Memory foam can be found all over the place. Of course, it’s in pillows, mattresses, and mattress toppers. But you can also find it in rugs, yoga mats, bike seats, insoles, support cushions, wheelchairs, football helmets, and more. Who invented memory foam, what’s it made of, and is there anything dangerous about it? Here’s everything you need to know.
Memory foam, also known as Tempur or Temper Foam, was created by NASA. Yep, NASA. Researchers at NASA’s Ames Research Center invented it in 1966, while working to increase the shock absorbency of airplane seats.
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According to the NASA website, aeronautical engineer Charles Yost first created “an open-cell, polymeric ‘memory’ foam material with unusual viscoelastic properties; that is, it possessed both high-energy absorption and soft characteristics.” NASA found that this new material not only offered “better impact protection” — it was also pretty comfortable.
Memory foam is soft and absorbent, responding to heat and pressure. This means that when you lie down on a memory foam mattress or mattress topper, the material will mold to your body’s contours, evenly distributing your body weight. And once you get up again, the foam will slowly spring back into its original shape.
In the 1980s, NASA made memory foam more widely available, and it became super popular for use in mattresses and medical items like MRI tables, wheelchair seats, and orthopedic padding. Since then, scientists have constantly improved the technology to suit different needs.
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“Engineers have tinkered with the construction and materials to make it even more versatile,” a Gizmodo article explained. “When [medical] patients are at risk of bedsores, doctors can mod the foam to make it safer. Commercial mattress makers, after customers complained that the mattresses were too hot, found ways to better ventilate the material.”
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While memory foam mattresses are a great choice for some people, others prefer a mattress that won’t mold to their body’s shape. Experts agree that memory foam can help sleepers by alleviating pressure points, but note that it doesn’t help with any other common sleep issues like snoring or sleep apnea.
“There’s quite a bit of variability between individuals in terms of what type of surface — whether it’s firm, hard, or soft — they prefer when they’re sleeping,” sleep specialist Donna Arand, Ph.D., told WebMD. “As far as we know, there is no rhyme or reason for that.”
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