Ultimate Guide to Getting the Most Comfortable Mattress
July 18, 2014
What’s the most important factor to you when shopping for a new mattress?
If you’re like most people, the answer is likely “comfort”.
But, what exactly is comfort, and how do you find the most comfortable mattress? The thing that makes mattress shopping confusing for many people is that there is no singular answer to these questions.
Mattress comfort is incredibly individual, and it can depend on many factors from weight to sleep position to age and more. Moreover, there are multiple components within mattresses that can affect comfort and pain.
Read on to learn more about what inside beds affects comfort, and how to find the most comfortable mattress for you.
Understanding Mattress Comfort
The most important part of getting a comfortable mattress is defining what it is you find to be comfortable. There is no one mattress out there there will be perfect for everyone, as we all have unique shapes, sleep habits and preferences.
When you are trying to choose a comfortable mattress, the main things to pay attention to include support, conformity and pressure relief. Understanding how these concepts work together with personal factors can help you determine which types of materials and layer configurations may work best for your needs.
Support is the primary function of a mattress. This refers to a bed’s ability to keep your body and spine in proper alignment by providing upward resistance.
A bed that is unsupportive can contribute to muscle tension, back pain, and other issues. When mattresses start sagging, they can also distort the natural curve of your back and increase pain.
Conformity refers to how the mattress accommodates your body. A mattress with high conformity allows wider areas like hips and shoulders to sink in (it contours to your curves). A mattress with low conformity offers little contouring, and will place more pressure on the areas of the body that stick out most or weigh more.
Pressure relief refers to a material’s ability to cushion your body and prevent painful pressure points. When you are laying on a mattress, your body is being pulled down by gravity. Materials with high resistance may be simultaneously pushing upwards. In between are your skin, nerves and blood vessels.
Pain or “falling asleep” sensations come when sensitive areas face strong resistance in your mattress. Pressure points can make it hard to get comfortable or wake you up at night. Everyone has different sensitivity levels, and as skin ages, pressure can also have a greater effect. How you sleep and your body shape and size will also affect where you are most likely to feel pressure points.
Firmness can be a little tricky because brands can differ on how they describe it, and materials differ – a firm memory foam mattress doesn’t feel the same as a firm spring mattress. It generally refers to how much resistance a mattress has (including support and comfort layers).
Firmness will vary by preference, but medium to medium-firm mattresses are associated with less pain, while firm mattresses are associated with more pain despite conventional recommendations that firmer is better.
And of course, knowing your own preferences is perhaps most important to finding a comfortable mattress. Take a close look what feels right to you so you know what to look for, and don’t forget to talk mattress options over with your partner so you both sleep well.
The way you sleep is important. Different positions have unique support and pressure relief needs to consider when looking at beds.
Side sleepers make up the majority of the population. If you sleep on your side, your mattress needs to balance support and conformity well. It must be able to conform to your hips and shoulders without causing painful pressure points, while still providing enough support to keep your spine straight. You shouldn’t feel like your knees are at unnatural angle to your hips, or that your waist is unsupported. Medium to soft beds will probably be most comfortable.
Back sleeping is preferred by about one-third of people. When sleeping on your back, your mattress needs to be able to support the natural curvature of your spine. There should be little to no gap between your lower back area and the surface of the bed, however, your hips and shoulders should also not be sinking too far in to where your torso sinks below your legs or neck. There should be enough comfort layer to prevent pressure points on your upper back, tailbone and heels. Medium to medium firm beds will likely be most comfortable.
Stomach sleeping is the least common (and also least recommended) position. The right mattress for stomach sleepers will prevent the lumbar area from bowing downward, which can lead to lower back pain. A small amount of effective padding can help keep sensitive areas comfortable without allowing your lower back to curve too sharply. Most comfortable mattresses will likely be in the medium to medium firm range.
Body Weight & Size
Petite people have different comfort considerations than do larger people. Smaller individuals may prefer plusher beds, as they may lack the weight to experience adequate contouring on a firm mattress.
Larger individuals may have better luck with firmer beds for support, but may need thicker comfort layers in order to experience adequate pressure relief. SleepLikeTheDead finds that people from 200-300 lbs prefer beds over 9-10 inches thick, while 300-450 lbs prefer 11-12 inches or more. Larger people also rate memory foam and latex best for comfort.
While kids and teens can seemingly sleep anywhere in any position without a care in the world, adults can be more prone to pain when their beds lack support.
Research has also found that older people find softer mattresses more comfortable. This may be because our skin and tissues have less resilience as we age, and thus become more prone to pressure points. So, you may need to opt for a different comfort level over time.
Lastly, think about your personal health situation and any factors that might be relevant to your sleep quality. Things like sleep apnea, acid reflux, fibromyalgia, arthritis, existing back pain and other conditions are all relevant when trying to identify the most comfortable mattress.
Conditions that cause higher sensitivity will likely need better pressure point relief in a mattress, while those with joint and back pain also need to focus on support. If you have a condition that is affected by laying flat (like apnea, swelling, COPD or GERD), an adjustable sleep system may be worth considering, as it can improve comfort.
How do different mattress types feel?
Although there are hundreds of different mattresses out there, most use the same basic materials. Here’s an overview of how these materials compare in terms of comfort. Grades and percents come from SleepLikeTheDead.com’s survey data.
Springs and Coils
Innerspring mattresses utilize metal coils to provide support. Coils buoy the sleeper with vertical resistance, and the different types have different pros and cons.
- Bonnell Coils: provide an average level of support, but not a lot of contouring or durability. Owner ratings tend be only fair (D).
- Offset Coils: provide good support, average durability and average contouring. Owner ratings are average (C).
- Continuous Coils: provide average support, average to good durability, but only fair contouring. Owner ratings are average (C).
- Individual/Pocket Coils: provide good support, average durability and good contouring. Owner ratings are slightly above-average (C+).
Average queen size mattresses have coil counts around 700-800. Although coil counts are not conclusively linked with comfort or better durability, beds with more coils may be more effective at contouring and support. Beds with very low coil counts may lack support especially for heavier people, but very high coil counts (1000+) tend to be more expensive and may offer little additional advantage.
Coil gauge refers to the diameter of the coil wire, with gauges around 12 being firmer and less springy, and those closer to 15 being softer and more springy.
Innersprings can also become more or less comfortable depending on the comfort layers above the coils. The comfort layer needs to be thick enough and durable enough so that the sleeper does not experience pressure points from the springs. Poly foam and fiber layers are common and economical, but quality memory foam and latex provide better durability and pressure relief.
Overall, 63% of innerspring owners report satisfaction, which is fairly low. Within 3 years, 25% of people report reduced comfort or support, and 20% also report pain. The average lifespan of a spring bed is about 6 years.
Memory foam is a specialized type of polyurethane that excels at contouring to sleepers. Because the cells collapse and weight is evenly distributed across the material’s surface, memory foam excels at preventing pressure points (in fact, that’s what NASA researchers designed it for).
It also minimizes motion transfer between partners, and can provide good support when paired with a higher-density poly foam core.
Memory foam density refers to the percentage of polymer versus air in the foam, and this property affects how the foam performs and feels. All densities tend to earn similar average satisfaction ratings of about 80%, but may be preferred by different people.
- Low Density (<3.5lb): is more affordable, easier to move on, less odorous, and slightly less hot. But, it is less durable and less effective at contouring and relieving pressure points.
- Medium Density (3.5-5.0lb): is in between the two extremes of low and high density.
- High Density (>5.0lb): is more durable, and best at contouring and pressure point relief. But, it is also most expensive, may be hard to move on, and more likely to sleep hot and have a strong odor.
According to SleepLikeTheDead, most memory foam densities work for side and back sleepers. However, side sleepers slightly prefer medium density and back sleepers high density, while stomach sleepers show stronger preference for low density.
Different types of memory foam also offer slightly different comfort experiences.
- Traditional Memory Foam: offers temperature-sensitive contouring, meaning it softens with body heat. Good at contouring, but may make sleepers feel “stuck” and may sleep warmer.
- Gel Memory Foam: incorporates gel in foam or beads. May offer slightly cooler sensation initially. Little research to support claims.
- Temperature-Neutral Memory Foam: viscosity does not fluctuate with normal temperatures, so it recovers shape and contours faster. One Cargill study found temperature-neutral foams made with plant oils to be more breathable than gel foams.
Overall, memory foam is the highest rated mattress type with 81% of owners reporting satisfaction. About 10% of people report more pain, but memory foam beds are 40% less likely to develop deep impressions compared to innersprings. The average lifespan is about 7 years.
Latex foam excels at providing durable and resilient support. It has a more springy feel than memory foam, and is more durable than regular foams. Mattresses made with all-latex foam offer good contouring and pressure relief, and are effective at providing ergonomic support as well.
The composition of latex foam can affect its feel:
- Natural Latex: is made from liquid from latex trees. It earns higher satisfaction scores, is more durable and responsive, and is less likely to offgas. But, 100% natural latex is also considerably more expensive.
- Synthetic Latex: is made styrene-butadiene rubber, a man-made chemical compound. It is usually not used alone.
- Blended Latex: is made from a mix of natural and synthetic latex (usually 30/70) and is the most common type. It is more affordable and can be more consistent in quality, but is more likely to offgas, is less durable and has less elasticity.
Latex is also manufactured in two different ways. While the two types have nearly identical reviews, there are some differences that can impact comfort.
- Dunlop: involves whipping, molding and heating to create foam. Dunlop latex is often firmer and denser, and sections do not need to be glued together. Dunlop foams can be less consistent, but are often more supportive and less expensive.
- Talalay: adds the extra steps of CO2 freezing and vacuum sealing. Talalay latex is often softer and more conforming, but sheets are usually glued together. The Talalay process creates a more uniform foam, but may not be as supportive and is more expensive.
Latex mattresses are the second highest-rated category with owner satisfaction around 80%. Latex beds have good ratings for pain relief, and only 10% of owners report sagging. All-latex mattresses have average life spans of about 10 years.
Waterbeds use water-filled bladders for support, which provide less resistance and better contouring than many materials. Though traditional models can lack adequate support, waveless varieties can offer good support and prevent hammocking. Waterbeds come in hardside and softside varieties.
- Hardside Waterbeds: feature bladders designed to be supported by four-sided wood frames. These beds are usually inexpensive, good at contouring, and can come in a range of firmness/waveless levels, but rate a little lower than softsides in satisfaction.
- Softside Waterbeds: feature bladders inside a mattress encasement, designed for use on a regular bed foundation. They come with a variety of comfort layers and motion options and rate better than traditional hardside beds, but are considerable more expensive.
Waterbeds have average owner ratings around 79%, with softsides rating a little higher than hardsides. Around 9% of people have more pain on a waterbed, with less pain on softside beds. On average, waterbeds last around 8 years, making them fairly durable, but may need to be patched or repaired in that time.
Mattresses made solely of urethane or polyurethane foam are often fairly cheap (under $500). This type of material compresses under weight and provides decent contouring, but does not have the molding or pressure-relieving properties of memory foam or latex. It is also less durable, and may not provide adequate support for heavier sleepers.
Overall, around 75% of owners report satisfaction, but a significant percent also report increased pain, and that all-foam beds feel too firm. The average lifespan for these types of mattresses is usually less than 5 years.
Choosing the Most Comfortable Mattress
Although recent surveys have reported shoppers feel intimidated by mattress shopping, it doesn’t have to be that way. All you need is a little research into what mattresses are made of and an understanding of what feels best for your body.
Once you understand the key concepts like support and conformity and see how the materials differ, it’s easier to compare beds and see which ones are likely to be most comfortable for you.
It’s always a good idea to look at and test many options before deciding; don’t limit yourself to one store or one brand. Also, don’t forget to take a look online to compare pricing and read reviews, and always take a close look at warranties and return policies.
We hope this guide helps you find the most comfortable mattress for your needs, and invite you to leave questions or share your own tips in the comments!
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