We all know how important sleep is, but somehow high-quality sleep still eludes so many of us. Poor sleep can lead to or exacerbate existing health issues, such as obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, sleep disorders, heart disease, and mental illness. Clearly, it’s not something to take lightly!
If you suffer from sleep deprivation, aches and pains, or other sleep-related problems, your mattress may be the common denominator.
But mattress shopping is time-consuming and overwhelming— how do you know which mattress is best? Memory foam has become a highly sought-after mattress choice for many seeking a good night’s sleep thanks to its pressure-relieving softness and contouring. It’s also easy to compress and fit in a box— the latest and greatest way companies ship mattresses to customers.
What is memory foam?
Memory foam was initially developed in the 1970s by NASA researchers. Although it never made its way to outer space, it caught on to other industries and began appearing in sports equipment, furniture, cars, and of course, mattresses.
Memory foam, also known as viscoelastic polyurethane foam, is typically derived from petroleum, although many companies have begun using plant-based foams to reduce VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) and off-gassing. We’ll go over plant-based foams a little later.
While innerspring or coil mattresses still make up a large percentage of mattress sales, memory foam is becoming more and more prominent. Noted for pressure-relief and contouring, memory foam is a great option for anyone in the market for a new mattress.
Types of Foam
While memory foam is seemingly ubiquitous, there are plenty of other foam types found in mattresses, and they all offer different benefits to the user. Let’s go over their differences.
Viscoelastic Polyurethane (traditional memory foam)
The earliest prototype of viscoelastic foam was manufactured in the 70s, and it entered the mattress market in the 90s. Memory foam usually takes its place in the comfort, or top, layers of a mattress.
Memory foam is designed to cradle your body and conform to your curves, making it naturally customizable for a wide variety of body types and sleep preferences. Most concerns associated with memory foam deal with its construction— memory foam naturally traps heat, and so hot sleepers may not like using it unless the brand uses cooling technology in the foam.
Foam is also prone to sagging after use, but a higher-density foam layer in the base should prevent this. If a foam mattress doesn’t have a strong base, it’s more likely to sag.
Traditional memory foam is made using petroleum. Some companies, in an effort to reduce the off-gassing of VOCs, use soy or plant-derived oils to create their memory foams. Another goal of plant-based foams is to reduce or completely avoid the use of formaldehyde, phthalates, CFCs, and PBDEs (flame retardants) in the manufacturing process.
Products implementing plant-based foams still use some petroleum-based foam in their mattresses, but the percentage varies depending on the brand. If a “green” or eco-friendly mattress is a priority for you, keep an eye out for CertiPUR-US® and Oeko-Tex certifications on the company’s website.
Reflex foam is a cheaper alternative to memory foam. It’s made with polyurethane like memory foam, but it uses bubbles instead of holes in the material to conform to your body. Reflex foam is often found in orthopedic mattresses and has a firmer feel. Reflex foam may be used as a support layer in an innerspring mattress, as a base layer in a memory foam bed, or in other layers or extra support and padding.
An all-reflex foam mattress is fairly cheap and a bit firmer than one made with memory foam. Like its name implies, it springs back quickly.
Latex Rubber Foam
Latex foam comes from the sap of the rubber tree, and as you might expect, it’s very bouncy. Mattress companies like it because it conforms like memory foam, but has a little more bounce, similar to innersprings. This is a plus for those who are used to innerspring beds but want the pressure-relief of foam.
Latex foam is quite durable, and as such, it is usually more expensive than memory foam. However, lots of customers agree that its staying power more than justifies the extra cost.
Convoluted foam, also known as “egg-crate foam,” is not often used as the comfort layer of a mattress, but it can be found in other layers to provide additional support. You probably recognize this foam from seeing it in mattress toppers.
Because of its surface, convoluted foam is especially useful for pressure relief since it targets different pressure points on the body. Different brands put their unique spin on this type of foam, but they all serve a similar purpose— ensuring you don’t wake up with neck or back pain.
Memory Foam vs. Other Mattress Types
Despite all their benefits, memory foam mattresses aren’t for everyone. The best, most comfortable mattress for you may not be a good fit for the next person— it all comes down to your priorities and preferences, including budget, sleep style, and health concerns.
The term “hybrid” gets thrown around a lot these days, but when it comes to mattresses, “hybrid” refers to a bed made with 50% foam and 50% innerspring coils. Hybrid mattresses are a wonderful option for anyone seeking the benefits of innerspring and foam without the potential downsides.
A hybrid uses dense coils as the core, or “support layer” of the mattress. Some hybrids use microcoils in the comfort layer too, but as of yet, this isn’t as common. For most hybrids, memory or latex foams make up the top comfort layers. By definition, a hybrid must have at least 3 inches of foam in it; most hybrids have that and more.
The word “bouncy” doesn’t typically come to mind to describe all-foam mattresses. That’s because they absorb pressure extremely well— a benefit for those who experience pain while sleeping, but a possible downside for anyone who wants to feel “on top” of their mattress.
Hybrids, thanks to their coil base, are generally more breathable than foam mattresses (but not always), and offer that extra bounce and support some sleepers need. If you’re worried about motion transfer, most hybrids use wrapped coils to avoid this.
Innerspring mattresses use steel coils as the core base and polyfoam or memory foam in the comfort layers. Their construction makes them especially responsive, but they also don’t offer a whole lot of pressure relief like memory foam does.
100% innerspring beds are consistently one of the cheapest mattress types you can buy, but they come with headaches: sagging after just a few years, noise, and limited pressure relief. All of these issues are negated with memory foam, which is why so many longtime innerspring users have begun to “convert” to memory foam.
Latex and memory foam are quite comparable to one another, but there are some slight differences.
Latex comes from the sap of a rubber tree, making it bouncy. Latex can be harvested without destroying the tree or creating pollution, unlike other mattress types, so it’s a naturally eco-friendly option as well.
Most companies use latex made using one of two manufacturing processes— Dunlop or Talalay. The main difference between the two is the texture and feel: Dunlop latex has a more dense, springy texture while Talalay is lighter and bouncy.
Thanks to the feel of latex, it conforms to your body a little bit differently than memory foam. Latex mattresses compress and bounce to fit your body type, while memory foam beds closely cradle the body, fitting your exact shape. Material conformity can be a pro or a con depending on your preferences and needs.
Density and ILD
Foam density is one of those factors you probably don’t think about at all when you’re looking for a new bed, but it could be the tipping point between one brand and another. Additionally, density, weight, and firmness are all related to one another, but they are not synonymous.
Foam density is measured by weighing a 12” x 12” x 12” block of foam (or a cubic foot of foam). The weight of that block will reveal the density. Low-density foam weighs 3lbs per cubic foot, is softer, and best for lightweight sleepers. Most companies will use low-density foam in the top comfort layers of the mattress.
Medium-density foam weighs 4-5 lbs per cubic foot, and any foam weighing 6lbs per cubic foot or more is considered high-density foam. High-density foams are often found in the core support layers of all-foam mattresses because they need to hold up over time and resist sagging. For this reason, a good-quality memory foam mattress will utilize at least some high-density foam in the base.
To measure foam mattress firmness, we look at the ILD, or indentation load deflection, which essentially tells us how the foam yields to weight and pressure. The ILD number indicates how much weight it takes to leave an indentation (in inches) of 25% the mattress’s thickness. Therefore, the higher the ILD, the firmer the mattress. If the ILD for a mattress you’re looking at is not clearly advertised, reach out to the brand using their online chat service or contact form.
Beyond all of the technical components of foam mattresses, there are other things that influence the mattress comfort level and customer satisfaction.
The ideal temperature for sleep is between 60-67 degrees. While you may think of your bed as a warm and cozy haven, it’s more ideal for sleep if it helps your body maintain this cooler temperature.
There’s no beating around the bush— foam mattresses can sleep hot. Foam easily traps body heat, and as such, sleeping on a foam mattress can be uncomfortable for those who sleep in warmer climates or people who like to sleep with lots of blankets.
To combat this problem, mattress companies have begun infusing their foams with cooling materials such as gel, copper, graphite, or charcoal.
Additionally, some brands have created mattresses using open-cell foam. Closed-cell foam is filled with enclosed “bubbles,” but open-cell foam leaves those bubbles open. This way, the foam is more responsive and temperature-regulating.
If overheating on a foam mattress is a concern, look for mattresses using “open-cell” foam or infused foams such as copper or gel memory foam.
Sleeping Position and Firmness
People with different sleep positions and body weights usually prefer different levels of firmness in their mattresses. The most important thing for any sleep position is to feel adequately supported while waking up pain-free. These two things are influenced by, among other things, the mattress firmness. Some online mattress companies only sell one mattress model with one firmness options, but other companies are beginning to offer a wide variety to suit different sleeper’s needs.
Side sleepers should look for a medium mattress or one with an ILD rating of 24-26, or mattresses marketed as medium-soft to medium. These fall right in the middle of the scale and provide the most comfort and support while also giving the user plenty of pressure relief.
Sleeping on the stomach is not recommended for the most healthy sleep. However, if you’re stuck in this habit, you’ll need a very supportive mattress with a consistent, even surface to avoid any alignment issues. Stomach sleepers should look for a mattress with a high ILD, or mattresses marketed as medium-firm to firm. Additionally, if you are a heavier sleeper, a firmer mattress may be the most supportive option.
If you do sleep on your stomach, it is generally recommended you switch your sleeping position. While this may seem difficult, there are ways it can be done. Usually, someone only sleeps on their stomach because their mattress is uncomfortable on their side or back. Perhaps your mattress is too firm and you need to find something with more confusion.
One of the easiest ways to stop stomach sleeping is to elevate your legs, using either a pillow or an adjustable bed. This takes the pressure off your lower back and helps you sleep on your back.
Back sleepers usually prefer feeling “on top” of their mattress— they don’t want to sink too far and have to readjust their position all night just to get comfortable. For this reason, a medium to firm mattress can work well for stomach sleepers.
The cover encapsulating the mattress, while usually under a layer of sheets or even a mattress protector, is still something to consider when you’re buying a new mattress. Mattress companies now are striving to cover their mattresses with hypoallergenic fabrics such as bamboo or Tencel. Some even use cooling properties in the cover to tack on even more breathability to the mattress.
If the foam mattress you’re looking for doesn’t come with a cover, run the other way— the cover is essential in extending the life of your mattress and giving it a softer, more user-friendly texture.
All the different layers of a mattress play a different role. Most companies will break down each layer in detail on their website using infographics or charts to give the customer a glimpse at the inner-working of the mattress. After all, these layers are the most important part of the bed, but you hardly ever see them.
The top layer, or comfort layer, influences how comfortable the mattress feels. A good rule of thumb is to look for comfort layers with an ILD of at least 10, since a number lower than that might be too unsupportive for any sleeping position.
You can measure how soft the comfort layer is by checking its ILD rating. Most memory foam mattresses today have a comfort layer with an ILD between 8-20 for adequate cushioning and support.
Some companies only have a few inches of memory foam as the comfort layer, while others use a few inches of many different types of foam, such as memory foam, cooling gel-infused foam, or higher-density polyfoam for extra support.
The comfort layers comprise 25-40% of the mattress while the support core fills out the rest. Support cores in foam mattresses are usually made with higher-density polyfoam. Always be sure that the support core is built to withstand weight and pressure over time. A sagging mattress is a sad mattress (and leads to a sad night of sleep).
Pros and Cons of Memory Foam
|Close-conforming, customizable to most body types||Heat retention|
|Pressure relief helps with pain||Potential off-gassing smell, especially in mattresses that don’t use any plant-based foam|
|Excellent motion isolation||Not as bouncy as latex or innerspring|
|Noiseless||Can be heavy and awkward to move|
|Compressible for easy shipping||Sometimes more expensive than other types|
The cost of foam mattresses is typically influenced by its durability, foam density, and types of foam used. If a foam mattress uses mostly polyfoam, it will run on the cheaper side. Mattresses using specialty foams like gel or copper-infused generally cost a bit more.
A foam mattress can cost $500 or less, but be wary of cheaper models– they may feel nice at first, but mattresses with mostly lower-density foams in their layers run the risk of deteriorating faster.
Remember: always look for a hefty support core in the mattress along with soft comfort layers. High-density support cores can make a mattress more expensive, but they will also extend the lifespan of the mattress. Keeping all this in mind, you should budget around $1,300 for a good-quality, Queen-sized foam mattress. While mattress promotions have changed with the rise of online companies, leading brands still offer competitive mattress sales during specific times of the year.
Memory Foam Lifespan and Warranties
Most mattresses companies have warranties, but the length varies, as well as what the warranty covers. The industry-standard warranty length is 10 years— most foam mattresses need replacing after about 6-7 years anyway, so a warranty that goes beyond 10 years, such as a lifetime warranty, may be unnecessary. When a warranty goes beyond 10 years, it’s typically prorated.
A prorated warranty means the company will cover the cost of repairs up to a certain point, and then the owner must pay a certain percentage of the cost (usually based on the original price of the mattress). For example, a prorated 20-year warranty allows for repairs in the first 10 years completely covered by the company, while the second 10 years will incur a cost to the owner.
Should you ever need to use a warranty, make sure you know the company’s conditions. Most will cover the following issues with your mattress. Note that all of these must be defects beyond normal use and not caused by the owner:
- Bunching or rips in the foam
- Sagging up to a certain point, usually 1” or more
- Seams coming undone
- A faulty or broken zipper on the cover
Does the best foam mattress exist?
The truth is, “the best mattress” is such a subjective term, and your mileage will vary when it comes to finding a good mattress for all your needs. Additionally, if you share your bed with a partner, have special health concerns, or have a tight budget, your options may be a little more limited.
Always look for a mattress with superior pressure relief, strong support cores, and a generous warranty and sleep trial period so you can try out the mattress outside of a showroom. Read mattress reviews by customers to get an even more complete picture of the mattress’s pros and cons.
Finally, remember a mattress isn’t the only part of practicing good sleep hygiene. The foods we eat before going to bed and the lifestyle we lead during the day are just two other factors that play a significant role in our quality of sleep.
How long does a memory foam mattress last?
This largely depends on the foam density and construction, but the average lifespan for a good quality mattress is 6-7 years.
What happens if you sleep on a memory foam mattress before 24 hours?
If your mattress was delivered in a box, it will need to be unrolled and aired out to eliminate any off-gassing odor and allow the mattress to expand. This typically takes about 24 hours. With that said, should you decide to sleep on it before the 24 hours is up, this shouldn’t cause any major damage to the mattress. However, we recommend letting it return to its original shape as much as possible before sleeping on it.
How long does it take for a memory foam mattress to inflate?
Anywhere from 24-48 hours. We also suggest you let the mattress expand in a room with the windows open to help air out any potential off-gassing odor.
How to fix a sagging memory foam mattress?
If your foam mattress has begun to sag within the sleep trial, you should contact the company about getting a replacement. If, after the sleep trial has ended, the mattress sags beyond what is stated in the warranty (usually 1”), document the sagging with photographs and a ruler. Then contact the company about the warranty.
While most sagging cannot be undone, you can temporarily “fix” a sag using a couple of different methods. First, try flipping the mattress (this will only work with dual-sided mattresses). You can also rotate it so the sagging part is on the other end of the bed, although that can present support issues further down the line.
You can also add a mattress topper, use pillows to support the sagging area, or reinforce your bed foundation. Keep in mind that using your mattress on an incompatible foundation can void the warranty, so make sure to use the right foundation outlined by the company.
How to keep cool on a memory foam mattress?
If you sleep hot, a foam mattress can seem like a bad idea. However, many companies use cooling materials in their foam mattresses to negate this issue. Look for a foam mattress made with gel, copper, graphite, or other cooling technologies in the material. Pay special attention to “open-cell” vs. “closed-cell” foam as well, since open-cell foam will have better airflow.
What thickness memory foam mattress is the best?
The best thickness depends on your size and whether or not you share the bed with a partner. A thinner bed won’t last as long if it’s being used by two people or a heavier person. We recommend choosing a mattress that’s at least 10 inches thick, and even thicker if you are heavier.
How to clean a memory foam mattress?
Sadly, you can’t throw your mattress in a washing machine. Foam mattresses turn into sponges when they come into contact with water, so washing them the traditional way would ruin them. We always recommend using a mattress protector to keep any stains or fluids from getting on the mattress. If a spill does happen, spot clean your mattress using a 50/50 solution of white vinegar and water and a clean cloth. Follow that up with a sprinkling of baking soda to draw out any additional stains.
How to compress and pack a memory foam mattress?
Customers will rarely need to compress and pack up a foam mattress, even if they are sending it back for a refund or replacement. This is because most companies will arrange for someone to pick up the mattress and donate it. However, if for some reason a company does require you to send the mattress back to them, you will need to place the bare mattress in a large plastic mattress bag and use a vacuum hose to suction all the air out. The mattress should slowly shrink and compress so you can easily roll it up and box it. You can also use this method if you are moving and need to compress the mattress to fit in a tight space temporarily.
Does a Memory Foam Mattress Work with an Adjustable Bed?
Adjustable beds have changed over the years. Originally, they were seen more as a piece of medical equipment, but now the benefits are enjoyed by many. Raising your head allows you to open your airways, reduce snoring, watch a movie or read a book or even work from bed. Raising your legs takes the pressure off your lower back and can switch you from an unhealthy sleep position, like stomach sleeping, to a healthier one like back sleeping.
Some adjustable beds even offer USB ports at the side so you can charge your phone and tablet.
A common question is whether or not a memory foam mattress will work with an adjustable bed. Simply put: yes! A memory foam mattress is an ideal partner for an adjustable bed because the foam is pliable and contours.
The only thing to consider is the profile height of your mattress and the firmness. The thicker the mattress (anything over 14 inches) may not bend as easily. Plus, an extra firm mattress may have the same issue.