Most traditional innerspring mattresses are composed of two main layers: the coil support core on the bottom, and the comfort layers on top.
We talked a lot about those coils that make up your mattress in our previous article on innersprings.
Coils are crucial for providing the support your body needs.
They’re what give innersprings their distinctive springiness, and they control how far all the different parts of your body sink in when you lie down to sleep.
If you’ve ever tried lying down on a box spring by itself, though, you know that coils by themselves are not enough to provide comfort while trying to sleep.
Your body needs more than just hard metal to get a good night’s sleep.
It needs comfort layers: the other half of your innerspring mattress.
What Do Mattress Comfort Layers Do?
The main purpose of comfort layers is to provide a level of cushioning between you and your mattress’s support core.
You’d get horrible aches and pains if you tried sleeping on a mattress without its comfort layers.
Simply put, they’re what make a mattress comfortable to lie on (shocker, I know).
In addition to providing that buffer between you and the metal beneath you, comfort layers also have several therapeutic functions.
Various parts of a comfort layer help with spinal alignment, support, pressure point relief, and basic comfort.
The Quilting of Mattress Comfort Layers
Of all the different components of a mattress, quilting is probably the one you’re most familiar with.
That’s because it’s the uppermost layer of the mattress, and thus one of the only parts you’re likely to see while shopping.
It adds a layer of thickness and softness to your mattress, and can have a major impact on “hand feel” when you’re first having a look at a product.
As your mattress’s topmost layer, quilting also plays a big role in things like fire resistance, breathability, and temperature regulation.
Now, be sure not to get too carried away feeling up a mattress’s quilting.
Even if it seems incredibly soft to the touch, this might not translate into much of a difference when you lie down.
The softness of your quilting doesn’t mean much in terms of relieving pressure on your body, and if it’s too soft, it can actually reduce your support over time.
Certain kinds of quilting, such as foam, relieve pressure by evenly distributing weight across the entire body.
Other types of quilting, such as fiber, feel softer to the touch but provide less overall support.
Instead, they provide a more localized cushioning effect.
The Middle Upholstery
Below the quilting, you’ll find the largest component of most mattress’s comfort layers: the middle upholstery.
It’s easy to get lost in the mattress world because so much of what we talk about you never actually see with your own two eyes.
For most people, the quilting is the only comfort layer they actually have a good mental picture of, which is why it can sometimes get frustrating when we start talking about all the complicated stuff that’s going on underneath it.
The middle upholstery really is important, though.
Usually made of foam, it’s a soft, supportive material designed to increase sleeper comfort.
You wouldn’t want to sleep on a mattress without middle upholstery, and there are several ways mattress designers go about incorporating this level.
But more on that later.
The Comfort Layer Insulator
The bottommost comfort layer is known as the insulator.
Contrary to what its name might suggest to you, mattress insulators don’t actually have anything to do with temperature regulation–that’s more of a quilting thing.
Your insulator is probably really one of the least significant components of your mattress, at least as far as your purchase process is concerned.
Usually composed of fiber or mesh materials, an insulator acts as a barrier between the upper levels of comfort layer and your support core.
They keep coils from getting tangled in the softer materials, or even poking up to the surface of your mattress.
Unless you’re a mattress recycling company or thinking about deconstructing your mattress for parts, though, you probably don’t need to think about your mattress insulator all that much.
Just be glad it’s there!
Comfort Layer Construction Techniques
OK, we’re going to start getting a little technical here, but bear with us.
Basically, there are three main ways mattress manufacturers put comfort layers together: differential construction, progressive construction, and zoning.
The construction model your mattress uses can have a major impact on its performance and feel, so it pays to understand the similarities and differences between these three construction techniques—even if we do seem to be getting a little into tech-speak.
Differential Comfort Layer Construction
As the name suggests, differential construction differentiates more between the functions of the upper comfort layers and the lower support layers.
There’s a clear difference between the two parts of the mattress.
The upper layers are all about pressure relief and lower back support.
The support layers, on the other hand, just keeps the heavier parts of your body from sinking in too far into the mattress.
If you’re looking at a mattress built using differential construction, you’re going to want to pay more attention to the upper materials, and less attention to the materials they’re using in the support layers.
In terms of support layers, you just need something firm and sturdy here.
Beyond that, it really doesn’t matter all that much.
Your upper layers, on the other hand, need to offer the right level of both give and support.
(Read more about finding your proper firmness level.)
Progressive Comfort Layer Construction
In progressive construction, on the other hand, there’s a lot less of a difference between the your mattress’s upper and lower layers.
The upper comfort layers are generally thinner and often softer than in the differential construction, and they get “progressively” firmer as you sink deeper into the mattress.
Bottom line, this means upper materials matter less and support layer materials matter more.
Your mattress’s support layers are the ones relieving pressure in this kind of mattress, not the upper comfort layers.
Be sure to get the material you need, and don’t worry too much about what’s going on on top of your buy.
Zoned mattresses are very different from both progressive and differential mattresses in that the use of materials varies based on the part of your body they’re likely to be in contact with.
The firmness and material of your comfort layers is going to change based on which part of the mattress you’re looking at.
Usually, zoned mattresses divide your body into three main areas: the hips, the lumber (lower back), and the shoulders/upper chest.
Each of these areas requires a vastly different degree of support, and zoned mattresses account for this by using different “zones” of material for the different areas of your body.
Be wary when looking at zoned mattresses.
Incorrect zoning can do a lot more harm than good, and if you’re shopping in a brick-and-mortar mattress store, there’s a good chance your salesman won’t know what they’re talking about.
Above all, you don’t want to end up on a mattress with the wrong zones for you.
A good alternative to a zoned mattress might be to just invest in an adjustable bed, since these will often let you customize the amount of pressure different areas of your body are receiving, instead of just guessing at the kind of support you’ll need.
Comfort Layer Materials
There are a ton of different materials commonly used in mattress comfort layers—far too many to get into too much detail on them here.
We’ll get into more details on the specific properties of these materials in future articles, but for now, just keep in mind that you can’t expect all comfort layers to react to your body in the same way.
Breathability, support, firmness, temperature regulation, and more all depend on the kind of material your comfort layers are made from.
Don’t just take it for granted that the comfort layers your mattress comes with will actually suite your needs.
Comfort Layers vs Mattress Toppers
As a final note, be sure to realize that comfort layers are not the same thing as mattress toppers.
They both serve similar purposes a lot of the time, but comfort layers are part of your mattress itself—they’re what you’re buying, and you can’t really change them.
Mattress toppers, on the other hand, go on top of your mattress to provide extra softness and support.
Mattress toppers can make good mattresses excellent and bad mattresses at least bearable.
Still, you shouldn’t be depending too much on your mattress topper.
After all, if you don’t get your comfort layers right, there’s only so much a topper can really do.
Conclusion About Mattress Comfort Layers
Ready with all this new knowledge on mattress comfort layers, you’re now one step closer to making your final decision on the right mattress for you.
Navigating all the ins and outs of mattress anatomy is no small task, but it’s crucial for making informed decisions about the future of your bedroom.
Don’t give in to misleading mattress ads.
At the end of the day, the only time you should be left in the dark is when you shut off your light to sleep!
Updated at April 21, 2020