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A Sleeper’s Guide to Memory Foam Mattresses

Bed with memory foam mattress
Photo by dada_design on Unsplash

A poor night’s sleep affects your overall health, mood, and brain performance. A sleeper’s guide to memory foam mattresses will help you understand what makes memory foam a good choice and how to choose the best mattress for you.

Defining Memory Foam

Memory foam was designed for astronauts in the 1960s. Its ability to absorb shock made turbulence more comfortable and cushioned the landings.

The biggest boon for memory foam came in the 90s when mattress companies began designing mattresses made of memory foam.

Viscoelasticity allows the memory foam to retain its shape and conform to the sleeper. Low-resistance polyurethane foam is used, and manufacturers add their special blend of additives and compounds to create their signature mattress.

Memory foam softens with body heat, enhancing its ability to hug your body in any position. Once you get off the mattress, it will return to its original form.

The Good, the Not-So-Good, and the VOCs

The Good

Memory foam has a lot of positive attributes. It’s hypoallergenic, comfortable, and supportive no matter how you sleep. Memory foam’s density supports your body, helping maintain good body alignment throughout the night.

Many people feel an improvement in pain after sleeping on memory foam. The foam cleans easily with warm soapy water and a cloth. The best part is your partner will get a good night’s sleep because the foam absorbs the motion while you get in and out of bed and move about.

The Not-So-Good

For all its great qualities, some not-so-good attributes may deter some from choosing memory foam.

Memory foam is heavy. Making the bed or moving will be more difficult. Memory foam holds body heat, making the sleeper warmer. It can also be expensive, especially when choosing a higher-quality mattress. Memory foam is not water resistant. For this reason alone it is not a good choice for children.


VOC or Volatile Organic Compounds create an odor when exposed to air. This is known as off-gassing. It is an odor you notice when opening the mattress and can last from a few hours to a few days.

The mattress industry has a certification called CertiPur-US that ensures the off-gassing is at its safest standards and free of toxic substances.

Memory foam Layers
Image by luigicora from Pixabay

Anatomy of a Memory Foam Mattress

Most memory foam mattresses are made of three layers.

Core Layer - Think of this as a box spring with stiffer foam for springs. It is the largest layer and is the most supportive. The core gives the memory foam mattress its stability.

Hybrid mattresses that feature innerspring will use the core layer to house the springs.

Transition Layer - This layer is the transitioner between the firmer core layer and the softer memory foam you sleep on. It is comprised of one to several layers depending on the manufacturer. It is not as hard as the core layer but stiffer than the soft comfort layer.

The Comfort Layer - This layer is the one most of us are concerned about. This layer should be comfortable, supportive, and contouring to your body.

Heat-wicking mattresses use the comfort layer to remove body heat for a cooler night’s sleep.

Key Qualities of a Memory Foam Mattress

  • Pressure Adaptation

As you change your position on the mattress, the foam readjusts to your body pressure ensuring the mattress supports your neck, hips, shoulders, and back.

  • Contour

Memory foam hugs the curves of your body. It contours to the areas on the foam, whether you are on your back, stomach, or side.

  • Slope

The slope is the point in the mattress where your body sinks into foam. This enables it to contour to your body in the most supportive way.

Some Things You’ll Need to Know

No sleeper’s guide to memory foam is complete without mentioning what you need to know to pick the best mattress.

Mattress Firmness - Memory foam mattresses offer a wide variety of firmness. Firmness is measured by ILD or Indentation Load Deflection ratings. This is the number of pounds it takes to make an indentation in a mattress.

There is an ILD rating for each layer and a rating for the mattress. A softer mattress may score an ILD of 10, with a much firmer mattress having an ILD of 50.

Mattress Thickness - Thickness is a side-to-side measurement of the mattress. Most mattresses have a thickness range of six to fourteen inches. Thickness doesn’t affect a mattress's density, but it affects how well the foam will support your body.

Mattress Density - Density is the amount of foam that makes up each mattress layer. Density affects how hot the mattress is when you sleep and translates into how well you sleep if the foam holds heat.

Manufacturers measure density in cubic feet, with 1.5 to 2.5 being the lowest and 4-8 cubic feet being the highest. High-density foam mattresses usually last longer and offer the most support. They are also more durable than a less dense mattress. Remember the denser the foam, the heavier it is!

Layers of Gel Memory Foam Mattress
Image courtesy of Home Depot

Memory Foam Mattresses By Type

  • Gel Foam Mattress

These mattresses have gel beads, though lesser quality mattresses may have actual gel (in a jelly form) in them. The gel wicks body heat and comes in two varieties.

Phase-Changing foam absorbs and releases body heat to maintain a steady body temp.

Heat-Absorbing gel cools the bed’s surface to eliminate the heat.

  • Traditional Mattress

These were the first memory foam mattresses and are still manufactured today. These are known for being “hot” to sleep on. Today's mattresses have cooling innovations to eliminate heat.

  • Open-cell Mattresses

These mattresses have open-cell foam or cooling pockets that allow the mattress’s heat to dissipate.

Choosing the Right Mattress

Our sleeper’s guide to memory foam mattresses should give you a better understanding of memory foam mattresses so you can choose the best mattress for a good night’s sleep. Before ordering your mattress, go to a showroom and try a few out. Laying on a mattress is the best way to feel how the mattress will contour and support your body!

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