The popularity of memory foam bedding has exploded in the past decade. Innovations such as gel memory foam help the material sleep cooler, and new bedding products including mattress toppers and pillows let you build your bed from the ground up. Options for extra-deep mattresses or super-firm foams give you unprecedented customization, however, it's also easier than ever to get confused in the mattress aisle. Get the nitty gritty on the features and specs so you can find your new favorite mattress.
The Gel Advantage
Gel memory foam distributes your body's heat more evenly than traditional foam, giving you a cooler night's sleep. Here's how it works: traditional memory foam is infused with a gel similar to what you find in gel shoe insert. As the surface warms, the gel disperses heat through the mattress, drawing it away so that you stay cool and comfortable. Some manufacturers add layers of air flow foam under the top layer to further improve circulation. Look for a mattress with a deep gel layer to ensure effective cooling.
Mattress or Topper?
If you want a cushy bed that you sink into, you need a soft or plush firmness rating. In contrast, firm and medium toppers are considered to be the best for providing relief for aches and pain, as they absorb movement and provide stability. Finally, plush firm, the perfect compromise for many sleepers, invokes the sense of lying in a cloud but still supports your back and joints.
The total thickness of your mattress is a major factor for good weight distribution. The deeper the mattress, the better compression support it offers. This is especially important for side sleepers, as you tend to have more pressure on your shoulder, hip, and knee joints. For side sleepers, it may be best to shop for a 12-inch or thicker mattress for maximum comfort and support. A mattress with a thick bottom layer, can distribute weight more evenly without bottoming out, contouring to your joints rather than compressing them.
Most memory foam mattresses layer one type of foam over another to balance softness and support. When people say that a memory foam mattress is like sleeping on a cloud, it's the top layer that feels so dreamy. Mattress experts recommend a 3 to 4-inch top layer for sink-in softness. Layers under three inches thick tend to lack plushness, while more than 5-inches can suck you in, making it difficult to turn over or get up.
Just like Goldilocks, you want a mattress that's not too soft and not too hard, but just right. That's determined by the density of the foam. More air makes memory foam feel softer and compress more readily, while less air makes it firm and resilient. Density is labeled according to the weight of one cubic foot of material. Most people find that 4-pound memory foam is just right. Keep in mind that denser foam lasts longer but also traps more heat. If you prefer a firm yet cool surface, opt for gel memory foam in the 5 to 6-pound range.
Some memory foam mattresses feature an upholstered top layer to combine the support of foam with the traditional feel of fabric. Plush and PillowTops use a layer of fabric padding or soft foam, while EuroTops boast more layers and are sewn flush with the mattress edge to pull the fabric taut. If you prefer a firm surface, look for Tight Tops, which have minimal padding between you and the foam.
Gel memory foam pillows support the neck and shoulders while keeping you cool. The material also provides a hypoallergenic alternative to down pillows. Back sleepers can use a contoured pillow to cradle the head and support the neck, while side sleepers get extra firm support from egg crate pillows. Wedge pillows elevate the upper body, making them a comfortable choice for reducing acid reflux or just reading in bed.