Memory Foam Mattress Technologies Compared
The composition of memory foam mattresses is continuously evolving, with new formulations emerging all the time. As a consumer, you are left wondering how to choose the best mattress out of all of these options. There are three main categories: traditional, plant-based and gel. Some of your choice will come down to personal preference, but it is easier to choose if you understand the differences between these types and how they perform.
In spite of the variety in this industry, memory foam beds consistently get higher satisfactions ratings from consumers than any other type of mattress. Memory foam is simply better at conforming to body shape and relieving pressure points than spring mattresses.
At one time, memory foam was too costly for many people even to consider buying. New manufacturing techniques as well as competition have brought the price down on many of these models. Because so many options now exist, trying to digest all the information and make a choice can be a bit overwhelming. The purpose of this article is to help you understand the important points so that you can choose the right mattress for you.
There are a number of factors to take into account when you’re shopping for a mattress. To narrow it down a bit, let’s look into traditional, plant-based and gel-infused mattresses in detail.
- Traditional memory foam is the formula that has been around for a little over 20 years now. It’s made of petroleum products, and the process hasn’t changed much since it was first introduced.
- Gel, or gel-infused memory foam came along more recently, and combines traditional memory foam with gel. This gel is sometimes infused through the entire mattress and sometimes (especially in the case of pillows) contained in a single layer.
- Plant-based memory foam came about when manufacturers tried to address some of the shortcomings of traditional memory foam: VOC release, rate of response, and heat buildup. The plant-based formulas have much bigger cell structures, allowing for more breathability.
Here are some of the common issues and concerns about memory foam, and how each mattress type fares with each issue:
Odor and Off-Gassing
VOCs, or Volatile Organic Compounds are carbon-based chemicals that are released by evaporation at normal room temperature. These gases have an unpleasant odor and have even been linked to health problems. The odor diminishes over time, but off-gassing is still one of the biggest concerns with memory foam mattresses.
How do the different mattress types stack up when it comes to off-gassing?
- The petrochemicals used in traditional memory foam contain and release 61 different chemicals. 18 of these are of concern to international and state agencies because of potential health problems. Between 5 and 15 percent of customers report disliking the odor, making this a fairly common complaint in reviews.
- Gel memory foam isn’t as well understood as traditional foam. The gel itself hasn’t been tested thoroughly, so we can only really speak about the memory foam itself with confidence about its composition. Most manufacturers use traditional memory foam in their gel foam mattresses, so the chemical profile is most likely similar. Some of the gel-infused brands receive fewer complaints about the odor from customers.
- Plant-based memory foam is possible to manufacture with low levels of VOCs depending what process the manufacturer uses. Some proportion of the petrochemical products normally used in memory foam is replaced by plant-based ingredients. In some cases, the manufacturers also try to use adhesives and foam ingredients that have little to no output of VOCs. These mattresses may still smell “new” but this odor isn’t made up of dangerous chemicals at least.
Sleeping Hot/Retaining Heat
Between 8 and 10 percent of traditional memory foam bed owners have mentioned discomfort due to heat being trapped and released by the mattress. This article comparing memory foam beds describes this process in detail, in case you are interested in a technical explanation of the problem.
Excess heat is a real concern with some of these beds; there’s nothing worse than trying to sleep when you feel too hot. Manufacturers have tried various techniques to reduce this heat retention, with mixed results.
- More complaints are directed at traditional memory foam than at the other types, yet the manufacturing methods have not changed in response to these complaints. A few manufacturers have tried cutting holes into the foam, while others have used a complex layering system, but the improvement has been minimal.
- Gel memory foam generally gets fewer complaints about heat, but companies like Tempurpedic and Cargill (which make traditional and plant-based mattresses respectively) have challenged and disproven claims that gel memory foam “sleeps cooler.” The gel is supposed to conduct the ambient heat away from the surface, which gives a slight initial benefit. Eventually, however, the gel heats up to body temperature.
- Plant-based brands like Amerisleep make mattresses that have a ten-fold improvement in breathability compared to traditional memory mattresses, giving an overall temperature improvement of 25 percent compared to gel. The open-celled structure of the plant-based foam helps with breathability, and the temperature-neutral quality of the materials prevents trapping of heat.
Response Time, or “Getting Stuck”
This refers to how long it takes the memory foam to remold itself when you move, and it depends on several factors. Changeable viscosity, composition, resilience and elasticity all influence a bed’s response time. A mattress with a slow response time is likely to get more complaints than a faster mattress. People may feel like they’re sinking or trapped, and this feeling is not conducive to sexual enjoyment. Each of the leading brands has been measured for its response time, and here are the results:
- Tempurpedic, the traditional memory foam – 45 to 60 seconds
- Gel-infused memory foams – 30 to 45 seconds
- Amerisleep, a plant-based foam – 5 to 8 seconds.
If you’re older or have reduced mobility, it can be hard to get out of bed when your mattress has a slow response time. This might be a deal-breaker for you, depending on your situation. Sleeping on the wrong mattress can worsen any back problems and mobility issues you already have.
Durability and Density
There can be a wide range of durability even if you look at a single manufacturer. The density of memory foam is measured in pounds per cubic foot. A memory foam that weighs less than 4 pounds is not likely to last, and is thus considered low-quality. A weight of more than 5.3 pounds is likely to be uncomfortable if the layer is thick. The sweet spot is found between 4.5 and 5.3 pounds, giving you the perfect balance of durability and comfort. This is how some of the brands compare regarding density:
- Amerisleep is #1, with a density range of 4.5 to 5.3 pounds if you look at the entire line. This happens to be the perfect range.
- Tempurpedic is in second place, with a density range of 3 pounds (found in the Flex and Weightless lines) to 7 pounds (found in the Grandbed and Contour lines).
- In third place is the Serti iComfort gel-infused mattress line, with a density range between 3 and 4 pounds. There is some concern about uneven wear due to the mattresses’ composition, but because this is a new product it can be hard to find a large number of verifiable reviews at this point.
Striking a balance between comfort and durability is crucial. A too-soft mattress may feel comfortable but it won’t last, and a sturdy, long-lasting mattress may not feel comfortable. Look for something in the Goldilocks zone between these extremes.
Value for Money
When you’re shopping for a memory foam bed, no matter which type you decide to buy, you need to take price and value into account. Serta and Tempurpedic beds tend to be in the upper range, with the lowest-priced models costing about 1150 and 1500 dollars respectively if you buy the queen size. The Tempurpedic bed in this range has a density of just 2 to 4 pounds, and the Serta’s density is 4 pounds. The Amerisleep queen-sized mattresses start at 849 dollars, with a durable and supportive density of 4.5 pounds. This bed has also been demonstrated to be cooler and free from harmful VOCs.
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What you consider to be good value will depend on your own priorities. Some of us look for the best price, while others feel better about a trusted brand name. The comparisons in this article are meant to make you aware of some of the biggest issues and indicators of quality that can help you evaluate your options when you shop.
Your own preferences, needs and tastes will be your best guide to choosing the right bed, once you have the correct information. Make a list of the qualities you care about the most, and take a hard look at the specifications of any mattress you’re considering buying. This is a purchase that should last you for many years. Now you know enough about memory foam beds to make an informed, appropriate choice.