" not retailers passing themselves off as such.

Q. Why don't your latex beds have the "race track" lining on the edges?

A. Some decisions we make are based on long term use. This is one. The term "race track" refers to standard polyfoam, not latex, being glued around the edge of the mattress which varies from manufacturer to manufacturer. Six inches is added to either side and 8" is added to the head and foot in the case of "Natures Rest". This makes the edge firmer for sitting for the user and at the same time lowers the cost of producing the mattress for the manufacturer. Poly foam can cost as much as 1/5 the cost of latex, depending on the density of the poly foam. But here's the rub. Poly foam will wear out much faster than latex and the edge of the mattress will show the wear within a few years.

Q. Why don't I have to flip or rotate my latex mattess?

A. You don't have to flip or rotate latex because it is a stronger and more durable product by the nature of its cell structure, be it synthetic or natural latex. Generally cell structure of foam does not have the tencile strength of latex and will break down much sooner. Traditional mattresses in the market use standard man made foam placed over a variety of innersprings. These foams, which vary in quality and feel, are used as comfort layers over the springs or quilted directly to the outer ticking material. As the demand grew for bigger and thicker mattresses the incidence of body impressions and breakdown increased, especially in the softer mattresses. Firm mattresses with a good spring will last longer and show less wear than softer high profile mattresses. It may be unfair to use the word breakdown because it was really normal wear and padding down. Naturally this would give the appearance that the mattress was breaking down long before it was supposed to. The solution was to rotate and flip the mattress and thus even out the wear and padding down.

Q. Why is it that a latex mattress life expentancy is longer than an innerspring or even a memory foam mattress?

A. Innerspring mattresses use foam as their cushioning material, which is made entirely from petroleum by products. The cell structure of foam does not have the tencile strength of latex and will break down much sooner and shorten the life of the mattress.

Q. Will I be able to smell the rubber through the cover in my mattress? If so how long will the smell remain there?

A. You will not smell the rubber through the cover in your new mattress once it is assembled. A faint odor can be detected if you smell new latex directly, but far less than regular foam, which you find in all the major brand mattresses.

Q. If I've sleptt on an innerspring mattress all my life, and now have decided to go with a latex mattress, approximately how long will it take my body to adjust and get used to the latex?

A. It's not the latex you are adapting to it's the new sleeping surface whether it be latex, innerspring, memory foam, or any combination. We ask that you give your body at least two weeks to adjust to a new mattress. This takes into consideration that you have already test rested and have selected and your general firmness preference. Then it is just a matter of making minor adjustments within the confines of your home without exchanging the entire bed. That is the beauty of our Select Sleep latex mattress line.

Q. Which latex is more expensive: natural or blended?

A. To answer this question you have to know which process is being used to manufacture the latex. Blended latex manufactured by the talalay process has always been the most expensive.

Q. When you refer to "talalay" latex what do you mean?

A. When we use the term "talalay" we mean synthetic and natural latex blended together using the talalay process. Blended latex make up 98% of the sales of all premier latex manufacturers.

Q. Are you saying the majors make a bad product?

A. No I'm not. I'm saying we bare the expense of using better components in our mattresses because we are hanging our entire business around latex. They are hitting different price points in their latex mattress line with different models. To hit those price points they must cut corners by using less expensive components. Just because a component is less expensive does not mean that it is drastically inferior. It may lack specific qualities as the more expensive item but it serves its purpose in the way it is used. As an example lets take a latex mattress manufactured by a major brand and examine its components. The base layer is a 5.6" core of either natural or synthetic latex. Now this core is the base core and is there mainly for support not feel, so they are perfectly justified to use latex, other than talalay process blended latex.

To get a better understanding about latex we must draw distinctions between the two main methods of manufacturing latex.