Let’s start with a visual experiment.
Take a break from reading our fascinating articles for just a moment. Stand up. Go on a leisurely walk into your bedroom – or whatever room you happen to sleep in. Then, look at the mattress. We don’t mean a brief glimpse. Take the sheets and comforters off and really look. Pay special attention to the spot where you tend to sleep. Do you notice any sagging? Maybe even a full impression in the shape of your sleeping body?
Well, that can’t be comfortable to sleep on, can it? We bet it isn’t!
But how can this be? you might be thinking right about now. My mattress isn’t THAT old! I just bought it a few years ago! How is it already sagging so badly? It looks several inches lower than it did when I first picked it out at the store!
Don’t worry. There’s an explanation for this less than pleasant discovery which you may have just made. But before we get into explaining just what’s going on, let’s do one more experiment.
Find a car, bicycle or motorcycle. (Please, for safety’s sake, choose one which is parked in a garage or driveway, and NOT currently in motion!) Lean down and take a nice, long sniff of one of the tires. Yes, we know, it sounds weird, but we promise, it’s important for the explanation we’ll be giving you in this article. So take a sniff of that tire.
Ew! Gross! Stinky! Peeee-yew!
Smells bad, right? If it’s currently a hot, sunny day, I bet it smelled EXTRA stinky. If not, take that scent you just got a whiff of and imagine it about five or six times worse.
You may not believe us at first, but what we’re about to tell you is entirely true. That saggy body impression in your mattress and that horrible odor coming from your car tires are caused by the exact same thing.
And just what could that be?
Well, it’s synthetic latex, of course!
But wait, you ask us. I read that article you just posted the other day about how latex is a natural substance harvested from rubber trees. You said that latex was healthy and safe and environmentally friendly. What is this nasty “synthetic latex” stuff you’re suddenly talking about?
To put it briefly, today’s world uses a lot of latex. Hundreds of tons of the substance are used every year to produce everything from truck tires to surgical gloves to Band-Aids to basketballs.
And the process of harvesting latex naturally from rubber trees is, unfortunately, a slow one. It takes up to 5 years for a single tree to mature enough to be harvested, and each “tapping” session produces only about a single cup’s worth of liquid latex.
So it should come to no surprise to learn that, in order to fix this problem of slow supply and huge demand, scientists came up with a manufacturing process to create synthetic latex derived from chemicals rather than the sap of the rubber tree. In 2017, it was estimated that about 2/3 of the latex used in that year’s manufacturing was synthetic rather than natural.
Unfortunately, there are many other differences between synthetic and natural latex besides just how they are made. Natural latex is tough, resilient, eco-friendly, biodegradable, sustainably harvested, and presents no health or safety risk to humans. On the other hand, synthetic latex is weaker and more liable to break down and can release harmful chemicals into the atmosphere, which can then be breathed in by humans and cause significant long-term health problems. Even a blend of the two can still be greatly inferior to 100% pure natural latex.
That’s why, here at Laidtex, we are committed to spreading the word about the advantages of natural latex and the dangers of synthetic. Especially for products such as ours – clothing worn directly against the skin – it is extremely important to take your own health and safety into consideration before buying a latex product.
This article will provide an in depth look at the exact differences between natural, synthetic and even blended latex. It will highlight the “pros” of natural latex and the “cons” of synthetic so that our customers can make safe, positive, informed decisions about their latex purchases!
The Original: What is Natural Latex?
Natural latex originates in the form of a thick, white substance similar to sap. It is produced by the rubber tree, scientific name Hevea brasiliensis, which can be found growing in the Amazon rainforest of South America and throughout many East and Southeast Asian countries including but not limited to Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Malaysia. It serves the purpose of protecting the trees from a wide range of dangers such as diseases, insects, bacteria, mold, rot, and fungus.
The composition of natural latex is extremely simple – it is made mostly of various proteins mixed with water. When properly produced, goods made from this latex will contain no harmful chemicals or other artificial additives. It is perfectly safe for use by humans, even for something like a catsuit which is worn directly against the naked skin.
In addition to being safe and healthy, natural latex is harvested in a manner that is eco-friendly, sustainable, does not harm the trees and does not result in the production of any waste. The rubber trees are raised on plantations throughout Asia and South America, where they are cared for and allowed to live long, healthy natural lives.
To harvest the liquid latex, the tree does not need to be cut down or even damaged at all. A small hole is cut in the bark and the liquid latex is allowed to ooze out into a container such as a bucket. Once the container has been filled, a new hole is made in a different part of the tree so that the first one is given time to heal. This process is referred to as “tapping” and is the same method used to harvest syrup from maple trees in countries such as Canada.
A single latex tree can be safely tapped for around 30 years before it stops producing the liquid latex. Once its harvesting lifespan is complete, a rubber tree can be cut down and its wood can be used to make durable, high quality furniture or pleasant smelling, long burning firewood. Even the leaves can find a new purpose as they are made into compose to fertilize the new generation of rubber trees. On the plantations, not a single part of the rubber tree is wasted – each tree is used to its full and maximum potential throughout its lifespan and even beyond.
Once a sufficient amount of liquid latex has been harvested from a plantation, it can be spun at a high velocity to remove the water mixed in with the valuable proteins. Then, the latex is sent to a manufacturing plant to be solidified via reacting with sulfur – a process known as vulcanization – and molded or cut into its final form. You can read more about this process in our article on the life cycle of latex found here.
Properties and Benefits of Natural Latex
So, the harvesting process for natural latex is eco-friendly and sustainable, but what about the material itself?
Well, to put it simply…
Many scientists consider natural latex to be a “miracle substance”. It has a wide range of advantages and benefits with almost no drawbacks. It can perform a huge variety of functions and be used to make everything from clothing to medical equipment. Let’s just take a brief look into a few of the primary reasons why natural latex is so fantastic:
First off, to continue talking about its environmentally friendly nature, this latex is biodegradable. This means that, once a latex product has been discarded, it can be broken down easily and integrated into the soil to become compost. To put it another way, products made from natural latex will not sit in landfills (or “dumps”) for hundreds of years taking up space and releasing harmful chemicals into the atmosphere as many synthetic products unfortunately do.
Latex harvested from the Hevea brasiliensis tree also possesses a huge number of natural resistances which allow it to protect itself from various dangers. This shouldn’t come as a surprise – after all, the original purpose of the sap-like liquid latex is to keep the tree safe from diseases, mold, insects and other nasty problems found in the natural world!
What this means for us humans, however, is that manufacturers of latex products do not have to include additives to artificially create these resistances. Take fire, for example. Natural latex is fire resistant and will not burn unless held directly against an open flame for a large amount of time. This makes it extremely safe to use in any number of household products, medical equipment, clothing and more. However, if natural latex was not fire resistant, many potentially harmful chemicals would have to be added in order for the products to meet safety standards published by the various world governments. Therefore, natural latex clearly emerges as the only solution which is both safe and healthy!
Of course, fire is far from the only resistance possessed by natural latex. It is both anti-microbial and anti-fungal, meaning that bacteria, mold, mildew or fungus will not grow on it or become attached to it regardless of how much it is worn. It is also resistant to dust mites, meaning that these microscopic creatures will not make their home on your favorite latex suit or start chewing it to bits. For latex clothing, which frequently comes into contact with human sweat and other bodily fluid, these resistances are extremely important to ensure that each piece of clothing has a long and productive lifespan and does not present any health risks to its users or wearers.
Moving beyond its relationship with the environment, natural latex possesses many more advantages which secure its place as the superior manufacturing material. As we mentioned earlier, it is extremely elastic or “stretchy” while also being strong and resilient. Natural latex will not tear easily; nor will it break if it is exposed to large amounts of stress or pressure.
This means that a piece of latex clothing will last a long time without sustaining any major damage even if it is regularly worn every day or exposed to tear-causing environments such as the nightclub or the gym. (Of course, if you’re stepping out in full latex, we would still recommend avoiding sharp metal buttons or jewelry, as those can still occasionally cause small tears or rips to appear.)
Natural latex also maintains its shape without deforming when exposed to either very high or very low temperatures. For example, rubber tires regularly experience heat in excess of 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius) due to the friction caused by the road. However, they do not lose their round, distinct tire shape even after being driven on for hundreds of miles!
Last but not least, products made from natural latex are completely hypoallergenic due to the manufacturing process specifically targeting and removing the proteins which cause an allergic reaction to latex in humans. Even if you suffer from a latex allergy, you may often be able to use natural latex products without experiencing any symptoms. (See our article here to learn more about latex allergies and hypoallergenic latex products. If you suffer from a latex allergy, it is still recommended that you discuss with your primary medical care provider before purchasing latex clothing or other items.)
Natural latex is so healthy, safe and harm- and cruelty-free that it is capable of meeting any number of certification standards developed by environmentally conscious scientists all around the world. If a product meets any one of these standards, you can be nearly one hundred percent certain that it is made exclusively from natural latex.
For example, one of the most internationally renowned latex certifications is known as the Oeko-Tex standard. Natural latex which meets the Oeko-Tex certification requirements is guaranteed to fulfill the following criteria:
- Does not contain any heavy metals
- Does not contain any carcinogens (any chemicals or chemical compounds proven to be a potential cause of cancer)
- Does not contain any ozone depleters (any chemicals or chemical compounds which destroy the protective ozone found in Earth’s atmosphere, which has the important job of keeping Earth safe from the sun’s heat and radiation)
- Does not contain any traces of the potentially harmful chemical formaldehyde (known to cause permanent organ damage in humans)
- Does not release any harmful chemicals into the atmosphere, including volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which are known to cause permanent respiratory damage in humans
- Has not been treated with artificial, chemical-based flame, mold, or insect retardants which contain any of the above substances
No type of synthetic latex is ever capable of meeting those standards. After all, it’s made entirely out of chemicals! So if you want to be one hundred percent sure that the latex you are purchasing is environmentally friendly and will not be a potential risk to either your own health or the Earth’s, make sure to choose natural!
A Poor Substitute: What Is Synthetic Latex?
After Charles Goodyear patented the vulcanization process, latex’s popularity quickly spread all around the world. For many decades, more and more products were made from naturally harvested latex. Plantations sprung up not just in Hevea brasiliensis’ native South America, but also many Asian countries such as Malaysia and Sri Lanka.
Unfortunately, the value of latex meant that it became a key target during both of the World Wars. Starting in the mid-1910s, British ships blocked German access to the Asian latex plantations, hoping to limit their production of items such as tires and treads for war machinery. In order to continue producing these items, German scientists were forced to develop an alternate method of creating latex that did not involve the sap of the rubber tree.
The result was synthetic latex, an entirely artificial, laboratory- and factory-produced substance with similar elastic properties but lesser durability and inherent resistances. It could be used to create tires and other materials and would perform the necessary functions of latex, but typically would not last as long before needing to be replaced.
The chemical composition of synthetic latex has, in fact, not changed significantly since its initial invention during the First World War. It is made from petrochemicals, substances derived from the breakdown of fossil fuels, specifically petroleum.
The most common petrochemicals used in the production of synthetic latex are styrene and butadiene, but others including isoprene, acrylonitrate, chloroprene, and butyl may sometimes be used. If you’ve never heard of these chemicals, or have any idea what they do, don’t worry – before starting this article, we hadn’t heard of them either! Just another reason to choose natural latex over synthetic: you can be much more sure of exactly what your brand new outfit contains.
To put it more simply, think about the gasoline (or petrol, depending on where you live) that you put in your car. Think about how bad it smells, how the odor clings to you for hours after filling up. Remember all the warnings you’ve probably been given about not lighting a fire near it and not allowing it to come in contact with your skin. Then remember that synthetic latex is made from some of the exact same chemicals that are found in that gasoline. Is that really something that you want next to your skin in your newest sexy catsuit or vacuum bed? We don’t think so…
Unfortunately, synthetic latex is still widely popular, even though international access to rubber tree plantations was restored after the conclusion of World War II. It is estimated that about 2/3 of the latex used per year is synthetic, with most of that going towards the production of tires but some still found in other products such as mattresses, gloves, medical supplies, balls, and even clothing.
Still not quite sure just what makes synthetic latex so bad? Read on to learn more about a product which takes every single advantage offered by natural latex and turns it into a disadvantage instead.
Properties and Disadvantages of Synthetic Latex
Let’s start off with the fact that synthetic latex simply isn’t as good at its job as natural latex. Sure, it’s elastic, capable of stretching far beyond its original shape and capacity, but it’s also far less durable and thus significantly more likely to tear or even simply degrade or rot with time and use. Think about that body impression in your mattress, or how often you need to perform maintenance on your car tires, or why cheap synthetic latex gloves are usually sold in packs of well over 100. The evidence is everywhere: synthetic latex just plain isn’t any good.
It’s also more likely to retain heat and moisture when worn for long periods of time. What does this mean for you? Well, after only a few hours in your synthetic latex suit, you might find yourself overheating, sweating way too much, and becoming dehydrated as a result. And unless you’re into the most extreme of temperature play, we’re pretty sure that that would be very uncomfortable!
And if its lowered performance weren’t enough, well, then what about all of the health and environmental hazards which synthetic latex represents? It’s definitely a huge difference when compared to the organic, cruelty-free, totally safe and healthy natural latex. In fact, scroll up a bit and take another look at that list of Oeko-Tex environmental certifications. Then remember that, simply because of their makeup, no synthetic latex can EVER successfully meet those standards.
Synthetic latex is highly resistant to heat and also possesses resistances to various chemicals. This makes it actually a fairly solid choice for making tires, as it can withstand the friction caused by the tire repeatedly impacting the road and will not be bothered if you drive over spilled gasoline, antifreeze, or brake or engine fluid. However, in exchange, it sacrifices all of natural latex’s resistances to mold, bacteria, and fungus, as well as its ability to not catch on fire easily.
That’s right. If you bought a suit made from only synthetic latex, you might find it infested by dust mites or growing mold after just a few wears. You might have to also avoid Tropical Night at the club, lest you accidentally brush a sleeve against one of those tiki torches and turn into the Latex Torch yourself. Doesn’t sound particularly safe, does it?
Well, it gets worse. Yes, you heard us right. The United States Consumer Product Safety Commission (CSPSC) (and its many international equivalents) has in effect a number of regulations requiring products to reach a certain level of flame and other resistances before they can be sold. These regulations are extremely strict, requiring the product to be exposed directly to an open flame for several seconds. Because of this, synthetic latex products are typically treated with chemical flame retardants in order to meet the government’s standards.
These chemical flame retardants are yet another tongue-twisting parade of long, difficult to pronounce words: brominated ethers, boric acid, chlorinated tris, formaldehyde, antimony. Don’t worry – we won’t be going into detail about the chemical makeup of each of these. Instead, we’ll be giving just a brief summary of how bad for you all of these chemicals can be.
That list of chemicals includes the following:
- known carcinogens (formaldehyde)
- chemicals which cause permanent damage to human organs, including the liver, respiratory system, and testicles (brominated ethers and boric acid)
- toxic heavy metals (antimony)
- chemicals which release harmful gases, including volatile organic compounds and ozone depleters, into Earth’s atmosphere (chlorinated tris and brominated ethers)
Now, what does that list above sound like?
That’s right – it’s all of the things which the Oeko-Tex and other similar standards forbid latex products from including. That’s right, synthetic latex is not just lower quality, but also extremely harmful to both your health and the environment’s.
But wait, there’s more terrible news….
Lastly (and if all of that wasn’t already enough) synthetic latex, even if it has not been treated with any of the toxins listed above, releases chemicals into the air over time. This phenomenon is known as off-gassing and produces an extremely distinct, foul odor (think car tires on a hot, sunny afternoon). It is more than just unpleasant; however, off-gassing can also cause damage to your respiratory system if you inhale the gas over any extended period of time. Some off-gassed chemicals are so strong that they can even cause allergic sensitization – basically, you inhale so much of the substance that your body is forced to become allergic to it over time, which can lead to a swollen esophagus or air passages, watery eyes, itchy or painful rashes, and a number of other nasty and harmful side effects.
With all this bad stuff that we’ve just listed, you’re probably wondering – is there any upside to synthetic latex at all? Is there any positive quality which explains why so much of it is used and produced every year despite all of those downsides?
The answer is one word:
When compared to natural latex, synthetic latex takes significantly less time, money and labor to manufacture. It does not need to be harvested on plantations by human laborers. In the factory, computers can automate and control most of the process, ensuring that each batch of synthetic latex has the right chemical composition. Even the flame retardants and other additives can be put into the mix by machine.
As a result, synthetic latex products tend to cost less than the natural latex equivalents. While the difference may be only a few cents for something like a basketball or a pair of gloves, it can become quite the drastic difference for large items like mattresses or full-body suits.
In the end, that leaves the choice up to you – is the lowered price worth it in exchange for all of the associated health and environmental risks? It’s your decision, of course, but, if you were to ask us, the entire Laidtex staff would give you the same answer: definitely not!
The Best...or Worst...of Both Worlds:
What is Blended Latex?
One final option exists in the form of blended latex, which is, as its name suggests, a composite mix containing both synthetic and natural latex elements. It was developed in the mid-1900s by manufacturers who were still interested in using natural latex in their products but were not selling enough items due to the high price of remaining 100% natural.
Blended latex is often advertised as a “best of both worlds” deal, featuring the lowered price associated with synthetic latex while still retaining the environmentally beneficial properties of natural.
But is this true? Is blended latex really as great as it advertises itself to be?
Unfortunately, the answer to that question is “not really”.
The most important thing to understand about blended latex is that its composition is not regulated in any way. There is no law, either in the United States or internationally, which states that blended latex must contain a certain percentage of natural latex or a certain percentage of synthetic. This means that companies and manufacturers are free to make their own blends – and even free to advertise them in any way they want, regardless of whether or not that advertising is technically true.
What does that mean for you, the customer? Well, for example, a company selling latex products could advertise their goods as “mostly” or “predominantly” natural latex, while actually selling a blend which was 51% natural latex to 50% synthetic. Something which claims to “contain natural latex” might in fact be only 1% natural – or maybe even less!
Sure, the most commonly found blends do contain a fair amount of natural latex – most companies will use a blend of 60% synthetic to 40% natural or 70% synthetic to 30% natural.
However, for every manufacturer that is honest about the composition of their blended latex, there will be three or four who lie.
Another tricky tactic is decreasing the amount of both natural and synthetic latex in the blend by adding fillers – cheap materials whose only purpose is to “take up space” and require less latex to be used. Fillers can be anything from more chemicals with long, near-unpronounceable names, such as calcium oxide or titanium dioxide, to simple but useless materials such as clay or even dirt. Sure, these will lower the cost of the product significantly, but they will also in turn lower its quality. Also, who wants to wear a latex outfit with dirt as one of its ingredients? Not us, that’s for sure!
Properties of Blended Latex
In our opinion, blended latex is less of a “best of both worlds” situation and more of a worst. While blended latex products may cost less overall than natural ones, they retain all of the disadvantages of synthetic latex while possessing none of the advantages of natural – or, at least, only weaker, watered-down versions of them.
Since synthetic latex typically makes up over 50% of the blend’s composition, all of the health and environmental risks are still very much present. In particularly, off-gassing is still very likely to occur, meaning that you will have to deal with its distinctive foul smell as well as the damage it could potentially cause to your skin or respiratory system.
Meanwhile, the beneficial properties of natural latex will be weakened due to the fact that they are combined with so much synthetic material. The resulting product will not be as strong, as durable, or even as elastic as 100% natural latex would be. And that’s not even mentioning all of the protective benefits which will be lost!
Even a latex outfit which is 60% synthetic and 40% natural, the most forgiving of the common blends, will likely not possess any resistance to fire, mold, bacteria, or damage from insects such as dust mites. Therefore, there is still a good chance that your blended latex product has been treated with chemical flame retardants or other harmful additives – see the section on synthetic latex above for a refresher on just how harmful to your health those can be!
In the end, the only advantage which blended latex possesses is a slightly lower price when compared to 100% natural latex products. However, it will still cost more than synthetic latex products, while still bringing along with it all of the health and environmental risks which its chemical makeup represents. At Laidtex, we firmly believe that blended latex is the worst of both worlds, and should never be chosen in any situation where going 100% natural is an option.
After reading this article, you can now walk into the world of latex products with your head held high. You will never again be convinced by the cheaper prices of synthetic latex. Neither will you be fooled by vague language and false advertising regarding the composition of blended latex. You know with complete and total confidence that 100% naturally harvested and produced latex is the safest option, the healthiest option, the highest quality option – in fact, you might argue that, all things considered, it is the only option which makes sense for you to choose.
Now that you have a better understanding of the properties of different types of latex, head on over to our product catalog here to check out all of our amazing latex goods. And, of course, if you have any questions about natural, synthetic or blended latex – or any other latex-related topics! – feel free to contact us at Laidtex at any time. Our friendly staffers are always ready to help, and each and every one of us loves to talk latex!