Although the typical person spends a third of their life on their mattress, most of us know little about what these products are made of.
Don’t worry – we’ve got you covered.
Here’s everything you ever wanted to know about the materials that go into your mattress.
What Is Memory Foam Made Of?
Memory foam is probably the most trending material in the mattress world today.
First developed by NASA engineers back in the 1970s, memory foam is notable for its level of comfort and support.
It’s classified as a “viscoelastic” material, which means that it becomes softer in response to your body temperature, as well as the shape of your body.
Memory foam mattresses offer almost unmatched localized support, which seriously reduces your risk of developing pressure points overnight.
The heavier parts of your body sink into the mattress, while the lighter parts float on top.
This means that, ideally at least, your entire body weight is distributed evenly.
Traditional vs Plant-Based Memory Foam
Most memory foam is made almost entirely synthetically, by treating petroleum-based polyurethane with certain chemicals.
Recently, however, some memory foam companies have started marketing themselves as “organic” or “plant-based.”
While there is some truth to these claims, you still probably shouldn’t be thinking of these things a natural in most senses.
The term “plant-based” just means that some portion of the mattress is made of plant-derived oils.
While this is probably somewhat easier on the environment than regular memory foam, there’s no getting around how synthetic most memory foam is.
Polyfoam vs Memory Foam
Polyfoam mattresses, meanwhile, are fairly close to memory foam mattresses in terms of material, although their feel is very different.
Memory foam mattresses are built with a ton of tiny “cells” of foam that contract and expand in response to your body weight.
They’re also responsive to your body heat, and will hold the impression of your profile after you get up.
Polyfoam doesn’t have any of that.
It’s a lower-grade material – far less durable and conformable than memory foam.
It doesn’t have any cells, but is instead just porous all the way through.
There is some advantage to this, since it means heat won’t get trapped in the mattress as easily as it does in memory foam.
Since sleeping hot is one of the most common complaints when buying a mattress, this is a pretty major upside.
That said, many memory foam mattress companies are now experimenting with open-cell foam, which gets rid of any possibility of trapped heat.
The main advantage to most polyfoams is just price.
They’re incredibly cheap, which is why you’ll find them in all kinds of innerspring mattresses.
What’s in an “Organic” Mattress?
While mattress shopping, you might also come across the term “organic mattress.”
This means that some portion of your mattress is made from natural materials.
Be aware, though – some mattress companies will label themselves “organic,” but really use a blend of synthetic and organic materials in their product.
If you’re looking for the genuine article, only buy mattresses labelled “100% organic” or “100% natural” – preferably with a couple respectable certifications.
Most organic mattresses are made with at least one layer of latex.
The latex used in these things comes to us from rubber trees plantations, most of which are somewhere in Southeast Asia.
These trees are tapped for their sap – a milky, sticky substance that slowly collects in buckets.
Many gallons of this sap – about 12 acres worth of rubber trees! – goes into making a single latex mattress.
Once all that goodness has been gathered together, the latex of your mattress then gets baked according to one of two processes: the Dunlop method, and the Talalay method.
The Dunlop Method
Dunlop is the simpler of the two.
This whole process was invented way back in the 20’s, and it’s remained pretty much the same since then.
The rubber sap is poured into casts, which are then stuck in a vulcanization oven and “baked” into mattresses.
During this process, some chemicals are added to the latex to help improve the feel.
Once the mattresses are done baking, they’re then washed, dried, and reheated to evaporate any moisture that remains.
The Talalay Method
The Talalay method, meanwhile, is slightly more complex.
This time, when the latex is added to the casts, they’re only filled up partway.
The casts are then sealed and exposed to a vacuum, causing the latex to expand and fill the remainder of the space.
Right after this, the mattress is flash frozen, which locks all the added chemicals in place.
Then, carbon dioxide is added to the mattress, which causes it to gel, before it’s finally baked at 220º.
This results in a slightly bouncier feel than the Dunlop method, as well as a degree of give and conformability that’s very similar to memory foam.
Organic Comfort Layers
In addition to their latex bases, many organic mattresses also come with plant- and/or animal-based comfort layers.
Some companies will use cotton or natural fibers.
Others will just stick to sheep’s wool, or a combination of cotton and wool.
What’s in an Innerspring Mattress?
Finally, we come to innerspring mattresses.
These are the most common of all mattress types.
Notable for their unique bounciness and spring, innersprings are made up of two main sections: the coil core, and the comfort layer.
The Coil Core
The coil core is definitely the most distinctive part of an innerspring mattress.
If you have an innerspring, it uses one of the four kinds of mattress coils: Bonnell coils, offset coils, pocket coils, and continuous coils.
Each of these coil types has its own unique characteristics, but all of them are made with steel.
Mattress Comfort Layers
Innerspring comfort layers, meanwhile, are a bit more complicated.
This is the part of the mattress that makes it actually comfortable to lie on top of, and it can be made with pretty much any material under the sun.
We’ve already mentioned a couple common ones – memory foam, polyfoam, latex and natural fibers – but there are still two other kinds of innerspring comfort layers: microcoils, and buckling column gel.
Microcoils: A Growing Up-and-Comer
Microcoils are one of the newest technologies in mattress manufacturing.
They’re pretty much exactly what they sound like: incredibly tiny mattress springs!
Now, I know what you’re thinking – that sounds incredibly uncomfortable to sleep on.
But it turns out, when you make a mattress spring small enough and stick it in some soft gel, it makes for a surprisingly luxurious sleep.
Some mattresses go double- or even triple-decker with their microcoils – springs upon springs in progressively smaller layers.
All of this increases the amount of pressure support your mattress can offer, since the springs can contract and expand in response to the shape of your body.
Buckling Column Gel: The Future of Mattresses?
Finally, the last mattress material we’ll be talking about is both one of the rarest and most interesting: buckling column gel.
Only one mattress company is currently using this construction technique – but with the help of this technology, they’ve risen up to become the number one most popular mattress in America today.
I’m talking about the Purple mattress.
This bizarre product’s claim to fame is its strange square pattern of synthetic purple squishiness.
The company calls it the Purple Smart Comfort Grid, and it’s been taking the market by storm.
Basically, all it’s made of is a grid of compressible gel.
The gel is super stretchy and flexible, allowing it to shift in place to perfectly suit the shape of your body.
Unfortunately for mattress makers other than Purple, the company currently owns the patent on buckling column gel – so while this might be the material of the future, for now, you can only get it at one place.
What About Airbeds and Waterbeds?
Now, I know what you’re thinking.
You’ve gotten 1300 words into an article about mattress materials, and there still isn’t anything on airbeds or waterbeds?
Both of these products are incredibly simple in terms of their materials.
Tough polymers hold the air/water in place, and some kind of comfort layer usually sits on top.
The problem with these kinds of mattresses, unfortunately, is that you typically want something a little more solid under you when you’re trying to sleep.
Both airbeds and waterbeds are prone to developing leaks, which can often be a serious hassle to fix.
Conclusion: What’s Your Mattress Made Of?
As we’ve seen, mattresses can be made from a huge range of materials.
Memory foam, polyfoam, latex foam; springs and microcoils and cotton and wool; polymers and natural fibers and buckling column gel – the possibilities are practically endless.
To help you sort through all the options available in the mattress world, Ted and Stacey’s Mattress Guides has put together a number of easy-to-read guides on the best mattress out there today.
If you’re looking for a good place to start, I’d recommend our guide to the best mattresses of the year.
Treat yourself to the sleep your body needs.
Happy shopping, y’all – and pleasant dreams!
Founder and Owner
Ted is the founder and owner of Mattress Guides and is an expert in his field. Ted believes that having the right mattress is key to getting a good night’s sleep and feeling well-rested in the morning.
Updated at November 6, 2020