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A sleeper’s experience with a mattress often depends on the bed’s material composition. Materials can also affect certain performance factors – such as durability, conforming ability, temperature neutrality, and odor potential – as well as the bed’s price-point and warranty coverage options.
This guide will take an in-depth look at two of the most commonly used materials in today’s mattresses: memory foam and latex. Memory foam and latex share several similarities, as well as a few notable differences. Read on to learn more about memory foam and latex in terms of feel, cost, and other important product considerations for shoppers.
Viscoelastic polyurethane foam, or memory foam for short, was first developed by NASA researchers in the 1960s. As a polyurethane-based material, memory foam is considered synthetic. The polyurethane is treated with petrochemicals that make the material denser and more viscous. The resulting foam is ‘open-cell,’ meaning its surface and core consist of bubbles that help air circulate.
Traditionally, standard polyfoam was used to provide cushioning layers in mattresses. This material pads the sleeper’s body but does not conform; as a result, those who sleep on polyfoam surfaces may experience discomfort and added pressure in their most sensitive areas. Polyfoam also degrades rather quickly.
Memory foam, on the other hand, is engineered to become softer when it comes into contact with body heat, then cool and return to its original shape when the heat is removed. When a sleeper gets into bed, the foam forms a tight impression – also known as a ‘body hug – around their figure without sinking too much. This quality allows the memory foam to alleviate aches, pains, and tension in the neck, shoulders, lower back, and hips. Memory foam can also improve spinal alignment for side sleepers, since this position often results in poor alignment. The foam will adapt to the sleeper’s body over time and ‘remember’ their dimensions by re-conforming every time they get into bed.
Memory foam mattresses are never 100% memory foam; the material simply sags too much to provide an effective base layer for the bed. Rather, most of these models are constructed with at least one memory foam comfort layer, a transitional layer of memory foam or polyfoam, and a support core made from high-density polyfoam.
Memory foam – like polyfoam – tends to absorb body heat from sleepers and feel excessively hot during the night. As a result, many mattress brands have introduced beds with memory foam layers that are infused with liquid gel, graphite, and other cooling materials. Covers made of breathable fabrics like cotton or rayon from bamboo are also commonly used to offset the foam’s heat absorption.
Latex is a material derived from the sap of rubber trees. Once extracted, the sap undergoes a formulation process that results in latex, which has a comparable consistency to synthetic foam.
Two types of formulation processes are used. The older Dunlop process involves stirring, molding, and baking the latex. This results in a dense, heterogeneous material with most of the heavier sediment on the bottom and the lighter materials on top. For this reason, Dunlop latex is most commonly used in mattress support/base layers. The newer Talalay process removed oxygen from the sap before it is frozen and baked, resulting in a light, fluffy material with a homogenous consistency. Talalay latex is normally found in the top comfort layers of a mattress.
Chemical fillers may be used to formulate latex. As a rule, ‘natural latex’ must contain at least 95% latex and no more than 5% chemicals. ‘Blended latex’ should contain at least 30% latex, while ‘synthetic latex’ is exclusively derived from chemicals. In rare cases, the material may be certified as 100% latex; the Global Organic Latex Standard (GOLS) administers this certification.
A latex mattress may exclusively contain latex layers, typically with Dunlop and/or Talalay latex in the comfort layers and Dunlop latex in the support core. Alternatively, some latex mattresses are made with latex comfort layers and polyfoam support cores. Some or all of these layers may be aerated with small holes to promote air circulation throughout the bed’s interior, which helps the mattress sleep cooler. Additionally, select latex mattress models are designed with removable, customizable latex layers; owners can remove the original layers and replace them with firmer or softer layers to adjust the thickness and/or how the bed feels.
When we talk about the feel of a mattress, we mean the various factors that contribute to the overall sleeping experience it provides.
The firmness of a mattress is often assessed using a 1-10 scale. On the lower end are ‘Soft,’ ‘Medium Soft,’ and ‘Medium’ mattresses that conform closely; higher ratings correspond to ‘Medium Firm,’ ‘Firm,’ and ‘Extra Firm’ beds that conform to a more moderate extent. Most mattresses sold today fall between a 3 (‘Soft’) and an 8 (‘Firm’) on the 1-10 scale.
As stated above, the latex in mattresses has a fluffy, soft consistency that is similar to that of memory foam. Both materials conform to the sleeper’s body for targeted pain and pressure relief. However, latex also tends to be bouncier and more responsive while memory foam usually offers a deeper body hug. Memory foam may conform more closely, but latex is more durable and less likely to form semi-permanent indentations on the sleeping surface.
The table below compares memory foam and latex based on support, responsiveness, and other attributes that affect the feel of a mattress.
|Quality||Definition||Memory Foam Rating||Latex Rating||Summary|
|Support||Mattresses that provide and maintain an even, sag-free surface are considered more supportive than those that sink excessively or develop indentations in the surface.||Good||Very Good||Latex is more durable and responsive than memory foam. As a result, latex is less likely to sink beneath the sleeper’s body and will withstand indentations for a longer period. This makes is suitable for most sleep positions, particularly back sleepers and stomach sleepers.|
|Conforming ability||Conforming ability is based on how consistently the mattress supports different areas of the sleeper’s body, particularly the shoulders, midsection, and other areas where more weight is concentrated.||Very Good||Good||Memory foam’s body hug is deeper and more noticeable, especially if the mattress has a ‘Soft’ or ‘Medium’ firmness. Latex offers some conforming, but not as closely or consistently as memory foam.|
|Pain/pressure relief||Beds that conform closely can alleviate tension in areas where pressure points tend to develop. They may also improve spinal alignment, which is a common source of discomfort for side sleepers.||Good||Good||Memory foam mattresses with softer layers typically provide the most pain and pressure relief for lighter people and side sleepers, while firmer beds are more suitable for heavier people. Latex mattresses with Talalay latex comfort layers usually alleviate more aches and pains than those with Dunlop layers.|
|Good for sex?||Mattresses that are more responsive tend to be better for sex. Less responsive beds may result in excessive sinking, and some couples report a sensation similar to fighting their mattress.||Fair to Good||Good to Very Good||Most memory foam mattresses offer limited responsiveness, which can negatively affect how it feels for sex. Latex is naturally more responsive; firmer latex mattresses tend to be best for sex.|
|Temperature neutrality||Some mattresses absorb and trap heat from sleepers, causing them to feel excessively warm during the night. Other beds are made with materials that are engineered to be cooler and/or promote more airflow.||Fair to Good||Good to Very Good||Though memory foam is an open-cell material, it often traps heat and creates uncomfortable sleeping conditions. Gels, graphite, and other cooling materials may improve the temperature neutrality of memory foam, but results are somewhat mixed. Latex normally sleeps much cooler, particularly if the latex layers are aerated.|
|Motion isolation||Motion transfer occurs whenever a sleeper gets into/out of bed or shifts positions. On responsive mattresses, this transfer can often be felt in other areas of the bed. However, some materials isolate and minimize motion, often resulting in fewer nighttime disruptions for couples.||Very Good||Very Good||Both memory foam and latex isolate motion transfer to a significant extent. Memory foam has a slight edge because the material is less responsive than latex. That being said, memory foam and latex mattresses are both associated with reduced sleep disruptions for couples. Both memory foam and latex mattresses are virtually silent when bearing weight.|
Average price-point is one of the major differences between memory foam and latex.
Memory foam mattresses tend to be the less expensive option. Although prices may range anywhere from less than $200 to more than $2,000, the average model costs between $1,000 and $1,100 in a Queen size. Because memory foam mattresses have shorter-than-average expected lifespans, most buyers find that lower-cost beds with memory foam offer the best value. Higher-priced mattresses often include more comfort layers, including additional components like latex and/or minicoils; foams infused with gel, graphite, and other cooling materials may also drive up the cost.
Latex mattresses have a much higher average price-point – slightly below $2,000, based on current model availability. Beds made with organic and/or natural latex are usually the costliest options, since the material is harder to produce and consequently more valuable than synthetic or blended latexes. Many natural or organic latex beds also contain other eco-friendly materials that can increase the price-point, such as organic-cotton or natural wool. However, some brands have introduced lower-cost latex mattresses in recent years that rival the price-points of their memory foam counterparts.
Many products emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) when they are first removed from their packaging. These VOCs break down, often resulting in chemical smells known as ‘off-gassing odors.’ These smells are generally somewhat unpleasant, but most off-gassing odors associated with mattresses will dissipate in a matter of days, if not hours. The bed’s ability to circulate air often contributes to how long it produces new odors.
Most mattresses will produce some off-gassing, though the strength and persistence of these odors often depends on the material composition. Latex beds, for instance, often emit an unpleasant rubbery smell when new. However, smells tend to be stronger and longer-lasting for mattresses with synthetic latex components. Some latex types – particularly aerated natural or organic latex – produce very little odor that dissipates fairly quickly.
Memory foam is associated with more excessive smells. Most memory foam mattresses emit a significant level of off-gassing odor when they are new. Generally, denser memory foams produce stronger and more persistent odors than lower-density foams. Although odor potential for memory foam mattresses varies by model, excessive off-gassing smells are one of the most common complaints associated with this material.
Latex is generally considered more durable than memory foam. In terms of expected product lifespan, the average latex mattress needs to be replaced after roughly eight years of continuous use. This longer-than-average lifespan is due to a couple of factors. One is latex’s natural ability to withstand sagging and indentations, which preserves its supportive and pressure-relieving qualities and allows the bed to perform for a longer period. Latex mattresses with removable, customizable layers also have longer lifespans because the materials can be replaced if sagging or indentations do occur.
Memory foam mattresses have an average product lifespan of roughly seven years, which is on par with that of the average mattress regardless of type. Memory foam layers usually do not last as long as latex layers because they develop sagging and indentations, which compromises support and can cause aches and pains in sleepers. Flippable mattresses with a sleepable surface on each side may have more longevity, provided the sleeper uses each side equally – though these models are still susceptible to degradation in their shared polyfoam support core.
Most mattress warranties offer at least 10 years of coverage, which should be sufficient for any memory foam or latex bed. Some brands offer longer warranty periods – 20 years or longer – and use this provision to increase the price-point. However, even high-quality latex and memory foam beds will not necessitate a warranty that extends past 10 years. Latex mattresses are more likely to have warranties that extend past 10 years, while most memory foam mattresses come with 10-year warranties. However, this varies by brand.
Another important warranty consideration is nonprorated vs. prorated coverage. During nonprorated coverage periods, the mattress brand will replace or repair beds with defects at no extra charge to the owner aside from shipping and transportation charges. When prorated coverage kicks in, mattress owners must pay a certain percentage of the original product price to replace a defective mattress. This percentage often increases with each year of ownership until the prorated charges match or come close to the original price.
For example, let’s say a 20-year warranty offers 10 years of nonprorated coverage followed by a 10-year prorated period. Beginning in year 11, the owner must pay 55% of the original mattress price (5% multiplied by 11 for the years of ownership). In year 12, they will pay 60% of the original price. This continues until they reach the 20-year mark, at which point they will usually pay 95% to 100% of the original price to replace the mattress.
Most 10-year warranties are entirely nonprorated, which can save owners a great deal of money if a defect develops. Warranties spanning 20 years or longer are often partially prorated – and in some cases, the prorated charges kick in after just two to three years of nonprorated coverage. These warranties can result in much higher costs for mattress owners.
The following table breaks down some of the key similarities and differences between memory foam and latex.
|Feel||Soft and sinking, with significant body contouring||More responsive and supportive, with less body contouring|
|Pressure relief||Very good to excellent||Good to very good|
|Motion transfer||Very little to none||Some, but fairly minimal|
|Average cost (Queen)||$1,000 to $1,100||$1,900 to $2,000|
|Average lifespan||7 years||8 years|
You should buy a memory foam mattress if…
You should buy a latex mattress if…