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As you are shopping for your next mattress online you may see construction breakdowns that list a handful of different foam types: memory, polyfoam, viscoelastic, gel, and temper, as well as an assortment of proprietary substances that make understanding that much more difficult.
The purpose of this article is to compare all-foam and memory foam and break down the key differences between these mattresses, but first, it may be important to understand the differences between polyfoams and memory materials.
Polyurethane foam, also known as polyfoam, is one of the most used bedding materials out there, and you’ve probably experienced it at least once. Typically, poly materials are more responsive than memory materials and can greatly vary in density and quality.
There are many different types of polyfoam out there. While shopping, it is important to look for one labeled as high resilience, as these should likely last you the longest. High-resilience polyfoams typically have a greater density and weight per cubic foot.
- Inexpensive: Polyfoam is cheaper than memory foam because it’s not as high-quality. Though the lower cost is appealing to both manufacturers and shoppers, you probably won’t get as much from this material in comparison to other foams.
- Easier to Move: Polyfoam compresses quickly, which means products that use this material would be easier to move. This feature could be beneficial for people who don’t plan to hire professionals to transport a mattress.
- Lower Quality: Polyfoam’s lower quality is one of its disadvantages. Even though consumers may get polyfoam products at a cheaper price, the foam won’t provide as much comfort.
- Shorter Lifespan: Polyfoam is more likely to have a shorter lifespan because of its lower quality. So, while you’ll pay less upfront, you may have to replace the product sooner.
- Limited Support: Polyfoam’s ability to compress quickly is great for transport, but that also means it will have limited support. Purchasing an item with high-resilience polyfoam could help with this, but if support is a primary concern, this could be a downside.
Often referred to as temper or viscoelastic polyfoam, this material is a type of polyurethane. Visco comes from the word viscous, meaning thick and sticky, and the word elastic means it has the capability to recover its size and shape after deformation. The material was first developed by NASA as both a seat cushioning and crash protection resource on aircrafts. Now, millions of people sleep on it to cushion and protect uncomfortable pressure points.
Learn More: What is a Memory Foam?
Just by looking at it, it would be hard to tell the difference between a temper material and polyfoam. The key difference between viscoelastic and polyfoams is that viscoelastic uses certain chemicals in its production that gives it a “deep hug” feeling that melts away pressure points. Memory conforms to every curve of your body, and if you move, the imprint of your shape will stay behind in the bed for a few seconds.
This foam is designed to distribute weight evenly over a surface, and many bedding manufacturers use this product exclusively in their mattress production. It is also being used in many hybrid production lines to complement the attributes of spring, latex, and polyfoam mattresses.
If a memory bed is your number one choice, be sure to check out our top-rated memory mattresses.
- Higher-Quality: Memory foam is a higher-quality material because of its advanced design. This means you’re likely to get better results from memory foam when it comes to factors like pressure relief performance, motion isolation, and durability.
- Pressure Relief: Memory foam’s claim to fame is its ability to deliver premium pressure relief. The foam is specially made to contour a sleeper’s body, resulting in reduced pressure throughout the body and enhanced comfort.
- Motion Isolation: Memory foam performs well for motion isolation, curbing the transfer of motion across the mattress. Many couples enjoy this feature so that they’re less likely to disrupt their partner’s rest if they toss and turn.
- More Expensive: Memory foam’s better quality means it will also come at a higher price, which may be an initial drawback for budget shoppers. However, higher-quality products are usually more durable and last longer, meaning they could be a more valuable investment in the long run.
- Retains Heat: Memory materials tend to retain heat more, which can make it difficult for hot sleepers to rest comfortably. Many bedding companies took note of this and have implemented special cooling properties into their memory foams, such as gel, copper, and graphite. Some also build their foam with a convoluted design to foster airflow.
- Minimal Bounce: Memory foam has a minimal bounce, which means it returns to its original position at a slower rate than quick-response materials like latex or coils. This could be a disadvantage for combination sleepers or those with limited mobility, making it harder for them to reposition.
Open-Cell Versus Closed Cell
Open-celled products contain cell walls that have been broken. These materials allow for air to fill the cells which is a great feature for cooling mattress sleepers at night.
These are typically less dense materials. This is something to keep in mind as you are shopping, as this can affect firmness and durability over time.
Closed-cell foams should be denser, as the walls are closed and have more substance in their construction. This typically makes them more durable and insulating, and it’s for this reason that traditional versions of these materials often sleep hot.
Modern incarnations of closed-cell products often include gels and other materials that help disperse heat more evenly throughout the foam.
Memory Versus All-foam Mattresses
A memory bed refers to a mattress built with viscoelastic foam, while the term “all-foam” means the bed does not contain memory materials specifically. Many memory foam mattresses contain viscoelastic comfort layers and polyfoam support layers.
Memory mattresses should feel different than standard poly. Memory foam is often associated with top-notch pressure relief (for side sleepers especially), and it’s more durable. Some traditional memory beds are harder to move around in because they’re not as responsive.
Memory Foam vs Low-Density Foam
Memory foam normally has a higher density than most polyfoams, making it a more durable, longer-lasting product. That being said, memory foam density can vary. The density of these foams can range from less than 3 pounds per cubic foot to over 6. Low-density foam is considered 3 pounds per cubic foot or less. You can get get a good quality product with low-density foam, but this just means the material may be more susceptible to wear and tear sooner depending on how often it’s used. Low-density foams are usually better for guest rooms or RV mattresses since these beds aren’t used regularly.
Memory Foam vs High-Density Foam
While memory foam typically retains a higher density compared to polyfoam, there are certain high-resilience polyfoams that feature more density. As a general rule, the higher the density, the more durable the product. Therefore, a high-resilience polyfoam will give you more longevity than a lower density version, and the same goes for memory foam. High-density memory foam will be rated at a 6 or higher. Products with high-density foam are more likely to have a higher price, though. Memory foam is also available in a medium-density, which is rated at a 4 or 5. This is considered a good middle-ground option.
Foam vs Memory Foam Considerations
If you’re unsure whether you should get a foam or memory foam bed, there are important considerations that can help you narrow down your search.
Shoppers can expect a price difference between polyfoam and memory foam. Polyfoam mattresses are typically cheaper than those that incorporate viscoelastic layers. Memory foam is a higher-quality product with an advanced manufacturing process, which is why it’s more costly. Even though memory foam is more costly, if its benefits give you better sleep, the extra investment would be worth it.
Memory foam is one of the hottest bedding materials, literally; This foam runs warmer than polyfoam, which is something hot sleepers will need to bear in mind. However, many manufacturers have implemented cooling measures into their memory foams to help curb heat retention. Therefore, hot sleepers who want a memory foam mattress should only consider those with cooling features added in.
Read More: Best Cooling Mattressses
Your sleeping position may be a determining factor as to whether foam or memory foam is right for you. People who sleep on their side often need extra pressure relief for their shoulders and hips, and these people can benefit most from memory materials. Back sleepers are another group who should like memory foam to help ease pressure on the shoulders. Stomach sleepers could do well with a polyfoam bed, but it would have to be a high-density foam and overall firm mattress to ensure good spine support.
Body weight will not only impact how a particular bed performs, but it can also speed up wear and tear. Therefore, a heavier individual should invest in a mattress with denser materials that will be more durable. The more durable an item is, the longer it should last. In this case, memory foam is going to be the better candidate because it’s a higher-quality, denser product.
If pressure relief is a top priority in your mattress search, you’ll want to go with a memory foam bed. Memory foam is considered a superior substance for relieving pressure, a big reason for its ongoing popularity. A well-made, pressure-relieving mattress can help you wake up more rested and not have to worry about achy joints in the morning.
For More Information: Best Mattresses for Pressure Relief
Mattress firmness is rated on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the firmness and 1 the softest. Both polyfoam and memory foam mattresses have varying firmness ratings, depending on the particular model. Most people tend to enjoy a middle-ground firmness in the 5 or 6 range. However, lightweight side sleepers will likely prefer a softer feel, and stomach sleepers will do better on a firmer surface.
For More Information: Mattress Firmness Guide
Density is a valuable factor because it’s often an indicator of how durable an item is. The more dense foam is, the more durable it will be, which translates to a longer lifespan. As far as density goes, memory foam is the winner here, but there are high-density polyfoams available. Most of these foams are used as the support base for memory foam beds as well.
Learn More: Memory Foam Density Guide
Motion isolation means the foam can absorb motion, so movement on one side of the mattress isn’t felt on the other side. This feature is usually important for couples, especially those who have a partner with a different sleep schedule or who tosses and turns. Memory foam is best for motion isolation, so if this is high on your priority list, we would suggest a bed with viscoelastic layers.
When you unbox a new foam mattress, you’ll likely notice some initial off-gassing, which is often described as an unpleasant odor. Off-gassing is a normal process, but it may cause temporary symptoms like headaches, nausea, and irritation. This odor typically dissipates within a few days. Poly and memory foams are synthetic materials, so each is prone to off-gassing. If off-gassing is a concern, we would advise selecting a bed with more natural materials.
Read More: Toxic Materials in Memory Foam
When it comes to bedding, shoppers have many types to choose from. Using this article as a guide can help you in your search for the perfect sleep product. We also encourage you to do more in-depth research on certain brands and models you’re curious about.
There are construction sections in our mattress product reviews that should help you understand what’s beneath mattress covers and how you can benefit from these different materials.
Jill Zwarensteyn is the editor for Sleep Advisor and a certified sleep science coach. She is enthusiastic about providing helpful and engaging information on all things sleep and wellness.
Based in Los Angeles, she is an experienced writer and journalist who enjoys spending her free time at the beach, hiking, reading, or exploring new places around town.
She’s also an avid traveler who has a personal goal of being able to successfully sleep on an airplane someday.