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How do you go about getting proper rest every night? It’s a difficult question to answer since it all depends on the person and their situation. The sheer number of factors that can affect how much quality sleep you get is mind-boggling when you wrap your head around it. Still, some factors are more relevant than others, and in this article, we will cover a very important topic for people looking to improve their sleeping conditions – mattress composition.
There are many manufacturers to choose from, and it can be a daunting task to separate the good products from the mediocre ones. While it can be beneficial to hear what a sales clerk has to say, their job obviously comes with a bias that can steer you towards choices that don’t exactly fit what you want, but are “close enough.” The smartest approach is to learn about mattresses yourself – that way, you can ensure that what you’re buying fits your specific needs and limitations.
While any model worth considering tends to have solid-quality materials used for its production, it’s a good idea to understand some of them and make your choice based on what they offer compared to each other. Today, we will be covering the differences and similarities between latex and memory foam, which should help you make an informed, calculated purchase and improve your sleep quality for years to come. We will cover both materials individually before making a clear-cut comparison towards the end of the article. Let’s get into it.
What Is Latex in the Context of Mattresses?
If you’ve been looking into options for any sensible amount of time, you’ve seen latex advertised as a smart choice of material. If your career isn’t in a related field, you may not realize what makes latex usable in mattress production. Latex is derived from the sap of rubber trees and can go through one of several processes to reach a state where it functions as part of a mattress. Depending on how high the percentage is of organic latex in a given blend, the model is declared organic (95% natural latex or more), blended (30% or more) or synthetic (less than 30% organic latex).
In terms of processing method, you’re looking at two main types of latex – Dunlop and Talalay. Dunlop came first, and its processing is simpler overall – the liquid latex is injected into a mold and baked twice, with a cycle of washing in between those two periods of baking. The result of this processing method is often a very dense form of latex that is primarily used for support cores in various models. Dunlop latex ends up being significantly firmer on average than Talalay latex.
Talalay is made using a slightly more complicated processing method, one that involves freezing the mold to push carbon-dioxide through the material, which makes the resulting latex much more breathable in most scenarios, and better-suited for softer comfort layers. Keep in mind that both of these latex types can be fine-tuned to offer each other’s main benefits – Talalay latex can be made denser, and Dunlop latex can be made more fluffy and breathable.
It’s somewhat important to note that there aren’t many options out there where the entire thing is made out of one type of latex. Dunlop is typically used for the support core, as this part of the bed needs to be very firm. As for the comfort layers, both latex types are viable, but Talalay is the one we recommend. These models can also include other materials such as polyfoam, often within the more supportive layers. Extra breathability can be achieved by poking tiny holes in most mattress layers, which drastically improves air circulation. If you prefer sleeping cool, this is a huge benefit.
What Is Memory Foam in the Context of Mattresses?
Memory foam is sometimes referred to by its other name – viscoelastic polyurethane foam. It came about as a result of NASA’s efforts during the 1960s, and thanks to its composition, it’s classified as a synthetic material. Before the introduction of memory foam, polyfoam was used in most models, but this material had considerable downsides that went so far as to invite shoulder pain, joint pressure, etc. This happened because polyfoam wouldn’t conform to the sleeper’s body enough, meaning that their entire body weight would press down on select joints and other pressure points. Polyfoam also had less-than-desirable levels of durability and would degrade rather quickly (at least while being used for comfort layers), which has an impact on the sleeper’s budget.
One of the main advantages of memory foam is how well it conforms to the body. It has the ability to become softer when coming into contact with the person – or rather, the heat emanating from the sleeper’s body. As a result, it creates something resembling a mold that almost perfectly clings to the person’s body, which goes a long way towards alleviating neck pain, back pain, shoulder pain, or pressure in various pressure points on the body. Side sleepers get especially healthy treatment, as memory foam beds often help their spine achieve natural alignment, preventing the occurrence of back pain and any other issue related to poor posture. Once the person leaves the bed and allows the memory foam to cool off, it becomes slightly firmer and goes back to its normal shape.
Memory foam models are very rarely composed entirely of this material. While it offers many benefits, the risk of sagging is high, which means manufacturers will often supplement memory foam with support cores made of something different, such as high-density polyfoam or even Dunlop latex. One notable downside to memory foam is its sub-par breathability. Memory foam tends to hold onto all the body heat from the sleeper, and high-quality beds often have extra chemicals added into the mix to alleviate this issue and help the sleeper sleep cool.
Comparing Latex and Memory Foam
So which material should you be more interested in? As you may have concluded while reading the descriptions above, it’s not exactly cut-and-dry. A lot of bed come with a mix of materials used for different layers to provide what seems like “the best of both worlds.” Still, there are areas where we can compare the two materials and see which one comes out on top. We will present a somewhat extensive list of criteria that any mattress should be measured by (starting with how these models feel), and see how memory foam and latex perform, at least on average. When trying to make a purchasing decision, you should be looking at:
- Proper support is among the qualities you should put at the top of your priority list. Models that offer poor support will suffer from indentations in the sleeping surface, and they will sink to a very unpleasant degree. Good mattresses will retain an even surface that doesn’t sag excessively, letting the sleeper achieve proper spine alignment and avoid pain. Support cores are often very firm, and latex wins out by a small margin partly because of that. Latex is simply more durable than memory foam, and its responsiveness lets it offer more than adequate support, especially for back sleepers or stomach sleepers. Don’t underestimate the supportive capabilities of memory foam, though – it’s not far behind latex in this category.
- The ability to conform to the sleeper’s body is a crucial part of what makes a mattress worth purchasing. It affects the level of pressure that is applied to the person’s shoulders, joints, and midsection, and a bad mattress is not much better than sleeping on the floor without padding. You want it to cling to your body to a certain extent, because that helps alleviate all that potential pain and pressure, letting you sleep comfortably and without the risk of waking up with an aching body. Memory foam wins out by a noticeable but somewhat small margin, as it offers that “deep hug” feeling that some customers seek. Side sleepers, in particular, would appreciate memory foam a bit more.
- Temperature neutrality is also important. Not every material absorbs the same amount of heat, and a hot bed can easily cause you to wake up sweaty or have trouble finding a comfortable position. Sleeping cool is important, and in this category, latex wins. Memory foam isn’t worthless when it comes to letting you sleep cool, but the fact that these models often include a lot of bandaid chemicals designed to improve breathability doesn’t bode well for the bed’s heat levels. Don’t get us wrong, it’s perfectly plausible for a memory foam mattress to sleep cool, but they won’t all deliver on this. Latex processing is much more effective at improving air circulation through the bed, so if you are a particularly hot sleeper, latex is your best bet.
- Motion isolation and motion transfer are a crucial factor for couples. When motion transfer is too high, it means that any movement done by one of the two sleepers will be felt by the other person. The best mattresses often offer high levels of motion isolation, which is the exact opposite effect. Both materials offer great motion isolation, although we would recommend memory foam since it’s less responsive than latex, on average. Getting a bed with good motion isolation helps both people sleep despite how much one of them might toss and turn during the night, or get out of bed for bathroom trips and similar excursions.
- Aside from sleeping, the main use of a bed is for sex. In this category, the more responsive material tends to appeal to people more. Latex is the clear winner in most cases, although it may seem unintuitive to some people. Please keep in mind that responsiveness doesn’t automatically mean a model is very soft. On the contrary, some of the best latex mattresses for sex are quite firm.
- For many people, the main limiting factor when it comes to mattress purchases is their budget. One of the most noticeable and significant differences between latex and memory foam is how much they tend to cost. This alone can be the deciding factor in a purchase. When comparing Queen-sized mattresses, you can expect the memory foam version to cost somewhere around $1,050. Meanwhile, its latex counterpart almost doubles the price, with the average cost of one such type and size totaling at around $1,970. Of course, there are exceptions. Depending on how trustworthy and well-established a brand is, or who the products are marketed to, it’s possible to find a memory foam model that costs more than a latex one would. However, if you’re forced to plan around a tight budget, memory foam will most likely be more tempting.
- The term “off-gassing” can be seen thrown around in the world of mattresses. It’s very easy to understand – both latex and memory foam will emit odors when first unpacked, by releasing what are known as volatile organic compounds (or VOCs for short). As a rule, the more synthetic a given material is, the more intense and unpleasant this smell will be. Synthetic and blended latex are known to produce intense off-gassing odors initially, whereas organic latex is much milder and easier to tolerate. Memory foam is synthetic, so you can expect to experience that rubbery smell for a while.
- Longevity is another important factor to consider. Even the most efficient products in the world would be aggravating to use if they broke or degraded very quickly. For memory foam, you can expect the mattress to stay in tip-top shape for around seven full years, after which you may want to replace it. Latex tends to last longer for two major reasons. It tends to be more resistant to sagging and indentations, meaning that the mattress will retain its intended shape for longer. Additionally, some latex models let you replace individual layers, so you can target the problematic parts of your mattress and just swap them out and extend the product’s lifespan that way.
Note: Organic latex comes with a potential allergy risk. As a rule, the more synthetic you go, the smaller the risk becomes of you getting an allergic reaction. Consider this when deciding on a mattress to purchase.
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Tanya is a professional writer and editor with a B.A. in English from the University of Chicago. Tanya has been fighting insomnia for most of her adult life, and she knows firsthand how vital a good night’s rest can be for people with sleep problems.