What is a Memory Foam Mattress? Is it The Right Choice?

Not many things in this life are more important than getting high-quality sleep. If you’ve been having trouble with this, maybe it’s time to consider changing your mattress. This could make all the difference in your quest to get restful sleep, especially if you have an old and outdated mattress model.

What if you could have a bed that conforms to your body, letting you sink into it and feel like you’re sleeping on a cloud. No more back pain, sciatica, or joint aches. That’s what you can get with the right memory foam mattress. There are a few disadvantages too, though, so keep reading to see if this is the solution for you.

What is Memory Foam?

Even though nowadays we associate memory foam with pillows and mattresses, it was initially invented by NASA back in the 1970s to be used by astronauts in their space exploits. More specifically, it was intended to ease the strain that astronauts feel when being subjected to high G forces. It was never used in this capacity, however, instead of ending up in airplanes with the task of increasing passengers’ and pilots’ chances of survival in the event of a crash.

Its visco-elastic properties make the foam perfect for when you need something to conform to the curves of the body while isolating motion. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t take long for mattress manufacturers to realize the potential of this ‘space foam,’ and it has taken over the industry by storm. There have been many modifications and improvements made to the classic foam over the years to create the many versions of the material that we have today.

Memory Foam Material: What is it Made of?

Not too different from other foams you might have lying around your house, memory foam is a chemically manufactured product. The main difference between it and the foam in your kitchen sponge is that memory foam has a viscoelastic property. This means it softens and reacts when subjected to pressure and heat. We see it all over the place in mattresses, pillows, and toppers, but what is memory foam exactly?

Memory foam includes a wide array of chemical compounds. These days each mattress brand uses a different process and materials from different countries and suppliers. What this means is that not all memory foams are created equal, and they all have slight differences in terms of formula and chemical composition. Another thing to note is that foams made in the US will be made under a different set of standards compared to one made in China, for example. 

All that being said, the process does share many key similarities, which is unsurprising because the end-product is roughly the same no matter where it comes from. Most importantly, memory foam is made using polyols, isocyanates, and water. Examples of polyols include petroleum, glycerin, as well as plant-based derivatives. The most commonly used isocyanates are methylene diphenyl diisocyanate and toluene diisocyanate. These are usually combined with some reactant, which sparks the process of creating an open cell structure. It’s usually done on a conveyor belt, and the materials are added by spraying.

After the aerating process is complete, the foams are poured into molds and allowed to cool and dry. When it comes to creating standard memory foam, that’s the entire process. However, this is when different manufacturers use different gels and materials to infuse the foam creating discrepancies in firmness, feel, and cooling properties.

Different Types

As we mentioned just above, there are many different subtypes of memory foam, and each manufacturer seems to have developed its own variant, which differs slightly from the rest. However, there are three main types that we’re going to discuss here. These are Traditional, Open Cell and Gel memory foams.

  • Traditional

As its name suggests, this is the first type of viscoelastic foam ever introduced to the market. It’s what we think of nowadays when we say ‘standard memory foam.’ If you’ve ever slept on a memory foam bed, you know what this foam feels like. It hugs and envelops you as you sleep, contouring, and molding to the shape of your body. 

The problem that sparked the creation of the other two types of foam we’re going to talk about in a second is the fact that this kind of memory foam tends to retain heat and make the sleeper feel trapped in the mattress.

  • Open Cell

The first way to solve the aforementioned problem of heat came in the form of Open Cell memory foam. This was invented as a way to help people remain cool during the night while experiencing all the benefits of traditional foam. 

Open Cell simply means that the interior structure of the mattress has air pockets allowing for improved heat dissipation and airflow. The downside is that this hollow space within the bed makes the surface less dense, which affects longevity and firmness.

  • Gel

Gel-infused foam uses the natural cooling properties of gel to relieve the issue of heat dissipation and regulate the temperature of the sleeper during the night. There are two variants of this foam available out there. Firstly, we have phase-changing gel, which wicks heat away from you by absorbing it at one end and releasing it at the other. 

The other type is called simply heat-absorbing gel. This material is usually placed in one of the transition layers of the mattress and draws your heat to itself during the night, keeping it away from the top layer of the bed.

Is a Memory Foam Mattress the Right Choice for You?

There are many factors at play when you’re trying to decide whether a memory foam mattress would be the right choice for you. Many types and subtypes of beds exist out there, and picking the exact right one for you is a challenge. In this article, we’re going to delve deep into the pros and cons of memory foam, as well as the potential reasons why it may or may not be right for you.

If you want to get a high-quality mattress, memory foam is far from the only option. There are individually-wrapped coil solutions, latex mattresses, and hybrids that combine two or even all three of these variants. We’re focusing primarily on memory foam beds today, mostly because they are the most popular option, due to a variety of factors such as price and marketing, as well as the comfort they provide, of course.

Pros and Cons of Memory Foam

As we mentioned above, we’re going to get into the nitty-gritty of why memory foam may or may not be a good choice for you, and that means dealing with the most notable advantages and disadvantages of the material. We think that, overall, the pros outweigh the cons when it comes to memory foam, but it’s ultimately up to you to decide which surface would suit you best.

Advantages

Pressure Relief

We couldn’t hope to talk about the advantages of memory foam as a sleeping surface without mentioning its arguably most important feature – pressure point relief. If you’ve done any research trying to find a viscoelastic bed in the past, you’ve probably run into this sequence of words a lot. But what does it actually mean?

The simplest way to think of it is this – memory foam conforms to your body and absorbs some of the pressure you’d otherwise be feeling on the parts of your body pressing against the mattress the hardest. 

Imagine sleeping on the floor on your side. Your hips and shoulders would be carrying most of your weight, which means you’d not only wake up confused as to what you were doing sleeping on the floor in the first place, but you’d also probably be in a lot of pain in those areas. These are what we call pressure points, and because a memory foam bed lets you sink into it, these pressure points get to share their load with the rest of your body, which segues neatly into our next category.

Pain Relief

You might think we’ve just covered this, but pressure relief and pain relief do not necessarily mean the same thing. It’s more a case of cause and effect, with pain relief often manifesting itself as a result of pressure relief. This isn’t always the case, however, since pain can be associated with things other than pressure point agitation. 

For people suffering from fibromyalgia or arthritis, sinking deeper into the mattress simply isn’t going to cut it. It’s going to be helpful, sure, but the bed is going to have to do more than that if it wants to alleviate their symptoms. 

Thankfully, memory foam mattresses do a great job of simulating what it might feel like to sleep on a cloud, which is how many arthritis patients describe the experience compared to other types of beds. This means they feel less contact with the surface, and the alignment of their bodies remains neutral which helps a lot.

Allergy Protection

Doctors often prescribe memory foam mattresses and pillows to those suffering from dust mite, pollen or mold allergies. This is simply because these potentially harmful materials and organisms don’t have a lot of room to work with in memory foam. 

The layers of memory foam beds are tightly packed and dense, despite the fluffiness they can generate. Also, most manufacturers nowadays infuse their mattresses with hypoallergenic compounds on top of avoiding using allergens such as feathers and wool in the production process.  

Some memory foam mattresses have holes and channels within them for promoting airflow. These can serve as breeding grounds for mold and dust mites, so they will require an added level of care if you hope to avoid these pests altogether. If you have a severe dust mite allergy, we’d suggest avoiding those aerated models in the first place.

Spinal Alignment and Back Support

We mentioned spinal alignment earlier when we discussed people with back problems, sciatica, and arthritis, but they are not the only ones who need to worry about keeping their spine in the neutral position when they sleep. In fact, this should be the most important consideration for most people when it comes to mattress selection. 

You’ve heard it before – we spend a third of our lives sleeping. It may be a worn-out phrase, but that doesn’t make it any less accurate. When you’re lying down, your spine should maintain a similar form as when you’re standing up. 

If you sleep on the wrong surface, your spine is likely to get all jumbled up, creating not only immediate consequences in the form of back pain in the morning but more significant problems down the line. Thankfully, the contouring properties of memory foam do a great job of avoiding these problems by putting your spine in a neutral position, whether you’re on your back, your side or your stomach.

The best way to figure out if your current mattress is by keeping your spine out of alignment is to take a picture of your back while lying on your side. You’re probably going to need help for this unless you’ve got a tripod for your camera. Once you’ve got the picture, take a look at the angle your spine is resting at. It should be as horizontal as possible, so if your shoulders or hips are sinking too deep or resting too high, it’s time to get a different bed.

Another thing to remember when looking for a memory foam bed is the firmness and density of its comfort layer. This is a bit difficult to figure out if you’re ordering your bed from the internet because everyone has a different firmness preference, but you can check out some of our reviews and guides to get a clearer picture. Thankfully, most manufacturers nowadays offer long trial periods and free shipping, so you can feel free to try out any bed and see if it suits you.

Motion Isolation

One of the more prominent highlights and advantages of a memory foam bed is its ability to isolate motion. This means your partner won’t feel any of your tossing and turning during the night, and you can safely get up for that midnight snack without waking them up. 

If you’ve ever seen one of those ads with a glass of wine on one side of the bed and kids jumping on the other without spilling the wine, that’s what motion isolation looks like in practice. 

You don’t need to try and recreate the experiment at home, because there are many ways it could go wrong, but you can enjoy the benefits of having a bed with no motion transfer regardless. 

Sleeping-Position Flexibility

Because of its cradling and contouring properties, memory foam is the ideal surface for combo sleepers (those who like to switch positions a lot during the night). We mentioned before that memory foam will give you the necessary support and spinal alignment no matter which position you choose, and while that’s true, there are a few things to remember. 

Firmness is an important factor here, so side sleepers will benefit more from a softer bed, while those who like to sleep on their stomach are going to need a firmer one. Back sleepers and combo sleepers will be happy with something in between. This is because side sleepers will want to sink into the bed more to get that spine alignment and pressure relief we talked about earlier.  

Stomach sleepers, on the other hand. will want to prevent their hips from sinking into the bed and create an unnatural curve to the spine. Combo sleepers will like the softness while they are on their side but will need a bit of bounce to be able to change positions without feeling trapped. 

Disadvantages

Price

The highest quality memory foam beds can cost a lot of money. A few years ago, you could get one only from the expensive showrooms and dealers, but recently many companies have decided to cut out the middleman and sell their products directly through the internet. 

The prices have therefore dropped significantly, but a top-of-the-line memory foam mattress will still set you back a thousand dollars or more. If you look around and do a bit of research, you can find good value in some cheaper mattresses as well, but they are still going to be more expensive than other mattress types.

Off-Gassing

What we call ‘off-gassing’ is the process in which volatile organic compounds (VOCs for short) are broken down as they come into contact with air and start emitting an odor from within the mattress. 

Most people don’t mind the smell as it reminds them of the smell of a new car, and the chemicals emitted are harmless in most cases. That being said, some people may suffer from allergic reactions, so it’s always a good idea to air out your bed for a few days after setting it up and allowing the smell to dissipate completely. If you want to sleep on your new bed the first night, that’s fine too, as there is no evidence of the smell having any long-term effects. 

The most effective way to deal with off-gassing is to look for a plant-based organic mattress. These beds are usually not treated with the same chemicals as regular memory foam mattresses, so there’s little to no odor involved. They are generally more expensive, though, so if you’re on a tight budget, that might be worth keeping in mind. Make sure to check out the reviews online as well to see what to expect from a mattress in terms of off-gassing. 

Heat Retention

As we mentioned at the beginning of this article, memory foam beds are generally not very good at regulating temperature and dissipating your body heat. For this reason, many customers complain about waking up in a sweat or feeling uncomfortably warm during the night. Aside from price and off-gassing, this is the most common complaint about viscoelastic mattresses. 

Recently, mattress manufacturers have become to take note of their customers’ complaints, and many include solutions such as gel-infused layers and air channels for promoting temperature regulation.

If you tend to sleep hot, this is a factor well worth considering, and perhaps extending your budget a bit to cover a mattress with some cooling properties.

FAQ

Are there any cheaper alternatives to memory foam?

If you like what you see when it comes to the benefits of memory foam, but don’t quite feel like spending a thousand dollars on a mattress, there might be a solution for you in reflex foam. This high-density polyurethane foam uses roughly the same materials as memory foam with some differences in its cell structure. 

The bubble structure of reflex foam makes it bouncier, meaning that you’ll still get the contouring of memory foam but perhaps not to the same extent. On the plus side, this foam will allow you to switch positions easier, which is excellent news for combo sleepers. Most importantly, it is a lot cheaper than standard memory foam.

How long can I expect my memory foam mattress to last?

Unfortunately, this question is difficult to answer for a few reasons. First of all, as we stated earlier, not all memory foam mattresses are created equal. Some are firmer and more durable, while others will start to sag after only a few months. 

The way to get the most for your money is doing your research beforehand as well as proper maintenance. We can help you with the research, but you’re going to have to take care of the maintenance and upkeep yourself. 

All jokes aside, a quality memory foam bed can last up to ten years with proper care, and shouldn’t start to show any signs of deterioration for at least five or six years. If you want to learn more about how long can memory foam mattresses last be sure to check out our detailed article about it.

Are memory foam beds safe for kids? What about those chemicals you mentioned?

Generally speaking, memory foam is safe for all ages. That being said, if you want to be extra careful, you might want to get your kids away from a new mattress for at least a few days. Some customers have reported their kids experiencing nausea, coughing, difficulty breathing as well as headaches from being exposed to the gases emitted by a new bed. 

Looking for an organic mattress for your kids might be a good idea, since their bodies are still developing, and exposure to any harmful chemicals could potentially have more severe consequences. Memory foam mattresses are still a relatively new concept, and there simply hasn’t been enough time to properly asses their effect on children’s development. Also, look for third-party certifications of material safety such as CertiPUR-US and Oeko-Tex.

Conclusion

Memory foam mattresses are taking the world by storm, and we seem to be getting a new model every few weeks. With the attention that they have been getting recently and the aggressive marketing campaigns by the industry leaders, it has been impossible to avoid the idea of getting one for yourself. 

If you have been thinking about making the switch but found yourself unsure about the benefits and disadvantages memory foam has to offer, hopefully this article helped you make up your mind. Make sure to take a look at our other articles for buying guides, reviews, comparisons and recommendations.

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