Mattress Types

What is a mattress?

The earliest mattresses were not much more than cushions on the ground to be laid upon. Today, modern technological advances have made their mark on the way we sleep, and we no longer sleep on goat skins filled with water. And so we talk about foam mattress vs spring mattresses, pocket springs vs latex mattresses, latex vs memory foam mattresses – yet what do these terms actually mean? What makes a mattress a mattress? What makes a mattress a good mattress? This article will answer your questions, and more. 

There are 11 types of mattresses commonly sold nowadays, though most Australians will sleep on either an innerspring mattress or foam mattress of some kind. You can boil a mattress down to two main components – the core and the upholstery. They’re also known as the “support layer” and “comfort layer” respectively. The different types of mattresses that we have today, such as foam vs spring, usually refer to what the core comprises of. But more on the different types later. 

What is a mattress meant to do?

The first function of a mattress is to provide you with comfort. How can one sleep comfortably if they’re not comfortable? What’s comfortable is when your weight is spread out rather than on a few points of contact – usually hips and shoulders for instance. When you’re comfortable, these pressure points will be relieved. What’s comfortable for one person though, won’t be for another, and the materials used in the upholstery will lead to the differences in each mattress. 

A mattress also needs to support the sleeper’s body throughout the night. This is done by the abovementioned mattress core. A mattress that supports you will keep your back aligned while you sleep, otherwise you’ll wake up with back pain. Think of sitting in an ergonomic office chair with the right posture. 

This isn’t as straightforward as it sounds because the human body is not straight. We all have bumps and curves, and everyone is a different size and shape. Not to mention that people sleep in different positions which in turn calls for a different type of support. 

So those are the two functions one will need to consider when buying a mattress. Another factor that’s important is the durability of the mattress. The life cycle of a mattress is generally around 7 to 10 years. So the mattress you buy should be able to support your full weight for eight hours, every night, for around a decade. It shouldn’t be sagging 2 years in, and if there’s an imprint of your body stuck in the bed, then it won’t be supporting you well. 

Choosing the best mattress for you, is about finding the best mattress “system” for your body within your budget. Sleep is such an integral part of our lives, has such an impact on our health and on our waking hours, that it makes sense to get this right.

Types of Mattresses

Mattresses are often (but not always!) categorised according to which type of core they have. Here is a short list of the main types – follow the links for more detail about each type.

Innerspring

The core is made of springs, or coils, that support the sleeper. Innerspring mattresses are durable, springy (of course), and comfortable. People of different weights can sleep on this mattress and the springs will conform to the shape of the sleeper’s body. The upholstery layer can in turn be divided into the insulator, the middle upholstery, and the quilt. There are different types of springs, so let’s look at Bonnell Spring vs Pocket Spring. 

Bonnell Spring

The Bonnell Spring mattress is probably the most traditional spring mattress technology available these days – but don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s outdated. The coils in the Bonnell mattress are interconnected and are shaped like hourglasses so that the springs are narrower in the middle. This type of mattress supports the body evenly (though not quite as comfortable vs the Pocket spring mattress) and is extremely durable. However, because of the springs being interconnected, there may be discomfort experienced on the pressure points that aren’t particularly well supported. 

Pocket Spring

In a Pocket Spring mattress, each spring stands alone and is enclosed in cotton pockets, hence the name. Because they are not connected to each other, they move independently. This independent movement does present advantages in minimising movement transfer, so for couples sharing a bed, you’re much less likely to wake your partner when you go to get a glass of water. Also, due to the mattress conforming more to the sleeper’s shape, the pocket spring system offers more comfort and pressure point relief vs Bonnell spring system mattresses. (But check the foam wrapped around the coils, as the quality of this foam may impact the quality of your sleep.) 

One more thing to note, is that the Pocket springs can prevent movement while sleeping as the sleeper is more enveloped in the mattress. So for sleepers who move a lot at night, they could feel stuck and less able to move comfortably. 

Bonnell Spring – ProBonnell Spring – Con
Supports the body evenlyDiscomfort may be experienced on pressure points not specially supported
Extremely durableDoes not minimise movement transfer
Pocket Spring – ProPocket Spring – Con
Minimises movement transferSleeper will sleep in a “crater”, so difficult to change position
More comfort 
More pressure point relief 

Latex Foam

Latex foam can be used both as a core or upholstery layer. It’s firm, resilient and can conform to the sleeper’s form, relieving pressure from the spine and neck. Latex, like a rubber ball, will bounce back faster than memory foam. It has a wide range of firmness choices and quality levels. There are two types of latex foam used in mattresses; Dunlop latex vs Talalay latex. 

These two types of latex are for the most part the same latex, made differently to produce very different results. Many mattresses will use a combination of the two latex foams to customise the softness and firmness of the mattress, and to determine how supportive the mattress will be. 

Dunlop Latex

Dunlop latex is latex extracted from rubber trees, poured into a mold and baked. This baking process pasteurises the latex and kills off the vast majority of allergens (so it’s a hypoallergenic mattress). As it is manufactured in this way with limited processing, sedimentation will happen where heavier rubber particles sink to the bottom. This makes for a less consistent latex, where one side of the foam will feel firmer than the other. The Dunlop is very dense, which means it is extremely durable and very supportive. Hot sleepers though will usually prefer the Talalay as the dense Dunlop latex retains more heat.

Talalay Latex

Talalay latex starts with the same latex as the Dunlop, but it is then vacuum sealed inside the mold redistributing air evenly throughout the latex. It is then immediately flash frozen to keep the air cells in place before baking, preventing sedimentation. This creates a softer, more consistent product which doesn’t retain heat as much vs the Dunlop. Unfortunately, Talalay latex foam is not as durable as the Dunlop and will degrade faster. Also, there are extra costs in making Talalay latex than Dunlop latex (as there are two extra steps, the pressurising and freezing), and some manufacturers make up for this cost by using a percentage of synthetic filler in their Talalay latex. 

Dunlop Latex – ProDunlop Latex – Con
Very supportiveLess consistent product
Extremely durableRetains heat
Talalay Latex – ProTalalay Latex – Con
Soft and more consistentNot as durable
Does not retain as much heatMore expensive to produce, likely synthetic filler included

Polyfoam

This foam is also known as high density foam, or polyurethane. There are different grades of quality (with respective price points). Medium to higher quality polyfoam can be an excellent material for the support layer of a mattress due to its resilience and resistance (that memory foam doesn’t have). Polyfoam can also be used in the core to support spring systems or provide the base layer or edge support for latex memory foam mattresses. Many mattresses also use polyfoam in the comfort layers. 

Memory Foam

NASA developed a special type of foam for astronauts’ seat cushioning but ultimately it was never used in space. The formulation of this foam led to the creation of memory foam as we know it today – but it is not the NASA formulation. For all the advantages memory foam mattresses offer, I’m sorry, but you won’t be going to space on this type of mattress. 

Memory foam differs from polyfoam as memory foam has increased density and a slow recovery time. Memory foam is temperature sensitive, and therefore reacts to body heat to soften and conform more precisely to the sleeper vs the latex foam. The memory foam also does not allow for motion transfer (so couples won’t wake each other up) as it has a slow recovery time, and doesn’t bounce back very quickly at all. Memory foam mattresses provide great pressure point relief and help keep your spine aligned while you sleep. However, this foam’s slow recovery time can lead to a sense of being enveloped and stuck in the impression that your body  has made in the mattress. 

Polyfoam – ProPolyfoam – Con
ResilientOff gassing
Cheap to produce and versatileQuality really varies
Memory Foam – ProMemory Foam – Con
Minimises movement transferRetains heat
Conforms to sleeper’s shapeOff gassing

Gel

A gel mattress is memory foam with gel bits distributed throughout the foam. The gel mattress can be helpful for those who sleep hot, as memory foam by itself traps heat. Gels pull heat from the body into the core of the mattress. However, the gel particles can fall out of the foam, compromising the structure of the mattress. Gel mattresses are also available where there is a layer of gel near the top, which may prevent this problem. In both situations though, even though the gel is cool to touch at first, many people find that after some time it becomes hot again. This is because the gel simply conducts heat and does not exude coolness in itself. 

Hybrid

Hybrid mattresses combine foam in their support layers with an innerspring core. The springs add some more bounce, support, airflow, and durability compared to just foam mattresses, while the memory foam spreads body weight out more evenly with its contouring properties. 

Water Bed

Waterbeds are comfortable. It’s like sleeping on waves, which many find soothing. They conform to the shape of the sleeper. Some people feel that waterbeds reduce pressure points, improve blood circulation and encourage spinal alignment. Others however feel that it doesn’t support the joints, leading to back pain or even numbness. However, they do normally need to be heated. Electricity usage can vary depending on a number of factors, such as insulation, bedding and environmental temperature. Also, the mattresses can very occasionally leak. This usually only causes inconvenience and minor problems, but has the possibility of causing a fairly extensive amount of water damage to the home, including to floors and ceilings (if your bed is upstairs). 

Water Bed – ProWater Bed – Con
ComfortableDiscomfort may be experienced on pressure points not specially supported
Conforms to sleeper’s shapeNeeds to be heated
Reduces pressure points and aligns spineLeaks can be very damaging

Air Bed

An air mattress can actually sometimes help people with back problems or other joint pain, or bed sores in particular. The main reason for this is that the firmness of the bed can easily be adjusted. For a firmer bed, add more air. For a softer mattress, deflate it slightly. The air bed is by far the most portable of mattresses, so if you have a cramped living situation, this could be a great solution. However, it doesn’t have the support that a classic bed can offer. 

For many people though, an air bed just isn’t that comfortable. And if you live in a cold weather area, or when the nights are cold, this will be a cold bed that lacks the insulation that foam mattresses or innerspring mattresses have. Unlike waterbeds, you can’t heat it up. Lastly, it’s much less durable, especially in the context of everyday use. Punctures and leaks are a danger that exist for air beds. 

Air Bed – ProAir Bed – Con
Firmness can be easily adjustedDoes offer support
Can be helpful for back problemsNot that comfortable
PortableCold

Pillow Top and Euro Top Mattresses

Pillow top mattresses don’t refer to the material inside the mattress, instead it just means that there is an extra comfort layer added to the top of the mattress. Most mattresses have tape edging on just the top and bottom of the mattress. Visually, you can distinguish a pillow top from other mattresses because there is an extra tape edge, and between that extra tape edge and the top tape edge, you will see a stitched indentation all around the top of the mattress, so the mattress will look exactly like its name – a pillow top. 

The concept of a Euro top is similar. There are three tape edges rather than the normal two, but there is no indentation and so the mattress is straight from top to bottom.

Euro tops tend to be denser than pillow tops, and therefore slightly more durable. 

Some people will find the extra layer of padding to be more comfortable. They will be less durable than mattresses without this layer however, and over time there will be sagging in the pillow and euro top. 

Adjustable Beds

An adjustable bed is a bed that can be adjusted. You tend to see them in hospitals, or medical dramas on TV if you’re lucky enough to have not had to go to hospital. They’re helpful for those recovering from surgery or injury, to reduce swelling, and in helping increase blood circulation. And people with chronic joint pain, like arthritis, will be able to sleep in a position that takes pressure off the problem joints. 

These days, adjustable beds are available for everyone. You can just imagine yourself lying down, propped up by the bed as you read or watch TV. The bed frames have hinges which allow for the sleeper to sit up either completely, or to recline at an angle. Some also allow for the sleeper to bend at the knees. Usually these beds use foam mattresses, but there are some innerspring mattresses which can be flexible enough to move with the frame. However, most spring mattresses are not compatible with it, and foam mattresses that are too dense or thick may pose difficulties.

Organic / Natural

Natural mattresses can have wool, organic cotton, natural latex, coconut coir, or sometimes even innersprings in the core layer, and this layer will be covered by a comfort layer that may be made out of something like organic cotton. Traditional mattresses are usually made with man-made fibers, polyfoam, latex, and innersprings in the core layer, and the comfort layers will usually comprise of polyester, or other synthetic covering. 

Of course, if the environmental impact of your mattress is a top priority for you, then you should probably strongly consider a natural mattress. In addition to that, natural mattresses have no off-gassing. Off-gassing is the smell that foams such as polyfoam and memory foam will release. For people who are sensitive to chemicals, a natural mattress is going to be helpful in avoiding harmful chemicals. However, because of the limitations in materials that can be used in a natural mattress, there is likely to be less customisation and choices on firmness available.

What is the most comfortable mattress?

Based on Queen sized beds, mattresses are priced from approximately $200 on the very budget end of the scale, to the luxury end at almost $27,000. But you don’t need to take out a mortgage for a good night’s sleep. The average price range for a Queen bed tends to range from around $750 – $1,800, so there is definitely comfort to be found at a reasonable price. 

Each individual will find certain things comfortable. A host of factors will influence what you’re looking for – your height, weight, sleeping position, among other things. As said above, choosing the best mattress for you, is about finding the best mattress “system” for your body within your budget. See tables below to see which mattress types will suit your individual circumstances best. 

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