What is Latex Material

Written by Zulekha Nishad

Last Updated June 13, 2024

You might not think about it much, but latex, what we use in our latex mattresses, has been around for decades. In fact, the first rubber was made by the Olmec people over 3,000 years ago! Since then we have learned to make it stronger and more durable, so now you can find latex everywhere from your car tires to your favorite pair of gloves. If you’re curious about what else this amazing material can do, keep reading this guide on all about latex material.

latex mattress

If you’re curious about what else this amazing material can do, keep reading this guide on all about latex material.

all you need to know about latex material

What is latex?

Latex is nothing but natural elastic material, sustainably sourced from natural rubber trees. It is a long chain of hydrocarbon polymer of cis-1,4-polyisoproprene.

This thick, white, milky emulsion is even known as the 'earth's most perfect sleep material.'

Latex is produced in special cells that form canals or tubes in various plant organs. Plant families that produce abundant latex include:

  • Milkweed family
  • Mulberry family
  • Euphorb family
  • Dogbane family
  • Chicory tribe of the sunflower family

Around 90% of the natural rubber comes from Hevea brasiliensis, the Rubber tree that is a member of the Euphorb family.

Latex is avail­able in different types and forms, as categorized by their source materials and production methods.

What are the types of latex?

There are four different types of latex - natural, organic, synthetic, and blended. Here's a breakdown of each type:

  • Natural latex

Natural latex is harvested from organically grown rubber trees (Hevea Brasiliensis).They are naturally processed to create foam layers and are free of chemicals.

Natural latex foam

  • Organic latex

Organic latex is a form of  natural latex. It is farmed without using pesticides, doesn’t involve fillers or chemicals, and comes with an organic seal of approval.

  • Synthetic latex

Synthetic latex is a cheap imitation of natural rubber. It's not even close to being as good.

This type of latex can be made from a variety of synthetic materials. However, it is usually constructed from Styrene-Butadiene Rubber.

Also, products made from synthetic latex will not have quite the lifespan and durability of a natural one.

  • Blended latex

Blended latex is a combination of natural latex and synthetic additive. Usually, they contain around 15% – 25% natural latex, with the rest being synthetic latex.

Most people think blended latex is the "best of both worlds”. The truth is, it's mostly synthetic. The material doesn't provide you any elasticity benefits when blended with such little natural latex. There's a cost advantage of blended latex, but the material is still not 100% healthy and safe.

Can I tell if latex is natural or synthetic?

The world of latex is very confusing. You need to know the actual blend of the latex used in a particular product to know what you are dealing with.

Signs the ‘natural latex’ you’re looking at might be actually synthetic:

  • Yellows with age
  • Easily tears and pulls apart
  • Crumbles with age
  • Retains a chemical smell for months after latex production

History of latex

The earliest evidence of the use of latex comes from the indigenous cultures of Mesoamerica, in which rubber was first used for making balls.

Rubber was later used by the Maya as well as Aztec cultures. Not only did they make balls out of this, but they also made containers and waterproof textiles.

In 1770, Joseph Priestly, an English Chemist, observed that this material was excellent for removing pencil marks on paper. Thus the name "rubber" came into existence.

In 1839, Charles Goodyear, an American Chemist, dropped rubber and sulfur on a stovetop. He discovered the curing process during heating and that the new substance did not melt. Also, it was durable enough and retained pliability and elasticity when cold. This technique of vulcanization is still used in the modern world.

Rubber trees are grown in humid and moist regions and need heavy annual rainfalls of around 250 cm. These large trees are found in Africa (250 000 tons of rubber), Central and South America (31 700 tons of rubber), and Asia (3 207 100 tons of rubber).

How is latex extracted from trees?

Latex is extracted from rubber trees through a process known as rubber tapping. Trees are selected for tapping when they reach an age of 6 years and a height of 6 inches in diameter.

Tapping of latex

Continuous tubes of latex grow spirally around the bark of the rubber tree. The bark is carefully stripped away during harvesting to expose the latex vessels. The liquid  latex then runs down the side of the rubber tree into some sort of a cup or container.

The tappers collect the container filled with latex and replace them to continue harvesting until it is appropriately tapped.

Latex foam manufacturing process

There are two different types of manufacturing processes used to make latex foam. The raw material used is the same, and the only difference lies in the manufacturing process.

Dunlop process

The Dunlop manufacturing process begins with the mechanically whipping of liquid latex extract to form a frothy foam. This frothy substance is placed in a mold and baked in a vulcanization oven. Once this is done, the baked latex is separated from the mold and washed carefully. This step is followed by baking the material again to remove moisture.

Talalay process

Like the Dunlop process, this one also begins with pouring the foamed latex into a mold. But here, there's a difference; the mold is only partially filled. The lid of the mold is vacuum-sealed, causing the latex to expand. Once the mold expands, it is frozen rapidly, and carbon dioxide is pushed through the latex. At this point, the frozen material is baked to set. Once the vulcanization process is over, the latex foam is removed from the mold, washed thoroughly, and dried.

The Dunlop manufacturing process does not involve so many steps. This means products made from Dunlop latex are comparatively less expensive than Talalay. Also, the Talalay latex process is more involved and produces a less dense and softer foam.

Well, is Dunlop Latex more eco-friendly than Talalay Latex? Compared to Talalay, the Dunlop method involves fewer steps and is less energy-intensive. Therefore, the Dunlop process is more eco-friendly, sustainable, and natural.

Which countries harvest latex?

The leading latex harvesting countries in the world are Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, India, China, Vietnam, Philippines, Côte d’Ivoire, Guatemala, and Brazil

(1000 TONS)
Thailand 4305
Indonesia 3088
Malaysia 997
India 891
China 864
Vietnam 790
Philippines 548
Côte d'Ivoire 411
Guatemala 356
Brazil 186

What is natural rubber?

Natural rubber includes all those materials made from or containing natural latex. This means it refers to dry natural rubber, natural rubber latex, as well as synthetic latex/ rubber that contains natural rubber in its formulation.

What is the natural color of rubber?

The natural color of rubber is pure milky white. It is made black by adding chemicals such as carbon black to increase the desirable qualities of rubber material, such as durability and strength.

How long is the lifetime of rubber?

Like all other materials, natural rubber will deteriorate over time. The main reason for rubber degradation includes environmental factors such as light, heat, and ozone.

natural and organic latex mattress topper

However, deterioration may also be chemical (usually caused by oxidation or hydrolysis), physical, or biological. These processes may tend to cause changes in the physical properties, chemical composition, and even the appearance of rubber.

For example, the strength and flexibility of natural rubber may change over time. It may become hard, brittle or soften and become spongy or sticky.

Why is natural rubber biodegradable?

Natural rubber is made from the milky latex of the Hevea Brasiliensis tree and is biodegradable.

But, even though natural rubber is biodegradable, it is a slow process. And also, the rate of rubber degradation depends highly on the conditions as well as the rubber composition.

When it comes to synthetic rubber, the facts are different. This material uses man-made polymers.

Much of synthetic rubber is derived from petroleum. Due to this, synthetic rubber is not biodegradable and is more likely to persist in the environment after disposal.

Does natural rubber last longer than synthetic rubber?

Natural rubber has a much higher tensile strength than synthetic rubber. But, when it comes to durability and longevity, the latter outstands natural rubber.

These qualities arise from synthetic rubber’s resistance to degradation and damage from chemicals, ozone, high and low temperature, sunlight, and weathering.

What is natural rubber latex?

Natural rubber latex is the milky fluid consisting of extremely small particles of rubber (obtained from rubber trees) dispersed in an aqueous medium.

Using the natural rubber latex (NRL) process, products are formed from natural rubber latex by dipping, extruding, or coating. Examples of products made using the NRL process include surgical gloves and tracheostomy tubes.

An executive woman wearing latex gloves

Is rubber (Hevea brasiliensis) latex edible?

Rubber latex is not edible. Don’t even try to consume it, as rubber latex would not be digested and passed through your system easily.

Is silicone a rubber?

Silicone is a type of industrial rubber. It’s a man-made elastomer that has the properties of both plastic and rubber.

Silicone can be used to form hard solids, liquids, and rubbery products.

What is dry natural rubber?

Dry natural rubber is produced by the process involving coagulated natural latex in the form of dried or milled sheets.

Products containing dry natural rubber include syringe plungers, injection ports on intravascular tubing, etc.

What is the difference between latex and dry natural rubber?

The dried natural rubber is latex that has been dried into bales with the water evaporated off and can be more easily transported and stored.

What is the difference between rubber and plastic?

Rubber can be considered as a polymer as well as an elastic material. It is obtained from rubber plants or created commercially from petroleum oil and natural gases.  Therefore, it can be said that there are two types of rubber; natural and artificial.

Plastic is a polymer that can be shaped and formed by the appliance of warmth and pressure. It’s basically an artificial polymer.

Is latex the same as rubber?

Rubber and latex are not the same things, but many people use these words as if they are the same. Latex is actually the milky white sap, which is found beneath the bark of a mature rubber tree.

Where latex is the liquid form; rubber is the finished product. That is, rubber is actually made from latex.

What is the difference between latex and sap?

Sap can be defined as the watery fluid of plants. It is a fluid found in the small cavities of the living cell of a plant and contains variable amounts of food and waste materials, nitrogenous compounds, and inorganic salts. On the other hand, latex is a milky white liquid extracted from the sap of the rubber tree.

Latex is not the same as sap. It is a substance created by the plant (mostly rubber trees) as protection against insects.

Latex in plants is generally a mixture of proteins, starches, tannins, sugars, alkaloids, oils, gums, and resins that coagulates when exposed to the air.

Uses of latex

Latex has a wide variety of uses, ranging from everyday items to more specialized ones. Natural latex is commonly used to make bedding products. This includes mattresses, toppers, and pillows. They are also used to make gloves, shoes, swim caps, balloons, rubber bands, tires, and many sporting goods.

Childrens rubber boots

Synthetic latex is used for many applications, from painting and gluing to resurfacing cement.

Is polyurethane the same as latex?

The answer is a big NO. They are chemically different and distinct.

Latex is a material obtained naturally from the sap of organically grown rubber trees, whereas polyurethane is a plastic material.

However, they can potentially have the same type of properties or performance.

Is latex toxic to humans?

Natural latex is usually considered safe for humans. However, if you have latex allergies, your body may mistake it for a harmful substance. So, if you are allergic to latex, it’s always recommended to talk to an expert doctor before using a product made from latex.

Latex allergies

Latex allergy is a medical term that refers to a reaction to certain proteins found in the natural rubber latex. Allergic responses include skin irritation, hives, runny nose, rashes, and breathing difficulty.

Can I sleep on a latex mattress/topper/pillow with a latex allergy?

People with latex allergies may not have problems using a latex mattress, topper, or pillow. This is because Dunlop and Talalay latex does not produce the same allergic reactions as other industrial latex products.

Latex allergies are generally activated through direct skin contact. The latex layers in a latex mattress/toppers/pillows are usually covered. Due to this, it is rare for you to have direct contact with them.

natural and organic pillows

The latex foam used in organic bedding products is free of harmful chemicals. And they are subject to a vulcanization process as well as thorough washing that removes most of the reaction-related proteins. However, if you are already sensitive to latex material, make sure to consult a doctor before considering bedding made of latex.

Is latex a sustainable material?

Rubber tapping is a fascinating process. It involves cutting the tree's bark and filling cups with natural sap. After harvesting, rubber trees can continue producing this material for two decades!

The standard latex sourcing method does not cause any harm to the rubber tree. For this reason, natural latex is a popular and sustainable choice.

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5. How Do You Extend The Life Of Your Mattress?

We hope you find this article on latex material  informative and helpful. Please let us know if you have any queries by leaving comments, and we'll be happy to help.

Disclaimer: What is said in this article has been referenced from multiple sources and is intended only for educational and informational purposes. Please note that no content in this article is a substitute for professional advice from a qualified doctor or healthcare provider. Always consult an experienced doctor with any concerns you may have regarding a health condition or treatment, and never disregard any medical suggestions or delay in seeking treatment because of something you read here.

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