The decision to buy a mattress comes once every ten to fifteen years. It is not an easy one because your decision will determine how you feel every day for the next ten to fifteen years. You will need to decide whether you want springs, foam, or air. All three support types will need to be “dressed” by layers of foam in order to provide the comfort you prefer. The choices are memory foam, latex foam, and polyurethane foam. Your choice will need to be based upon your comfort needs relative to pressure, your comfort relative to temperature, your allergies, your sense of smell, and your motion transfer sensitivity. The choices are many. The confusion is mind boggling. The cost factor of each may be the ultimate determining factor for you. I hope to dispel your fears and to ease you into a more educated buying decision… one that will grant you the good night’s rest that you deserve for at least the next ten years.
Polyurethane foam is by far the least expensive alternative of the three choices. Some hotels use these cheap mattresses on their beds. They do so to save money but I wonder if that goal is ever achieved for them. The solid-core polyurethane foam is never very comfortable and hotels that use them cannot be interested in return business. Bunk beds in the past often came with these mattresses, but today’s market demands a price for the necessary add-on. Usually these 4 inch slices of sheet foam sell for $99 to $139. Most people do not find polyurethane foam comfortable enough to sleep on for any extended period of time, but this type of foam is found in almost all mattresses. It is most often used as a support layer under the softer “comfort” foams residing near the surface of the mattress. Polyurethane foam is a petroleum based product and as such it does “off gas.” The smell or “off gassing” may last as long as a few weeks. People sensitive to smells often report severe headaches or rashes during the “break-in” period. This type of foam is the predominant type of foam used in the production of furniture cushions.
Memory foam or “visco-elastic” foam has become one of the hottest selling segments of the mattress industry. Tempur-Pedic© bought the rights from NASA to develop the foam for mattress applications. NASA had intended to use it to alleviate the gravitational forces experienced during take-offs and landings. Some say it was intended for the dashboards of the shuttle and others say it was intended for the cockpit seats. NASA never used it and speculation is that the off-gassing of this petro-chemical product in the confined quarters of space flight may have been the reason. Tempur-Pedic© marketed their first memory foam mattress in 1991 in Sweden. It instantly became the mattress of choice in Europe. Their success in Europe dictated expansion to the U.S., where it now leads the “spring-free” segment of the mattress industry. Just about everyone in the bedding business today includes memory foam products.
Memory foam’s greatest advantage is its ability to conform to the body without creating pressure. It has been used at burn centers throughout the world for that reason. People with extreme sensitivity to pressure should welcome the inclusion of memory foam in their mattress. Another great advantage to memory foam is its ability to dampen motion transfer. Before its existence separate beds were the only solution for people who couldn’t sleep due to the movements of their partners. The third benefit of memory foam its unique ability to provide straight spinal alignment. Memory foam is open celled foam. As the body lies down, the heavier parts of your body (shoulders and hips) compress or deflate the cells, allowing the foam to provide the natural straight spinal alignment necessary for muscle relaxation. When your spine is not aligned properly muscles are pulling (working) to straighten the spine. Pulling muscles are working muscles and working muscles become sore and stiff until they are rested.
The quality of memory foam is measured by its density. The density is measured in pounds per cubic foot. Memory foam ranges from 2.5 pounds to 7.0 lbs. per foot. The higher density foams take longer to recover and offer better support and performance. Look for at least a 4.5 lb. density rating, and be sure there is at least 2.5 to 3.0 inches of memory foam on top of your base foam or support layers. The thicker the memory foam layer and the denser the memory foam, the more expensive the mattress will be. Prices for the highest quality queen size sets go for well over $7000.
Three disadvantages of memory foam are heat, longer break-in periods, and off-gassing. If you are a “warm” sleeper, stay away from memory foam. The foam is very dense; it cradles your body; and it holds your body heat against you. The air channels underneath, offered by some as a solution to this concern, do very little to help alleviate this problem. The cradling of the body can sometimes bother people in that they find it difficult to roll over or to turn in the mattress. It does take more effort and that effort will sometimes wake you, but the argument is that the memory foam will drastically reduce your tossing and turning and will therefore increase your “quality of sleep.” The second negative, often not covered by the poorly trained salesperson, is the rather long break-in period for a memory foam mattress. When it is delivered, it will feel much firmer than the one you tried in the store. If it is delivered in the winter, it will be even worse. The colder the temperature, the harder the memory foam will feel. To break the mattress in quicker, it is a good idea to take off your shoes and socks, and walk on your mattress on your hands and knees. During the manufacturing process, the open cells of the foam become coated by a film. Until the film is broken and the cells are opened, the mattress will feel very firm. Motion and use will break your mattress in, but it may take as long as 3 to 4 weeks for your mattress to really get comfortable. The final negative of memory foam is its strong smell or “off-gassing” when new. The smell is a formaldehyde type of smell which may take as long as two weeks to dissipate. Opening windows and stripping the mattress during the day to air it out should speed the process.
Natural latex is an especially good choice if you are sensitive to “off-gassing.” Natural latex is a hypo-allergenic material resistant to the growth of molds, mildew, and bacteria. A 100% natural latex mattress will not “off-gas,” but very few mattresses are 100% natural. Many so-described 100% natural latex mattresses have polyurethane edge support systems or base foams and those that do will “off-gas.” A 100% natural queen size mattress set will cost around $2000 to $3000 dollars and it should last fifteen to twenty years.
Much is made of the processes used to make the latex: Talalay and Dunlop. Talalay is more expensive and it produces a more consistent product from top to bottom. It uses a flash-freeze process to keep the foam from settling. It produces softer, more contouring, and pressure-free than the Dunlop process. The Dunlop process does not flash-freeze and the resultant settling causes the foam to be a little firmer at the bottom. There is no data to prove that one process is better than the other. They are both excellent products, so select the one that is most comfortable.
Natural latex foam is sometimes feared because of allergic reactions to the animal protein in it. Most of the reported cases of latex allergies have been in the health industry and they have involved direct skin contact with gloves vulcanized outside the U.S. The manufacturing process in the U.S. involves washing to remove the reaction causing proteins. The latex layer that you would be sleeping on will be covered by a fiber material (usually wool or silk), a mattress protector (should be used on all mattresses), and a good quality high thread count sheet. The chances are pretty slim for allergic reactions, but if you know you have a severe allergy to latex, stay away from it.
Latex mattresses have a little more “spring” to them, so they are much easier to turn over in. The motion transfer is more pronounced than in the memory foam mattresses, but it is still less than in the polyurethane options. Natural latex mattresses will last longer than their memory foam counterparts and their owners will usually repeat the purchase when the time comes to replace them.
Whether you choose memory foam or latex foam, the most important things to look for when selecting your mattress are comfort in the position you spend most of your time in (the position you wake-up in) and straight spinal alignment. Take your time; shop for comfort, and shop for sleep. Your quality of life depends on your “good night’s rest.”