Memory foam beds are a newer type of mattress that have gained popularity for their “customized” feel. Originally created by NASA researchers in the 1970s to provide crash protection for airline pilots and passengers, memory foam is now used in pillows, mattress toppers, and as a comfort layer for multiple types of mattresses. The viscoelastic foam reacts to pressure and heat, changing shape to fit the sleeper’s body and becoming softer from body heat. As a result, memory foam mattresses deliver a signature feeling of “hug” that many sleepers appreciate.

Types of memory foam mattresses

You’ll come across a few different versions of memory foam mattresses as you shop. Here are the most common labels used and what they mean:

  • Traditional memory foam mattresses are made of viscoelastic foam, a polyfoam that’s polyurethane-based. They’re the most popular option available.
  • Plant-based memory foam mattresses combine petrochemicals and botanical ingredients. They tend to be cooler to sleep on than traditional memory foam, due to the breathable open-cell configuration of the foam.
  • Gel-infused memory foam mattresses are a less common option, albeit a popular one among hot sleepers. Cooling gel is added to the mattress to help reduce heat.
  • Copper-infused memory foam places copper wire in beads throughout the foam to cool the mattress. Copper also helps blood circulation, making these mattresses popular among sleepers with joint pain.

What are the components of a memory foam mattress?

Memory foam is very soft, so mattresses are not made entirely of memory foam, despite their name. Typically the memory foam comfort layer makes up 25 to 40 percent of the mattress to provide the sleeper with a comfortable sense of “hug” and contour to the body. The support core is made from innersprings or high-density polyfoam to create a sturdier base that prevents the sleeper from sinking too far into the mattress.

The firmness of a memory foam bed depends on the ILD. ILD (indentation load deflection) indicates how much pressure is required to make a four-inch indentation on the mattress surface. The higher the ILD, the firmer the mattress. Conversely, the lower the ILD, the more you will sink into the mattress.

Memory foam mattresses may have a ILD range because environmental factors like room and body temperature can affect the ILD. A quality memory foam mattress will have an ILD of 10 or more, although you’ll see comfort layers ranging from 8 to 20.  As a general rule, ILDs of 10 or less are extremely soft, 11 to 15 are very soft, and 16 to 21 are soft. A higher ILD will still contour to the body, but not as much as a lower ILD. Higher ILDs will provide less pressure point relief for lighter weight sleepers, but will offer better support for heavier weight sleepers.

Density is another thing to look for as you shop for a mattress. Density indicates how well the mattress will support you, and is measured in pounds per cubic foot. The density of memory foam comfort layers range from 2.5 to 8 pounds per cubic foot.  

With memory foam beds, density also indicates how quickly the mattress will retain its shape after you get up from the mattress. The higher the density, the more slowly it will retain its shape, but the better it will be at contour and motion isolation. Lower-density foams will retain their shape quickly, but offer less motion isolation and contour ability.

How does a memory foam mattress feel to sleep on?

Memory foam mattresses are popular because their superior contour ability makes the mattress feel customized to the sleeper’s body.

Memory foam reacts to the pressure and heat of your body, so regardless of your sleeping position or body weight, it will keep your spine aligned by sinking deeper at pressure points like your hips and shoulders and less so in other places like your stomach. This reactive contouring makes memory foam beds excellent at reducing back pain, especially for side sleepers. Memory foam compresses according to the amount of pressure on it, providing that quintessential responsive feel that lets you sink into the mattress and feel “hugged” by it.

Pros and cons of memory foam mattresses

Memory foam mattresses come with pros and cons that are more or less important to different sleepers. Review the following to determine whether a memory foam mattress is a good fit for you based on your sleep preferences.

Pros of memory foam mattresses Cons of memory foam mattresses
Excellent contour ability

Comfortable, supportive sleeping surface

Superior motion isolation

Easy to ship

Sleep hot

Sinking feeling disliked by some sleepers

Lack of bounce unsuitable for sex

Initial offgassing odor

Pros of memory foam mattresses

Excellent contour ability

Memory foam beds are the best mattress at providing contour, bar none. As the softest foam available, they conform to the body and provide a feeling of hug that feels customized to you.

Comfortable, supportive sleeping surface

Memory foam mattresses provide excellent pressure point relief. They react according to the pressure exerted on them, allowing them to evenly distribute your weight and keep your spine aligned and supported while asleep.

Superior motion isolation

Memory foam mattresses are a popular option for couples and light sleepers, because weight and movement on one part of the mattress does not affect others. This allows for a quiet sleep surface that isn’t interrupted by a person or pet moving elsewhere in the bed.

Easy to ship

Memory foam beds are easily compressed to ship, so they can be packed and shipped in a box that delivers straight to the shopper’s door. There’s no need to schedule an in-home delivery with a memory foam bed, and they’re widely available in stores and online. Once unpacked, the mattress will expand and recover to its shape and be ready to sleep on within a day or two.

Cons of memory foam mattresses

Sleep hot

One of the biggest complaints with memory foam mattresses is their propensity for heat retention. The benefit of their excellent contour ability means that they also wrap and envelop your body, trapping your body heat which can be uncomfortable for hot sleepers. Adding insult to injury is the fact that memory foam itself is not very breathable. Pure memory foam is the worst at heat retention, while cooling gel-infused, copper-infused, and plant-based foams are cooler to some extent.

Sinking feeling disliked by some sleepers

While the sinking feeling is beloved by many memory foam bed aficionados, it can be a drawback for some sleepers. If you sleep hot or simply feel uncomfortable having the mattress hug your body, a memory foam mattress may not be a good fit.

Lack of bounce unsuitable for sex

Memory foam beds are not bouncy like innerspring beds. They also contour to the body and cause you to sink into the mattress, which can make them more challenging to have sex on.

Initial offgassing odor

The foam manufacturing process creates volatile organic compound (VOC) particles that get released when the mattress is unwrapped. These are harmless but have a strong odor many find unpleasant. Fortunately, this odor goes away within a few hours to a few days. Viscoelastic memory foam mattresses with thick comfort layers have the strongest smell, while plant-based foam beds have the least.

How much does a memory foam mattress cost?

The average price for a quality queen-size memory foam mattress is between $800 to $100.

Memory foam mattresses range in price depending on size, foam density, layer thickness, and types of foams. The larger the mattress, the more expensive it will be. Same goes for foam density and thickness of the comfort layers – the higher density and more layers, the more expensive. Visco-elastic memory foam mattress are often the cheapest, while plant-based, gel- and copper-infused models are more expensive.

How long does a memory foam mattress last?

On average, a quality memory foam mattresses should last around 7 years.

Factors that impact the bed’s durability include the types of foam used and the density of the foam. Polyfoams are cheaper and less durable, so take care to check how many are used in the comfort layer and support core vs other higher-quality foams. Low-grade density foam provides the softest sleeping experience and recovers its shape quickly, but it also tends to have the least longevity the worst motion transfer. High-grade density foam, on the other hand, will last longer and provide the best contouring and motion isolation, but will recover its shape the slowest.

Shoppers should also review the warranty terms before purchasing. Make sure you understand how long it lasts and what’s covered, especially in regards to indentation and the type of platform required for the bed.

What type of sleeper is best suited to a memory foam mattress?

Certain qualities make a memory foam bed a better option for some sleepers over others.

  • Lightweight sleepers especially benefit from the contouring abilities of a memory foam mattress. Because the foam is so soft, they can sink deeper into the mattress and enjoy a more comfortable sleeping experience than they would a traditional medium-firm innerspring bed.
  • Light sleepers who share the bed with a partner or pet and wake easily from the other sleeper’s movements will appreciate the superior motion transfer offered by memory foam mattresses.
  • Side sleepers in particular benefit from the contour abilities of a memory foam mattress, which allows them to sink in at the hips and shoulders and keep their spine aligned.

Some sleepers who may not enjoy a memory foam bed include hot sleepers and overweight sleepers. Memory foam is notorious for retaining heat, and heavier weight sleepers may find the softness of the foam allows them to sink too far into the mattress. Sleepers who weigh 230 pounds or more will want to look for a high-grade density foam mattress with a high ILD rating, or consider another mattress type to receive the best support.

Memory foam mattress FAQ checklist

The following checklist of questions may be helpful to you as you shop for a memory foam mattress:

  • How thick is the comfort layer?
  • What types of foams are used in the mattress?
  • What is the density and ILD rating?
  • What is the lifespan of the mattress?
  • Is this mattress a good fit, based on my body weight and sleep position?
  • Should I expect an offgassing smell with this mattress?
  • Is there a trial period and what is the return policy?
  • How long is the warranty and what is covered?

Additional resources

Ready to buy a memory foam mattress? Check out our related guides:

Not sure a memory foam mattress is right for you? Read up on other types of mattresses: