On the market of sleep-related products, gel-infused memory foam was always highly praised for its cooling features, but how cooling can a gel be, and how does it work in comparison to regular memory foam products? What is the difference between them, and why are not all memory products infused with gel if it has more advantages than the ones without it?
Sleeping cool is a relative term since it depends on various factors including the individual feel of what is hot or cool for someone, body temperature, room temperature, and so on, but somehow it became preferred and desired feature of mattresses and pillows. We usually have issues with hot temperatures during the summer nights, and since sleeping with AC on is not recommended, even a slightly higher temperature can keep as awake in bed. Having a cooling gel-infused mattress does not necessarily mean that sleeping on top of it would be as cool as sleeping on ice; instead, it should help with heat regulation which is something that regular memory foam material struggles with.
Memory Foam 101
Before the memory foam revolution, we were sleeping on feather-stuffed pillows and spring mattresses, which we all quickly forgot in order to try out this new and revolutionary comfortable material. We opened the door of our bedrooms to memory foam during the 80s and 90s, quickly after NASA developed their first products from this material. While trying to improve the safety of air cushions, NASA created this temperature-sensitive foam, which subsequently became widely used for many different purposes.
Also known as viscoelastic foam, memory foam is a type of foam which reacts and molds in touch with body temperature, and since it contours the body so well, it became popular material among many mattress and pillow manufacturers. At first, it was mostly recommended and used for medical purposes as it was claimed that it could alleviate aches such as back pain, or be beneficial for people with fibromyalgia. Heat-retaining feature of memory foam made it suitable for people who deal with chronic pains since additional warmth can decrease the aches.
But, as much as it can be considered an advantage, that extra heat provided by memory foam is mainly a disadvantage for most sleepers. Companies and manufacturers of memory foam pillows and mattresses tried solving that problem by releasing the second generation of memory foam products, designed with open cell structure to enhance the breathability. Since that was not enough, in 2006. the third generation of memory foam sleep products was introduced, and they consisted out of gel-infused visco foam which was supposed to deal properly with heat regulation finally. After the development of gel memory foam, other components have been frequently added to it to reduce the odor, some of them are aloe vera, silver-ions, activated charcoal, green tea extract, etc.
Gel Memory Foam
Gel-infused foam is probably the most innovative foam on the market, it has all the benefits of regular memory foam, but it does not heat up as quickly. The way material feels is the same, amount of nice and even body support and motion transfer isolation is also the same, so basically adding gel did not cause any change that would significantly affect sleepers experience of sleeping on a memory foam pillow or mattress in terms of form, comfort, and support. It is still the same memory foam just mixed with gel microbeads.
However, different brands use various ways to incorporate gel into memory foam; some insert a gel-pad layer beneath or on top of other foam layers, others insert gel beads into foam or pour it onto foam while it is setting.
Gel microbeads create a structure similar to the design of open cell memory foam, providing that much-needed extra space for airflow through the foam. In that way, more heat can be drawn away from the body in addition to the heat already absorbed by the gel, but the efficiency of heat regulation depends on the quality and the amount of gel which was used.
Two types of gel can be incorporated in the foam this way. The first one is thermally conducted, which feels cool at a touch, almost as a stone countertop. The second one is phase-changing material which transforms from a solid to the liquid condition once it gets in contact with body heat and can store and release heat within the specific range of temperature, regulating the temperature as the body cools down during the sleep.
Besides the fact that it can contribute to heat regulation, gel microbeads also contribute to the density of the foam, which will add up to its durability and comfort. But, in terms of durability, it has been proven that gel-infused memory foam mattresses can degrade quicker than the regular ones due to the amount of gel beads. The level of degradation varies and depends mostly on the size of gel beads, larger beads are more likely to break the cellular structure of a mattress over time. Another concern is the heat regulation which does not last as long as some sleepers would expect, and we will discuss that topic separately below.
When it comes to price, people are often willing to pay more for greater quality and durability, especially if it is up to something essential that they have to use each day, such as pillows and mattresses. Gel foam products come with a slightly higher price than the ones made from regular memory foam, so there is no significant difference in cost, but keep in mind that the gel foam can deteriorate faster, so seek for the one with smaller gel beads, or go for the regular foam if you do not tend to sleep hot.
Besides all-foam products, gel material can also be founded in some hybrid mattresses which include a layer of gel memory foam in their comfort system. Also, there are some gel-infused latex and polyfoam mattresses.
Is Gel Memory Foam Cooler?
Memory foam products over flooded the market, but most consumers agreed in one thing, they overheat and sleep hot on them, that is why gel-infused foam and its heat regulating abilities fall under top innovations in the industry. That cooling claim became the key selling point of memory foam products since many are willing to pay more for that enhancement. But, there are yet no official or science backed up evidence that gel can impact heat regulation that much, although the idea of using a gel to cool down dense foam is somewhat scientific.
Liquids can be an effective way of cooling down the surface, and since the gel used for memory foam products is a semi-liquid, it can draw away the heat from the human body. But, the question is, what happens with that heat, where does it go? The thing is, this semi-liquid is not able to evaporate, so it just stays there with the temperature of its surroundings. Gel encased in memory foam will quickly adapt to the temperature of the foam around it, it will probably warm up slower than the regular foam, but in the end, it cannot stay cool during the entire night. So at first, gell will take on the room temperature, which is cooler than the temperature of our bodies, that is why at first when we lay down on gel memory foam mattress or pillow, we might think that it is indeed cooling, because opposed to our warm bodies it does provide somewhat cooler feeling and temperature. However, sooner or later, it will reach and match the temperature of our body, and that cooling effect will fade away.
One more important thing to look after is the amount of gel infused in the foam, lower percentage of gel will have little or no effects of cooling, and some mattresses with such low percentage of gel perhaps do not have it at all. Anything below 30% is not enough to provide the “cooling” benefits at least during the first period of bedtime while you are trying to fall asleep.
Although most brands continue to sell their products under the claim that gel-infused foam products are cooling, recently a few studies which refute those claims have shown up. For example, one of the foam manufacturers, Cargill, performed studies which showed that plant-based memory foam sleeps around 25% cooler than gel infused one, which is a significant difference and perhaps a hint of the direction in which the memory foam industry will develop in the upcoming years.
Another interesting situation regarding the cooling claim is the issue between some of the leading brands on the market of memory foam products, Serta and Tempur-Pedic. Serta claimed that their iComfort foam sleeps cooler than the Tempur-Pedic foam, so at the end of 2012. the National Advertising Board brought up a decision that if Serta wants to continue using that statement, they need to provide scientific evidence that supports such a statement. As we are familiar with the situation, that did not happen.
So, if you naturally tend to sleep hot, the chances are high that neither the gel-infused memory foam would not work for you. Although they are not as heat conductive as the regular foam and would not make you sweaty or anything like that, it still can be not enough for some sleepers. But, be careful because many brands tend to exaggerate in their claims in order to sell more or make their products look better than the others. The point is to keep your expectations realistic and don’t entirely trust everything they claim.
Gel Memory Foam Vs. Others
As you know, there any many types of mattresses on the market, and we are now going to compare their heat regulation abilities with the ones from gel-infused foam, and to summarize their pros and cons.
- Gel-infused memory foam – one or more layers of foam in mattresses adapt to body contours and conform closely. Their comfort system usually consists of a base made from high-density foam and one or more layers of polyfoam or viscoelastic foam. As we mentioned previously, the heat retention can be a problem for those sleepers who tend to sleep hot, since cooling gel has its limitations.
- Latex – this highly durable material that comes from rubber tree is becoming a more and more popular material for sleep-related products, and although it may seem that latex is another heat-trapping material, it actually sleeps cooler than the regular memory foam. Its support core is a dense polyfoam, on top of which latex layers are settled.
- Hybrid – according to customers experiences, this type of mattresses is probably the best one on the market when it comes to temperature regulation. Its comfort system is more complicated than the others since it can combine all the other material in order to provide the best sleeping experience. It consists of a pocketed coils core, layers of latex, micro coils, and memory foam or polyfoam.
- Innerspring – this type of bed also sleeps fairly cool, even cooler than the foam mattresses, but it lacks that close conforming and softness of memory foam. In its base, there is a layer of steel coils and on top of them is one or more layers of conventional polyfoam.
- Airbed – heat retention can be an uncomfortable problem with many airbeds, but that depends on the type and thickness of used material. Their support core usually consists of adjustable air chambers, and they can include foam layers.