Updated: May 5, 2020
By: Ryan Fiorenzi Certified Sleep Coach
Mattress Types Explained
Choosing a mattress is a really important decision. Getting good sleep is important for every aspect of your health, it also affects your relationships, your productivity, and how you feel.
Most people shop for a mattress based on two criteria: budget and what they've used before. When you consider how many hours you'll spend in bed over the next 8 years (the average life of a mattress), and how important sleep is, you may want to consider spending more on a quality mattress.
The mattress industry is evolving quickly. With the mission of helping people get better sleep, manufacturers are offering many more options than they did 10 years ago. This is a good thing because you can find something that can work for you, but can be a bad thing if you feel overwhelmed with options. Talking to a salesperson in a brick and mortar store isn't always the best option because they're often very good at selling you what they offer, not what's best for you. They often give you the illusion of giving you all the information that you need.
Some of the most important criteria for you to prioritize to help you find a mattress that will give you the best sleep are:
- Amount of support vs. softness—the best way to be able to tell this is by sleeping on different beds. If you wake up from sleeping on a firm bed and you have joint pain, then sleep on a softer bed and wake up with no pain, you probably need a softer mattress. Your mattress should help your spine to be straight so your vertebrae and joints aren't getting pinched. Whether you sleep on your side, back, or stomach is going to be an important factor to consider as well in determining what level of softness you need, with side sleepers needing more than back or stomach sleepers.
- Contouring—the ability of the mattress to form around you or hug you. Some people prefer a deep hug while others have don't like the feeling that they can't move or get up easily out of bed.
- Cooling—your body temperature is supposed to drop to get restful sleep. If you heat up during the night, and you're not getting restful sleep, you should look at mattresses that sleep cooler.
- Motion transfer—some mattresses are excellent, and some terrible at feeling every movement of your partner.
- Very comfortable, especially for side sleepers. Foam mattresses tend to be softer than traditional innerspring mattresses.
- Allergen resistant. Other mattresses (and pillows) can become double or triple their original weight due to the number of dust mites inside!
- Great for reducing motion transfer.
- They retain heat and run the hottest of all mattresses. Once foam compresses, there's nowhere for the body heat to go, so it gets reflected back to the sleeper. If you lay on a foam mattress for a minute you may not notice it, but in a few hours you probably will.
- Though a manufacturer may produce different densities of foam mattresses, some people feel that they get stuck in their mattress and find it hard to move.
- Are usually more expensive than latex, innerspring, or all foam mattresses.
Types of Memory Foam
Petroleum-based polyurethane—this type of foam hasn't changed much since it was developed by NASA in the 1960s. It's soft, but it heats up when you lay on it for a while, which reduces the quality of your sleep.
The other issue is there's off-gassing from these foams. They contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs), formaldehyde, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), and phthlates. These can cause a chemical smell that may be harmful to your health, and some people have allergic reactions.
Plant-based—this type of mattress has less petroleum-based foam, but less. Plant-based foam mattresses have less of the chemicals that petroleum-based mattresses, retain less heat, and are more environmentally-friendly.
Gel-infused—the gel takes longer to heat up, so it reduces the problem of a sleeper getting hot after a few hours. The gel is either mixed into foam, or there's a layer of gel in the mattress. They also tend to spring back to their original position faster so sleepers don't feel as stuck in their bed when they try to shift or get up. For these reasons gel is used in mattress toppers for people who don't want to buy a new mattress, but want it cooler or to not feel stuck.
There are several types of gel column mattresses, one of the most famous of which are made by Purple mattresses. The founders of Purple, Tony and Terry Pearce were the first to develop buckling-column gel.
Hundreds of rubbery columns form something similar to a honeycomb, but one layer thick. The result is a squishy surface, but since there's air in the columns, the mattress doesn't get hot.
Many people like the sensation of laying on a gel column mattress, but some don't. It's good on pressure points and a good design for side sleepers, but it's a good idea to try out one in your home with a good return policy. Laying on one in a store for 2 minutes is different than several nights.
- Stay cool throughout the night
- Easy to transport
- Very common so there are tons of variations
- Good bounce for sex
- Good edge support (meaning that the edge of the bed won't slope down, which is what happens with some other mattresses)
- Not as soft as foam mattresses, unless they have some comfort layers like a pillow top, so they're not as good for side sleepers or for people who wake up with pain or tightness in their joints
- When the springs start to age they squeak
- Not as durable as many other popular options
- Motion is transferred to the partner
Innerspring mattresses are the most popular mattress design, though other types and new technologies are taking some of their marketshare.
When shopping for an innerspring mattress, an important thing to consider is the coil count. Most mattresses range from 250 to 1,000 coils, with the higher coil count giving more support, less motion transfer, but more expensive.
There are 4 types of coils in innerspring mattresses:
- Pocket or Marshall coils
Pocket or Marshall coils—the most expensive type of innerspring mattress, but also the highest quality. Each of the barrel-shaped, thin-gauge steel springs is individually wrapped in fabric, and not connected to other coils. The result is that there's less motion transfer, and the mattress conforms well to the sleeper. These are less durable than the continuous coil.
Continuous—S-shaped coils that are made from one long wire connected by a helix-shaped lacing that runs through the mattress. These types of mattresses are less expensive, though durable, provide good support, and are pretty good in reducing motion transfer.
Bonnell—hourglass-shaped coils. These are the cheapest, and also the least durable, usually only lasting 3 to 5 years.
Offset—these conform to the body well, are sturdy, and are often found in higher-quality mattresses.
Innerspring Memory Foam Hybrid
These mattresses combine the support of an innerspring system with the softness and pressure-point support of a foam system. These mattresses are good for people that like innerspring mattresses but would like a little more softness.
- Can reduce aches and pains from a firm mattress
- Usually little to no off-gassing
- Not good for heavy people
- The pillow top layer isn't durable, so it may break down and sag
Pillow tops are normally innerspring mattresses with a soft layer on top to increase the softness of the top layer, but still have the support of an innerspring mattress. The pillow top layer is stitched into the mattress so it doesn't move and can be made of foam, cotton, latex, memory foam, or other materials.
You can buy pillow tops separately from a mattress, which is a cheaper way of making your current mattress softer.
- Sleeps a little cooler than memory foam, though it still heats up
- Not durable
- Not eco-friendly. If you see a CertiPUR certification, this is a certification created by the polyfoam industry, so don't think that you're buying an organic mattress.
- Often off-gasses harsh chemicals which may be bad for your health and/or cause an allergic reaction
- Transfers motion
Though higher-density foam will offer more support and last longer than low-density foam, polyfoam mattresses are low quality and not recommended for the bed that you would sleep on every day.
- They spring back quicker than memory foam, which is good for people who feel like memory foam is too soft. They get "stuck" in their beds and find it harder to move and get out of bed.
- Biodegradable, contain no harsh chemicals and very little off-gassing as latex comes from rubber trees.
- No issue with the mattress heating up.
- They last a long time, many latex mattresses lasting 20 years.
- Fewer allergens (including dust mites).
- Little motion transfer. Foam mattresses are a little better in reducing the amount that you feel your partner moving in bed.
- They're more expensive. However, when you consider that a latex mattress can last 20 years, they may be cheaper overall, just more expensive as an up-front cost.
- It doesn't conform to the body as much as memory foam, though latex mattresses are still more comfortable and easier on the joints than innerspring mattresses. Talalay latex is better than Dunlop latex for conformity.
Latex is processed into mattresses in two ways. The Talalay method creates uniform density and is soft throughout, whereas the Dunlop method creates a more dense mattress. The Talalay process is more common for latex in the upper comfort layer and the Dunlop process is more common in the lower support layer, though the difference may be subtle.
Though rare, some people have latex allergies, so if you're thinking about a latex mattress, make sure you're not allergic.
These beds may have a layer of foam on top of air chambers. They're not recommended for daily use but are good for camping or temporary situations. They're cheap but not durable, have to be blown up, don't contour to your body.
- Some people enjoy the feel
- Some waterbeds give the option of adjusting water temperature and softness
- Tend to sleep cooler than other popular mattresses
- Easy to clean
- Poor support
- Waterbeds can be difficult to assemble and move
- They sometimes leak
- They tend to transfer motion to the partner, but some waterbeds structure the water bladders in such a way to reduce motion transfer
- Can be difficult to find sheets because the sizes aren't standard
Though waterbeds were a fad in the 1980s, they're still around and have been around for a long time. They were invented in 1833 by Dr. Neil Arnott to prevent bedsores in invalids.
Some people feel that waterbeds are very comfortable, though they have a different feel than other types of mattresses. Having a sense of floating can be very relaxing. There tends to be a lot of give which can be good for your joints.
Some waterbeds have temperature controls which can be helpful if you keep your house cold and you don't want to sleep on a cold bed. If you live in a warm climate, you can drop the temperature and find the sweet spot that gives you the best sleep.
For allergy sufferers, this can be a really good choice as there are no fibers for dust mites to settle into or harsh chemicals that off-gas. You do need to keep it clean and make sure there's no mold growing inside of the bladders. If a smell starts to develop, you may have to throw out the waterbed.