Mattress FAQ

This is a Mattress Frequently Asked Questions from Subreddit. All credit for FAQ goes to user /Duende555. I believe that is your first step in researching a new mattress.


Retrived: 6-4-2019

An attempt at a Mattress FAQ

Hey all! I thought I’d take a few minutes today and attempt a draft at a mattress FAQ. This is something I’ve meant to do for quite a while, but haven’t found the time for due to life events and exhaustion. Some of that exhaustion has come from sleeping on a few terrible mattresses over the last few years in grad school, and I don’t want anyone else to go through that same situation. I have no experience in the industry itself, although I have done literal years of research and spoken with coil, foam, and mattress manufacturers in person and on the phone. Some of what you’ll read here is pretty much the party line and similar to what you’ll find on The Mattress Underground, and some of it is my opinion. I’ll mark areas that are less evidence-based and more my opinion as such. So… without further ado.

What’s the best mattress? Let’s start here. There isn’t one. Certainly some mattresses are better than others, but what works for you might not work for someone else. I’m sure you’ve had the experience of sleeping rather well on a poor quality mattress in a hotel or motel, and you may have also had the rather unpleasant experience of sleeping poorly on a very expensive mattress in your own home. So rather than ask “what’s the best mattress?”, let’s instead consider the more useful question “how do I find a good mattress for me?” And to find that mattress, you need to consider two things. First, what do you find comfortable? And second, is the mattress you’re considering made of quality materials?

So how do I find something that’s comfortable? The easiest way to find a comfortable mattress is to go into a local store and try out a few beds. I would strongly recommend finding a local manufacturer rather than a big name store, as local manufacturers typically use more durable materials and at better prices. You might find that you like the classic feel of a traditional innerspring mattress, or the slightly more conforming feel of a pocketed coil system. You might also enjoy the feel of an all foam bed. If nothing (or everything) feels comfortable to you, then I’d advise you to ask yourself what have you slept well on in the past? This might give you a clue as to what works well for your body. I generally prefer an alternating coil innerspring (a slightly more conforming traditional innerspring) or a pocketed coil mattress. I’ve slept well on some foam mattresses, but I generally find these to be too warm. Once you have an idea of what you like, then it’s time to evaluate each mattress for it’s *quality*.

And how do I evaluate a mattress for its quality? Mattress quality is primarily determined by the quality of its two main components: the quality of the support system and the quality of the comfort layers. The support system for most mattresses is typically a layer of dense foam (typically polyfoam or latex) or a type of spring system. Other more exotic materials do exist for support systems (wool, water, air), but these are much less common. Comfort layers are typically much softer foam (either polyfoam, memory foam, or latex) or much softer coil systems (commonly called microcoils). Some other comfort layers include gel matrixes, wool, or cotton batting. So for simplicity’s sake let’s break this discussion into two parts: foam quality and spring quality.

What are quality foams? This is the easiest part of evaluating a mattress and is usually what people take away from the Mattress Underground. Generally, quality here is measured by the density of the foam as measured by pounds per cubic foot (lb/pcf) as denser foams are more durable and retain their “showroom feel” for longer. For ease of understanding I’ll break these down into three categories.

  • Polyfoam: Or polyurethane foam. The most common comfort material with a classic foam feel. Less than 1.0lb/pcf is very low quality; 1.2lb/pcf is low quality; 1.5lb/pcf is getting closer to a medium quality; 1.8lb/pcf is high quality; and 2.0lb/pcf or higher is very high quality. However, most mattress companies (and sales people) will use “high quality” to mean just about anything, so make sure you ask for the true specifications. An inch of less of low quality foam is generally permissible (and typically found in the quilt layer), but anything more than that and it’s a riskier proposition and prone to premature “flattening” or loss of comfort. If you’re looking at polyfoam as a support system then you’ll want at least a 1.8lb/pcf foam.

  • Memory foam: Or viscoelastic foam. Typically more durable and very comfortable, but can have issues with heat retention. Like with polyfoam, lower density layers are typically lower quality. However, with memory foam a lower density foam can also mean that it’s slightly cooler, as less dense materials have more air and thereby airflow. 3.0lb/pcf or less is low quality; 4.0lb/pcf is a medium quality; and 5.0lb/pcf or higher is very high quality. Tempurpedic formerly used 5.0lb/pcf (or even 5.3lb/pcf) foams exclusively, but now they’re experimenting with some less dense foams. I’m not sure if this is due to comfort, issues with heat retention, or simple cost-savings. I should also state that with many (though not all) memory foams, a higher density can also mean a firmer feel.

  • Latex foam: Pretty much durable across the board regardless of density, with the proviso that very very soft latex (about 18 ILD or less) can be less durable for persons with heavier body weights. There are also reported issues with synthetic vs organic latex, but I don’t have firsthand experience there. Still, I’ve never seen latex wear out to any significant degree. There are posts online about folks using latex beds for 40 years!

And what are quality spring systems? This is slightly more complicated. There are a lot of spring systems and it’s difficult to predict how they will interact with the comfort layers and your body type. Unlike foam layers, almost all of these are considered very durable as most use steel or titanium components. However, low coil count units can still provide inadequate support despite the quality of their material components. As a rule of thumb, check the manufacturer’s website (typically Leggett and Platt) for that particular coil unit and ensure that the count is on the medium to high end for said unit.

  • Bonnell Coils: The most basic coil system used today and has been around for 100 years. Simple, hourglass-shaped springs tied together. These provide low conformability but solid support. Often used in cheaper mattresses, although can be used in very high end ones as well. Coil counts are typically in the 300-500 range for a queen size. Example:

  • Alternating Coils: The middle ground. These are tied spring systems with modifications made to provide a moderate amount of conformability. There are many different names for variations of this style of system (Verticoil, Luraflex, Hingeflex, Knotted Offset), but these all work on similar principles. Coil counts range from 300’s-800’s depending on the system used. Example:

  • Pocketed Coils: Patented by Beautyrest, but now available broadly for all mattress companies. These are individually pocketed coils that work almost independently of one another (I say almost, because most are still connected by joined fabric). These can provide low or high conformability depending on their individual gauge (or coil thickness) and the firmness of the foam materials above them. Softer foam materials allow for more independent conformation, while stiff foam materials “link” the coils similar to a tied system and can provide firm support. I like these, but I find that I need “zoned support” whilst on a pocketed system due to the high conformability they provide. In other words, I like more coils or extra foam at my hips to provide extra support. Coil counts range from 500’s-1000’s for a queen, although… I’d generally avoid anything less than 800 unless it uses an exceptionally thick coil (read: low gauge). Example:

  • A word on coil gauge: The coil gauge of a particular unit is a measure of its thickness (and thereby firmness). Lower numbers mean a thicker coil. Generally, a 13 gauge coil (read: thicker) is a very stiff coil and best suited to larger body types while a 15 gauge coil (read: thinner) is softer and better suited to smaller body types. Still, the way these coils are arranged in the mattress means a lot. For instance, a 13 gauge alternating coil like the Verticoil can still be made to provide soft support whilst a 15 gauge pocketed coil system can still be made to provide very firm support if there are firm foams above it that “link” these pocketed coils together.

So it’s as easy as finding an adequate support unit and high quality foams, right? Well, no. And this is the maddening thing about finding a mattress, but… quality does not always mean comfort. Quality certainly *suggests* comfort, but it doesn’t guarantee it. Many online mattresses are built from quality, durable materials (it’s how they convince you to make that purchase sight unseen), but that doesn’t mean they will be comfortable for you. Quality is easy and comfort is complicated.What you want to do is find something that’s comfortable for you AND has quality materials. Which is harder than it sounds…

What if I buy a mattress made of lower quality materials? Or, in other words, what if I buy an “S-brand” mattress? This is a riskier proposition, but one that I totally understand. I’ve lived in places where my only options were buying sight unseen from the internet or buying an “S -brand” bed of potentially unknown materials.* If you have to do this, here’s my advice: pick up something with less comfort material. While S-brand’s spring systems are generally solid, most of their comfort materials are on the lower range (1.0-1.5lb/pcf polyfoams; or < 4.0lb/pcf memory foams) and will quickly develop a “thinner and flatter” feel within a few months. If the mattress you’re buying is a pillowtop, then this breaking in process can feel like a rapid loss of support and lead to an uncomfortable “sink” in the middle of the bed. If you buy a mattress with *less* in the way of comfort materials, then you’re minimizing the amount of material in the bed that can fail and can easily augment the comfort with a mattress topper. So find something reasonably comfortable and preferably without a pillowtop and augment with a higher quality topper as needed. Granted, this is entirely my opinion and, like any opinion on the internet, should be taken with a grain of salt.

*And if you want to peek at the S-brand materials, try this website: For some reason, they disclose the rather sub-optimal foam densities of the major manufacturers. Also the sub-optimal foam densities of their own beds…

Why do the big brands use lower quality materials? I don’t really know. I suspect it’s typical cost-cutting and an attempt to maximize profits. It could also be due to market testing and the fact that denser, higher quality foams have a longer “break-in” and feel stiffer in a showroom? Or possibly due to the increased “tackiness” and friction of higher quality foams impeding the body’s push through the comfort materials (something you’ll notice if you order a little foam yourself and play around with it)? I just don’t know. I want to say it’s just greed, but it could be due to nuanced engineering that I don’t completely understand.

What about cooling technologies? Should I pay for hypergel with cloudburst technology? Ugh. This is mostly marketing mumbo-jumbo. Cooling technologies can provide some benefit, but this is typically short-lived and lasts only a few hours (although a significant amount of phase-change material is possibly the one exception here and stands on firm physical/chemical principles). You’re better off keeping your bedroom cool with air-conditioning or looking at a mattress with a spring system for increased airflow. Otherwise, diamond-dust? High molecular weight yarn? Gel? Whatever, it doesn’t really do much.

Do I need a boxspring? Maybe. Although I would point out that there are few true boxsprings nowadays. Most are instead wood or wire grid foundations with no actual springs in them. Neither are truly necessary as most mattress do well on a totally flat foundation (like plywood or even the floor), but these wood or wire grid foundations can actually soften the feel of a bed just a touch in my experience. Particularly so on a pocketed coil mattress. Whether this is good or bad is up to you. Generally, most wire grid foundations provide sufficient support, although there’s so much variance in these frames that it’s possible there are some lower quality systems out there. If you’re considering a wooden slatted foundation, then I’d recommend looking at slats at least two inches wide and not more than three inches apart. Some mattresses can still do well if these slats are further apart, but most foam mattresses need the consistent support of closely spaced slats. Finally, you can also place 3/4″ plywood or a bunkie board to convert a bedframe into a flat foundation. You should also know that placing your mattress on a flat foundation like plywood (or even the floor) can diminish airflow and lead to the development of mold, although I have never had this problem personally.

My mattress is bowing in the middle. What should I do? This isn’t ideal. I would suspect that this is due to softening of low quality comfort materials. My first bit of advice would be to place it on a firmer surface (either a flat foundation or the floor) and see if that helps. If not, then you might try to place a small cardboard “shim” under the middle of the bed. A durable cardboard sheet will be about a 1/4 inch in thickness and can provide a surprising amount of zoned support to that area. Still doesn’t help? Well, you can always deconstruct the mattress and replace the comfort materials. I have little experience in doing this, but many folks online have done it and rave about the results. Chances are the support materials are still good, so if you strip the existing comfort materials and replace those, you might have a brand new mattress. If not… well, then at least you’ve tried.

What about this new bed in a box online? I don’t even know. I’m very very tired of the online mattress game. They all promise the best sleep ever and… I just don’t think that’s true. Whilst many use quality materials, many don’t, and if the bed doesn’t work for you then there’s a good chance it could wind up in a landfill. And online reviewers are little more than online salespeople with almost every mattress getting a 4 or 5 star review. I’m sick of the whole thing to be honest. If you find one you’re interested in, then great! Evaluate it like any other bed, but be aware if it doesn’t work it may not get “recycled” like the company promises. Again, it’s entirely possible an online mattress could be a great fit for you, but it’s a shot in the dark unless you can try it first.

So how do I put this all together? Good question. Let’s take a look at a few examples.

  • First, an S-brand mattress via the Sealy Nashua Plush:–nashua-plush-mattress-seal-70086. Let’s look at the relevant specs starting with… the comfort materials. Here we have 4.5 inches of low to very low quality polyfoam (1.1-1.2lb/pcf) with a half inch layer of a low quality memory foam (2.5b/pcf) for zoned support. And the support system? 911 pocketed coils without zoned support. If you can’t tell, I’m not very impressed with this mattress. I’d rate this as a very risky proposition with a high likelihood or premature failure due to the excessive amount of low quality comfort materials. The one plus in my opinion would be the zoned support provided by the memory foam, but that’s just personal taste on my part.

  • Now let’s look at a similar product from Beautyrest in the new Silver Plush:–drifton-plush-mattress-simm-80166. Here, we have similar foam densities (1.0-1.2lb/pcf), but less overall foam at only 2.75 inches. And we also have a similar zoned support system with a memory foam band (at 3.4lb/pcf) and a similar number of overall coils. While I’d still rate this a risky proposition, this has less overall low quality foam and would be a better candidate to augment with a topper of your choice. Still, I’d much prefer higher quality foams for a bed like this. My folks have a 10 year old entry level Beautyrest that’s way more comfortable than anything in recent years, and I can’t help but wonder if that’s just due to the changes in foam quality.

  • And finally, let’s take a look at a random mattress maker I found years ago via Capitol Bedding: I have zero affiliation with this company (or any), I just like how they disclose the specifications and densities of almost all of their materials (with the exception of the gel foam, oddly). And as you can see… it’s better across the board. The polyfoams are 1.5-1.8lb/pcf density and the spring system is on the high end for that particular coil unit at 805 coils. This is a much higher quality mattress, but keep in mind that quality does not always mean comfort!

Do mattresses have a break-in period? Yes. But this is poorly understood by most salespeople and may not have been well explained to you. Both polyfoam and memory foam are a bit stiff starting out. This “false firmness” (a term I believe coined by Phoenix on the Mattress Underground) can take a week or two to relax, after which you’ll get the true foam feel of the bed. However, a mattress break in isn’t just in the foam layers. Over a few weeks, the fabric and stitching of the mattress will also start to relax. The combination of these two processes typically leads to a softer feel within a 30 day period, although with some mattresses (particularly those with very very firm support systems) a softening of the upper comfort materials can actually make the mattress feel harder as you contact the support system sooner. Sound complicated? It is, unfortunately. I should also mention that, in my experience, most coil systems will relax very very slightly after a few months of use, although this is debated within the industry.

Do I have a break-in period? You do. This is the period in which your body loses it’s “learned alignment” (again, a term I believe coined by Phoenix on the Mattress Underground) and adjusts to a new mattress. This learned alignment is probably the learned resting muscle tone of the muscles in your back and spine. Over time, these muscles learn to relax on a new sleep surface and you begin to sleep more deeply. There’s no way that I know of to speed this process up, although heavy exercise or yoga could certainly help. You could also just try a new mattress that’s very similar to your old mattress.

Should I purchase an all latex bed? This is complicated. Latex is supremely durable (and for some, supremely comfortable), but it is a *very* distinct feel and may not be one that you’ve experienced previously. As such, it’s difficult for me to make an off the cuff recommendation for latex because of its unique properties. For a bit of education, there are two large categories of latex: that created with the Talalay process and that created with the Dunlop process. Each type also has a unique feel. I personally prefer Dunlop latex, but I think I’m in the minority here. Others have also claimed that Talalay is generally superior and more durable, but I’ve not seen evidence for this. If you’re interested in latex try to find a store wherein you can lay down and try it first. That said, if you like it then bam! You’ve got a mattress that could last 20 years.

How do I make a mattress softer? This is easy. You can soften a mattress by making sure it’s broken in, adding a topper, or by placing it on a proper foundation. Gently walking on a mattress can speed the break-in process, but I’d take care not to jump or be too agressive if you’re a heavier person. Adding a topper is the tried and true method, but be aware that certain intangible factors related to your topper can make a big difference in how it feels on your mattress. A too thick topper can throw your body out of alignment, and sometimes high quality toppers can “drag” on the quilt of your mattress creating an odd “firmer” feel due to the friction of these materials working together. Lastly, adding a semiflex foundation (the typical wire grid) or an actual working boxspring can actually soften your mattress slightly. All of these are worth a shot if your bed is too firm.

How do I make a mattress firmer? This is difficult. The method I recommend most is to take the mattress off of your current foundation and put it on the floor. The flat, firm surface of the floor can make a bed slightly firmer. You might also try a firm topper, but in my experience layering a firm topper over soft materials creates an odd feeling that I don’t like. Still, some people have success with this method.

What about a mattress for heavier people? Great question. A heavier person is going to increase the stress they put on a mattress, so the best way to find a mattress that will last is to find one made with the highest quality materials. Again, this means high density foams and relatively high coil count units (depending on the coil system used). Let’s take a look at a few examples:

  • The Therapedic Medicoil Line is a great place to start: I have zero affiliation with this company (or any), but I’ve chatted with the owner many times and he’s one of the kindest in the business. This particular mattress is also built from exceptional materials and has what is supposedly the most durable coil system in the business.

  • STLBeds has the same lineup from Therapedic (and I think built from the same factory): There are subtle variations between these models, but again we have high density comfort materials and the same rock solid support system.

  • And… Saatva just released their own Medicoil style bed in the Saatva HD. Same Hinge-Flex coil unit as above and very similar construction. Chattam and Wells has one as well on US-Mattress. I say this not to advertise for these companies (or any), but to show you that this style of construction is incredibly durable.

  • Big Fig is an online mattress company that delivers a high quality product: It’s similar in construction to the Medicoil line with latex and high density polyfoam, but the Big Fig uses a pocketed coil support system. Still, it has an exceptionally high coil count for a given size. However! I’d still strongly recommend that someone try local stores before buying from an online company as a mattress “return” for many of these companies just means a spot in the landfill.

  • There’s also the Titan by Brooklyn Bedding, although details here are a little scarce: Their Titanflex foam is a very high density polyfoam, but I can’t find the details for the other foams used in the mattress. Still, Brooklyn has brick and mortar stores that would allow you to try the mattress before you purchase it. I’d rank this below the other listed examples, although I typically like Brooklyn better than most other online retailers.

  • You could also consider an all latex mattress. Latex is a supremely durable material, although it has a distinct feel that doesn’t work for all sleepers. An all latex bed would also allow you to customize one side of the mattress versus the other.

Hey wait what about us skinny/light/small people?! I hear you. If you’re very light or very thin, you’re going to run into your own set of problems with beds. Namely, that medium or firm mattresses might feel firm to very firm, but plush mattresses designed for heavy people can feel “floaty” and lack support due to excessive comfort materials. I can commiserate. And while I can’t tell you exactly what mattress will feel best to you, I can tell you that you’ll probably want a softer coil (either an alternating coil system or a pocketed coil with a gauge around 15) with 3-5 inches of quality comfort material. High quality foams are still important here, although you’ll probably get slightly more life out of low quality foams than a heavier person. Still, if you ignore quality entirely and buy a pillowtop pile of sink from Sealy you’re probably gonna have a bad time. Too much foam won’t allow you to contact the support layer correctly, and poor quality foam will soften in the middle resulting in… a hammock. No bueno.

How do I get the best price on a mattress? There’s an art to this, but it generally comes down to comparison shopping. Ignore the name of the mattress and learn the specifics in terms of foam layers and mattress height. Then check online retailers for the same model and the same specs. If it’s a big brand, then this will be the same mattress. I would add that using Google Shopping can sometimes reveal smaller stores that will carry a mattress at very very low prices, so that might be a useful place to search as well. Then approach your preferred retailer with an educated understanding of what the price of the mattress shouldbe and ask if they will price match other stores. Most will do so. Still, I’d ask that you remember that brick and mortar stores have their own overhead to pay, so their prices may be slightly higher than an online retailer selling from a warehouse. I’ll leave the ethics of purchasing locally vs purchasing on the internet to you.

And… I’m exhausted. That’s a start at least. Let me know if you agree, disagree, or have data to back up specific points. I’ve been meaning to check a few foam suppliers websites for material sheets regarding durability and density, but likely won’t have time for that today!

Edit: Added a few examples, cleaned up a few typos, and clarified a few points. And if you’re interested in peaking at some material data sheets on various foams (as well as a seller’s estimate of their lifespan and durability) take a look here: I’d also point out that different formulations of polyfoam appear to have different estimated durabilities despite similar densities, although generally… lower density means lower durability and lower quality. Still, I’d love to see the manufacturer data.

Second Edit: Added a few questions about the break in process. And latex. Future questions- how do I make my mattress softer? Or how do I make my mattress firmer?

Third Edit: Added a little more information on foundations. I’ll add some information on zoned systems, back pain, and price matching this week. Although this is getting wordy, so I may need to change the formatting.

Many more Edits: Added details on large and small person mattress shopping, clarified a few points, and added a rough guide on getting a good price on a large brand mattress. I’ll call this version 1.0 at this point. In the future I’ll add a little more on the DIY process and address a few other things that have come up.