Mattress Buying Guide
Shopping for a new mattress can seem daunting. But it doesn’t have to be. We’ve put together this guide to help you cut through all of the noise—the endless brand names and buzzwords and comfort features—and better understand what it is you’re really looking for from a mattress.
Because, unfortunately, there’s no one right answer when it comes to picking the best mattress. While there are plenty of “one-size-fits-all” options on the market today, they are rarely as universal as many of them claim to be. At the end of the day, every body is different and every person has their own unique preferences, sleep habits and needs.
Rather than simply being told what to buy, it’s important to know how to shop. When you understand what to look for in a mattress, you can make smarter, more educated choices.
More than just a nightly routine, sleep is an essential part of our overall wellness and a vital opportunity for our bodies to rest and recover. When you’re not able to get quality sleep, it can have both short-term and long-term ramifications on your health. By taking the time to find the right mattress for you, you are making sure your body has what it needs to really thrive.
Before you start your search for a new mattress, you should first have a clear idea of how you are sleeping on your current one.
- Are you having trouble falling or staying asleep?
- How do you sleep? On your side, back, stomach - or some combination of the three?
- What is your body size and shape? Where do you carry your weight?
- Do you overheat during the night?
- Are you waking up with aches and pains in your back, legs, shoulders or neck?
The answers to these questions will provide you with key insight on what you need out of your new bed—and what to look for in terms of comfort and support.
Finding The Right Comfort & Support
The best mattress for you is one that provides the right surface to align your spine and cushion your muscles and joints. Your mattress should mold to the natural curvature of your body, offering the support or softness where you need it in order to maintain a “neutral spine”—as if you were standing up straight. This positioning will also help alleviate any pressure build up under heavier or bonier joints to minimize pain or discomfort.
Waking up feeling achy is a key sign that your mattress is not properly supporting your body. Improper support can also make it difficult to fall and stay asleep. Pressure build-up can cause you to toss and turn during the night, as your body searches for a pain-free position—which, if you share a bed with a partner, can cause you to disrupt their sleep as well.
To figure out what kind of comfort and support you need, you have to first take into consideration how you sleep.
Focus on your lower back: is there a gap between you and your mattress? With the proper support, your hand should fit easily and snugly in between your back and the top of the mattress. Enhanced firmness or support through the lumbar region will help alleviate any pressure build up in the shoulder blades and hips.
If you sleep on your side, getting the right level of support is more critical than other sleeping positions. This is because the side of your body often has more pronounced curvature than your front or back. You are also resting your entire body weight onto a narrower surface when you lay on your side, which can create more concentrated pressure. In order to keep your spine in line while on your side, look for a mattress that offers more softness around your hips and shoulders. This will ensure that the surface of the mattress accommodates the curve of your side body and alleviates any pressure build up under your hips and shoulders.
Most people carry the bulk of their weight around their hips and stomach, which can cause the middle portion of your body to sink deeper into the mattress when you’re lying on your stomach. Look for a firmer mattress or one that features added support through the middle portion. This will keep your back from bowing as you sleep.
Many people move around during the night. If you’re not really sure which position you sleep in, just focus on which position you find most comfortable as you’re trying to fall asleep. If you find a mattress that is best suited for that position, then you may minimize some of the tossing and turning you do during the night.
Sleep position is not the only factor to consider when determining the best comfort and support. Heavier body types often need a firmer, more supportive mattress, as they will often sink deeper into softer materials. Think about where you carry your weight in your body—maybe it’s in your hips and stomach, or maybe it’s in your shoulders and upper body. Those are the places that are going to need a careful balance of comfort and support: enough support to keep them from sinking too deeply into the bed and misaligning the spine, but enough cushioning to prevent them from being crunched throughout the night. Existing injuries or chronic joint pain should also be taken into consideration: too much firmness around problem areas can exacerbate the problem.
Finding The Right Feel
Once you have determined the correct support and pressure relief for your body, you can then move on to more secondary comfort preferences. Depending on the types of materials and constructions, each mattress will offer a different feel.
When it comes to these considerations, there is no right or wrong answer. Comfort is inherently subjective—and you simply might not know what you really like until you try it. Rest-testing remains one of the best ways to figure out your preferences. That can mean taking a trip to your local mattress store or taking advantage of the trial periods that many online brands offer now.
Cradling vs. Bounce
Some people like the feeling of being fully cradled by their mattress, while other people want their bed to have a good sturdy bounce to it. When it comes to figuring out what type of mattress you like best, one of the best ways to think about it is: do you prefer to sleep on your mattress or sink into it?
Soft vs. Firm
While some mattress types are known for being firmer or softer, each category will likely offer variations across the spectrum. Remember: there is no universal standard for firmness level. It will vary from brand to brand. Don’t assume that what you’ve been sleeping on is actually what you want. The best way to know for sure is to rest-test different options and seeing what feels right.
The Different Types Of Mattresses
This is your classic mattress construction. It has metal springs or coils as the primary source for support, with a layer of soft comfort material just below the mattress cover. These beds offer a bouncier feel, with a top layer that will hold your body up rather than cradling it. Because air can easily flow between the springs, they do not retain heat like foam beds.
- Bonnell Coils: the most common coil type, shaped like an hourglass, delivers standard support
- Offset Coils: often found in higher-end models, hinged in the middle and squared off at the top and bottom, offers better pivot and contouring
- Individually Wrapped Coils: a more premium option, each spring is individually wrapped in a flexible fabric and operates independently of one another, offers more personalized body contouring and enhanced motion isolation
The coil count refers to the number of coils or springs that make up the support system. A higher coil count number will provide enhanced support and durability.
The higher the coil gauge, the more flexible the coil is—which gives the mattress a softer feel. Thicker wires are often used in the bottom support layer to ensure greater durability and a firmer feel.
- Pillow Top: layer of padding sewn on to the top of the mattress’ fabric cover
- Euro Top: denser layer of padding that is sewn underneath the fabric cover
- Tight Top: no additional layers of padding beyond the standard comfort layer
An all-foam bed does not feature any coils or springs and is instead made from layers of polyurethane foams. The variation of types of foams and the number of layers will affect its exact comfort and support. These beds tend to be softer and less bouncy than innerspring, creating a more cradling kind of feel.
Memory foam is a specific type of poly foam that is densely formulated or visco-elastic; it reacts very slowly to the heat and pressure exerted upon it, which means it conforms very closely to the body. It will take a second to return to its original form after you move. Denser than standard poly foams, memory foam creates a surface that you really sink into. Because memory foam retains more heat, many companies will try to off-set this with temperature regulating materials or features—like incorporating gel, copper or phase-change materials into the formulation.
The denser a foam is, the firmer it will be. Foams with higher density levels are often only used in the support layer of an all-foam bed.
Closed Cell vs. Open Cell Foams
- Closed Cell: Denser and more resistant to airflow; they have a sturdier more structurally sound feel, but also retain more heat.
- Open Cell: Allows air to travel through it more easily when pressure is applied, which makes for a softer feel and keeps it from overheating by diffusing any accumulated body heat.
Poly foams are able to absorb energy where pressure is exerted upon it, preventing it from reverberating across the surface. This makes foam beds better for minimizing transfer of movement—meaning, your partner’s side of the bed won’t move if you toss and turn in your sleep.
While latex is technically a type of foam, it offers a very different feel from the traditional poly or memory foams. It is a much bouncier, more responsive material—it will immediately sink when you exert pressure on it, and quickly returns to original form once you move. The inherently buoyant feel of latex delivers superior pressure relief and conforming comfort, without the sinking sensation of a memory foam. Latex is also naturally temperature regulating (meaning you are less likely to overheat during the night) and is more durable than other types of foam.
Natural vs. Synthetic
Natural latex is made from the milky sap of rubber trees. After extracting the sap from the trees, the liquid is then compounded with biodegradable ingredients including soaps and rubber curing agents. This mixture is then poured into a mold, combined with CO2 and heated to create a solid foam.
Synthetic latex offers a similar sensation to natural latex, but is instead made with petroleum-based Styrene-Butadiene Rubber (SBR). It can also be made from a base of natural latex, with added polyurethane or chemical fillers added into the mixture before it is poured into the mold. While it tends to be less resilient material than natural latex, the synthetic version is often still more contouring and durable than standard poly foams. The primary benefit of a synthetic latex is that it is more affordable than its all-natural counterpart.
Note: many “natural” latex materials actually feature a portion of synthetic materials. As long as the foam features a certain percentage of natural latex, the company is allowed to label it as “natural.” If the eco-friendly properties are important to you, look for latex products that are labeled as “100% Natural Latex” or feature organic certifications.
Talalay vs. Dunlop
Natural latex foam can be made using either of these two processes, each of which results its own unique feel.
Dunlop: The simpler, more affordable process. The liquid latex mixture is poured straight into the mold and baked to solid foam. Dunlop tends to have a firmer, bouncier feel than Talalay - and is more limited when it comes to comfort options.
Talalay: A more complex process. Before heating the mixture, it is flash frozen - which helps stabilize the particles to ensure a consistent feel across the final product. After Talalay latex is heated and removed from the mold, it then goes through a five-stage fresh water rinse to remove any residual proteins, soaps and curing agents. Together, this creates a hypoallergenic latex with a pillowy, contouring feel. Talalay also allows for more variety in terms of comfort levels.
There is no universal definition for what constitutes a hybrid bed: it is simply a mattress that blends together more than one type. By combining two or more of these all of these different materials, hybrid beds are designed to maximize the advantages of each while offsetting any disadvantages. The most common version is a mattress that is made with both innersprings and foam materials—it delivers the support, airflow and bounce of an innerspring bed with the pressure relieving softness of foam.
Custom Comfort Air
Unlike the type of air beds you blow up and put on the floor when you have a house guest, custom comfort air beds are for full-time use. Made with air bladders embedded within the mattress that can be inflated or deflated, this type of bed allows you to adjust the firmness at the touch of a button. The top layers of comfort materials will deliver the comfort feel and pressure relief.
For an even more customizable mattress option, there are new “smart” air beds as well. Rather than changing the support level via a remote or app, these mattresses use sensors to monitor movement and pressure and adjust the support automatically.
What About Boxed Beds?
Though the “bed-in-a-box” concept has been a very popular buzzword in recent years, it’s important to remember that not all boxed beds are the same. While initially relegated to just low-cost all-foam models, advances in technology now allow a wide range mattress types to be compressed, rolled and delivered in a box—including high-end and even innerspring beds.
Boxed delivery is just that, a delivery option. Even if you are buying a bed-in-a-box, it’s important to still evaluate the mattress inside as you would with any traditional model. When you start to compare your options, you will quickly see that there is a lot of variation in quality, durability and price.
Picking A Mattress To Share
If you share your bed with a partner, there are a few more things to consider when shopping for a new mattress.
There are a lot of reasons that couples want to minimize motion transfer in their mattress. Maybe your partner goes to bed later or wakes up earlier than you do - or has to get up to use the restroom during the night. Maybe they toss and turn while they sleep.
Whatever the reason, mattresses that limit motion transfer will prevent movement on one side of the bed from affecting the other side. All-foam mattresses, particularly those made from memory foam, are known for this benefit—but individually wrapped innerspring systems can also help.
A reinforced edge will extend the surface of the mattress—meaning that it will feel the same at the very end of the bed as it does in the middle. This can be preferable for people who regularly sit on the side of their bed (to put their shoes on, for example) - but it is also a helpful feature for couples who enjoy having enough space to spread out during the night.
Compromise is an important part of any relationship. But sometimes your comfort and support needs are simply incompatible. If you are unable to find a happy medium, there are some mattresses that can be customized on each side.
Smart air beds will allow both you and your partner to adjust the support and firmness of your side of the bed to your specific needs—all at the touch of the button. There are also some mattress models that do this by allowing you to open up and rearrange certain comfort and support materials.
Getting too hot during the night is not just annoying: it can actually be detrimental to the quality of your sleep. When your body is overheating, you are not able to achieve the level of sleep needed to really feel refreshed. So if you are regularly waking up in a sweat or pushing all of your sheets and blankets off the bed, there are certain things you should keep in mind during your mattress search.
All-foam beds or even foam comfort layers can be a problem for a lot of people who are temperature sensitive, as these materials retain more heat. If you prefer the feel of a foam mattress, but struggle with over-heating—you aren’t out of luck. Many manufacturers have developed different technologies to help off-set the heat retention properties of their foams.
- Foam Formulations: Many companies work to off-set their foam’s heat retention properties by adding in cooling materials like gel, copper and titanium. Mixed directly into the foam formulation, these materials often work by pulling heat away from the body and dispersing it.
- Air Venting: Additional cut-outs or channeling in the foam layers can help facilitate greater air flow throughout the mattress, which helps minimize any heat build up.
- Phase Change Materials: Often incorporated into the top cover fabrics of the mattress, this technology works by absorbing excess body heat, storing it and then (when your body cools) releasing it. This process keeps your body temperature at a more stable level throughout the night. While they are often referred to as a PCM, you can also look for a specific brand name like Outlast as well.
You may have seen those gross studies that are periodically shared online: the ones that tell you just how much dust, mold, dead skin cells, etc. is accumulating in your mattress over time. While many of these stories are over-sensationalized, the basic premise is unfortunately true. Beyond just being sort of icky, this accumulation can be particularly detrimental to people who suffer from allergies.
If you are allergic to dust, mold or mildew, an old mattress may be the cause a number of different symptoms, including: sinus pressure, stuffy nose, snoring and may even exacerbate sleep apnea. For many people, simply replacing their mattress with a new one—and then investing in a good mattress protector—will be enough to curb the problem. But if you suffer from severe allergies, you may also want to look for a new mattress that utilizes anti-allergen or anti-microbial materials.
This is also true for people who are more sensitive to chemicals or scents. While all mattresses on the market must pass strict flame retardant standards, there are a number of more natural bedding options available today—including a few fully certified organic mattresses. At the very least, be careful with poly foam beds, which can often emit an odor that lingers even after opening them.