Mattress companies will sell you the promise of a perfect night’s sleep, sometimes for thousands of dollars. Their offerings, hybrid mattresses, cooling gels, and customized sleep settings, can be confusing to navigate. To help you pick, we put mattresses to the test. We determine how well a mattress will support your spine, whether you sleep on your side or your back. We simulate eight years of use to see how a mattress keeps its shape, firmness, and support. We even cut mattresses open to see what’s inside. This guide will arm you with expert knowledge to pick the style or model that best suits your needs.
While you can find mattresses that use all sorts of materials from foams and latex to mostly air, 60% of those sold are the classic innerspring. The springs are actually metal, usually steel coils. In some models, those coils are individually wrapped, others are coils within coils, and some even have an hourglass look to them. Many innerspring manufacturers are offering hybrid models adding special layers of cushioning, foam, or padding in gels. Our tests showed none of these add-ons truly sets one innerspring mattress apart from another.
One way we figure this out is by measuring the natural curve of a person’s spine and then monitoring whether those curves are supported on a mattress. Our tests do find that innersprings overall are a bit better than other types of mattresses for side sleepers. Innersprings are also easier to move around on compared to memory foam mattresses because they offer more bounce. But there’s a downside. Some models can transmit bounciness, so if you’ve got a restless co-sleeper, you’ll feel it. We drop a weighted ball on each mattress to see how well it resists that bounciness. You can get a sense of this when you shop in a store by lying down with your partner and checking whether you feel his or her movements.
The Tempur-Pedic brand made memory foam a household name but now it’s available for many mattress manufacturers. If you’ve got aches and pains, consider it. Surveys reveal that people with pain, including back pain and arthritis and joint problems, find a memory foam mattress improves their sleep compared to other mattress types. Memory foam is mostly polyurethane, a durable plastic substance that responds to the heat and pressure of your body and is supposed to conform to it. Some memory foam beds offer dual firmness, that way you and your partner can customize how firm or soft you want your side.
Memory foam also does a great job of isolating movements so you won’t get jostled when your partner tosses and turns in his or her sleep, but changing positions on some memory foam requires effort because you tend to sink into the mattress. Some people also say it sleeps hot. Many manufacturers are infusing the phone with gel that they claim will reduce surface temperature. One of the major downsides of some memory foam mattresses is the plasticky chemical smell. That’s likely the polyurethane based memory foam. But other chemicals, like flame retardants and fillers, which can be used in foam and other beds, can also lead to obnoxious odors. Be sure to air out any memory foam mattress for at least 24 to 48 hours before you cover it with sheets and sleep on it.
If you’re worried about the smell but still want the memory foam feel, you might want to opt for natural latex. Natural latex is made using serum from rubber trees. It’s processed using one of two methods whose names you may hear: Dunlop and Talalay. Dunlop produces a firmer material while the more expensive Talalay yields a softer mattress. Many manufacturers will layer a mattress using both processes to create a customized feel. There are also synthetic latex mattresses. These tend to be less expensive than natural latex but are blended with other chemicals.
Adjustable air mattresses allow you to control the firmness. No, we’re not talking about the plastic inflatable ones you throw on the floor for guests or camping. These are mattresses filled with pockets of air called air bladders surrounded by foam. Many come with other layers of materials, like foam or gel tops, for added comfort. Most adjustable air mattresses allow you to customize half the bed to your desired level of firmness anytime you want with a remote control, usually right from the bed.
However, some people find the foam support that divides the two sides uncomfortable to roll over so think about this if you tend to move around a lot. Other models have connected air bladders under the head and foot zones and then a separate air bladder under the lumbar zone. You can adjust these two zones to your liking but both partners have to agree on the settings. Try adjusting the firmness up and down at the store. You want it to respond quickly and relatively quietly.
More companies are selling mattresses marketed as green, natural, or organic, partly in response to consumers questions about chemicals in mattresses. For example, there are concerns with the use of certain fire retardant chemicals, in particular polybrominated diphenyl ethers, known as PBDEs. PBDEs have been banned in some states, Canada, and Europe over health issues. Newer flame retardants have replaced the use of some PBDEs but there are worries with those as well.
Some mattresses can also contain formaldehyde and other fuming chemicals from certain adhesives and materials used in mattress construction. And harmful pesticides can be used to grow conventional cotton. But natural and organic may not mean what you think. The term natural isn’t regulated by the government or any third-party so it’s meaningless and a mattress can be labeled organic even if only a portion of its materials are certified organic.
There are two meaningful third-party certifications to look for: the global organic textile standard, or GOTS, and the global organic latex standard, or GOLS. GOTS requires an organic mattress contain at least 95% certified organic fiber and it prohibits the use of harmful processing materials and chemicals, allergenic dyes, and many other potentially harmful ingredients. The GOLS label requires that any latex in a mattress come from a certified organic source. Natural latex mattresses may have both the GOLS and GOTS labels. There are other labels that can help lessen your exposure to certain chemicals.
The Oeko-Tex Standard 100, the Greenguard gold, and the Greenguard labels all test final products for potentially harmful chemical emissions and set limits on volatile organic compounds or VOCs. The Oeko-Tex takes it a step further and bans the use of certain flame retardants and dyes containing carcinogens and allergens. If you’re concerned about chemicals added to polyurethane, look for the certiPUR-US label. It forbids the use of certain flame retardants and requires testing for other chemical emissions such as formaldehyde in polyurethane foam.
Prices for mattresses with green claims run from as little as $600 to more than $25,000 for luxury versions. In general, if you’re looking for certification, expect to pay around $2,000 or more for a queen-size mattress. What’s the right price? Survey data shows people typically spend about $800 to $1,200 on a new mattress. There are upscale brands charging $30,000 to more than $100,000 for luxury materials like horsehair and cashmere. But you can buy a perfectly good mattress for under $1,000. The sweet spot is about $600 to $1,500 dollars. And with more online only mattress retailers springing up, pricing is getting more competitive.
Look for companies that offer at least a 30-night trial, free shipping on returns, and full credit on that return. Generally, online manufacturers don’t rely on sales so the advertised price is what you’ll pay. However, at a physical store, aim to pay 50% or more off of the regular price that sometimes called the MSRP, or manufacturer’s suggested retail price. Stores usually list these prices right along with the sale prices. Skip extended warranties. They usually only cover manufacturing defects, not normal wear and tear. Save your money and buy new sheets instead.
When it’s time to give a mattress a test drive, don’t let sexy sales terms like ultra-plush, super soft, or even firm sway you. We independently measure firmness by applying a slow steady force to each mattress. The mattresses response to that force is recorded, averaged, and assigned a value from 1 through 10. 10 represents a very soft mattress and 0 is very firm. Our tests consistently find differences between what manufacturers claim and our results so concentrate on whether it feels right to you. A few tips: first, choose the firmest mattress that’s still comfortable. You want your mattress to support your spine but still allow it to maintain its natural curve. Next, bring your pillow from home. W
hen lying on your back, make sure the mattress meets the curve of your lower back. On your side, you don’t want your shoulders and hips taking on too much pressure or sinking in too far which can throw your spine into an uncomfortable shape. Try to roll into a different position and note whether it’s easy. After lying on the bed for at least 15 minutes, if you feel pain at your heaviest points, the mattress may be too firm. Aches, numbness, or tingling mean you’re on a mattress that’s too soft. Here are common sizes you’ll see. The largest mattress is the king at 76 by 80 inches. California kings aren’t as wide as kings but they are longer, 72 by 84 inches. A queen is 60 by 80 inches, fuller double beds are 53 by 75 inches, and twins 38 by 75 inches. Many companies will craft a custom size, too, for a price.