Replacing your mattress can be very expensive, so a mattress topper is a great 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, you’ll find both a list of the key factors which can help inform your decision making, and also a breakdown of the pros and cons of each type of material.
By cross-referencing the two sections, you’ll hopefully have a clearer idea about which type will be the right kind 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
These are all about protecting your mattress or topper from catastrophic spills and/or providing hypoallergenic protection from allergens such as dust mites.
Reducing the living space for bed bugs is also a good reason to use a six-sided encasement. It will completely enclose your mattress rather than just being a fitted sheet with extras.
Different manufacturers use different terminology, so it’s important to check what the product does, and how many sides it fits. They can also sometimes included a padded top to offer some extra comfort. But their main function is usually protection.
Mattress pads might 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.
A mattress topper is likely to add a more significant layer of softness, cushioning or support for your body than the previous categories.
You can even use both at the same time 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.
So 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, and you from allergens like dust mite 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 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 you can afford.
Plain egg crate foam, polyester, and some cotton toppers tend to be the cheapest. Higher quality cotton, feather, and down are more typically in the middle of the price range. Memory foam and wool can be quite expensive, with latex even more so.
B) Pain relief, firmness and extra support
If it’s extra support for your back and limbs that you need, memory foam and latex are usually more effective than the other materials. They are better at holding the shape of your body and supporting your natural posture.
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. But your definition of comfort may be different from the next person’s.
Would you prefer a topper which molds to your body, such as with latex or memory foam? Or are you more suited to a naturally soft material such as down or cotton?
In many ways, achieving softness is much 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 literally just add an extra layer of soft material.
D) Thickness and density options
Toppers tend to fall in the range of between two and eight inches thick. If you need to revitalize an aging mattress, sleep on your side, or if you weigh more than average, you may need to look at thicker options. 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. On a personal note, I’ve used a four inch medium density memory foam topper for the last size months, and absolutely love it.
E) Reducing the noise of a partner moving
Memory foam and latex are good at reducing the transmission of movement from your partner. So if you sleep with someone whose tossing and turning keep you awake, they are good choices.
F) Body heat
Memory foam and latex mattress toppers tend to retain the most body heat. The thicker and denser they are, the hotter they can feel, despite the attempts of manufacturers to add elements like gel cooling or ventilation tubes.
Wool, down and feather toppers are good all year round, as they provide extra warmth in winter yet reduce heat in summer. Don’t forget that the outside material can also contribute to the temperature by wicking away sweat.
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 cleaning and moving
Remember that you need to remove it from the packaging, get it onto the bed and potentially remove it for cleaning. So do be aware of the overall weight of the mattress topper.
Egg crate is the easiest to transport, whilst feather, down and cotton are easier to move than memory foam or latex.
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. But this can be as short as one year and as long as ten, depending on the company. But remember that you won’t get a replacement just because it’s compressed under your weight over time.
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 tend to be 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. And blended has a mix of the two. Check before buying if this is an important consideration for you.
- Excellent at providing comfort and pain relief at pressure points by cushioning your body. Good for keeping your body aligned.
- Usually firmer than memory foam, but still feels comfortable.
- Natural latex might have better resistance to microbe and dust mite build up.
- Very durable.
- Excellent at preventing motion transmission from your partner.
- Usually not as hot as memory foam.
- Can be expensive.
- Can feel hot in the summer if it isn’t a high-quality latex topper.
- Often quite heavy to move.
2) Memory foam
Memory foam is one of the most popular choices of both mattress and mattress topper nowadays.
A high-end memory foam mattress can be incredibly 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, providing a supportive and relaxing surface to sleep on.
- It can provide support if you have joint, muscular or back pain.
- It helps reduce how much the noise and movement of a restless partner disturbs your sleep.
- You can get it in a range of densities, so you can find the right firmness to suit you.
- It’s durable, hopefully lasting for many years to warrant the higher price.
- Memory foam sometimes has quite a strong chemical smell at first, though it dissipates after a few days.
- You may find it holds body heat, so if you tend to overheat, look for a breathable 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, and is 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 also much 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 light-weight and easily transported too.
4 to 5 pounds per cubic feet – a good option for most people, providing a balance of soft, yet supportive surface. Will mold to your body a little slower than lower densities.
6+ pounds per cubic feet – better for people who have medical needs and/or in need of a high level of support for the body. Will take longer to conform to your body shape and weight, and support you for much longer than lower densities.
And 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.
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 to 2 inches – 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.
3 inches – a popular choice if you’re not sure which thickness to choose. Provides a good level of softness and support.
4 inches – provides even more support for the body parts that most need it.
Some density + thickness combination examples
So 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 enough support with less thickness. But a two inch topper with a low density really won’t provide 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.
Here are two useful examples:
1. You prefer a firm surface or sleep on your front
Try a thinner 2 or 2.5 inch topper with a high density of 4+ pounds. That will provide good support (the density) but stop you sinking into the topper in an uncomfortable way (the thinner material).
2. You sleep on your side or back
Try a medium thickness of 3 inches to get more support for your back and limbs. Then either a low density of 3 pounds to add some softness, or a higher density of more than 4 pounds to provide firmer support if you prefer that.
In reality, considering the wide range of material types, additional layers, and variation of manufacturing between countries and companies, it’s hard to predict exactly how a mattress topper will feel.
So 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, but there are some good reasons for this.
- 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.
- More expensive than other other fabric materials.
- Doesn’t provide the same cushioning as memory foam.
4) Goose and duck down or feathers
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.
- That soft, luxurious feel that many people have come to love from down-filled duvets and pillows.
- Durable, often lasting for several years.
- Helps reduce movement disturbance.
- Good temperature regulation in the summer and winter months.
- Not ideal if you need a firmer topper to help with aches and pains.
- May not be thick enough to disguise a lumpy mattress.
- Risk of feathers eventually poking through, though good quality toppers are designed to avoid this. And down should minimize this risk compared to feathers.
- May need fluffing to keep shape (getting a segmented topper can help with this).
5) Cotton and polyester
There’s a vast range of mattress toppers and pads made from cotton, and often with a mixture of cotton, polyester and other materials. The price can also vary greatly with these.
- The possibility of finding extremely soft high-thread count material.
- Range of options from synthetic to organic.
- Often easier to clean than other materials.
- Polyester toppers can be very affordable.
- Not as durable as other materials like latex, wool and memory foam. The cotton is more likely to compress in a shorter time.
- High-quality cotton can be quite expensive.
6) Egg crate
Egg crate mattress toppers refer to the shape, specifically the little bumps as you can see in the photo.
It’s important to note though that you can get an egg crate topper made either from good quality memory foam or from more basic foam. Because of that, the price can vary a lot for products which may appear identical at first glance.
Since it’s made from foam, it might not provide the same luxury as other types, but it’s a good choice if you’re on a lower budget or are using it for camping. As I’ve already covered memory foam, let’s take a look at the pros and cons of more budget-friendly egg crate toppers.
- Generally cheaper than other types of material.
- Lightweight and thin so it’s easy to roll up and transport.
- Good to use for camping or holidays.
- Can be placed on top of each other to get a thicker padding.
- Doesn’t provide as much padding or comfort as other materials.
- Less durable and can start to fall apart with frequent use.
- Can be warm in the summer months.
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. But 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 March 2021.
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: One year trial period.
Saatva: 180 days. They pick up, but charge $99.
Layla: 120 night trial.
Tuft & Needle: 100 night trial. They would donate it to charity.
Plush Beds: 100 night trial. Must be returned after at least 30 days use.
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 2020 could be returned in January 2021.
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.
You might also like
For some specific recommendations of excellent mattress toppers in each category, you might like to read my mattress topper reviews.
A note about comments, questions and emails
Please bear in mind that I try not to give tailored advice about buying an exact mattress topper brand and specifications based on people’s medical needs.
I understand the desire for an effective solution to back pain and other painful conditions that keep you awake at night, and I really wish I could be the person who has all the answers!
But I don’t feel it’s right for me to give direct advice based on the limited amount of information that I usually get in emails or comments – especially when essential points such as geographical location are missing. And considering the fact that these products can be expensive, I don’t want to raise hopes and rush people into buying a topper that might not turn out to be what they needed.
This is a key reason I tried to focus at the end on the concept of being able to test out a topper, as I feel that’s probably one of the most helpful parts of this article. It might seem like a lot of hassle going through the returns process, and it kind of is if I’m honest! But I think it’s worth it to get the sleep surface you need.