Foam Mattresses: Types & Differences

Foam Mattresses: Types & Differences

See How The Different Foam Mattresses Compare

In the past decade, foam mattresses have become common in the mattress industry and foams are also used in nearly every type bed. From all-foam mattresses to spring hybrids, the majority of beds these days contain some type of foam material. However, not all foam is created equal. There are several types of materials that manufacturers can use and each has pros and cons that consumers should consider when shopping for a new mattress. In this article, we will compare the different types of foam mattresses so you can see which material is the best fit for your needs.

How Do Different Foam Mattresses Compare?

Foam mattresses usually refers to beds that are made exclusively of foam materials, without springs or other types of support systems. There are a few primary types of foam mattresses, differentiated by their composition. Polyurethane, memory foam, and latex foam are the key material types, though each category also has differentiation.

Polyurethane Foam

Flexible polyurethane foams are created by reacting polyols with isocyanates, along with surfactants, catalysts and other additives. High-density foams can be achieved with blowing agents, frothing or other methods. The complex chemical reaction was developed in the 1950s and creates foams which are widely used in mattresses, furniture, cars, and homes. By modifying the ingredients and processes, manufacturers can produce polyurethane foams with a wide range of properties from ultra plush to firm and conforming to rigid.

Comparing Polyurethanes

One of the biggest ways polyurethane foams differ is in their density (the percentage of polymers in the foam). Most poly foams are typically under 1.8 lbs per cubic foot, though high-density foams are 1.8-2.5 lbs, and high-resilience foams are over 2.5 lbs. Higher density foams are more resistant to compression, and thus provide a more durable mattress, especially when polyurethane is used as the support core. Cost does increase with density however, so mattresses with denser foams can be more expensive.

About Polyurethane Foam Mattresses

There are mattresses made exclusively of polyurethane foam, as well as beds that use more rigid polyurethane “cores” for support or use lower density polyurethane for padding in upper layers. The cost of polyurethane is usually less than that of memory foam or latex, and higher-density foams cost more than lower density foams. These types of mattresses are usually around 5-10 inches thick, and are often sold by discount stores or futon mattress retailers.

Memory Foam

Many shoppers looking into foam mattresses for the first time can find the distinction between memory foam and poly foams confusing. Essentially, memory foam is a type of polyurethane, so all memory foam is polyurethane, but not all polyurethane is memory foam. Memory foam is made in a way similar to polyurethane, but there are a few key differences.

Memory Foam vs Polyurethane

Memory foam was developed when scientists were seeking ways to lessen G-force stress on astronauts, though it found it’s true calling in the bedding and seating industries. What sets memory foams (AKA visco-elastic foam) apart is that they react to temperature and/or weight differently. The memory foam is designed to contour to a person’s shape without exerting upward pressure, and to return to it’s original state once the pressure/heat is removed. Most memory foams are temperature sensitive, meaning they soften with body heat (and become stiffer in cooler temperatures). Some newer generations of memory foam have reduced temperature sensitivity and contour in response to pressure rather than heat.

New Memory Foams

Recent years have also seen manufacturers attempting to improve memory foams by adding gels or by using plant-based oils in exchange for a portion of petroleum. The gels or “phase change materials” have become popular as manufacturers claim they can reduce temperatures, something that about 10-15% of traditional memory foam mattress owners complain about.

Reviews seem to show slightly improvements when gel foams are close to the surface, though Consumer Reports found little to know difference. Plant-based memory foams have a greener profile than traditional poly foams, and some manufacturers may also take extra measures to make their beds more eco-friendly than the average foam mattress.

Comparing Memory Foams

Like polyurethane foams, memory foam mattresses are also gauged by density. The density of memory foam runs a different scale however. Low density memory foams are those under 3.5 lbs (2.0lbs is the lowest most manufacturers will use). Medium density memory foam ranges between 3.5 and 5.0 lbs, while high density is anything over 5.0 lbs (7.0 lbs is the maximum usually seen).

Lower density foams are less likely to trap heat, less likely to offgas, less temperature sensitive, and less expensive, however they are also less supportive, less durable and provide less pressure point relief than higher density foams. There are a wide range of brands using low, medium and high density memory foam in all price ranges.

About Memory Foam Mattresses

Memory foam mattresses can be found in a wide variety of retail stores and from a wide variety brands, ranging from both discount to luxury. These type of beds are usually around 8-14 inches thick, containing anywhere from 2-8 inches of memory foam supported by regular polyurethane.

Latex Foam

Latex foam mattresses have been around since the 1970s, but did not really enter the mainstream market until the 1990s due to cost improvements. Latex material can come from either natural or synthetic sources, or more often, a mix of the two.

In contrast to polyurethane and memory foams, latex foams feel more resilient or “bouncy”, and they also tend to offer greater resistance to compression. Natural latex foam mattresses have been gaining popularity in recent years as healthier alternative to traditional bedding since they can be made without petrochemicals and other potentially harmful additives. Latex foam is more costly to produce however.

Comparing Latex Foams

Natural latex is derived from rubber trees which are tapped, similarly to syrup trees. Harvested latex is more expensive than synthetic material, but it is prized for being eco-friendly, especially when compared to other foams. Natural latex foam can also be made without toxic chemicals and harsh fire retardants, which makes it a popular with people seeking greener or healthier bedding options. However, there can be a lot of greenwashing with these products, and even foams blended with synthetic latex can technically be called “natural”.

Synthetic latex, or styrene-butadiene rubber, was developed during WWII to meet heavy supply demands. It is made with petroleum-based ingredients and other chemicals. Unlike natural latex, it is not “green”, and it can be prone to the same odor and environmental issues as polyurethanes. Synthetic latex does cost less and is easier for manufacturers to work with, so it tends to be more affordable. It still offers many of the same benefits as natural, but may be less durable/resilient and less springy.

Both natural and synthetic latex mattresses are made using the same methods. In the Dunlop process, the liquid latex whipped with a few additives (a foaming agent, gelling agent, and curing agent), and then molded and heat cured.

The Talalay method adds a vacuum sealed molding chamber and flash-freezing to this process, which results in a more controllable product. Both Dunlop and Talalay latex can be synthetic, blended, or natural. On a scale, synthetic Dunlop is the cheapest to produce, while all-natural Talalay and organic Dunlop are most expensive.

Often, latex is compared in ILD (indentation load deflection), which is a reference to how firm the foam feels. Lower ILDs require less weight to compress, thus feel softer, while higher ILDs feel firmer. According to a major manufacturer, 14 is ultra-plush, 24 is soft, 28 is medium, 32 is firm, 36 is extra firm and 40 is ultra firm. Mattress makers often us 36-44 ILD for cores, and use the softer latex layers in topper layers.

About Latex Foam Mattresses

Mattresses made of latex foam can be more difficult shop for than memory foam mattresses due to the complex terminology. They can also be more difficult to find in stores, though online retailers have broadly expanded options in this category. Some companies also produce beds with latex layered over polyurethane to produce a cheaper mattress, though these types of foam mattresses tend to receive less satisfactory reviews than all-latex beds and also have a reduced durability.

Choosing Between Foam Mattresses

When it comes to finding the best mattress, the only thing certain is that comfort is subjective. There are many mattress types available because people have diverse needs, preferences, and budgets. Both memory foam and latex mattresses have similar owner satisfaction rates in general (around 80%), both exceeding innerspring beds, while mattresses made exclusively of polyurethane tend have satisfaction ratings around 70-75%.

Memory foam users praise pain relief, motion isolation, and comfort, but some people may sleep hot, dislike initial odors, or find denser foams hard to move on. Latex mattress owners praise durability, pain relief, support, but may experience heat retention, and with synthetics, initial odors. The two materials have very different feels, with memory foam absorbing motion and readily contouring to sleepers and latex offering a more resilient feel and more subtle contouring.

Poly foam mattresses are often seen as a good value, but are more likely to be purchased for temporary or guest use. Polyurethane foam helps relieve pressure, but does not have the same contouring/buoyant properties as memory foam.

If you are trying to determine which of the foam mattresses might be the best fit for you, test out a variety of beds and take note of what you like and dislike. Some people prefer the contouring sensation of memory foam, while others prefer the slightly bouncy feel of latex.

You may also have other considerations such chemical sensitivities or sleep preferences that may make one type more ideal than another. Once you’ve narrowed down your search, don’t forget to compare a variety of brands, as quality and features can vary significantly. If you have more questions about foam mattresses, feel free to leave them in the comments below.

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