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Your style, preferences, and statistics - your preferences
Besides the comfort layers and the support layers of your mattress, there are a few other choices you will need to make to find your perfect mattress. These are not directly connected to comfort/pressure relief and support/spinal alignment but they can play a very important role in your choice of mattress. Here are a few of them and some comments that may help you decide on the final elements that your "perfect mattress" should be made of.
Breathability and Temperature Regulation:
There are some people who naturally sleep hotter than others and for some people this can be a real issue. In general, natural fibers and innersprings are the most breathable materials as the allow air to flow through them and evaporate any moisture. Wool is a good choice in the quilting of your mattress as it is very breathable and helps to regulate your temperature very well. Many people will also use wool as part of a mattress pad as this way it can be more easily replaced than a full mattress cover if it compresses and firms up your mattress a little too much. Bear in mind that any layer of natural fiber will tend to make the foam layers underneath them a little firmer, especially as they compress, however as long as it is not too thick this should not present real problem with higher quality materials and construction which are designed to delay the compression for as long as possible. Natural fibers and their many benefits in a quilting layer are often a good tradeoff for better temperature regulation and better quality sleep.
In terms of materials themselves, memory foam tends to sleep the hottest as it forms the deepest cradle and is not as open celled as other types of polyfoam which means that air does not flow through it as easily. Newer generation or "breathable" memory foams are better in this regard although they too are not as breathable as other foams. Polyurethane is the next most breathable foam and for those who sleep hot it presents fewer issues of temperature regulation. Dunlop latex is the next most breathable foam and is much more breathable and temperature regulating than polyfoam. Finally Talalay latex is the most breathable of all foams and rarely represents an issue for those who sleep hot. There are also special "formulations" of Talalay latex that have an added ingredient (Celsion is one of them) which improves temperature regulation even further. There are also several fabrics that are used in mattress ticking (CoolMax and Outlast are two of them) which can help to regulate temperature while sleeping on a mattress. Just be a little wary of "cooler sounding" labels attached to "hotter sleeping" materials.
Many people of course sleep with a partner and for some of those the movements of their partner can be disturbing and interrupt sleep. For these people memory foam, latex, and pocket coil innersprings are ideal as all of these do not tend to transfer movement to other areas of the mattress as much as other materials. Memory foam and latex in the comfort layers are the best of these and in the support layers latex or pocket coils are the better choices.
The size of your mattress is of course an important consideration for most people even though most of us well know that larger sizes are more expensive. A Queen size should be the smallest size you are considering if you sleep with a partner with King size giving you more room yet (each of you would have the same room as a single mattress with a King size). Two people sleeping on a full size mattress have less room each than a baby in a crib. For those who sleep alone then whatever size you feel gives you enough room and which is suitable for any possible near term changes in sleeping arrangements would of course be suitable. Keep in mind too that Single and King size mattresses are readily available in longer versions for those who are taller and Queen size is also available... though less common... in an extra long size.
This is often the most ignored part of a mattress and yet a good quality ticking can make a real difference in how a mattress feels and how long it lasts. In a foam mattress, a knitted stretchable ticking is usually the best as it does a better job of allowing a foam layer underneath to conform to your body shape. Natural fibers if desired can always be added as a mattress pad. Tighter mattress ticking will also add to the firmness of a mattress while looser ticking will allow any foam underneath to better conform. Circular knits or more stretchable materials are a good choice for those who want to sleep close to the foam underneath without affecting its performance. Also bear in mind that a quilting layer or mattress pad over memory foam will to some degree prevent your body heat from reaching the memory foam which will make it firmer and less able to form a cradle around you.
Beyond the importance of pressure relief and support, softness and/or firmness, especially in a comfort layer, is often a matter of personal taste and sensitivity and some people like to sleep more "in" a mattress and some like to sleep more "on" a mattress. If you are getting the pressure relief you need from your mattress, then you know the minimum softness and thickness you should have for a comfort layer. While mattresses with thinner comfort layers are easier to "get right" than thicker layers, many people prefer something that lets them sink in more deeply than they really "need" simply because they like the "cushy" feel. While it is important if you are using thicker comfort layers to choose materials that will not easily develop body impressions and break down prematurely, proper alignment is possible with any depth of comfort layer or cradle depending on the material and construction of what is underneath it. The belief that the firmest possible mattress is "better" has kept many people from purchasing their "perfect" mattress. It is also true however that softer preferences have led to the prevalence of cheaper and lower quality polyfoam in the comfort layers of many, and even most mattresses available from the better known larger outlets and this has led to the belief in many cases that "soft" is always bad. The truth is that "soft polyfoam" of lower grades is always bad, not the softness itself. Whether this is preferable to you is a matter of choice and not necessity and the "story" that firmer is always better is just not the case. Memory foam and soft latex are popular choices for people who like a "pillowtop" feel without the disadvantages of many of the pillowtop mattresses that are so commonly sold... and soon regretted.
How thick should my mattress be?
Generally this depends somewhat on weight. Thicker mattresses if properly constructed can provide a greater range of support for different sleeping positions... especially if you are on the heavier side. If you are very light... then thinner is fine. In an all latex mattress for example 6-7" would normally be fine for someone who was very light. For someone of average weight then 8-9" is usually fine and for someone who is heavier then an extra inch or two could make a difference especially if you sleep on your side. It would take a very heavy person (over 400 lbs) though to "bottom out" on even 8" of quality foam (except memory foam of course) and the greater thickness would not be for preventing bottoming out but to provide a wider range of comfort and support for a heavier person who slept in several positions. Bear in mind too that high profile innersprings which offer a greater range of support for combination sleepers can be 7" or more in height and with a quilting layer and 4" of foam on top you will have a mattress of about 12" so the type of layers inside will also play a role in the overall thickness of your mattress. 2 sided mattresses will also be thicker (and more desirable as they last longer) since they have a comfort layer on both sides however they make an excellent choice. It is a shame that they have become so much less common for the sake of higher profits and with the story attached of "less maintenance" when the story has so often led to premature wear in lower quality materials or constructions.
Tight top, Pillowtop, Eurotop?
If the material in a pillowtop or eurotop is a high quality foam or microcoils, then the only important part of deciding on a thicker layer on top would be its suitability in terms of pressure relief and support. As we discussed a little earlier, it is a little more difficult to get a thicker comfort layer "right" however if you have the pressure relief and alignment you need, then this too is a matter of preference. Most pillowtops and eurotops sold today unfortunately are made with either synthetic fibers which may compress and soft (and usually lower quality) polyurethane foam which may feel comfortable in the store but will likely soon be the source of body impressions and poor quality sleep so make sure you know what is in your pillowtop if you choose to go in that direction. I would avoid pillowtops and all "thick top" mattresses no matter what names they are given unless you know for sure that they contain high quality materials that will not be the source of problems in a very short time.
The quilting is the layer just under the outer fabric and over the comfort layers. It will generally be made of either a special supersoft polyurethane foam, natural fibers, or most commonly artificial fibers. Some of these like wool, silk, or latex may last a long time however I would certainly avoid any material that will tend to either break down or compress over time and take away the ability of your comfort layers to form a pressure relieving cradle. There are some materials that are used here that are more resistant to compression and are durable (some natural fibers like silk or horsehair, some down alternative fibers, quiltable latex, some memory foams, and some very high quality HR foams are examples) however I would be careful with this as the quilting layers of a mattress, like lower quality materials used in the comfort layers, can cause issues of body impression, reducing the response of foam underneath, and a reduced ability of memory foam to soften with heat and pressure.
This is a complex subject since the introduction of new fire retardancy laws however to keep it simple, I would choose either compressed or densified wool that has been tested to conform to the fire standards, or a silica impregnated cellulose fiber both of which are safe and relatively natural. I would certainly avoid if at all possible any chemicals that are impregnated in the ticking or upper layers of a mattress, especially if you can't pronounce them.
This is another controversial issue and has a better known component and a less well known component. The better known component is about the tendency of some foams to produce a smell or vapors which not only can smell quite bad but can also in some cases be toxic. It would be wise to make sure your mattress only contains foams that have been tested by an agency like OekoTex or Certi-Pur which tests both for offgassing and durability. The lesser known issue is caused by the breakdown of the foam into dust particles over time. With some foams this can cause some health concerns as well and I would make sure that any foam in your mattress comes from a known and reliable source.
Natural or Synthetic:
There is a lot of buzz in the industry these days about natural materials, green materials and practices, and even "organic" mattresses. Most of this information is more about greenwashing than it is about the truth. While the level of artificial or synthetic substances and of course toxic chemicals in most mattresses can be an important issue for many people, bear in mind that almost all the information you will read is advertising copy which has little relationship with the truth. If you are genuinely concerned about having only natural ingredients in your mattress, then quality innersprings, natural fibers which have been certified as natural or organic by a reputable or trusted third party organization, Dunlop or Talalay latex which has no SBR in it, organic quilting and ticking, and non chemical fire retardant methods or even no fire retardant layers with a doctor's prescription are the options open to you. Do not believe that any polyurethane or memory foam... even those with "soy bean" or "castor oil" polyols used to replace a small portion of the petrochemical ingredients are in any way natural. They are not. In the same way SBR while completely safe to use is also not a natural substance in a blended latex. Mattress tickings made of "bamboo" and many other mislabeled fabrics are also not in any way green or "natural" even though they may be very comfortable and part of them is made from a plant. Again... if you truly wish to have a natural mattress then your choices are limited to natural fibers, natural fire retardency methods, latex made completely from natural latex, innersprings, and organic ticking and quilting materials. All the rest is greenwashing. This topic is important enough for many people that we have included a separate page with more information in this section.
Of course sleeping is not the only thing we do on our mattress and it can be important to know how a mattress performs for the other activities that happen there. This is very much a matter of personal preference more than anything else but the most common "ratings" of mattresses here show that most people tend to prefer materials that are a little "springier" or "livelier" as they make movement, and "rhythm" on a mattress a little easier. Innersprings followed by Talalay latex are usually considered to be the two "springiest" materials.
So now that you have a few ideas that can transform your mattress from merely "good" to "great", in the next page we'll take a look at budget issues and choices of materials that are generally available for different budget ranges.