Once upon a time, I bought a memory foam mattress . and lived happily ever after. The end.
Let me elaborate: After enduring my partner’s 10-year-old pile of springs and threadbare padding for far too long, I put my foot down and insisted it was time for something new. And, while scouring the internet for reviews and deals, we kept stumbling across memory foam models—the types made by Casper, Leesa, and others, advertised like crazy and mostly sold online.
What is memory foam made from?
Memory foam is made from viscoelastic polyurethane foam. This material forms around you when you lie on it, similar to what happens when you lie in sand, distributing the pressure on your body evenly. Unlike sand, though, memory foam retracts to its original shape when you get up.
Memory foam was first created for NASA in 1966 for extra crash protection in airline seats. In the early 1980s, NASA released the foam into the public domain, and companies such as Tempur-Pedic, Casper, and Leesa soon birthed a whole mattress revolution with their memory foam bed-in-a-box, delivered to your door.
The many benefits of memory foam
Here are a few of the key benefits of a memory foam mattress:
- It helps align the spine. According to Allie Shaw of Reviews.org, “People who purchase memory foam are often looking to relieve back or joint pain while sleeping.” If that’s your situation, you’ll want to avoid the dreaded mattress sag underneath the hips, which causes your lower spine to tilt and strain for hours. Memory foam can help that because it contours to your body, hugging your heavier areas, so your back can stay aligned through your sleep.
- It reduces motion transfer. Memory foam doesn’t transfer your sleeping partner’s motion as much as an innerspring mattress does. If you’re single, this isn’t an issue. But say you sleep with someone who gets up every night at 2 a.m. for a drink of water. And say when that person wakes, he rolls and flops around like a walrus on dry land. And say you wake from a deep slumber because the entire bed is moving. Friends, I am here to tell you that this is no longer an issue for me. Review site Sleep Like the Dead says that among 25,519 mattress owners, memory foam rated the highest for motion isolation.
- It may last longer than innerspring. With a foam mattress you avoid the problem of fibers wearing down to expose springs. So theoretically it should last longer, right? Well, maybe. But know that the resilience of memory foam can wear down as well. In a survey of 241 consumers, Sleep Like the Dead found that memory foam mattresses last on average seven years, compared with six years for an innerspring mattress. Most foam mattresses come with a 10-year warranty.
- It doesn’t require a separate box spring. Enough said.
Features to look for
So if you’re thinking of shopping for a memory foam mattress, here are some features to consider:
- Cooling effect: The biggest complaint about memory foam is that it tends to trap heat—a troubling issue for people who sleep hot. But it has become less of a problem as companies develop cooling elements in mattress covers and layers.The Bear mattress ($850) has a graphite gel foam layer that increases airflow and removes heat.
- What kind of sleeper you are: It helps to read several reviews from multiple independent sources. But it also helps to look closely at each review’s criteria and make sure their priorities match yours. We don’t all sleep the same way, so there is no perfect, one-size-puts-all-to-sleep mattress out there. Bear, for instance, is popular among fitness fanatics due to its endorsements from several professional athletes. For people who get hot when they sleep, MattressGuides.net recommends the Amerisleep AS3.
- Price: Memory foam mattresses are sometimes more expensive than innerspring models; a top-of-the-line Casper Wave Queen will cost nearly $2,000. But this is changing, as lower-priced models enter the market, including Wayfair’s Nora for under $600.
- Money-back guarantee: Since most of these mattresses are mailed to you in a box, you won’t be able to roll around on one in a showroom. How helpful is that, anyhow? Spending a night on that mattress is what’s really going to tell you if it’s the right one for you. So make sure the mattress you purchase has a trial policy. (Most have good ones.)
So you’ll sleep better, right?
Yes, in a scientific sense; however, whether memory foam helps most people sleep deeper and longer remains debatable. A 1997 sleep study found no significant differences in the total sleep time or number of wakes between subjects sleeping on innerspring mattresses versus foam (this was a tiny sample, only 10 participants). Meanwhile, a 2015 study of seniors in a nursing home found that sleeping on a foam mattress helped subjects fall asleep faster and reduced back pain. But there wasn’t a significant difference in sleep quality or duration there, either.
“There is little unbiased data looking at sleep quality and mattress composition,” says Neil Kline, spokesperson for the American Sleep Association. While he concedes that mattress quality can influence your sleep, he points out that dozens of other factors have an effect, too—like good sleep hygiene (e.g., having consistent bedtimes, using your bed only for sleep and “hanky panky” rather than as the place you watch TV or shop online).