Shopping for a mattress today means making sense of a dizzying variety of materials, construction techniques and features — memory foam, innerspring, latex, pillow-top — the list goes on and on!
To simplify all of this, it helps to know that all mattresses can be thought of in terms of two basic layers: a comfort layer and a support layer. The materials used in each of these layers are what determine whether or not a mattress is the right choice for you. Each material has its own unique qualities and characteristics that will affect whether or not a mattress will meet your particular needs.
The comfort layer is the padding used in the top part of the mattress. The materials used in this layer determine how a mattress feels when you lie down on it—including the quality of pressure relief it provides, how well it conforms to your body, how warm or cool it feels, and more. Most comfort materials can be made to feel firm, medium, or soft, so the softness level is something you choose separately from the comfort material. Common comfort layer materials include memory foam, polyurethane foam, latex, gel, micro-coils, and natural materials.
The support layer, located beneath the comfort layer, is the biggest determinant of how your back feels when you wake up in the morning, and also plays a big role in how easy it is to reposition on the mattress, how much movement you feel when your partner tosses and turns, and more. The most common materials for the support layer of a mattress are coil springs and foam, but latex, air chambers, and even water chambers are also used as support layer materials.
Each combination of comfort material and support material can be thought of as a “mattress type.” Your first step in shopping for a mattress will be to determine what mattress type(s) are best for you—meaning what combination of comfort and support layers will fit your needs. Just as importantly, you'll determine which types you can rule out. Once you know the mattress type you are looking for, you can then find the brand and model that offer the best combination of quality and price.
To help you with your search, we've listed the most common types of mattresses available today, according to how they are generally classified by retailers.
Long the standard of the mattress industry, representing over 80% of the market, innerspring mattresses are distinguished by their use of coil springs in the support layer. They are manufactured in combination with many different comfort layer materials, from polyfoam to memory foam to latex. Innerspring support layers known for their longevity and good back support.
See our Innerspring Mattress Guide for more information on the two main kinds of innerspring mattresses (Pocketed Coils and Connected Coils), and their respective pros and cons.
Memory foam mattresses have been rapidly growing in popularity since the mid-'90's. These mattresses use memory foam in the comfort layer only, and most often use either polyurethane foam or innerspring as the support layer. Relative to other comfort layers, memory foam excels at pressure relief and is also distinguished by its slow, form-fitting responsiveness, which creates the sensation that you are gently "melting" into the bed.
See our Memory Foam Mattress Guide for more information on the different types of memory foam and how to determine whether they are right for you.
Latex mattresses have been available for decades but are currently experiencing a resurgence in popularity. Latex can be found in mattresses as either a comfort layer or support layer, and sometimes both. Relative to memory foam, latex offers similar conforming ability, but is easier for changing sleep positions and sleeps less "hot." In addition, some latex (though not all) is made from the sap of a rubber tree, making it a more natural alternative than other mattress materials.
See our Latex Mattress Guide for more information on the different types of latex mattresses and how they may suit your needs.
Air mattresses look similar to innerspring mattresses but use air chambers as the support layer instead of coils. On top of the air support layer, many different types of comfort layers can be used, including memory foam, latex, or polyurethane foam. Air mattresses are known principally for the ability to adjust the softness level of the mattress very precisely, and many also provide the ability to have different softness levels on each side of the bed. Of course, these high-end air mattresses are not to be confused with more basic, portable air mattresses that are used for camping or as a stowable sleep accommodation for friends and relatives.
See our Air Mattress Guide for more information on the different types of air mattresses, and what personal preferences would make them a good fit for you.
Polyurethane foam (also known as foam or poly foam) is by far the most common material used in mattresses, and can be used in either the comfort layer or the support layer, or both. It is so common that when it is used only in the comfort layers, the mattress is typically referred to by the type of support layer that is used (a mattress with a polyurethane foam comfort layer and an innerspring support layer would typically be called an innerspring mattress). Recently, mattresses with foam support layers have become increasingly common, in part due to their motion isolation properties, and in part due to their ability to be compressed into a box that can be shipped via courier delivery services like UPS and FedEx. Mattresses with foam support layers are available with many types of comfort layers, including latex, memory foam, gel, and even in all poly foam construction.
See our Foam Mattress Guide for more information on the different types of foam mattresses.
Gel mattresses have become increasingly common in recent years, thanks to an increasing demand for “cooler” sleep. These mattresses generally use gel in the comfort layer of the mattress. The gel comes in many forms, from layers of pure gel to tiny flecks of gel mixed into foam. In addition to the widely touted cooling properties of gel, certain types of gel can also provide unique pressure relief and spinal alignment benefits.
See our Gel Mattress Guide for more information on the different types of gel mattresses, and to determine whether they are right for you.
In recent years, rising concerns over the chemicals used in foams and other mattress components have led to a growing number of mattress options that utilize more natural materials. Excluding natural latex (which can be used in both the support and comfort layers), most natural materials are found in the comfort layer of the mattress, where they are closest to the sleeper. Examples of natural materials include wool and cotton, as well as more exotic materials such as horsehair and coir. Many of these materials are naturally breathable, giving them unique comfort and cooling properties in addition to the peace of mind that comes from their lack of chemicals.
See our Natural and Organic Mattress Guide for more information on the different types of natural materials used in mattresses, the various certifications that are available to mattress manufacturers, and help in deciding the best option for you.
Though waterbeds have declined in popularity since their peak in the 1970's, they continue to improve and retain a core following. Waterbeds are distinguished by their use of liquid chambers for their support layer. Above this support layer, virtually any type of comfort layer can be used. Some waterbeds feature little to no padding in their comfort layer. Waterbeds are most often praised for their excellent pressure relief and temperature control.
See our Waterbed Guide for more information on the different types of waterbeds and whether they are a good fit for you.
Luxury mattresses are different from the other types of mattresses on this list, because their classification is based more on their price point and premium quality than on the use of a specific type of material. Luxury mattresses typically run up to $5,000, and are available in high-end versions of nearly every type of comfort and support layer. By contrast, ultra-luxury mattresses, which start at $5,000 and run upwards of $10-20,000, tend to be much more focused on the use of an innerspring support layer, and are much more likely to emphasize natural materials in their comfort layers, as well as hand-crafted construction.
See our Luxury Mattress Guide for more information on the different types of luxury and ultra-luxury mattresses, and how to determine whether they are a worthwhile investment for you.