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.
Mattress pad or mattress topper?
First of all, it’s useful to understand that there can be some confusion between mattress pads and mattress toppers.
A mattress pad tends to be thinner, and usually serves either to protect the mattress or to provide only a little extra softness.
A mattress pad can address specific needs, such as adding a waterproof layer or an anti-allergy feature. You can also find heated pads for use in the winter, and cooling pads if you have issues with heat.
A mattress topper will usually add a more significant layer of softness, cushioning or support for your body.
You can even use both at the same time to further improve the quality of your bed. By placing a mattress pad 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.
Key points to consider
With so many types of mattress topper, it’s perhaps more helpful to first decide what you want or need from a topper. Then you can work out which material will best meet your needs.
Personal preference and a 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. With higher quality cotton, feather and down in the middle. 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 2 and 8 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.
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. Some are also more resistant to 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. Feather and down are the most difficult to clean.
The standard warranty time seems to be around 2 years for many mattress toppers. But this can be as short as one year and as long as 5 years. 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 is made from the liquid in rubber trees. Not all latex toppers are natural though, so be sure to check before buying if it’s important to you to avoid synthetic materials.
- Excellent at providing comfort and pain relief by either hardening or softening your mattress.
- Usually firmer than memory foam, but still feels soft.
- Antimicrobial and non-allergenic (unless you have an allergy to latex!)
- Different materials available, including synthetic or eco-friendly natural latex.
- Very durable.
- Excellent at preventing motion transmission from your partner.
- Can be expensive.
- Not good for people with a latex allergy.
- Can feel hot in the summer.
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 2 and 6+ 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 are either 1, 2, 3 or 4 inches thick:
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 2 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:
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).
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.
The reality, however, is that with the huge 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. And if you can try one in a store or they have a returns policy if you’re not happy with the topper.
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.
- It’s a naturally soft and comfortable material.
- It’s durable, often lasting for many years.
- It’s 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 we’ve already looked at memory foam above, let’s have a look at what you get from the more basic foam models.
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.
- Generally cheaper than other types of material.
- Light-weight 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.
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For some specific recommendations of excellent mattress toppers in each category, you might like to read my mattress topper reviews.