There are so many different factors that go into finding the perfect mattress. Many people have a head full of questions when they first start shopping:
- What size do I need?
- What material should I get?
- What’s my ideal firmness level?
- And how much should I pay?
The good news is you’re in the right place to get the answers to all these questions. If you’re shopping for a mattress and starting with little to no knowledge, this post is for you.
Material is the aspect that decides the feel of a mattress more than anything else. A mattress’s material impacts everything from coolness to responsiveness to contouring to durability. Your personal preferences definitely impact your material needs, but there are other factors that can influence which material is better for you.
For instance, hot sleepers might need latex or even a latex hybrid to get restful sleep. Those with back pain might find relief in memory foam. And heavier sleepers might get the best lift out of a hybrid mattress.
Memory foam is a special type of polyurethane foam that is made to cradle and support your body by contouring to your shape. Memory foam mattresses compress underneath your hips and shoulders and rise to meet the curve in your waist and lumbar region. This keeps your spine in a horizontal line called neutral alignment.
Memory foam is typically made using petroleum products. Nowadays, memory foam can also be made using plant oils to reduce the ecological impact of the manufacturing process and lower the synthetic chemical content of the foam.
Memory foam is a wonderful material for just about anyone, but it’s especially helpful for those who have back and joint pain. Memory foam is also an excellent material for side sleepers because it is so good at cradling pressure points.
Memory foam mattresses are pure foam, meaning every layer of the mattress is made of foam. Normally, the plushest and most contouring foam starts a the top, and things get firmer and denser from there.
The top layer of any mattress is called the comfort layer. The job of the comfort layer is to cradle your body and relieve pressure. Plush mattresses typically have thicker comfort layers, while firmer mattresses have thinner ones. In a memory foam mattress, the comfort layer consists of an inch to several inches of lower-density, highly contouring memory foam. This foam may contain gel, graphite, copper, or other infusions to help keep it cool.
Not all mattresses have a transition layer, but many do. The transition layer sits between the support layer and the comfort layer. In every mattress, its job is to provide cushioning between the hard support layer and the soft comfort layer. This protects your body from pressure caused by the support layer.
Memory foam mattress transition layers also have to add bounce back into the mattress. Memory foam has a slow response time. The transition foam in this type of mattress is infused with responsive ingredients to help the upper layers of foam bounce back faster.
The support layer is the core of the mattress. It’s made of high-density polyfoam in a memory foam mattress. This foam has almost no give because its job is to keep you lifted onto the sleeping surface. The support foam also has the added job of increasing the mattress’s durability by resisting sagging and soft spots and helping the mattress maintain its shape.
Memory foam mattresses are the most contouring of all mattresses. They can follow the curve of your body and take your unique shape. That means they are perfect for anyone who suffers from pain. Memory foam can cradle pressure points and align the spine in a way no other mattress type can.
On the flip side, those who sleep hot probably won’t appreciate memory foam’s tendency to retain heat. Combo sleepers might not like memory foam’s response time. Even with a responsive transition layer, memory foam mattresses are still the least responsive of all the different mattress types.
Memory foam is on the more affordable end of the cost spectrum. At $1,100 on average, it has a lower initial cost than latex or hybrid mattresses. Not only that, but memory foam is also durable enough to last longer than innerspring mattresses. It’s got a higher initial cost than coil mattresses, but its increased durability makes memory foam the most affordable option over time.
Memory foam is heavy, so it is not compatible with box springs. However, this foam is flexible enough to go on an adjustable base. Memory foam mattresses are also compatible with platform beds and mattress foundations.
- Highly contouring
- Comparatively durable
- It tends to trap heat
- Slow response time
- Heavy and hard to move
- High chemical content
Those who want a foam mattress made of pure natural material should consider natural latex. Latex foam is made of processed sap from the rubber tree. While natural latex may have some processing chemicals or impurities, organic latex is almost completely pure.
That makes this material the best option for those looking for a mattress that’s low in VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds). Latex is also better for the environment because latex manufacturing uses less energy and produces less toxic waste than memory foam production.
Latex mattress construction is very similar to memory foam mattress construction in the sense that a latex mattress is all-foam and has at least a comfort layer and support layer with an optional transition layer between.
Like with a memory foam mattress, the comfort layer’s job is to keep you cushioned and cradled. The comfort layer of a latex mattress is made of lower-density foam that is meant to contour and cushion. Many times, the comfort layer is made of lighter Talalay latex, but it may also be made of lower-density Dunlop foam.
Many latex mattresses don’t have a transition layer. Since latex is naturally bouncy and cooling on its own, there is less need for one. However, if your latex mattress has a transition layer, it may be made of medium-density foam that can shore up the support of the bottom layer and offer pressure relief.
The support layer of a latex mattress will be made of the densest, firmest latex of all. Latex foam support layers are more durable than any other material. Latex breaks down so slowly it can last a minimum of 20 years. Sometimes it lasts decades.
Latex is not as contouring as memory foam. It tends to work harder to retain its shape. That means it may not take your shape as well as its synthetic counterpart. However, for hot sleepers and combo sleepers, latex’s responsiveness and breathability more than make up for its slightly lower contouring power.
Latex is springy. It will bounce back into shape as soon as you change positions. Latex foam is also good at conducting heat away from your body. That means it may best suit people who wake up sweating during the night.
One of latex foam’s biggest drawbacks is its price tag. Latex is among the most expensive materials on the market. You can expect to plunk down around 2,000 dollars for an average-priced queen-size mattress. However, since latex will last you around 20 years, its cost over its lifetime is much more reasonable.
Like memory foam, latex is too heavy for box springs. It will over-compress them and maybe even break them. However, latex is a fine fit for platform beds, mattress foundations, and adjustable bases.
- Low in synthetic chemicals
- Highly durable
- Less contouring than memory foam
- Heavy and hard to move
- Not budget-friendly
Unlike memory and latex foam mattresses, hybrids are not entirely foam. Instead, they have comfort and transition layers made of either latex or memory foam, and they have a support core of pocketed coils.
For those who want to retain the bounce of an innerspring without dealing with the sagging, motion transfer, and inferior contouring, hybrids are an excellent mattress. They combine the contouring of foam with adaptable coils to create a mattress that offers the benefits of both foam and innerspring mattresses while eliminating many of their drawbacks.
For a mattress to be a hybrid, it has to have at least two inches of foam in its comfort layer and a pocketed coil support core. This combination makes for a highly adaptive mattress that’s contouring but also supportive.
Heavier sleepers will appreciate the extra lift provided by the pocketed coils in a hybrid. Stomach sleepers can also take advantage of the additional support in a hybrid, while back sleepers will enjoy the adaptability. Hybrids can contour for side sleepers and bounce back for combo sleepers. That makes a hybrid mattress an amazing bed for anyone.
The comfort layer of a hybrid must always be foam and must always be at least two inches. Hybrids may have more than one comfort layer made of different kinds of foam. For example, a hybrid can have a gel memory foam top comfort layer with a latex foam bottom comfort layer.
Don’t confuse pillow tops with comfort layers. A pillow top goes on top of a bed’s comfort layer (more on that below). It doesn’t matter what kind of foam a hybrid has, but if it isn’t at least two inches and isn’t in the comfort layer(s), the mattress is not a hybrid.
Hybrids don’t have to have a transition layer, but most do. Transition layers in a hybrid can help provide cushioning between the low-density foams in the comfort layer(s) and the high-tension springs in the support layer.
The support layer is always made of individually wrapped, freestanding coils. If your mattress has open coils instead of pocketed coils, it’s an innerspring, not a hybrid. The pocketed coils in a hybrid’s support core can all move independently. That makes them much more adaptable than the networked coils in an innerspring mattress.
Your hybrid mattress will be able to contour all the way through. In addition, independent coils are better at motion isolation than open coils. And many hybrids offer strong edge support using reinforced coils on both sides.
Many hybrid mattresses come with a base layer of ultra-dense foam to protect the bottom of the pocketed coils from damage. The base layer has the added benefit of further improving motion transfer control and stability.
Since hybrids can come with any type of foam in their comfort layer, they have a wide range of feels. That means that hybrids are versatile beds that don’t always have the same contouring or temperature. Memory foam hybrids will be more contouring, while latex hybrids will be springier and cooler.
One thing that all hybrids have in common is their pocketed coils. That gives all hybrids a bouncier and more responsive feel than any all-foam mattress. Hybrid mattresses also offer the breathability of coils, making them a cooler option than most foam mattresses.
The bad news is all the excellent benefits of a hybrid mattress come at a steep cost. Though hybrids are a little cheaper up-front than latex mattresses, with an average price of $1,700, their springs make them less durable than latex. They’ll still last around 15 years, but their decreased durability compared to latex makes them the most expensive bed over time.
Like pure foam mattresses, hybrids are too heavy for box springs. However, they’re still compatible with all the other bases: platforms, foundations, and adjustable bases. Pocketed coils are flexible enough to move with an adjustable bed. So hybrids are a good choice for an adjustable base.
- Most expensive of all the different types of mattresses
- Heavy and hard to move
- Less durable than straight foam mattresses
Innerspring mattresses are the oldest sleep technology still commonly used in the 21st century. They are made by combining an open coil support core with a thinner comfort layer made of one of several plush materials like cotton, wool, foam, fiberfill, and more.
The innerspring mattress is the most responsive and breathable bed on the market. It’s got that traditional bouncy feel that almost everyone over 35 grew up with. And despite the fact that they’re slowly being overtaken by newer sleep technologies, innerspring mattresses are still the most common bed out there.
Innerspring beds can have multiple layers, but their most common construction is the comfort layer situated right on top of the support layer. Many innerspring mattresses also come with a pillow top. While this is an optional layer, virtually all the more expensive innerspring models have one.
A pillow top is a layer of extra padding sewn on top of the comfort layer. This layer can be made of foam or other plush fibers. And it’s anywhere from less than an inch to several inches thick. With a Euro top, the additional layer is sewn underneath the mattress cover. Meanwhile, a regular pillow top is sewn on top.
The comfort layer sits either underneath the pillow top or on top of the mattress if there is no pillow top. Comfort layers in innerspring mattresses are sometimes foam, but they can also be plush fibers. Innerspring comfort layers are also typically thinner than the comfort layers of other mattresses. This is especially true of cheaper, lower-quality innerspring mattresses.
The support layer of an innerspring can be pocketed coils. But it is typically open coils. Open coils are a system of steel springs wired together. Open coils don’t have pockets around them, making them more breathable than pocketed coils because there’s more space between them to allow for airflow.
Open coils are the most responsive of all the support layers. They have tons of bounce for those who like a bouncy bed. However, there is a tradeoff. Motion transfer is a major issue with open coil systems. Open coils are also prone to noise because they’re metal on metal with no fabric casing to reduce friction.
Innerspring mattresses are highly responsive. Those who are used to the bounce of an innerspring mattress might not be able to grow accustomed to less responsive mattresses. Innerspring mattresses are also very cooling because they’re so breathable, which hot sleepers will likely find helpful.
However, innerspring beds are infamous for motion transfer. This can be an issue for couples. It can also be an issue for combo sleepers because too much responsiveness can be overstimulating and wake them.
Innerspring beds are affordable. It’s quite easy to get a quality innerspring mattress for under $1000. On the flip side, coil mattresses are not durable. Their open spring networks lose tension and break down fast. Most innerspring mattresses don’t make it longer than ten years. That means you might save money on the initial cost, but you might wind up eating those savings later on because you’ll have to replace innerspring mattresses up to twice as frequently as other mattress types.
Box springs are made to go with innerspring mattresses. So coil mattresses are light enough to pair with a box spring set. Platforms and foundations are also good options for innerspring mattresses. They can give them more support and stability.
The only bed base that an innerspring cannot go on is an adjustable base. Innerspring coil systems are too stiff for adjustable bases. They’ll “float” in the sense that they’ll maintain their shape when the base changes position, causing them to hover over the bed rather than bend with it. They may also break in the wrong position.
- Lots of airflow
- Highly responsive
- Light and easy to move
- Not durable
- Cannot contour
- Potential for noise
- High motion transfer
- Can cause pain in pressure points
The size you need is determined by your height, your room size, and the number of sleepers who will be using the bed. If you’re too tall, you may not be able to sleep on a 75-inch bed. If your room is too small, you might have to settle for a queen rather than a king, and so on.
Twin size mattresses are the smallest mattress size at 38 by 75 inches. Twin beds are a good choice for single sleepers under six feet tall who don’t have a lot of space in their bedrooms. Twin mattresses are also a solid choice for kids’ rooms, dorm rooms, and bunk beds.
The twin XL mattress is the same width as the twin, but it adds five inches to the length for a total of 38 by 75 inches. The twin XL bed is a great choice for taller single sleepers who don’t get enough legroom out of the twin. The twin XL is also an excellent option for multi-bed guest rooms or guest room/office combinations.
The full size bed or double bed is 54 by 75 inches. This makes it perfect for single active or combo sleepers who can’t get comfortable on a twin because it doesn’t provide enough width for them to move around or spread out. As with the twin, this only applies to sleepers under six feet tall. Seventy-five inches is not long enough for those over six feet.
Queen beds are the first size that is genuinely comfortable for couples. At 60 by 80 inches, these versatile beds are wonderful for smaller master bedrooms and guest rooms alike. They offer plenty of length for taller sleepers and plenty of width for couples and active sleepers. Queen size mattresses also fit in all but the largest and smallest rooms.
The standard or eastern king size bed is the largest of all the standard bed sizes by total surface area at 76 by 80 inches. The king size mattress provides the most width to couples, offering them the same amount of sleeping space as a twin XL mattress. King beds are also a good choice for those who have large master bedrooms because they fill them out.
California king beds are 72 by 84 inches. That makes them wide enough for virtually all couples and long enough to offer comfort to sleepers well over six feet tall. Those standing 6 foot 4 inches and up may not be able to sleep on anything else. California king mattresses are also a fantastic fit to fill out large master bedrooms.
A split king is the same size as a regular king (76 by 80 inches), but it comes with two twin XL mattresses inside the same bed frame. This can be a good setup for couples who need different materials or firmness levels. It also allows couples to choose different adjustable bed settings. For instance, one partner could lie flat, and the other could take the zero gravity position.
Mattress Firmness Levels
Mattress firmness falls on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being the softest. You typically won’t find a mattress softer than around a 3 or firmer than around an 8. This is because nobody wants a mattress with no support or one with no give. The most popular firmness choices run from 4 to 7. Almost everyone falls into this firmness level range, with a few outliers who need to go softer or firmer.
Sleeping position and body type impact your firmness needs. Your sleep style is the most critical factor when deciding on a mattress. It determines how your spine will line up, where your pressure points will be, and maybe even what material you need.
Your body type impacts your firmness needs less than your preferred sleep position. Petite sleepers (under 130 pounds) may need to go down a firmness level from the one corresponding to their sleep position to get enough compression to cushion their pressure points.
On the flip side, plus-size sleepers (over 230 pounds) might need to go up a firmness level to get sufficient support and avoid sinkage. Just remember, select your firmness level based on your sleep style, and then go up or down from there based on body weight.
Side sleepers need the softest beds. People who sleep on their left or right side may experience pressure in the hip and shoulder joints that make contact with the surface of the bed. This can lead to pain in these joints.
A softer mattress will counteract the pressure, cradling your hips and shoulders to prevent pain. Depending on their body weight, side sleepers may need a mattress that falls anywhere from a 3 to a 5 on the firmness scale.
Heavier side sleepers, in particular, should keep in mind that they’ll need a combination of cushioning to protect their pressure points and lift to keep their spines aligned. That may mean they have to up their firmness to a medium.
Combo sleepers need the most versatile beds because they sleep in different positions every night. They may even switch positions several times throughout the night. So, if you go to sleep in a different position than you wake up in, you may be a combo sleeper.
All this position switching means you’ll need a medium feel to handle side sleeping, back sleeping, and stomach sleeping. Combo sleepers who spend more time on their stomachs than other positions may want to up the ante to a medium-firm, while those who spend the most time on their sides might want to consider a medium-soft.
Combo sleepers may also want to consider material. If you toss and turn all night, you’re going to need a material that can bounce back into place as well as cushion your pressure points and align your spine in multiple positions. Latex and hybrid mattresses both fit that bill.
Like combo sleepers, back sleepers also need middle-of-the-road firmness. Those who sleep on their backs need enough lift to keep the spine neutral and enough compression to allow the buttocks to sink into the bed, keeping the lumbar region supported.
That means back sleepers should do best with a medium-firm mattress. Of course, petite and plus-size back sleepers should consider their body weight. But medium-firm mattresses are the most pain-relieving and supportive for back sleepers of almost every weight.
Stomach sleepers need the firmest mattresses of all. When you sleep on your stomach, your pelvis sinks into the bed. This over-arches your back and can lead to lower back pain. Lots of lift from a firm mattress can help counter this problem.
Stomach sleepers may do best with a firm mattress and either a flatter pillow or no pillow at all to put less strain on the neck. Petite stomach sleepers might consider a medium-firm mattress with a thin pillow under the pelvis to align the spine without sacrificing cushioning.
However, the best thing stomach sleepers can do for their spines is train themselves to sleep on their backs or sides. Stomach sleeping is unhealthy for the whole spinal column because it arches the lumbar region and twists the neck. No firm mattress will be as pain-relieving as avoiding stomach sleeping.
Where to Buy a Mattress
Lots of people have engaged in the great online vs. brick-and-mortar debate, but there are advantages and drawbacks to both options. We discuss the advantages of each to help determine what the best place to buy a mattress for you is.
In the mattress store, you’ll get to try out your bed before you purchase. Many people who are used to the try-before-you-buy situation might be unwilling to sacrifice going down to the store and bouncing around on a few beds. Trying mattresses out in the store can be a good way to go if you don’t know much about mattresses and how different mattress types/firmnesses can feel.
Another advantage to in-store buying can be salespeople. Interacting with knowledgeable people can be a big help if you don’t have a lot of experience in buying beds. You can ask questions, get guidance, and develop your own knowledge base.
However, there is a flip side to these advantages. Keep in mind that you can never know how a bed sleeps until you sleep on it. That means no amount of lying on a store’s floor models is going to compare to actually sleeping on your new mattress. That’s why the in-store experience is no substitute for a sleep trial.
Some shoppers may not like the experience with sales clerks either. While salespeople can be knowledgeable and helpful, they can also be pushy and sometimes even aggressive. Many shoppers don’t like the high-pressure situations that can sometimes arise from an in-store experience.
Online retailers have lots of advantages over in-store retailers. One of the biggest pros online retailers provide is equivalent quality for a lower price. Online retailers save a lot of money on overhead because they don’t have to pay rent for a commercial space, they don’t have to pay salespeople, and they don’t have to pay utilities. These savings get passed to you. You can get a mattress of similar quality online for a lot less than in-store.
Variety is another great advantage to online retailers. A lot of smaller manufacturers who make quality products don’t have the resources to open up a bunch of showrooms. But they can sell online. That means you can get access to regional or boutique sellers that you might not otherwise be able to without the internet.
The experience of online shopping also appeals to many people. Online, there’s no pressure and less human interaction. There’s also the convenience of being able to get on your computer in your bunny slippers instead of having to get dressed and sit in traffic.
There are a lot of vital factors to consider when it comes to mattress buying. From firmness to materials to warranties and retail options, things can get confusing pretty fast. However, if you keep your needs and preferences in mind while researching, you should be able to get the best bed for you right out of the gate.
Frequently Asked Questions
How much you can expect to pay depends on several factors from brand to mattress type and whether you buy online. Mattresses have a vast price range. Low-quality innerspring mattresses might go for as little as $200, while luxury latex hybrids can cost over $5,000.
If you’re trying to save money, don’t skimp on quality. Instead, go online and/or look at annual sales like those that happen on holiday weekends to get a hot deal on a quality mattress. Remember, a good night’s sleep is worth a lot. So it’s better to get the right mattress and save money somewhere else.
That depends on the mattress type. Innerspring mattresses are compatible with box springs but not adjustable beds. The other mattress types are compatible with an adjustable bed but not box springs. Virtually all mattresses can be laid on a platform bed or mattress foundation, as these sturdy bases can stand up to heavy mattresses yet offer a stable surface to coil beds.
No mattress should ever be thinner than 10 inches except under some narrow circumstances (think camping beds, toddler beds, or guestrooms that don’t see much use). However, there are certain situations where you may need to increase your minimum thickness.
For example, heavier sleepers may want to avoid mattresses that are less than a full 12 inches thick. Thicker mattresses can provide the extra support plus-size sleepers need to stay lifted and comfortable on their beds.
Sleep trials and warranties are essential parts of your mattress shopping experience. Sleep trials let you try out your mattress risk-free for a certain number of nights. Warranties cover any manufacturer mistakes like premature aging or defects.
Normally, a reasonable minimum for a sleep trial is 100 nights, and a good minimum for a warranty is 10 years. A 100-night sleep trial and 10-year warranty let you know the manufacturer stands behind their product and has made it to last.
As always, you need to read the fine print. Make sure your warranty doesn’t have any loopholes that let the manufacturer get out of it. And ensure your sleep trial really is risk-free. That means you can return the mattress undamaged for any reason and get a full refund.
That depends on the material it’s made of. Latex mattresses won’t need to be replaced for decades. You can get 20 years and up to 40 out of a quality natural latex mattress. Meanwhile, innerspring mattresses only have a life expectancy of around 10 years, though lower-quality coil mattresses may only make it half that.
Hybrid and memory foam mattresses fall in the middle. Both these mattress types can last anywhere from 10 to 20 years. But they’ll rarely last longer than that.