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What is Visco Elastic Foam?

By Y. Chen
Updated May 17, 2024
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Visco elastic foam is a material developed for bodily support during sleep. Its effectiveness is due to its unique ability to reduce pressure, provide comfortable support, and ease pain caused by prolonged stiffness. Most foam today can be found at furniture retailers, since it is used in mattress overlays, mattress pads, and pillows. Also known as NASA memory foam, visco elastic foam was first invented for space programs in the 1970s, in order to reduce pressure points experienced by astronauts. The G-forces generated during lift off caused uncomfortable sensations for astronauts in their flight chairs, and the foam was able to furnish this needed orthopedic support.

Years later, visco elastic foam was adapted by the medical field for hospital beds, resulting in better physical comfort for patients. It was then that the material was sold to the general public for use in homes, and became popular to the point that products made from it are utilized worldwide in households. One of the most recognized brands of these products is Tempur-Pedic. It has marketed its orthopedic bedding and accessories by claiming that it helps ease troubled sleep, numbness caused by poor circulation, and aligns the vertebrae, leading to better long-term posture and overall health.

The foam works by conforming to the natural heat and weight of the body. It adjusts itself to accommodate the various pressure points, such as the shoulder and hips, which are body areas that press hardest into the bed. Depending on which position someone sleeps in, pressure points differ. However, without proper support, any sleep position can result in pain or discomfort. Visco elastic foam is made up of open cells, which pass air to adjacent cells when pressed down on. In this way, even when the mattress or pillow feels firm at first, it is able to mold to the shape of your body or head.

Besides its widely venerated ability to help people achieve a better night's sleep, visco elastic foam products are less likely to harbor dust mites, which tend to breed, reproduce, and proliferate in traditional box spring mattresses. Dust mites are often found in an environment of high humidity and dead skin cells, which they feed on for nourishment. The end products generated by dust mites create allergic reactions and other respiratory problems for humans, making them undesirable pests. This foam is less likely to provide that kind of environment given its structure and high density.

The number one complaint made by users of visco elastic foam products is the excessive heat generated by use. Because the material is heat sensitive, it traps heat within its open cells. Manufacturers claim, however, that environment as well as one's own body heat contribute to this rise in temperature. Research has been conducted to find solutions to this problem, one of them being Surface Modified Technology (SMT). SMT is a patented series of grooves that can be cut into the surface of the foam to reduce the amount of heat buildup by allowing air to enter and circulate beneath the sheets. This method is also known by some as a Heat Reduction Channels (HRC) system.

When looking for a high quality visco elastic foam furniture piece for your home, beware of imitation manufacturers. Some factories mix formaldehyde and other fixers into their foam and try to sell it as this product. These chemicals can create severe allergic reactions and a heavily unpleasant smell. A good quality product will not visibly flake or break.

It is important to check for inconsistencies in the density of your foam too, since manufacturing procedures differ. One way of creating a mattress is by pouring liquid foam into trays and peeling them out like cookie sheets. The problem with this occurs when gravity causes the foam to become increasingly dense toward the bottom. More advanced technology has leapfrogged this first method by creating it in a vacuum chamber. Called vacuum injection, this process of manufacturing creates a foam product of uniform density and ultimately, a high quality mattress topper, pad, or pillow.

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Discussion Comments
By anon974547 — On Oct 18, 2014

Having a mattress made of the stuff, and having worked in plastics for years I can answer a few questions.

First, I should mention that I too, was kind of worried about the warmth retained by the foam, having slept on box springs almost all of my life, so I was a little hesitant to even purchase a bed out of Visco Foam, After a year, there was really nothing to worry about. Even in the hot atmosphere of Nevada, I can say I have never had a time that the heat retained in the bed ever kept me from sleeping.

Second, because of the way Visco foam works, temperature plays a part as to how fast it reacts to your body heat, and thus, how quickly it adapts to your posture on it or against it. If you live in a warmer climate, then the Visco will respond slightly faster than if you were in a cold climate. The difference is a few seconds delay until it adjusts if you are in a colder climate.

Third, a big question people bring up a lot is Visco foam environmentally friendly. Visco is made of a polyurethane which is made from a petroleum process. It’s the same process which makes a lot of plastics. Unlike soy-based plastics, which have a life span of five or six years to degrade, polyurethane breaks down in hundreds of years by itself. The good news is that many cities have recycling centers and the reused Polyurethane foam is turned into components like car bumpers, egg cartons and even carpet underlay.

By anon291977 — On Sep 17, 2012

I've had a Bed-In-A-Box for a couple years now and I love it.

By anon144806 — On Jan 20, 2011

How does the Visco-Elastic foam hold up with age? I know some foams break down and either get stiffer, less buoyant and feel a little sticky (like old, rancid rubber products with lots of oil in them). Does Visco-Elastic break down over time and if so, what is the general time-range?

We use Visco-Elastic foam in some of our horse saddle pads for show horses who are constantly on the go. Thanks!

By anon142860 — On Jan 14, 2011

We are looking at a visco mattress for our home in Colorado. We winterize our home, no heat when we are not there. Will cold/freezing temperatures affect the foam?

By anon141390 — On Jan 10, 2011

I can (sadly) answer the question about memory foam and heating pads. They don't mix. Because of a neck strain, I wrapped my heating pad with a thick towel and laid it on top of my memory foam pillow while I took a nap. When I woke up, the cotton pillow case had huge holes in it. Think of what happens when you use an iron on your clothes and let it sit a few seconds too long. The cotton becomes scorched and brittle, then crumbles. That's what happened to my pillow case. Lesson learned.

By anon71409 — On Mar 18, 2010

Can Visco-Elastic foam be pored into a mold to make it into any different shapes, like you can with plastic and styrofoam?

In other words, can you shape it into any kind of object, like the shape of a chair or a shoe?

By anon30803 — On Apr 24, 2009

How flammable is memory foam? Is it safe to use a heating pad or heated mattress pad with it?

By jennylou — On Feb 19, 2008

How can I tell if my Novaform mattress pad is made with latex. I have a latex allergy.

By anon7129 — On Jan 18, 2008

How can I find out if my Tempsoma mattress topper from Sam's Club with the viscoelastic emblem on it was manufactured with formaldehyde? It was vacuum packed for the store shelf and it still smells funny after a week out of the package. I have even put it outside. I'm worried about health effects. Thanks, Tracy

By wizodd — On Nov 20, 2007

Visco-elastic foam is an open-celled polyurethane.

Latex foam is either natural or manufactured latex (rubber.)

Either material can cause reactions in people--latex allergies are fairly common and will be triggered by small particles wearing from the foam.

All plastic materials out gas to some extent. Neither visco-elastic nor latex should contain formaldehyde.

Polyurethane and latex are quite flammable, although fire retardants may be added during manufacture.

<2)Do either of the above have a 'breaking

In both cases the answer is dependent upon several factors. The density of the foam (usually pounds/cubic foot,) the environmental temperature (higher temperatures accelerate chemical processes like depredation,) the masses placed on top (i.e. weight of person(s).)

The higher the density the longer the material will last and the less chance of "bottoming out." Manufacturers typically guarantee their product for it's expected lifetime under "normal" conditions.

<3)How toxic to the environment are each of these

Both materials will degrade fairly rapidly if exposed to sunlight and may last very much longer if buried in earth. I don't have access to such test results, but the EPA should be able to help.

NOTE, while the material was developed for NASA, NASA never used it in their launch couches.

By anon4822 — On Nov 02, 2007

I would like to know 1) What is the difference between a Visco-Elastic foam vs. a Latex foam.....as in what are each made of (what material)?...which has 'off-gasing'....which has formaldahyde?....which is 'healthier'(non-toxic to lungs/skin etc.)...How can you tell the difference between the two?

2)Do either of the above have a 'breaking point'?...as in a 'sagging bed'?(how long would each of the above materials last in quality for a bed?) also as in rate of decay? Do these materials ever collapse?

3)How toxic to the environment are each of these materials? ...How long to disintegrate?--

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