- What is a memory foam mattress?
- Is a memory foam mattress better than a regular mattress?
- What are the advantages of a memory foam mattress?
- What are the disadvantages of a memory foam mattress?
- A brief history of memory foam
- A memory foam mattress or a memory foam topper?
- How suitable is a hybrid memory foam mattress?
- Things to consider when buying a memory foam mattress
- Memory Foam Types
- Mattress Construction
- Odor and Off-gassing
- Cooling Gel (gel-infused) and Memory Foam
2018 Buyers’ Guide to the Best Memory Foam Mattresses
Memory foam mattresses have risen in popularity over the years because of their ability to conform to the shape of your body during sleep, reducing pressure points and improving blood circulation. With greater comfort comes a more restful sleep, resulting in better health overall. Here’s a closer look at memory foam mattresses and what you need to know before you buy one.
What is a memory foam mattress?
A memory foam mattress is one that uses memory foam, usually referred to as “viscoelastic” polyurethane foam or low-resilience polyurethane foam. Memory foam has the ability to change its shape according to the shape of the object placed upon it and return to its normal shape when the object is removed, hence the name.
A memory foam mattress molds to the sleeper’s body in response to heat and pressure, distributing body weight evenly. When you get up from bed, the mattress returns to its original shape.
It offers more support than other foam mattresses and is usually denser and heavier. Memory foam mattresses vary in several aspects such as firmness, density, thickness and responsiveness, among other qualities.
Is a memory foam mattress better than a regular mattress?
Spring mattresses are what many people consider to be the “regular” mattress, so in this section we’ll be comparing spring mattresses to ones that use memory foam. Springs act as the shock absorber, reducing mattress wear and tear and giving mattresses that bouncy feel. Unlike memory foam mattresses, spring mattresses push back against the body with the same force the body’s weight is exerting on it.
This means that the body parts that carry more weight, or the areas that push down into the mattress more than the others, get more pressure back from the mattress. Using a regular mattress then results in uneven support, causing pressure points that lead to pain and numbness in these “heavy” areas like the shoulders and hips. Uneven body support also results in back and joint pain, which can affect sleep quality.
In contrast, a memory foam mattress distributes the weight of the body evenly by supporting the body along its natural curves, reducing pressure points and allowing for better blood circulation to eliminate numbness. This contributes to a more comfortable sleeping position and a better night’s rest overall, and this makes memory foam mattresses better than regular ones in this regard.
What are the advantages of a memory foam mattress?
- Pressure-point relief – Memory foam yields and adjusts to the shape of the body, relieving the pressure of the downward pull of gravity and the upward push or resistance from bedding materials. This characteristic prevents pressure sores and also minimizes pain in sensitive areas in contact with the mattress.
- Even distribution of weight for back support and spine alignment – A memory foam mattress spreads the body’s weight across the surface, supporting each body part individually and evenly. Because the mattress contours to the shape of the body, the spine stays in a neutral, aligned position. In a regular mattress, the body’s weight is usually concentrated in areas that are in contact with the mattress. This is why side and back sleepers often experience muscle tension and lower back pain when they sleep on a regular mattress.
- Pain relief and prevention – In line with spine alignment and back support, another advantage of using a memory foam mattress is that it relieves current pain and prevents pain in areas that are in usual contact with the mattress, namely the shoulders, hips and the back. Memory foam is also ideal for people with painful medical conditions such as fibromyalgia and arthritis. And with less pain, memory foam users get better sleep, which is another benefit.
- Versatility with different sleeping positions – No matter what type of sleeper you are, a memory foam mattress can support your body for optimal sleeping comfort. Because memory foam molds to the shape of your body, you can settle into the position you are most comfortable in without experiencing any pain in your back, hips and shoulders. In addition, memory foam mattresses come in different levels of firmness so you can choose which one would best accommodate your needs.
- Motion absorption and isolation – If you don’t have your bed to yourself (if you sleep with your partner or with a big pet dog, or both) and every movement of the bed wakes you up, upgrading to a memory foam mattress would let you sleep in peace. Memory foam absorbs motion and isolates it, which means that when someone rolls over or gets out of bed, you won’t get jolted out of sleep.
- Hypo-allergenic and anti-dust mites – Memory foam limits allergens and dust mites from working their way inside the mattress.
- Compatibility with adjustable beds – A memory foam mattress can easily contour to and flex with an adjustable bed base no matter which angle it’s in.
- Low maintenance – Memory foam mattresses are easy to care for – just a few rotations a year and the occasional date with a vacuum cleaner would do. They don’t need to be flipped over, which is a good thing because memory foam mattresses are heavier than regular mattresses.
- Durability and life span – The average memory foam mattress has a life span of around 7 years, with higher-quality foams lasting up to 10 years. Memory foam mattresses are also less likely to sag compared with spring mattresses because they resist impressions longer. The higher the density of a memory foam mattress, the longer it can last.
What are the disadvantages of a memory foam mattress?
- Price – High-quality memory foam mattresses can be expensive but are considered to be a worthwhile investment.
- Quicksand-like feel – If you’ve been using spring or regular foam mattresses all your life, sleeping on a memory foam mattress can take some getting used to. It can take a few moments for the memory foam to fully adjust to the contours of your body, making you feel like you are sinking into quicksand or are getting stuck in the mattress.
- Heat retention – Many memory foam mattresses rely on body temperature to be able to change shape (they become more supple with heat), and this is where things can feel pretty hot and sticky. Memory foam can also trap heat, which means if you sleep in a warm room or during warm weather, you’re bound to be less comfortable and wake up all sweaty. Some memory foam mattress companies have found a way to alleviate this by designing products that allow the air to flow through the mattress, making it less of a heat trap.
- Odor – The materials used in memory foam mattresses can give off an unpleasant smell during the first few weeks. Volatile Organic Compounds or VOCs are emitted from these materials in a process called off-gassing. This can be extremely annoying, especially if you’re sensitive to off-putting odors. You have to air the mattress out before using it.
- Not advisable for young children – Soft bedding like memory foam traps carbon dioxide and increases the risk of sudden infant death syndrome. Using memory foam in infants’ beds is a no-no.
A brief history of memory foam
In the late ‘60s to the early ‘70s, space-worthy innovations continued to be developed and it was at this time when memory foam was conceived. The Ames Research Center at NASA funded a development project that aimed to create a substance that could help alleviate the pressure that astronauts experience during lift-off. NASA believed that one of the ways to reduce the effects of g-forces on the body was to utilize a foam material that could conform to the shape of the body and retain this shape even with constant movement.
The researchers who took on the project were able to create a visco-elastic foam material that not only conformed to a person’s shape but also returned to its original form once the pressure was removed from the material. The foam allowed for an even distribution of body weight over its entire surface and it also adapted to the body’s movements quickly. The visco-elastic foam greatly improved the safety of aircraft cushions to protect occupants from impact and provide comfort in flight.
The innovation spurred manufacturers to come up with visco-elastic memory foam products for consumer use. In 1991, Sweden’s Fagerdala World Foams introduced the foam material in a mattress form. The following year, Tempur-Pedic launched the same products in North America. The mattresses were well-received by consumers, prompting other foam-producing companies to develop their own visco-elastic foam material.
With the number of companies offering a wide range of products, consumers now have a variety of memory foam mattresses, pillows and toppers to choose from depending on their needs, preferences, sleeping styles and budget.
Memory foam has also found its way into other applications. It’s been used as cushioning for shoes, helmets, prosthetics and wheelchairs.
A memory foam mattress or a memory foam topper?
For memory foam bedding, you have two options: a memory foam mattress and a memory foam topper. A mattress is thicker than a topper, which goes on top of a mattress. A memory foam mattress usually ranges between 8 inches and 12 inches in thickness, while a memory foam topper ranges from 1 inch to 5 inches thick.
When choosing between a memory foam mattress or a memory foam topper, the general advice is to go for a memory foam mattress when your current mattress is extremely lumpy or sagging. When the mattress you are using is in bad need of a replacement, do so with a memory foam mattress, as simply putting a topper on it will not help at all. The memory foam topper will just mold to the lumps and fill in the sagging parts of your current mattress, reducing the foam’s effectiveness.
A memory foam mattress also has greater durability than a topper. A top-quality mattress can last up to 10 years, while a topper has a life span of around 5 years. If you’re looking for a long-term solution to your sleeping aches and pains, a new mattress is recommended.
On the other hand, choose a memory foam topper if the mattress you’re currently using is in good condition but is too firm. If the mattress you thought was “just right” in terms of firmness turns out to be a lot firmer than is comfortable, then a memory foam topper can add the cushioning and support that you need.
A memory foam topper is also great for budget-conscious sleepers. Since it costs less than a memory foam mattress, it is a good alternative for those who want the benefits of a memory foam mattress but do not have the budget for one.
How suitable is a hybrid memory foam mattress?
A hybrid memory foam mattress combines contemporary memory foam materials with traditional mattress springs. Hybrid mattresses aim to offer the same comfort and contouring feel that you would get from a memory foam mattress while retaining the sturdy support and bouncy feel of a traditional spring mattress.
Hybrid memory foam mattresses have a spring- or coil-based foundation or innerspring system while the top layers are made of memory foam, bringing together the best qualities of both types of mattresses. Hybrid mattresses maintain the ease of motion and bounce you get from spring mattresses while providing pressure relief and promoting the even distribution of body weight.
Another type of hybrid bedding is the foam hybrid, which is made using different types of foam. There are no springs or coils; instead, the foam types used follow a similar pattern utilized in hybrid memory foam mattresses. This means that one foam layer provides the support and bounce while another provides the contouring comfort.
A hybrid memory foam mattress is suitable for those who want the shape-hugging feel of a memory foam mattress but still want to have that bounce and ease of movement. It’s also a good option for those who want to save money on a good mattress as hybrids are often less expensive than memory foam mattresses. Some hybrid mattresses even perform better than the memory foam mattresses at the budget tier.
It’s important to note that while a hybrid memory foam mattress seems to be the way to go if you want the best of both worlds, in reality the perfect balance between bed springiness and body contouring is seldom achieved. When a hybrid mattress does well in cradling the body, bounce quality is often compromised, and if the bounce is right, the pressure-relieving part seems to be lacking. It can be hard to choose a hybrid memory foam mattress – comfort is subjective after all – so it’s really important to read up on different products and try them out.
Things to consider when buying a memory foam mattress
Firmness and Firmness Ranges
Mattress firmness refers to how hard or soft a mattress feels. It’s highly subjective and depends on factors such as body type, weight, age, gender and comfort needs. There is however a standard called “universal comfort.” Universal comfort mattresses are those that are in the Goldilocks zone of firmness, that which most sleepers would find to be just the right firmness. On a firmness scale of 1 to 10 where 10 is the most firm, a universal comfort mattress would be rated a 5, 6 or 7.
Universal comfort mattresses react to peoples’ bodies in a way that would feel comfortable in whatever position they sleep in and whatever body type and weight they have. Mattresses that would be in the 1-3 range are the softest with a high level of sinkage and low level of support. A mattress with a level 3 firmness would be good for side sleepers but not for back and stomach sleepers. A 4 has a bit of a medium feel but is more softer.
A mattress with a firmness level of 5 is still on the soft side but with a more medium, balanced feel. The most common mattress firmness is rated 6 on the scale, with most sleepers preferring the balance of support, contour and sinkage. Mattress firmness becomes a bit more pronounced at 7 but contour and sinkage are still present.
Mattresses that have a firmness of 8 to 10 are what can be considered firm, which means they offer lots of push back and little contour. Firm mattresses in the 8-9 range are suitable for stomach and back sleepers but would be too firm for side sleepers. A mattress rated 10 on the firmness scale would be absurdly firm and would offer the least amount of sinkage and contour.
To simplify, mattresses in the 4-5 range are soft. Those in the 6-7 range are medium and can be considered universal comfort mattresses. Mattresses in the 8-10 range are firm. The kind of mattress firmness to choose would depend on your sleeping position, weight, needs and preferences. If you’re unsure which firmness level to go for, a medium firmness (5-7 range) gets the thumbs up from most sleepers.
Memory foam mattresses typically incorporate at least two different foam layers. The density and thickness of the layers, especially the memory foam layer, used in a mattress affect the value and durability of the mattress as well as the sleeper’s comfort. For instance, some manufacturers use filler foams in the upper layers of the mattress. These materials may be less durable, reducing the life span of the mattress and the comfort it provides.
Two memory foam mattresses may have the same size and price, but one has a thicker layer of memory foam. The other mattress, aside from having a thinner layer of memory foam, also has a thin layer of regular foam. Both mattresses may have the same overall thickness but the first one has more to offer in terms of comfort, density and durability. The second one, which contains less memory foam and has a lower density, is less durable and represents less value for money.
When it comes to choosing a memory foam mattress based on thickness, it’s important to find out how thick the memory foam layer is. Mattresses with an overall thickness of 10 to 12 inches are the most recommended, as those that measure 8 inches or less in thickness rarely provide an adequate level of comfort and support. An 8-inch mattress simply does not allow for enough memory foam material to be considered suitable for most people.
Individuals weighing more than 250 pounds would find a 14-inch or 16-inch mattress to be more comfortable. Thicker mattresses can more easily support additional weight, so these are usually recommended for those who sleep with a partner.
The responsiveness of a memory foam mattress refers to how quickly it contours to the shape of the body and returns to its original shape after pressure is removed. Older generations of memory foam mattresses have a slow response rate because they rely on the heat of the body to soften and conform to the body’s shape.
Memory foam technology has since evolved, so now many memory foam mattresses have less temperature sensitivity. This means that responsiveness has increased, allowing new memory foam mattresses to contour and return to their original shape faster.
For instance, traditional memory foam mattresses from Tempur-Pedic have a response time of 45-60 seconds, while some of the newest memory foam mattresses only take 5-8 seconds to contour and remold.
Memory foam mattress responsiveness is determined by factors such as changeable viscosity, elasticity rate, resilience and composition.
Why is response time a factor when choosing a memory foam mattress? Well, if the response rate is slow, the quicksand feel is greater. The feeling that you’re slowly getting sucked into the mattress – and stuck there – may be discomfiting for many. In addition, elderly consumers and those with mobility concerns may want to have a memory foam mattress with a higher level of responsiveness since it would require less effort to get out of bed and change sleeping positions.
As mentioned earlier, one of the undesirable characteristics of traditional memory foam mattresses is their tendency to trap heat. Heat retention in a mattress is often attributed to high foam density. Because memory foams with a higher density tend to contour to the body more closely and circulate air less, sleepers feel like they are coccooned in warmth that may simply be too much, especially during warm nights.
Even gel-infused memory foam mattresses, which are designed to provide a cooling effect, have been found to be not that effective. The gel does spread ambient heat to the other parts of the mattress and provide a cooling sensation, but eventually the gel warms to body heat too.
Manufacturers are continually trying to find ways to reduce the amount of heat trapped in memory foam mattresses. One strategy is to increase breathability by using plant-based memory foam, which has temperature-neutral properties and which has an open-cell structure.
If you live in a warmer region or are heat-sensitive, it’s recommended to find out how a memory foam mattress you’re interested in dissipates heat.
Sleep Positions & Body Types
As previously discussed, memory foam mattresses come in different levels of firmness and thickness. When choosing a memory foam mattress to use, you should consider how you sleep and your body type. If you sleep mostly on your side, you would need a softer mattress with a thicker memory foam layer to keep the spine aligned as well as contour to your shoulders and hips and relieve pressure in these areas.
If you sleep mostly on your back, you need more firmness than a side sleeper, but the mattress shouldn’t be too firm that it leaves your lower back unsupported. For stomach sleepers, it’s recommended to choose a firm mattress that keeps the midsection from sinking too deep into the mattress and putting the spine in the wrong alignment.
If you change sleep positions often, or are comfortable with sleeping in different positions, it’s best to go for the middle ground. Medium-firm mattresses are great for combination sleepers because these are firm enough for stomach sleeping while still offering support for side sleeping.
How about body types? The rule of thumb is the bigger and heavier you are, the thicker your mattress should be so that it can better accommodate your body weight and distribute it evenly. For individuals weighing more than 250 pounds, the recommended thickness is at least 12 inches, with thicker layers of memory foam.
Memory Foam Types
There are three primary types of memory foam used in mattresses: traditional, gel and plant-based. Let’s take a closer look at what these are and how these can affect your buying decision.
- Traditional memory foam – made from polyuerthane with petroleum-based components. This foam type is based on the original foam developed by NASA researchers but with a few improvements. Traditional memory foam is often characterized by high temperature sensitivity, making it feel softer when it’s warm and firmer when it’s cool. While it provides benefits such as motion isolation and pain relief, it also has a tendency to trap heat and emit unpleasant odor and chemicals through off-gassing. Of the three types of memory foam, this one has the longest response time.
- Gel memory foam – also known as gel-infused memory foam. This foam type combines traditional memory foam with gel technology to create a cooling sensation and reduce heat trapping. The gel may be contained in a layer separate from the memory foam layer or infused throughout the mattress. Gel memory foam has a faster rate of response than traditional memory foam.
- Plant-based memory foam – this foam type makes use of natural plant materials and features a larger cell structure, providing a cooler, more breathable, healthier and more eco-friendly alternative to traditional and gel memory foams. Plant-based memory foams are temperature-neutral and have a fast responsiveness.
Memory foam density refers to the amount of polymers vis-a-vis air in the foam and is measured in pounds per cubic foot. The more foam polymers are “packed” in together, leaving little room for air, the denser the foam is. There are three general classifications of foam density: Low (3.5 pounds and less), Medium (3.5-5.0 pounds) and High (5.0 pounds and more).
Memory foam mattresses typically have layers of foam of varying densities. The layers that have more density are usually placed at the bottom for support, while layers with a lower density are placed on top to provide comfort.
A mattress with a denser foam can feel firmer and prove to be more efficient at relieving pressure points, providing greater support overall. Conversely, low-density memory foam mattresses feel softer and less supportive.
However, a high-density memory foam mattress (particularly one that has a density greater than 5 pounds/cubic foot) may feel more challenging to sleep on and get out of because it would take a longer time to respond. It is also more prone to trapping heat.
Memory foam mattresses with a high-density foam tend to be more expensive, but since they have a better compression rating with repeated use, they are also more durable and have a longer life span. In contrast, mattresses with low-density memory foam – while cheaper – show signs of wear and tear early because they are not as resistant to compression as mattresses of higher density.
So what can be considered the “just right” density for a memory foam mattress? We recommend looking for a mattress with a medium-density memory foam between 4-5 lbs./cu.ft., which is what many recognize to be the optimum density range for a memory foam mattress because it combines support, durability and comfort with a reasonable price tag. Anything below that range may be too soft, and anything beyond that may be too firm.
How a mattress is constructed can also be a factor in choosing which memory foam mattress to buy. Most memory foam mattresses are composed of two or three layers. Some models even have more, with each layer offering a different function. In general, there are two main layers: the top layer and the support layer.
The first layer, which can be up to 4 inches thick, is designed to cushion your body and contour along your body shape. The support layer, which also comes in a variety of densities depending on the brand and model, determines the firmness. As previously discussed, the denser this layer is, the firmer the mattress will be.
In a mattress with multiple layers, you will typically find a thick, high-density base at the bottom. This is topped by less-dense layers of traditional memory foam, gel-infused memory foam and in some models, latex foam.
Aside from layers of foam, memory foam mattresses are also made with cover materials. These are usually stretch knit covers that allow sleepers to settle comfortably into bed. As for hybrid memory foam mattresses, these tend to have a more elastic cover material. Some hybrid mattresses also have foam encasements that are made from high-density foam to support the mattress edges.
Knowing what’s inside a mattress can help you decide if it would be a good choice for you considering layer thickness, coolness, durability and density.
Odor and Off-gassing
The “new mattress smell” we mentioned earlier is another factor to consider when buying a memory foam mattress. This odor, a mixture of different gases that various compounds release over time through off-gassing, is a frequent complaint among consumers. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) used in memory foam mattresses have always been a concern, so manufacturers are striving to develop products that have low levels of VOCs.
What makes VOCs volatile? Well, these compounds are unstable and degrade at room temperature. When they break down, they release odors as well. Some VOCs can cause health problems. VOCs present in traditional memory foam like benzene, formaldehyde and toluene have been associated with dizziness, headaches, throat irritation and respiratory problems.
The hazards of VOCs are higher in the raw materials than in the finished product, however. Still, components like adhesives and fire retardants can still make the mattress give off a strong scent.
Gel-infused memory foam mattresses may have less of the odor. As for plant-based memory foam mattresses, some are made with very low or no VOCs. These may still have that characteristic “new” smell but would be free from harmful chemicals.
Cooling Gel (gel-infused) and Memory Foam
The density of memory foam gave it a quality that not many people liked: it can be uncomfortably hot to sleep on. Enter the cooling gel-infused memory foam, which is designed to make a memory foam mattress cooler.
There are currently two kinds of gel-infused memory foam mattresses. The first has gel infusion on the top foam layer, while the second type has a gel layer near the surface of the mattresses.
The gel infusion works to cool the body upon getting into bed, but unfortunately the cooling effect doesn’t last through the night. What happens is this: as you get into bed, your body heat warms up the gel, turns it into a liquid and makes it absorb your body heat. The heat is then dispersed through the mattress. The sleeping surface thus remains at the ideal temperature. But what is ideal temperature?
The problem with the gel used in memory foam mattresses is its conductive nature. It means that since the gel takes on ambient temperature (the temperature of its surroundings), when your body is in contact with the gel layer, the gel will take on your body heat – and stay that way. This essentially means that you – or your body heat – will be keeping yourself warm.
This is great if you live in a cold region or during chilly months where you need all the warmth you can get, but not when the weather is hot or you live in the tropics. Tossing and turning because it’s hot will deprive you of a good night’s sleep, which is why you want to use a memory foam mattress in the first place.
In addition, gel-infused memory foam mattresses have not been on the market long enough to prove their worth and durability. Gel beads have also been found to separate from the memory foam quite easily, so it seems the tech needs to undergo more research and development.
What benefits can you get from a gel-infused memory foam mattress? Well, it does provide a faster response time, or less of a sinking-into-quicksand feeling when you get in bed. It also lets you change sleeping positions easily without feeling like you have to crawl your way out. A gel memory foam may also have less VOCs than a traditional memory foam.
That’s about it. We’ll have to wait and see if gel-infused memory foam proves to be effective in dissipating heat or if manufacturers can come up with a better way to take the heat away.