Replacing your mattress can be expensive, so a mattress topper is an effective way to revitalize or change the style of your bed instead.
With some careful research, the right one will give you what you need at a fraction of the cost of a brand new mattress.
In this article, I’ll discuss the key factors that can help inform your decision making. I’ll also cover the pros and cons of the main materials used in mattress toppers.
By cross-referencing the two sections, you’ll hopefully have a clearer idea about which style will be right for you.
Do I need a mattress pad, topper, protector, cover or encasement?
First of all, it’s useful to understand the difference between the various categories of products available for your mattress.
Mattress covers, protectors, and encasements
Mattress covers, protectors, and encasements are all about protecting your mattress from catastrophic spills and/or increasing the hypoallergenic protection from allergens such as dust mites.
Manufacturers don’t always use the same terminology, so it’s important to check what the product does, and how many sides it fits. They sometimes also include a padded top to offer some extra comfort, but their main function is usually protection rather than adding significant padding.
Reducing the living space for bed bugs is a good reason to use a six-sided encasement if you live in an area where bed bugs are an issue. It will completely enclose your mattress rather than just covering the top and sides.
Mattress pads can add some extra padding and comfort, but it’s unlikely to be as much as a topper. Much like covers or protectors, they are often designed to protect against fluids, oils, and spills, or help with allergies.
Some mattress pads are designed to do more than one job, which might affect the overall feel, quality, and price.
In the photo below you can see three layers: pad on top, topper in the middle, and mattress on the bottom. As a rule of thumb, a mattress pad tends to be thinner than a topper.
Mattress toppers are likely to add a more substantial layer of material to your bed than the previous categories. They can significantly change the feel of the bed surface, but not all in the same way. For example, they might change the softness, firmness, cushioning, warmth, breathability, motion isolation, springiness, or level of support you feel it gives your body.
You can use a topper and a pad or protective layer together to further improve the quality of your bed. By placing a mattress pad, cover, or encasement over the topper, you can help protect both the topper and the mattress.
Having said that, some companies use the terms interchangeably. They may call their product a topper or pad, but it’s actually much thicker or thinner than you would usually associate with that category. It’s always worth checking how much padding it actually provides, along with the features.
- Encasement: Completely encloses your mattress on all six sides to protect it from damage or help with allergens like dust mites and bed bugs.
- Cover/protector: Protects the mattress from damage, but often only on five sides like a fitted sheet. May provide some allergen reduction too.
- Pad: Might add some comfort, protection, or help with temperature regulation.
- Topper: A thicker layer that’s designed to add comfort or better body support.
Key points to consider when choosing a topper
With so many types of mattress topper, it might be helpful to first decide what you want or need from yours. Then you can work out which material will best meet your needs.
Personal preference (and even gut feeling) will probably play a role too, but if you’d like to weigh up the pros and cons, here are some of the key factors to take into account.
A higher price doesn’t necessarily guarantee it would be better for you personally. It’s about meeting your needs, not simply buying the most expensive one you can afford.
- Microfiber, polyester and basic cotton toppers tend to be the cheapest.
- Higher quality cotton, feather, and down are typically in the middle of the price range, but may be more expensive depending on the feathers or down used.
- Memory foam ranges from inexpensive to relatively expensive. Wool and latex tend to be the most expensive.
B) Pain relief, firmness, and extra support
If it’s extra support for your back and other pressure points that you need, memory foam and latex might be worth considering. Some people find that they cushion better as they mold to your body. They tend to be more durable too and don’t flatten as quickly as other materials do.
C) Comfort and Softness
With such a dizzying range of materials, brands, densities, and thicknesses, you should be able to find the perfect level of softness and comfort. Your definition of comfort may be different from the next person’s though.
Would you prefer a topper that molds to your body, such as with latex or memory foam? Or would you prefer lying on a soft and fluffy surface, such as microfiber, cotton, feathers, or down?
In many ways, achieving softness is easier than firmness with a mattress topper. You could try a low-density memory foam topper, or one of the many relatively inexpensive fabric toppers which add a plush layer of soft padding.
D) Thickness and density options
Most mattress toppers fall in the range of one to four inches in thickness, either to start with or once you flatten them under your weight.
If you need to revitalize an aging mattress, sleep on your side, or if you (and perhaps a partner) carry significant weight, three or four inches should be sufficient. The materials with the best range of thickness are memory foam and latex.
In addition, the density of a topper is important in determining how much support it will provide you. Memory foam and latex toppers tend to have the most choice, allowing you to find just the right comfort level you need.
See the memory foam section below for more information about thickness and density. To give you a quick point of reference, I weigh 85 kilograms (187 pounds) and sleep best when using a three inch medium firmness latex or memory foam mattress topper.
E) Motion isolation: reducing the noise of a partner moving
Memory foam and latex can help reduce how much you’re disturbed at night when your partner moves in bed. If you sleep with someone who keeps you awake with their tossing and turning, they are both good choices.
Memory foam probably has slightly more effective motion isolation, but both are much better than sleeping directly on top of a sprung mattress, or a fabric or feather topper.
F) Body heat
Memory foam and microfiber mattress toppers tend to retain the most body heat and perhaps aren’t the best choice if you tend to overheat in bed. Some manufacturers try to mitigate this with techniques like adding gel beads or ventilation tubes in the memory foam, which sometimes helps.
Wool and latex toppers are good all year round as they don’t overheat so much, but still feel comfortable in cooler weather. The cover and/or bedsheet can also contribute to how cool the bed surface feels by wicking away sweat or feeling cooler against the skin.
If you’re a hot sleeper and this is your main concern, I’d recommend trying latex.
Some materials are better for certain allergies, so it’s worth checking the list below. And some are less likely to result in serious problems with bed bugs, mites, mildew, and mold than others.
H) Ease of moving and cleaning
Remember that you need to remove your mattress topper from the packaging, get it onto the bed, and potentially remove it from time to time for cleaning.
If you’re on your own and not physically strong, the weight of a heavy memory foam or latex topper might be an issue if you don’t have anyone to help you get it set up.
Feather, down, microfiber, and cotton are the easiest to transport, move around the home, and adjust on the bed if needed.
Some toppers can be machine washed, but many can’t. It can be a chore if it needs to be done by hand, which is another good reason to use a cover as well.
The standard warranty time seems to be around two years for many mattress toppers. This can be as short as one year and as long as ten, depending on the company. You won’t get a replacement just because it’s compressed under your weight over time.
The most durable materials are latex and memory foam. Cheaper microfiber toppers are the most likely to compress quickly and become less effective.
What type of material to choose
Mattress toppers come in a range of very different styles and materials. So it’s important to know both what you hope to gain from using a topper, and what the pros and cons are of each material.
Let’s take a look now at the different types to give you a better idea of what your options are.
Latex toppers can be relatively expensive, but like memory foam, can provide excellent support and comfort.
Natural latex comes from the sap of rubber trees and is produced by one of two processes: Dunlop or Talalay (hence the name some toppers have).
Some latex toppers have mostly natural ingredients. Synthetic latex is, you guessed it, mostly made from synthetic materials. Blended latex has a mix of natural and synthetic materials. Check before buying if this is an important consideration for you.
- Excellent for comfort and cushioning your body.
- Provides support for the hips, back, and shoulders in any sleeping position.
- Often available in a range of densities from soft to extra firm.
- Can feel even firmer than memory foam if you like a very firm surface.
- Natural latex might have better resistance to microbes and dust mites.
- The most durable mattress topper material.
- Good motion transmission.
- Doesn’t feel as hot as other materials.
- Can be expensive.
- May be heavy to move.
- If you want a very soft surface, even the softest latex can still feel firmer than other materials.
2) Memory foam
Memory foam is one of the most popular choices for both mattresses and mattress toppers nowadays.
Luxury memory foam mattresses can be expensive though, so a topper is a good way to get some of the benefits of memory foam without breaking the bank.
- The memory foam will conform to your body in all sleeping positions, providing good support for the entire length of the body.
- Some people find it helps with pressure points.
- Good motion isolation.
- Different density options means you can find just the right level of softness or firmness.
- More durable than microfiber or feather toppers.
- Memory foam sometimes has an initial odor that takes a few hours to dissipate.
- You may find it holds body heat. If you tend to overheat, look for a breathable memory foam topper. Cheaper brands may not have the best breathability.
- It can make it harder to change positions in bed, especially if it’s a thick and soft memory foam topper.
Understanding memory foam thickness and density
Whether you’re looking at memory foam mattresses or memory foam toppers, you’ll find a confusing range of thickness and density options.
It’s useful to understand that both elements affect the level of comfort and support. The spectrum of thickness and density keeps expanding, but let’s take a look at the difference between the most commonly found figures of each.
The choice of density of a mattress topper is very important. It’s measured in pounds per cubic feet, or kg/m3 in some countries.
Most toppers have a density ranging between two and six (or more) pounds per cubic feet. Higher density usually means higher cost, but potentially better support for the body and longer-lasting conformity to your body shape.
3 pounds or under per cubic feet – will feel much softer and less supportive than higher densities. Your body will sink into it faster than higher densities. More lightweight and easily transported.
4 to 5 pounds per cubic feet – a good option for most people, providing a balance of medium firmness. Will mold to your body a little slower than lower densities.
6+ pounds per cubic feet – better for people who like to sleep on a firm surface. Will take longer to conform to your body shape and weight, and support you for much longer than lower densities.
If you’re a heavy person, a higher density might be a better choice so you can benefit from the extra support for longer during the night.
Many companies don’t list the exact density and use simple descriptions like soft, med-soft, med-firm, firm, and extra firm instead.
Most memory foam toppers tend to be sold in one, two, three or four inch thickness. Some companies have just a couple of thicknesses available, while others have a wider range.
1 inch – usually provides a little extra comfort, but can be quite firm if the density is also high. Good for those with a firm mattress who just need a little extra comfort and support for the body.
2-3 inches – a popular choice if you’re not sure which thickness to choose. Provides a good balance of comfort and support.
4 inches – provides even more support for the body parts that most need it.
Some density + thickness combination examples
Now we have a rough idea of how density and thickness affect the comfort and support, how do you choose the best combination?
A rule of thumb is that higher density means you can get more support with less thickness. However, a one inch topper with a low density won’t provide as much support and could be too soft.
Likewise, a very thick topper with a very high density might prove unnecessarily firm, not to mention heavy to move.
Here are three examples to consider:
You like a firm surface to sleep on
Try a 2 or 3 inch topper with a high density of 4+ pounds (med-firm or firm). That will provide a firm density and you shouldn’t sink into the topper in an uncomfortable way.
You prefer a medium firmness
Try a medium thickness of 3 inches with 4-5 pounds density (soft-med or medium firmness).
You want a softer surface
Try 2 inches or more in thickness, with a density of 3 pounds or less (soft).
In reality, considering the wide range of material types, additional layers, and variation in manufacturing between countries and companies, it’s hard to predict exactly how a mattress topper will feel.
It’s worth asking in advance if the company can offer advice based on your size and needs. Also ask if you can try one in a store and if they have a reasonable returns policy.
At the opposite end of the material spectrum is the natural material of wool. It can be fairly expensive too, depending on the animals used, the manufacturing process, and cover materials.
- A naturally soft and comfortable material.
- Durable, often lasting for many years.
- Ideal for allergy sufferers who may have problems with synthetic materials.
- Bed bugs and mites generally stay away from wool.
- Good for keeping cool in summer and warm in winter.
- Can be expensive.
- Doesn’t mold to the body as well as memory foam or latex.
- Not ideal if you want a very firm surface.
4) Feather and down
Bedding made from goose or duck feathers, or softer and more luxurious down, is known for its softness and comforting feel. If you’re an allergy sufferer or need a firmer topper though, it may not be right for you.
- Soft, luxurious feel that’s similar to fluffy duvets and pillows.
- Nice level of warmth for the winter, but not as hot as memory foam in warmer weather.
- Less expensive than memory foam or latex.
- Doesn’t hinder movement in bed.
- Can flatten over time and need regular fluffing or shaking.
- Feathers might poke through the cover over time.
- Not hypoallergenic.
- May not be responsibly farmed (check the company’s process if possible).
5) Microfiber and cotton
There’s a vast range of mattress toppers and pads made from microfiber and cotton, and often with a mixture of cotton, polyester, and other materials. The price can also vary greatly with these.
- Good for adding softness to the bed.
- Range of options from synthetic to organic.
- Usually less expensive than other materials.
- Some are machine washable.
- No initial odour out of the packaging.
- Better for adding softness rather than firmness.
- Can flatten over time and need shaking.
- Not as durable as other materials like latex, wool, and memory foam.
- High-quality cotton can be quite expensive.
- Can feel warm.
Trial period and returns policy when buying online
When people ask me about choosing a topper, both here on my website and in person, I usually suggest buying one from a company that has a trial period or a returns policy that isn’t too strict.
If you can try one first in a physical store, that’s ideal. However, many companies don’t have a physical store or you might live far from the one you like the look of. So if you buy a mattress topper online after reading reviews or talking to others, I think it’s important that you feel safe in the knowledge that you can exchange or return it if it’s just not right for you.
I decided to check the trial period of a selection of companies and list them so you can see the range of trial periods they offer. They might change their policy, so please note that the information below is accurate to my knowledge as of April 2022.
This is a very basic summary, so please check what the exact fine print details are if you decide to get one, especially taking into account where you live.
Please note that most of these companies operate inside the United States, which is where I was living when I did this research.
Companies that do offer a trial period
Avocado: 100 days or one year trial period, depending on the style. Must use for 30 days minimum.
Saatva: 180 days. They pick up, but charge $99.
Layla: 120 night trial.
Tuft & Needle: 100 night trial. They would donate it to charity.
Molecule: 30 day returns period. It’s picked up and donated to charity.
Linenspa: 30 day trial period.
Sleep on Latex: 30 day trial period.
Lucid: 30 day trial period.
Malouf: 30 day returns period.
Amazon: many of their products have a standard 30 day returns policy, but it might depend on the third party seller, so check if they have a return option. Sometimes the 30 day window is extended. For example, products bought in October, November, or December in 2021 could be returned in January 2022.
Companies that don’t offer a trial period
Note that some companies offer a return period for mattresses, but not for mattress toppers. So if they sell both, make sure you read the returns policy carefully.
Mattress Firm: 120 night trial for mattresses, but none for toppers.
Tempur-Pedic: 90 day trial for mattresses, but none for toppers.
Sleep & Beyond: no trial period at all.
Plush Beds: 100 day trial for mattresses. They say toppers are not returnable due to “safety and sanitary regulations”.
You might also like
For some specific recommendations of excellent mattress toppers in each category, you might like to read my mattress topper reviews.
The UK-based website Which.co.uk has a useful overview of the main mattress topper material types and some buying tips.