What is Memory Foam? Here’s How it Works and the Pros and Cons

Memory foam is one of the most sought-after materials in the bedding market. You’ll find it in all sorts of products, including mattresses, pillows, and toppers. If you’re on the lookout for new bedding, there’s a good chance it’s on your radar.

Originally developed by NASA in the 1960s, the material has grown exponentially in popularity. Memory foam beds now command nearly half the market share. Much of this growth is due to an aging population, a rise in sleep disorders, and the convenience of online shopping.

You might not know a lot about memory foam other than a faint recollection of those old Tempur-Pedic commercials showing people’s hands sinking into a piece of foam. When the person removed their hand, television viewers watched in awe as the material continued to show the imprint of the hand.

Given its popularity and wide price range, you might be wondering what all the fuss is about and if your next bed should be this material. We’ll provide the information you need to decide if a new bed made from this unique foam could be right for you.

What is Memory Foam Made of?

Memory foam is polyurethane foam combined with certain chemicals that allow it to contour to your body. It’s also called viscoelastic, which combines two concepts: viscosity and elasticity.

  1. Viscosity – the material moves slowly and reluctantly when pressure is applied. Honey is an example of something that is viscous.
  2. Elastic – the ability to stretch and change shape while still returning to its original form.

When you combine these two properties, you get something that contours to the shape of your body, hugs your curves, and makes you feel like you’re sleeping on a cloud. Then, when you get up, it returns to its normal state after you no longer put weight on it.

The viscoelastic foam was originally developed by NASA scientists in 1966. NASA put it in seatbelts and harnesses to make space travel safer. The general idea was that the turbulence and impact felt when traveling at such fast speeds would be tolerated better if the equipment was padded and designed to absorb impact.

It wasn’t long before other industries realized the potential for this material. Hospitals used the foam to keep immobile patients comfortable, and it also became popular in wheelchair seats. Finally, in 1992, a new company decided to sell this material commercially in the United States.

Tempur-Pedic was born, and at first, they only sold two products. One was a 3-inch Tempur-Pedic mattress topper, and the other was a neck pillow. They only sold 70 mattress toppers their entire first year in business, but it’s a good thing the company kept at it because they revolutionized the way we sleep.

Different Types

Traditional

The first type introduced to the market was traditional memory foam. It molds to the contours of your body and envelops you in a hug while you sleep. Traditional memory foam is notorious for causing people to feel like they’re “sleeping hot,” so now many brands take steps to make sure that product helps the sleeper stay cool.

Get More Info: Top Rated Memory Foam Mattress

Open Cell

To combat the heat of the traditional variety, manufacturers developed open cell foam to help people stay cool. The interior structure has pockets that allow for airflow. On the plus side, sleepers won’t get so hot, but the holes mean that the surface of the bed is less dense. It’s often a lesser quality material that won’t last as long.

Gel

This type of foam has been filled with gel, often in a beaded form. Gel has natural cooling properties, so it can help regulate your temperature as you sleep. There are two types of gel available:

  1. Heat absorbing gel – it creates a cool surface that prevents overheating.
  2. Phase-changing material – it allows the body temperature to remain steady by releasing and absorbing heat.

Gel isn’t the only cooling additive that companies have implemented to make their product even better. In addition to gel infusions, you may encounter copper and even aromatherapy scents like lavender.

Some companies also use layers of corrugated foam, which is also called “egg crate foam” because it resembles the inside of an egg carton.

gel memory foam

Things to Consider When Picking Memory Foam

Picking memory foam to sleep on can be challenging because not everything will fit your needs. Considering the important factors increases your chances of buying the right type of memory foam for your needs and preferences.

Thickness

Memory foam products have a thickness you will have to decide on before buying. This goes for purchasing a memory foam mattress, pillow, and mattress topper. The thickness may affect the cushioning but shouldn’t have much to do with comfort. In other words, thicker memory foam should provide more cushioning, but even thinner products can be comfortable. Memory foam mattresses can be  6 to 14 inches, while toppers and pillows are thinner.

Firmness

Memory foam mattresses, pillows, and toppers are available in different firmnesses. The best way to decide on a firmness level is to consider your sleeping preferences and body type. Side sleepers and lightweight individuals usually like softer memory foam for the pressure relief it brings. Stomach, back, and heavier sleepers prefer medium and firm memory foam for support and spine alignment. Mid-range firmness is the most versatile and should work well for couples and most sleepers.

Learn More: Mattress Firmness Guide

Sleeping Position

Your sleeping position should help you decide on the right memory foam. Soft memory foam is best for side sleepers because it helps prevent pressure build-up. Medium and firm memory foam should provide more support for people who prefer sleeping on the stomach and back. Combination sleepers who change positions should do best with a mid-range firmness as it’s the most universal feel.

Body Weight

How much weight you put on memory foam should determine how it performs. For this reason, many memory foam products have a weight capacity. This indicates how much weight a mattress, topper, or pillow can handle while still delivering high quality. The firmness is once again one of the most important factors to consider. Lightweight sleepers should do well with softer mattresses, while heavier individuals need a firmer memory foam to prevent them from sinking into the layers too much. 

Density

Memory foam density is measured in pounds per cubic foot. The manufacturer takes a piece of memory foam measuring 12 by 12 by 12 inches and weighs it. Low-density memory foam weighs 3 pounds per cubic square foot or less, while the densest foam weighs 6 pounds per cubic square foot or more. Density plays a significant role in how the foam performs and feels. High-density foams are usually firmer, more durable,  and can handle more pressure than low-density foam. Low-density foams feel softer and offer more cradling but aren’t the best for heavier individuals.

Learn More: View Our Complete Memory Foam Density Guide

ILD

Indentation Load Deflection (ILD) is the measure of foam firmness, indicating its deflection under load. This rating is used for all foams, memory foam included. The higher the ILD is, the firmer the foam is. ILD is a commonly used rating, but you should only use it as a rough guideline when buying memory foam. You shouldn’t use it as a determining factor because you still have to consider a bed’s overall feel, along with your needs and preferences. 

For More Information: Indentation Load Deflection Guide

Off-Gassing

Off-gassing is the smell of new memory foam and is common for mattresses, toppers, and pillows. The odor is often unpleasant because it’s caused by volatile organic compounds, otherwise known as VOCs. These compounds are released into the air when you unpack your memory foam product. Unfortunately, this is something you may not be able to avoid because VOCs are common in polyurethane foams. Low-quality memory foam contains even more of these compounds and usually has a stronger odor. Off-gassing is a normal process, and the odor is temporary, typically remaining for several days at most. 

Certifications

Most memory foam products come with a CertiPUR-US® certification indicating that the item free of formaldehyde, ozone depleters, heavy metals, and other harmful substances. These foams also meet strict standards for low VOCs. The CertiPUR-US® foam certification program is administered by a nonprofit organization. Many American and international brands use the CertiPur program to help ensure a safe product. 

How is Memory Foam Used in Mattresses?

Memory foam mattresses usually have multiple layers, but most are classified into three groups known as comfort, transition, and support layers. Memory foam is usually placed in the comfort layer toward the top. This is typically the softest of the three, as it’s designed to provide pressure relief. The comfort layer comes first and may vary in density, depending on the manufacturer. 

The transition layer follows this and provides added cushioning and support. The transition layer prevents you from sinking into the mattress. This layer may include zoned support or another sleep technology for pressure relief, cooling, and comfort. 

The base of the mattress is the primary support layer, which typically contains either high-density polyfoam or coils. This is usually the firmest layer that helps distribute the weight across the mattress, supporting the upper layers and preventing them from sagging.

Pros

Memory foam’s popularity is in large put due to its many advantages. Together, these benefits of memory foam help to enhance a person’s quality of sleep.

Pain Relief

Memory foam is known for mitigating pain. It’s a top choice among people with arthritis and fibromyalgia because it best simulates the feeling of sleeping on a cloud

If you’re the type of person who struggles to get comfortable on a traditional mattress, or you have a hard time finding an ideal mattress firmness level, then you’ll probably appreciate this material.

Hypoallergenic

Memory foam is generally considered a hypoallergenic material because of its density, making it a great option for those with allergies to elements like mold, pollen, dust, and pet dander. Also, the components of memory foam are usually made of things that don’t trigger allergies, such as wool, feathers, etc. 

Other types of mattresses have excess air pockets and space between coils that allow for moisture and mold buildup. They can serve as a breeding ground for dust mites. With a memory foam mattress, routine care like vacuuming and an occasional sprinkling of baking soda should allow it to remain a safe haven from allergies.

For More Information: Memory Foam Allergy Symptoms

Pressure Point Relief

Pressure point relief has become something of a buzzword in recent years, but for good reason. And this is where viscoelastic beds shine.

Because viscoelastic contours your curves, it takes the pressure off your denser and heavier body parts like the hips and shoulders. This discovery was what gave this material its start in hospitals. Not only did it help patients sleep more comfortably, but it also worked to prevent things like bedsores.

Memory foam’s top-notch pressure-relieving capabilities are particularly beneficial for side sleepers, who are likely to experience the most pressure buildup.

View More: Best Pressure Relief Mattresses

Back Support & Spinal Alignment

When you lie down, your spine should maintain a similar position as when you’re standing. If people sleep on the wrong surface, their spine tends to jut out or collapse at unnatural angles. If you wake up sore or stiff in the morning, it could be your mattress’ fault. With memory foam, the contouring effects can help the spine to maintain its natural shape.

The best way to test your bed to see if it allows for proper alignment is to lie down on your side and have someone take a picture of you from behind. If you’d prefer to work alone, then set a timer on your smartphone’s camera and take a picture that way.

Then, take a look at the angle of your spine. It should be a nearly perfect horizontal line. If your hips and shoulders are raised or sinking, then you know it’s time for a different bed.

People looking into this type of mattress should make sure they get one that has the proper density and good support layers to keep the spine neutral. As a general rule, the higher the foam density, the firmer the mattress. All mattress companies and websites will specify what the density specs are. Look for something that’s at least 3.5, if not closer to 5.0. 

You can also review our mattress firmness ratings for the beds you’re interested in, which are based on the bed’s overall feel. These ratings are given on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the firmness, and they can help you get a good idea of the right mattress for your sleep position and body type.

Learn More: Best Mattress for Spinal Stenosis

doctor is checking spine of a woman

Good for All Sleeping Positions

Memory foam’s contouring and cradling properties make it an ideal surface for all sleeping positions. Side sleepers get support in their hips and shoulders; back sleepers get lumbar support; and, stomach sleepers are less likely to have their low back bow into the bed.

Many people are combo sleepers, meaning they sleep in two or more positions during the night. The beauty of this material is that since it accommodates all of those positions, you don’t have to make a choice that would compromise your ability to sleep on your stomach, for example.

This means it’s also an ideal mattress option for couples. If one of you sleeps on your side, while the other partner is a back sleeper, then viscoelastic helps you reach a compromise that you’ll both be happy with.

Motion Isolation

One of this material’s best features is that it doesn’t wake your partner if you’re tossing and turning. You’ve probably seen commercials where a glass full of red wine rests on one side of the bed while someone jumps up and down on the other side. Miraculously, the wine doesn’t spill.

This miracle is due to the fact that the material absorbs movement. Instead of bouncing like innerspring or latex beds, this one stays put.

Dust Mite Mitigation

You’ve probably heard stats about millions of dust mites creating colonies in the depths of some mattresses. A lot of people are allergic to the fecal matter of dust mites, which could make them feel miserable every time they go to sleep.

Fortunately, the density of the material in these beds means that there are fewer places for them set up shop. Memory foam is also anti-microbial, which makes it a less hospitable environment for unwanted critters.

Fit for Adjustable Beds

Adjustable beds have grown in popularity recently. They allow sleepers to adjust their positions to help with sleep apnea, and they’re great for watching television or reading in bed. Many newer models also have electronic integrations and massage capabilities!

Sometimes, it’s hard to fit a bed to an adjustable base because the compressing and bending that happens can ruin a mattress or at least decrease its lifespan. Memory foam beds are flexible enough that they can sit on nearly any surface without compromising the bed itself.

Durable

A quality mattress can last about seven to ten years. Because the foam can bounce back to its original shape, these mattresses tend to have a longer useful lifespan. Again, look for mattresses that have a higher density, as these tend to last longer and won’t sag over time.

Also, check the warranty before you buy because some companies offer a lifetime warranty!

blue and grey bedroom

Cons

Memory foam comes with lots of perks, but there are some drawbacks to consider. Depending on your individual circumstances, these downsides may or may not be a dealbreaker.

Heat

Heat retention is probably the most significant complaint among viscoelastic mattress buyers. However, many homes have the ability to adjust the room temperature with a thermostat or air conditioner, and anyone can switch to lighter bedding if they get too hot. Given that reality and the fact that innovations have been made to diminish the heat in memory foam, we think this “con” is avoidable.

Weight

Although dense foam tends to be of higher quality, it does make for a heavier mattress. Luckily, the industry has changed significantly over the past few years. Many of these beds now come compressed in a box and are easier to transport than other types of beds. You’d be surprised by how small some of those boxes are!

Not Water Resistant

If you sweat, spill a beverage or have an accident, then beware because these mattresses aren’t waterproof. We recommend protecting your investment with a waterproof mattress protector. Many of these enhance the sleep experience by contouring to the mattress, whereas older versions used to be plastic and uncomfortable.

Odor

People who order beds online sometimes complain about off-gassing. This is when the VOCs (volatile organic compounds) break down when exposed to air and create a distinct odor. New car smell is one type of off-gassing from VOCs, although most people find that scent pleasant.

While there have been no studies linking these odors to any long-term health risks, some people have allergic or respiratory reactions. Our advice is to let your new bed air out for a couple of days until the smell dissipates.

If you’re concerned about off-gassing, look for a plant-based mattress brand. Because of the plant material, there will be little or no odor. Higher quality brands also tend to produce less of these odors. We’ve found that a helpful way to determine if your mattress of choice will have an odor is to read the reviews online before you buy. Many people are passionate about this topic and will let you know through their reviews how the mattress performs in this area.

Expensive

Top-quality mattresses, especially those with the Tempur-Pedic brand name, can cost thousands of dollars. Aspiring businesses saw an opportunity and began selling reasonably priced beds over the Internet. Now, for around a thousand dollars, you can get a bed fit for a king.

By cutting out the middleman and selling direct to the consumer, these companies allow you to get a quality bed at a fraction of what you’d pay at a showroom.

tempur pedic memory foam bed

How to Take Care of Memory Foam

The first thing you should remember in caring for memory foam is that you shouldn’t get it wet. Memory foam is dense, so drying it can be a problem. Tumble-drying isn’t recommended, and air-drying takes long. In addition, air-drying wet memory foam may result in bacteria development. Plus, liquids can increase how quickly memory foam deteriorates, so it’s best to keep it dry.

You should remember to rotate your memory foam mattress, topper, and pillow. Regularly rotating memory foam products should prevent depression in areas of concentrated pressure.

How Long Does Memory Foam Last?

Mattress

A memory foam mattress can last from seven to ten years, depending on how you maintain it. Proper maintenance plays a significant role in the durability of your memory foam mattress. Keeping it dry and away from heat sources helps get the most out of a memory foam mattress.

Pillows

The average lifespan of a memory foam pillow is two to three years. Again, proper maintenance ensures you get the most out of your pillow, so remember to rotate it if possible. You should also use water-resistant covers and spot-clean only to prolong its longevity.

Toppers

The average lifespan of a memory foam mattress topper is three to five years. High-quality memory foam mattress toppers typically last longer than lower-quality ones due to the durability of the materials. Lower-quality toppers should last you two years or less, depending on how you maintain them. 

How Often Should I Replace Memory Foam?

Mattress

A memory foam mattress should last you up to ten years with proper maintenance. Once your mattress turns ten, it may be a good time to consider replacing it. Proper maintenance should prolong the lifespan of your memory foam mattress, but even then, you may not get more than ten years of use.

Pillows

You should replace your memory foam pillow every two to three years. Once again, maintenance plays a significant role in how long the pillow lasts. Spot-cleaning and gentle hand-washing should help extend its lifespan. However, three years is the lifespan of most pillows regardless of the manufacturer. 

Read More: Best Memory Foam Pillows

Toppers

Depending on its overall condition, you should consider replacing your memory foam mattress topper after three to five years. Regular and proper maintenance should help you get the most out of your topper, especially if it’s high-quality. Lower-quality toppers should be replaced after about two years of continuous use. 

Read More: Best Memory Foam Bed Topper

How to Clean Memory Foam?

Mattress

Cleaning a memory foam mattress should be relatively easy, depending on how frequently you do it. Regular maintenance helps keep it as clean as possible. If you’re interested in deep-cleaning your mattress, you should first start with vacuuming it. A handheld vacuum may be best because it’s easier to maneuver, but even a standard-size vac should do. Next, consider using a diluted fabric cleaner, mild detergent, or dishwashing liquid for stains. Dilute it in a 2:1 ratio, using a spray bottle to apply. Identify the stains and spot-clean them before allowing everything to air-dry.

Want to Learn More? Read on How to Clean Your Memory Foam Mattress

Pillows and Toppers

Cleaning a mattress topper or pillow is the same as cleaning the mattress. Memory foam is the same in all products, so cleaning shouldn’t be too different. Start by vacuuming before sprinkling some baking soda over the item. Allow this to sit for at least eight hours before vacuuming the baking soda off the surface. If not, you can use the same solution that you used for your memory foam mattress.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do you recommend it for back pain sufferers?

How long does memory foam last?

The lifespan of this product depends on a couple of factors.

  1. The density of the foam. Viscoelastic foam is classified with a density rating measured in cubic feet with 1.5 being the lowest and 8 being the highest. As a rule, the lower the density, the softer the surface and the lower the quality. In general, the beds that will last the longest and be the most comfortable have densities ranging from at least 3.5 to 5 or 5.3.
  2. Your size and weight. Heavier people will wear out a mattress faster because of the deeper compression into the materials. If you’re a heavier sleeper, investing in a firmer bed should help you get more use out of the product since it will prevent your weight from sinking into the layers as much.

So, to answer the question, our estimation is 4-6 years for a low-density foam, and 8-10 years for high-quality and high-density foam.

Is it safe or toxic for children?

Memory foam is generally considered safe and non-toxic for people of all ages. However, kids may be more sensitive to the chemicals used to make and treat the mattress. They might experience allergies, asthma, headaches, breathing difficulty, coughing, or nausea.

Because of the extra time that children spend sleeping and the fact that their biological systems are still in development, you may want to seek out a more natural alternative if you’re concerned about an allergic reaction. There are organic mattress alternatives available that could be safer.

Also, be on the lookout for mattress certifications for assurances that the bed is free from harmful chemicals. Some certifications to look for include CertiPUR-US, OEKO-TEX, and GREENGUARD Gold. If the mattress you’re evaluating has certifications like these, then they’re likely to be safe to use for anyone.

Read More: Is Memory Foam Toxic?

What is a good memory foam pillow?

Pillows are a highly personal choice, but we believe you can’t go wrong with a well-made memory foam pillow. Many mattress companies make their own pillows, so if you’ve found a brand of beds you like, you’ll probably sleep well on their pillow, too.

Additionally, some brands allow you to add and remove foam so that you can customize the size and shape of your pillow.

Our team covers as many areas of expertise as we do time zones, but none of us started here as a so-called expert on sleep. What we do share is a willingness to ask questions (lots of them), seek experts, and dig deep into conventional wisdom to see if maybe there might be a better path towards healthy living. We apply what we learn not only to our company culture, but also how we deliver information to our over 12.7M readers.

Sleep research is changing all the time, and we are 100% dedicated to keeping up with breakthroughs and innovations. You live better if you sleep better. Whatever has brought you here, we wish you luck on your journey towards better rest.

Sleep Advisor