Types of mattresses explained

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The type of mattress you choose can affect your sleep quality. No single mattress type is suitable for everyone. Sleep is personal and unique to each individual. What one person finds comfortable, someone else may find uncomfortable. But weighing up the pros and cons of each type of mattress will help you decide which best suits your needs.

Various studies suggest that the type of mattress you choose can affect your sleep quality. But research is limited regarding which type of mattress provides optimal comfort and support. This is because no single mattress type is suitable for everyone. Sleep is personal and unique to each individual. What one person finds comfortable, someone else may find uncomfortable.

It helps to consider several factors when choosing a mattress, such as your weight, height, sleeping style, and previous experiences with certain types of mattresses. But there’s no substitute for visiting your local mattress showroom and lying on a few mattresses to determine which one you find the most comfortable.

This guide provides an overview of common types of mattresses to help improve your understanding and narrow down your options.

Hand pressing down on mattress

Sprung mattresses

Spring interiors are commonly used in mattresses to provide the support layer. Wire thickness, the number of coils, height and shape of the springs affect how a sprung mattress feels and performs. Although there are many variations and names for spring interiors, they often fall into two types – open coil or pocket springs.

Open coil

Coil springs are widely used in mattresses and tend to be cheaper than other types of mattresses as they can be mass-produced at a low production cost. An open coil unit is formed from a single piece of wire wrapped around to create a series of large springs which are interconnected together.

Movement is transferred across the entire surface of the mattress, meaning that sleeping partners are likely to disturb each other when they turn over in bed. An open coil mattress will typically feel firmer and bouncier than other types of mattresses.

As open coil mattresses are inexpensive, they are ideal for shoppers looking for a mattress on a budget, perhaps for a spare bedroom or a growing teenager. However, other types of mattresses provide superior comfort and support.

Pros

Cons

Pocket spring

Pocket springs are smaller, softer springs that are encased in fabric pockets, hence the name. Each pocket is sewn or hand-tied together, allowing the mattress to conform to the body and distribute weight more evenly.

Pocket springs work independently ensuring sleeping partners are less likely to disturb one another in bed when they turn or get up at night. In general, the more pocket springs there are in the mattress, the more supportive it should be. An entry-level pocket spring mattress will usually contain between 600 to 800 springs. In contrast, higher-quality models can have 2,000 or more springs.

A pocket spring mattress can be constructed with one or more layers of pocket springs. Mattresses containing more than 2,000 springs will likely have pocket springs stacked on top of one other.

Pocket spring mattresses often come in soft, medium, firm, and extra firm spring tensions. The spring tension can be achieved by changing the thickness (gauge) of the wire. Pocket springs are ideal for couples of different weights as you can often combine two spring tensions in one mattress. Another option is zipping and linking, allowing two single beds to be zipped together, creating one large bed.

Cheaper pocket spring models often contain synthetic materials such as polyester and foam, while luxury models may contain natural fillings such as wool, horsehair, and cotton. Natural materials feel soft and sumptuous and tend to be more durable than synthetic materials, and are fully breathable.

Pros

Cons

Foam mattresses

All-foam mattresses are typically constructed in layers. Foam mattresses can be soft or firm depending on the density and depth of the material. Latex and memory foam are two common types of foam. Both offer effective pressure relief across different sleeping postures.

Memory foam

NASA first developed memory foam to help cushion astronauts during lift-off. Due to its unique pressure-relieving qualities, it was adapted in mattresses and pillows for use in healthcare settings and later for widespread commercial use.

Memory foam is a temperature-sensitive material that slowly conforms and adapts to the body. It can initially feel quite firm but softens as your body temperature warms it up.

By conforming to the body, memory foam eliminates pressure points and spreads body weight evenly, promoting spinal alignment. Due to the removal of pressure, memory foam can help alleviate aches and pains and improve blood circulation, resulting in less tossing and turning.

Memory foam also absorbs movement, meaning sleeping partners are less likely to disturb each other when they turn over in bed or get up at night. It is also quiet in use, meaning no squeaky springs or components to keep you awake at night.

There are different qualities of memory foam. Cheaper memory foam mattresses are less effective at relieving pressure points, and some layers may break down sooner than expected.

A drawback of memory foam is that it relies on body heat to conform to the sleeper’s shape. Because the material has a dense cell structure, it retains heat, which causes the body to become hotter. As a result, some people may feel uncomfortably warmer in bed.

Many companies have developed ways to help keep the surface cooler with breathable fabrics and materials like gel to address this. Some memory foam mattresses have an open cell structure allowing the material to breathe so that heat can escape effectively.

Another issue with memory foam is that as the foam becomes softer, the body sinks deeper into the mattress. Though some people like to feel cocooned in a mattress, others may find it difficult to turn over in bed.

Pros

Cons

Gel

Various manufacturers are using gel materials in their mattresses. Gel foam mattresses typically combine memory foam with gel to help keep the sleeping surface cooler. Gel-infused memory foam involves mixing tiny gel particles or beads into the memory foam.

Some mattresses contain a gel grid layer allowing the mattress to better conform to the shape of the body. The gel provides good support and pressure relief. It also has an open cell design allowing for better airflow and a cooler night’s sleep.

Pros

Cons

Latex mattresses

Natural latex is produced from the sap of rubber trees. Like memory foam, latex conforms well to the body, offering excellent support and pressure relief. However, latex responds and recovers almost immediately when pressure is removed, addressing some of the ‘sinking’ issues often associated with memory foam.

Latex is a breathable material with an open cell structure that allows air to circulate freely inside, keeping you cool and fresh at night.

The material naturally absorbs movement, meaning that sleeping partners are less likely to disturb one another if they get up in the middle of the night. Latex is also quiet to sleep on as well.

Latex tends to be more expensive than other materials. But, it is incredibly durable and resilient and retains its shape better than other materials. A good quality latex mattress can last up to fifteen years with correct care.

Pros

Cons

Hybrid mattresses

Hybrid mattresses are the perfect compromise for those that prefer the bounce and feel of springs but would like to experience the pressure-relieving benefits of foam.  

Most hybrid models feature a pocket spring or open coil spring unit, with one or more comfort layers of memory foam, latex, or gel on top. The combination of springs and foam allows for greater ease of movement. Sleepers can turn over and change positions in bed more easily than all-foam models, which can sometimes make you feel stuck in the mattress.

Hybrid mattresses are typically cooler than all-foam models, as air can circulate freely between the springs.

Couples sharing a bed may experience some transfer of movement on a hybrid mattress, but to what extent depends on the spring system. Pocket springs work independently and are much more effective at reducing movement than open coil units.

Pros

Cons

Pillow top mattresses

Most bed manufacturers offer a pillow top mattress. Pillow top mattresses feature a plush, luxurious layer sewn into the top of the mattress that provides extra cushioning. A pillow top mattress often has a soft and sumptuous feel, which some people describe as sleeping on a cloud.

The top layer is typically made from plush materials like wool, latex, memory foam, and polyester. The pillow top is usually supported by either foam or a spring unit underneath.

Pillow top mattresses are single-sided, meaning they only have one sleeping surface. As pillow tops cannot be flipped, they typically have a shorter lifespan than other mattresses. Furthermore, because of their design, some pillow tops tend to sag reasonably quickly around the edges.

As pillow tops conform closely to the body due to their soft sleeping surface, they are ideal for sleepers who prefer to lie on their side. However, they may not be suitable for a heavier person as they may sink too far into the mattress and find it difficult to turn over in bed.

Pros

Cons

Roll-up mattresses

Roll-up or boxed mattresses offer a convenient and inexpensive alternative to traditional (flat) mattresses. These models can be ordered online with a few clicks and delivered or taken home in a conveniently sized box or tube. A roll-up mattress is usually made from foam, springs or a mixture of both.

Boxed mattresses often come with generous trial periods, allowing you to try the mattress at home with the option of sending it back if it doesn’t meet your expectations. 

As boxed mattresses are rolled up into neat packaging, they are often light and easy to manoeuvre, eliminating any problems regarding access to the bedroom.

Be wary of online companies promoting boxed mattresses as suitable for everyone. Choosing a mattress is a personal decision, with various factors to consider. Sleeping on a mattress that is not suited to your weight, size, height, or sleeping style will invariably lead to problems down the line.

Pros

Cons

What type of mattress is most comfortable?

There isn’t one type of mattress that is suitable for everyone. Comfort is subjective. What feels comfortable to one person may feel uncomfortable to someone else. Some people like a firm mattress, while others prefer a softer mattress that closely conforms to the body.

Besides comfort, correct support depends on your height, weight, and even your preferred sleeping style. A medium support mattress may feel comfortable to someone weighing 12 stone, but a much heavier person may find that their body sinks too far into the mattress and not feel adequately supported.

Medical professionals often recommended firm mattresses in the past, but this advice has since changed. Firm mattresses can cause pressure sores, particularly for those that sleep on their side. On the other hand, a soft mattress may also cause problems and put the spine in an awkward position.  

The right mattress should conform to the body while keeping the spine correctly aligned. It helps if you can test several mattresses before purchasing. This will help you narrow down your options. Otherwise, many online companies offer extended trial periods where you can try the mattress from the comfort of your home, with the option of returning it if you’re unsatisfied.

A handy check is to lie on your back and try sliding your hand between the lumbar region of your back and the mattress. If you can slide your hand easily underneath your back, the mattress is too firm. If, on the other hand, you can’t, the mattress is too soft.

Mattress topper

A mattress topper is placed on top of your mattress to provide an extra comfort layer. Toppers are typically 2 to 4 inches deep and are made from various materials such as wool, latex and memory foam.

For most new mattresses, a topper is unnecessary. However, a topper can soften the initial feel of a relatively new mattress if it is firmer than expected.

However, a mattress topper is unlikely to improve a worn-out mattress. If the mattress is sagging, the topper will conform to its shape.

Bed bases

Besides mattress types, you also need to consider the style of bed base the mattress will be paired with. The base provides the underlying support for the mattress and can improve the bed’s overall comfort.

There are many types and styles of bed bases, from stylish and elegant bed frames to divans with drawers and lift-up ottomans. Whichever style you choose, it’s important to ensure it is compatible with the mattress. For example, sprung mattresses work well with divans, while foam mattresses tend to perform better on slatted bases. The two are equally as important and need to work together.

Final thoughts

Sleeping on a mattress that does not support the body correctly can lead to poor-quality sleep and restlessness. Each mattress type will have its advantages and disadvantages. Make sure you set aside plenty of time to evaluate the options and choose the mattress that best suits your needs.

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About the author

About the author

Tony Brown is the founder and creator of The Bed Consultant. His career in the bed industry began in 2002. After graduating from university with a degree in Business Administration, Tony joined one of the largest independent furniture retailers in the UK as a bed consultant. Tony has helped thousands of customers find the perfect mattress.

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