A Good Mattress Is Vital. Here's How To Find The Right One.
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It can be stressful buying a new mattress — but not as stressful as another night of poor sleep. Think of the purchase as an investment in your well-being.
“The benefits of good sleep can’t really be overestimated,” says Dr. Benjamin Smarr, National Institutes of Health Postdoctoral Fellow at UC Berkeley and Reverie sleep advisory board. “To the extent the right mattress helps you get there, that’s a big deal for your happiness and long-term health.”
“A good mattress can help you sleep better by supporting your joints, lessen[ing] snoring and apnea, and lower[ing] sleep disturbances from heat buildup, mold, and degrading mattress materials, among other things.”
Here’s how to choose the best mattress for you:
Types of Mattresses
There are basically two common types of mattresses: foam and innerspring. Variations including hybrid mattresses provide many benefits but they may come at a premium.
Polyurethane foam, AKA polyfoam, is made of a petroleum-derived material called urethane and is the most common type of mattress foam. Polyurethane foam mattresses are lightweight and relatively inexpensive, though they tend not to provide the same levels of support as latex or memory foam mattresses.
Memory foam, AKA viscoelastic foam, is a type of polyurethane foam with added chemicals that increase its density and viscosity. Memory foam mattresses are denser than mattresses made of other materials; they absorb more pressure and provide more support than other kinds of mattresses. Benefits of memory foam mattresses include durability, resistance to sagging, and motion isolation — famously illustrated by the “Wine Glass Test.”
Gel foam mattresses are made with viscoelastic foam (memory foam) infused with gel foam, an addition that helps with air circulation and, ostensibly, keeps sleepers cool. Gel foam mattresses are a bit more expensive than memory foam-only mattresses.
Latex foam is a natural material derived from rubber trees. Like memory foam mattresses, latex foam mattresses are durable and do not easily transmit movement from one side to the other. They also allow for good air flow. They generally cost more than mattresses made from synthetic materials.
Innerspring mattresses consist of steel coil support systems covered by padding. The spring system design, shape, coil gauge, and number of coils varies greatly from mattress to mattress. Traditional innerspring mattresses are associated with noisiness and a tendency to sag, but they are also considered best for sex thanks to their bounciness. This and their lower cost than foam-based mattresses help explain their continued popularity — they make up more than 60% of overall mattress sales.
As the name makes clear, hybrid mattresses are a hybrid of multiple mattress types — namely, a combination of innerspring mattresses’ coil support core with foam mattresses’ comfort layers. Hybrid mattresses contour to sleepers’ bodies like memory foam mattresses, albeit to a lesser degree. They may also be bouncy like innerspring mattresses but with some of the motion isolation found in memory foam mattresses. Hybrid mattresses are heavier and more expensive than other kinds of mattresses.
Adjustable air mattresses can be inflated with attached pumps to make the bed firmer. Typically, each half of the bed is adjustable to allow for each sleeper’s firmness preference.
Waterbeds are rubber or plastic bladders filled with water and contained in bed-shaped frames.
Mattress Sizes and Dimensions
- Twin (aka, single) 39″x75″
- Twin XL 39″x80″
- Full (aka, double) 54″x75″
- Queen 60″x80″
- King 76″x80″
- California king 72″x84″
- Alaskan king 108″x108″
How to Choose a Mattress
A new mattress can cost as little as $200 and as much as $3,000–$4,000, or more. Luckily, there has been an explosion of online retailers that deliver quality mattresses all over the country, helping curtail the showroom haggling and inflated prices of traditional mattress sellers.
You’ll be spending nearly a third of your life in bed, so don’t skimp on your mattress. Most high-end innerspring mattress and entry-level memory foam mattress prices are within the $600–$1,000 range; $1,000 is a good starting budget for a queen-sized mattress and $1,500 for a king. More expensive mattresses typically fall into the luxury category and will have advanced features such as thicker comfort layers and longer warranties. Spending more than $2,500 isn’t necessary unless you’ve learned the hard way that more affordable mattresses aren’t working for you.
Memory foam mattress owners sometimes complain of heat during sleep due to the foam’s lack of breathability and the tendency of the mattress to “hug” sleepers as they sink into the mattress. Though gel mattresses are advertised as cooling, innerspring and hybrid mattresses may actually provide a cooler night’s sleep.
A supportive mattress is crucial for a good night’s sleep. Your mattress should both resist your weight and give at points to keep your back aligned. If you’re a side sleeper, a too-hard mattress won’t allow your hip to sink, which would push your lower spine skyward, same for your shoulder and your upper spine, resulting in a spinal configuration looking more like a ‘C’ than a straight line. On the other hand, a too-soft mattress will be like sleeping in a hammock — minus the gentle outdoor breeze and plus back problems.
The firmness and give you’ll need from your mattress depend on the position you sleep in. Regardless, a mattress should come up to support your body’s curves and arches.
A mattress’ comfort is measured by its ability to relieve pressure. A too-hard mattress will cause pressure on various points of your body and could result in tossing and turning and fragmented sleep.
Your weight affects how much support, sinkage, and hug your mattress will provide.
- Light (<150 lbs.): Consider a medium-firm bed that doesn’t sink too much.
- Average (150–200 lbs.): The average bed for the average person.
- Heavy (>200 lbs.): Body weight will cause more sinkage. Opt for a firmer mattress with a deeper comfort level — at least 4″.
How you sleep — whether on your side, on your back, on your stomach, hanging from your ankles — makes a big difference in how you will experience a mattress. In general, side sleepers should look for softer mattresses, back sleepers would do well with average-to-firm mattresses, and stomach sleepers will need something very firm.
Best type of mattress for side sleepers
Side sleepers need mattresses soft enough to allow for sinking at the hips and shoulders, typically a mattress in the soft-to-medium firmness category.
The best types of mattresses for side sleepers are soft-to-medium firm memory foam mattresses, latex mattresses, and hybrid mattresses.
Best type of mattress for back sleepers
Mattresses for back sleepers should be average-to-more firm; a too-soft mattress that doesn’t support you could lead to back problems.
The best type of mattresses for back sleepers are medium-firm memory foam mattresses, latex mattresses, and hybrid mattresses.
Best type of mattress for stomach (front) sleepers
Those who sleep on their stomachs are in danger of back misalignment as even a too-thick pillow could put the spine in an awkward position. Mattresses for side sleepers should be rather firm to avoid any sinking; stomach sleepers should be as straight as possible relative to the mattress’ surface.
The best type of mattresses for stomach sleepers are firm innerspring mattresses, memory foam mattresses, latex mattresses, and hybrid mattresses.
Best type of mattress for back pain
Those who suffer from back pain need to be sure to sleep in a bed that supports their back and keeps their spine aligned. A too-soft bed will throw alignment off and will exacerbate back issues. A too-firm bed, though, could be worse, putting pressure on contact points and not allowing for the spine’s natural curve.
Memory foam and latex foam mattresses are the best options for sufferers of back pain as these mattress types conform to sleepers’ bodies and keeps spines aligned, relieving the pressure points often associated with pain.
Tips for Mattress Buying
Prioritize comfort. “A mattress that is not a good fit can cause sleep disruptions which lead to daytime fatigue,” says Dr. Sujay Kansagra, Mattress Firm’s sleep health expert and the director of Duke University’s Pediatric Neurology Sleep Medicine Program. “If you are waking up with pain, your body was in pain while you slept. To ensure that you are getting the deepest, most refreshing sleep, consider comfort as a top priority in your purchase decision and don’t be afraid to test different sleeping positions while in the store.”
Try before you buy. Lie on any mattresses you’re considering if it’s available at a retailer. Make yourself comfortable and spend at least 10 minutes in your preferred sleeping positions. Many online retailers have free return policies that allow for easy returns within a certain amount of time — as much as 120 days. Just check the return policy before you buy, as there may be a restocking or pickup fee.
Check the warranty. Some mattresses in the luxury category come with long-term warranties covering manufacturer defects.
Ignore coil counts. If you’re shopping for an innerspring mattress, you may be encouraged to believe that more coils are better. The reality is that the coil count is just one of many variables that affect comfort.
Think about your bedmate. If you share your bed, you’ll likely be looking for a new mattress together. And if one or both of you are active, ever-shifting sleepers, you’ll want a mattress with motion isolation like a memory foam mattress.
Be proactive in your search. “The best time to buy is when you don’t need to, when you aren’t under pressure and rushed into making uninformed decisions,” Smarr says. “Slow down, do your research, and don’t wait for your current mattress to bust before going out.”