If you’ve been poking around the internet looking at memory foam mattresses, there’s a good change you’ve come across something known as “gel-infused memory foam” mattresses or just plain “gel” mattresses.
We use terms like those here on this site in our mattress reviews section, but mattress companies don’t always have the clearest answers when you start asking too many questions about just what, exactly their gel-infused foam actually is.
Certain manufacturers can try to make it seem like some kind of super-material, here to completely change the way we think about memory foam mattresses.
While the truth isn’t quite as game-changing as that, gel mattresses come with quite a few advantages, including cooler sleep and decreased recovery time (that is, they spring back into shape faster than other memory foams).
That said, they also have a couple drawbacks—including increased price and potentially reduced durability.
So, is a gel-infused mattress right for you?
There’s not really a simple answer to that question—so let’s have a closer look!
Problems With Memory Foam
While some people swear by the supportive, comfortable qualities of memory foam mattresses, the truth is that a lot of them come with some pretty serious drawbacks.
We’ve talked about this before, but the downsides of memory foam mattresses basically boil down to two points: hot sleep, and uncomfortable feel.
Traditional Memory Foam Sleeps Hot
The reason a lot of memory foam mattresses tend to sleep hot is simply because of the material used to produce them.
Memory foam is considered a viscoelastic, which in this case means that it requires heat just to properly morph to the shape of your body.
Traditional memory foams also tend to be close-celled, which means there’s very little airflow—so the body heat you give off can quickly become trapped in the air pockets of the material.
This can lead to uncomfortable, hot sleep, which is often both uncomfortable and detrimental to your sleep.
Our bodies’ temperatures need to decrease in order for us to properly get to sleep, so if you’re lying on top of a hot material, you’re probably going to have a harder time both falling asleep and staying asleep.
Sleeping hot has also been linked to things like slower metabolism (and you can read our full article on the best temperature for sleep).
Bottom line, sleeping hot is bad news.
Some Find Memory Foam Uncomfortable
Another issue with memory foam is that some people simply find it uncomfortable to sleep on.
There are a couple reasons for this.
First of all, there’s that unpleasant “sinking” feeling that irks so many people when lying on a memory foam bed
This is especially true in lower-density foams, which your body tends to just sink right into.
The other problem with memory foam is that it takes a little while to conform to the shape of your body whenever you change positions—both when you’re trying to get to sleep, and when you’re engaging in, ahem other activities.
This is annoying if you like to change your sleeping position a lot at night (or if you’re just a little more fun in the bedroom)!
How Gel Can Help with Memory Foam
Although gel-infused memory foam mattresses can’t solve all of the problems people associate with memory foam, they can help out quite a bit.
Not only do they tend to sleep cooler, but they’re also denser and more responsive than traditional memory foam!
Gel Cools You Off
Gel’s ability to bring cooler sleep on memory mattresses is probably its most-touted benefit.
Mattress companies love to talk about how their gel mattress is the perfect solution to this problem, and for the most part, they’re right.
Gel mattresses do indeed to tend to sleep cooler—at least, for the first part of the night.
This is because the material properties of gel combine those of solids and liquids.
Solids are permanently fixed in one shape, which you obviously need in your mattress (unless, of course, you’re looking to buy a waterbed)!
Liquids, on the other hand, usually have a higher specific heat than solids, which means it takes them longer to heat up when exposed to the same temperature as solids.
According to mattress review aggregate Sleep Like the Dead, gel-infused memory foam decreases complaints of hot sleep by as much as 30% when compared to traditional memory foam mattresses.
Note, though, that even liquids do get hot eventually—it just generally takes them longer than solids.
So while a good gel mattress should be able to keep you cool long enough for you to fall asleep, it’s going to get just as hot as regular memory foam during the night.
So your bed will still likely feel pretty warm when you wake up, and you might have some trouble getting back to sleep if you wake up in the middle of the night.
After all, high specific heat means it takes a material both longer to heat up and to cool down—so once your gel mattress is hot, it’s going to stay hot for a while.
Gel Helps With Comfort
Gel mattresses also often offer better comfort than their traditional counterparts.
If you look at the very first line of the Wikipedia article on liquids, you’ll read that “A liquid is a nearly incompressible fluid”—and in the context of mattresses, that means gel mattresses have got a significantly better recovery time than regular memory foam.
Gels don’t like to be pressed down, and they pop back into shape a lot faster than typical foam mattresses after they’ve been pressed down.
This makes changing positions a whole lot easier.
Gel foam also increases the density of your memory foam mattress, which can help relieve that sinking feeling so many people complain about.
High-density foams leave you resting on the surface of the mattress, rather than sinking too far into the layers below.
Issues with Gel Mattresses
Despite all these advantages, though, no mattress is perfect.
There are a couple issues that come along with gel-infused memory foam, and you’re going to want to take these seriously if you want a balanced idea of the purchase you might be getting into.
Gel Is More Expensive
First of all, gel mattresses are usually more expensive than regular memory foam mattresses (which are, in turn, more expensive than traditional innersprings)!
To be clear, it’s not always a huge difference—there are a lot of factors that go into determining a mattress’s price, but gel is definitely going to be one of the ones pushing for a bigger number next to that dollar sign.
Still, don’t let that totally turn you off if you’re looking for a reasonably priced mattress.
You’re probably not about to find too many gel mattresses at the bottom of the rummage bin, but they’re not just some luxury reserved for the ultra-rich.
Gel Is Less Durable
Gel mattresses tend to be less durable than regular memory foam ones, too.
This is especially true of ones with large beads, although small beads aren’t exempt from issues.
Basically, the beads tend to get pushed around on the mattress in response to the repeated pressure of your body at night—something mattress experts like to call “migration.”
This pretty much means your beads will gradually burrow holes in your mattress over time, which obviously isn’t too great for the thing’s life expectancy.
Some newer mattresses manufacturers, though, have started swirling in their gel with the rest of the materials of the mattress.
This helps a good bit with the durability problem, although some people have reported their gel swirls having migration problems, as well.
Highly-Rated Gel Mattresses
Despite these drawbacks, though, gel-infused memory foam has a lot to offer.
Both of these work with a thin layer of gel on the surface of the mattress, rather than distributed throughout the whole topmost layer.
Also, they both have some pretty reasonable prices (well under $1000).
This mattress employs a swirling technique with medical-grade gel, as well as air channels to improve overall ventilation.
Conclusion About Gel-Infused Memory Foam Mattresses
Overall, gel-infused memory foam offers a compelling alternative to traditional memory foam mattresses.
Although it does not eliminate all of the problems some people have with memory foam, it does do a great deal to handle them.
It sleeps cool, it springs back into place quickly, and it’s dense, so problems with sinkage are greatly reduced.
Although there are some problems with durability and price overall, these should be considered more on a case-by-case basis, since every mattress is different and many brands have taken great strides to avoid these drawbacks.
It would probably be a stretch to call gel a “super-material.”
It’s not perfect, and there’s really only so much it can do.
But it’s got a lot going for it, and if you’re in the market for a memory foam mattress, it might just be the product you’re looking to buy!
Updated at November 6, 2020