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Homes & Gardens
Homes & Gardens
Emilia Hitching

Mattress types explained: your expert guide to the best beds

A Tempur-Pedic Luxe Adapt Soft Mattress on a bed against green walls and windows with a garden view.

There are four major mattress types: memory foam; hybrid; latex; and innerspring. If you've ever tried shopping for a mattress, whether online or in-store, then you will have come across these terms, but you still might not know exactly what they mean.

My expert guide should tell you everything you need to know about mattress types, from how they're made to what they cost, so that you can work out which bed meets your sleep needs. I've included commentary from mattress store managers, who know what customers want; medical professionals, who know the difference a good bed can make to our sleep quality; and fellow mattress testers, who have hands-on experience with all the best beds.

I'm a shopping writer, not a salesperson. I'm not going to try and sell you a bed that won't meet your needs. That's why I've outlined the pros and cons of each mattress type, so that you can decide which bed would make the best mattress for you.

Mattress types: an expert guide

A mattress is a major investment. You should prepare to spend upwards of $600 to get a Queen-sized mattress that's worth its salt. With that said, you could always try to save a few hundred dollars in the mattress sales.

Memory foam

(Image credit: Nectar)

Best for: side sleepers and light sleepers
plush comfort and pressure relief
traps heat, less durable

Before we begin, it always helps to define our terms. A memory foam mattress is made from polyurethane, which responds to the shape, size, and temperature of each sleeper and molds to meet their needs.

Derek Hales, founder of the sleep testing platform Nap Lab, has personally sampled dozens of memory foam mattresses. He appreciates the comfort of a memory foam mattress, which 'provides deeper contour and body hug. Memory foam lowers the amount of bounce and motion transfer compared to the average mattress.' That's good news for light sleepers and anyone who shares a bed with a pet or partner: you're less likely to be disturbed by their tossing and turning.

Derek also thinks that 'side sleepers who like to sink deeper into their beds will enjoy this type of surface'. Memory foam is made to bear your weight and cushion your joints, absorbing pressure from your hips, knees, neck, and shoulders. So many of the best mattresses for side sleepers are made from memory foam.

However, I wouldn't recommend a memory foam mattress for hot sleepers: all that dense foam leaves little room for air to flow. If you're set on a memory foam mattress, but you tend to sleep hot, then you should look out for cooling gel infusions or pair your bed with the best cooling sheets.

In his decade as a mattress tester, Derek has found that 'memory foam struggles to remain supportive, especially for heavier-weighted sleepers over 250lbs. This lack of support can also exist along the edge of the mattress,' which is bad news for stomach sleepers and anyone who prefers to lie on the side of the bed. Your average memory foam mattress will only last for 6 to 8 years: then, you'll need to start your search all over again.

The best memory foam mattress should feel soft, yet supportive. These are a few of our favorites, after months and years of testing. We assess each mattress against the same criteria: comfort; support; cooling properties; motion isolation; edge support; and weight bearing capacity. I'd expect a memory foam mattress to score highly for comfort, motion isolation, and weight bearing capacity, but fall down on the cooling count.


(Image credit: Tempur-Pedic)

Best for: hot sleepers and anyone who suffers from chronic pain
Pros: breathable and supportive
Cons: expensive and heavy

A hybrid mattress is a composite of a classic innerspring and modern memory foam. You get all the plush comfort of thick foam, with the enhanced airflow and support of innerspring coils.

As a licensed chiropractor, Dr. Brent Wells understands the impact of a hybrid mattress on our spinal alignment, as well as our sleep quality. He would recommend a hybrid mattress 'for individuals with back pain, as it provides adequate spinal support while offering cushioning to relieve pressure points'.

'The zoned support offered by many hybrid mattresses helps to maintain proper spinal alignment,' explains Dr. Brent. 'This feature is crucial for individuals suffering from conditions like herniated discs, sciatica, and chronic lower back pain, as it helps reduce strain on the spine and promotes better sleep posture'. That's why hybrid mattresses are better for back pain than your average foam mattress.

When it comes to cooling, there's no contest between hybrid vs memory foam mattresses. 'Hybrid mattresses generally have better airflow due to the presence of innerspring coils,' says Dr. Brent. That'll be those innerspring coils, which boost breathability as they compress and depress beneath your body weight. Dr. Brent says that 'improved thermoregulation can enhance sleep quality and aid musculoskeletal recovery.'

If you're in the market for a hybrid mattress, Dr. Brent urges you to pay extra attention to the firmness of your bed, which 'can vary significantly between brands and models. An ill-suited firmness level can cause discomfort, potentially exacerbating back and neck pain rather than alleviating it.' It might be worth learning how to test a mattress in-person or taking advantage of a mattress sleep trial to assess comfort and support at home.

One practical point: hybrid mattresses are heavy. The combined weight of thick foam and steel coils might prove too much to maneuver if you live alone. Still, you'll only need to flip or rotate your mattress once every couple of years. It's not worth missing out on some of the best beds on the market.


(Image credit: PlushBeds)

Best for: eco-conscious shoppers
Pros: breathable, durable, sustainable
Cons: expensive and heavy

If you're keen to shop sustainably, then you should consider a latex mattress. 'Latex mattresses are made from natural rubber, which is biodegradable and a more sustainable option,' explains Andy Bloom, long-time mattress salesman and owner of the Home Mattress Center in Wilmington, Delaware.

Almost all of the best organic mattress contenders are made from latex. As mattress materials go, latex is highly breathable, springy and responsive, made to bear your weight then spring right back into shape. I'd recommend a latex mattress for hot sleepers and anyone who prefers a firmer surface to maintain proper spinal alignment (looking at you, back and stomach sleepers).

'Another pro of latex mattresses is that they are highly durable and can last significantly longer than other mattresses without losing shape or comfort,' says Andy. When you compare latex vs memory foam mattresses, latex beds are almost four times more durable: we're talking a 20-year lifespan as opposed to six years.

Andy also notes that 'latex mattresses have a higher price tag than other mattresses'. If you're buying on a budget, you should narrow your search to the best affordable mattress or wait for a deep discount in the mattress sales.


(Image credit: Naturepedic)

Best for: firm support
Pros: breathable and pressure-relieving
Cons: prone to motion transfer

Your average American home still has at least one innerspring mattress. These traditional models still have a lot to offer in this day and age − the best firm mattress is an innerspring.

According to Drew Miller, VP of Marketing at Sit'n'Sleep mattress stores, 'innerspring mattresses offer similar support and relief as hybrid mattresses.' If anything, an innerspring is more breathable than a hybrid bed, since there isn't any foam to interrupt the airflow. 'However, even the best innerspring mattress won't have the additional pressure-relieving benefits of memory foam.'

There are two types of innersprings: those with individually wrapped coils and those without. Drew prefers closed coils, 'which reduce the amount of motion transferred throughout the bed,' so that you can sleep undisturbed with a pet or partner. 'Open coils,' by contrast, 'transfer more motion and tend to wear more quickly.'

An innerspring isn't fashionable, but Derek thinks it's a great choice 'for those who suffer from back pain or need a firm level of support. Depending on the quality of the mattress, innersprings may be more prone to sagging, as well as wear and tear.'

You'd be hard-pressed to find a true innerspring in a specialist sleep store. Your best bet is the Naturepedic Chorus: it's made from entirely organic materials and offers medium-firm support to suit back and stomach sleepers.

Mattress types FAQs

Which are the best mattress types?

Which mattress type is best all depends on your sleep style: that's a catch-all term that covers your sleep position (how you lie on a bed); your sleep temperature (whether you run hot or cold); and your sleep circumstance (whether you suffer from chronic pain, for example, or whether you're particularly stressed).

Hot sleepers need a cooling mattress, front sleepers need a firmer mattress, and so on. For more information about how to choose a mattress, consult our expert guide.

Which are the most common mattress types?

Right now, the mattress market is saturated with memory foam models, and it's not hard to see why: they're comfortable, convenient, and cost-effective. If you asked around your neighborhood, though, you'd likely find that most people still own an innerspring mattress. An innerspring might not feel quite as comfortable as a memory foam mattress, but it's breathable and durable: you could sleep on it for a decade or more.

Final thoughts

Once you've bought the best bed, it's important to take good care of it. One of the best mattress protectors should keep you safe from spills and stains and it will only set you back a hundred dollars or so.

If you'd love a new bed, but you just can't afford it, then you could always get one of the best mattress toppers, instead. That way, you can transform the look and feel of your bed for a fraction of the price of a new mattress.

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