Last Updated: June 04, 2018.
You start your search for a new mattress, you find a whole bunch, but some are memory foam while others are made with springs. What is the difference? More importantly, which is better for your sleep? In this guide, we take an in-depth look at memory foam and spring mattresses, how they compare with each other, and examine why one might be better than the other.
Cutting To The Chase: Which Is Better?
Memory foam mattresses can be a great choice if you…
- … Enjoy how foam shapes according to your body
- … A general fan of foam-based mattresses
- … Are in need of support and pressure relief
- … Sleep with a partner and need minimum motion transfer
Innerspring mattresses can be a great choice if you…
- … Enjoy bouncy sleeping surfaces
- … Are looking for a budget-friendly mattress
- … Are not a fan of the trapped hugging feeling of memory foam
- … Need of a generally cooler choice for hot sleepers
Read on for the specific breakdown of each mattress type.
|Memory Foam||Innerspring Mattress|
|Can be natural:|
|Clean air (low VOC):||X||X|
|Bounciness and responsiveness:||X|
|Good for sex:||X|
|Easy to move on:||X|
Memory foam and innerspring seem to be vastly different materials. Memory foam is a blend of chemicals to create the foam while springs use steel that has been mechanically curled.
Memory foam have been trending in popularity for the past 5 years. It’s no surprise how great they can be because of how well they can relieve pressure. The ability to conform, contour, and hug the natural curves of your body provide very intimate support wherever there is pressure. With some body heat, the memory foam will begin to shape according to your body, distributing your weight evenly throughout the bed. It is noiseless, absorbs motion without transfer, and can be great for a variety of sleeping positions with different comfort firmness levels.
However, memory foam often times have a strong odor that dissuades even the strongest of men and women, and its off-gassing can cause irritation to the nose and itchiness for the skin for a small group of unlucky individuals. They can also be rather difficult to move and reposition on.
Many mattress companies have recognized how well memory foam traps heat. The nature of memory foam allow other ingredients to be mixed with its main polyurethane ingredient. Most ingredients added to proprietary memory foam blends work to absorb and disperse heat better. Copper and graphite, for example, have a high thermal conductivity for absorbing and getting rid of heat efficiently. Other materials such as bamboo and charcoal help maintain a fresh odor-free scent while wicking away moisture so your body can cool faster. We also find aerated, convoluted, and open-cell designs in memory foam layers for better airflow.
Innerspring are one of the oldest and most traditional types of mattresses. Over the past 5 years, they have been making a comeback and becoming trendier. A large part of it is due to the jump in improvements and innovation to this type of material. There are four types of innerspring, with the market now predominantly filled with individually wrapped (pocketed) coils beds. Pocketed coils offer a customized support experience, with each spring working separately from the others. This means better support, minimal transfer of motions among the coils, and much stronger buoyancy and bounce. The foam used for padding the coils have also dramatically improved, with the arrival of hybrid mattresses combining memory foam, latex, and other foam-based blends. The inclusion of pillow tops for mattresses have also improved sleep by improving pressure relief and padded comfort.
However, a long history of bedding does come with some scars. Innerspring bounciness can be disruptive for sleep when you naturally toss and turn at night. If a poor quality or thin enough foam is use, the coils can be felt and can make the bed poor for sleep. They can also be more prone to sagging as the steel coils begin to wear out and weaken as it is used, losing important support for the body and proper spinal alignment.
There have been improvements to the choice of coil system used in most spring mattresses. We now find individually encased pocketed coils as the default “main” innerspring design because of the unique support it can provide, with coils working separately from each other. There are two other major improvements to spring coils:
- The better edge support with the use of stronger coils along the sides of your mattress, and
- The introduction and growing popularity of hybrid mattresses
A common and frequently frustrating mishap with sleeping is rolling off the side of your mattress because of the lack of edge support. Innerspring mattresses built firm provide sleepers with full access of the bed’s sleeping surface. However, higher quality innerspring mattresses build lower gauge coils along its edges to provide greater support. The lower the gauge, the stronger the steel coils. For higher price class innerspring mattresses, we can find high-density foam-based walls protecting the pocketed coils along the sides of the mattress whilst providing edge support.
One of the big problems with spring mattresses, especially the ones found in the lower price class is the poor quality of foam used. These “regular foams” simply act as a cushion without the bounciness of latex foam or the contouring properties of memory foam. Hybrid mattresses, a newer design of beds, combine the best of two or more materials. We can find popular hybrid beds to combine individually encased coils with memory foam, although hybrid mattresses with latex is available but not as popular. The use of memory foam instead of regular foam ultimately create a bouncy bed (the springs) with pressure relieving properties (the memory foam). Quality hybrid beds tend to be more expensive compared to other mattress types, and we found them to be worth the sleep.
Let’s Dive Deeper
We will examine several characteristics that make a great mattress and see how the two materials compare with each other. Let’s look at the following items:
- Construction, for the way the mattress is built and how it might affect performance
- Feel and comfort, for when the body hits the bed and the physical sensation it gives
- Responsiveness and bounciness, for how quickly the mattress return to its original shape and pushes back
- Temperature sensitivity, to see how hot it might get for sleepers
- Off-gassing, for the unpleasant odor it can produce, and
- Sex and noise, for fun and for a good night’s sleep
- Pricing, and what to expect in each class
Memory foam construction have different dimensions that manufacturers can manipulate for unique sleeping experiences. The main three are: 1) density, 2) shape, and 3) infusion of ingredients.
Density is either measured with impression load deflector (ILD) or pounds per cubic food (PCF). This number was often kept a secret by higher price class brands. However, more mattress companies are providing this number for the public as a way to help them in their buying process. Medium-firm mattresses have 26 to 31 ILD or 4 to 5 PCF, an ideal range for most sleepers. Soft mattresses have 19 to 21 ILD or less than 3 PCF, while firm mattresses have 34 to 36 ILD or greater than 5 PCF.
The shape of memory foam mattresses deals with three 1) aerated, 2) convoluted, and 3) open-cell structure.
- Aerated layers are memory foam with holes from the top-down without compromising the integrity of the layer
- Convoluted layers have a bumpy, egg crate design that provide maximum sideways airflow
- Open-cell structure create millions of tiny “bubble” air pockets inside the layer of foam during the manufacturing process
Infusing ingredients is becoming popular for the latest models of memory foam mattresses. We find many more variations of memory foams that include other materials into their blend of memory foam. Infusing other materials does two things: 1) Primarily to reduce the heat build up, and 2) change the overall feel and comfort of the mattress. Some mattress ingredients you might find are: bamboo, charcoal, green tea, aloe vera, copper, graphite, and cashmere.
Innerspring mattresses are built with steel coil systems with a top layer of foam. There are three ways an innerspring mattress be differ in construction: 1) spring system, 2) spring gauge, and 3) foam top layers.
There are four different types of innerspring systems: continuous coils, Bonnell coils, offset coils, and Marshall coils. Most mattresses use Marshall coils (better known as individually wrapped or pocketed coils). This coil system offer the best supportive and customized firmness feel as each coil work separately from one another. It also allow mattress companies to use different coil strengths throughout the mattress to provide different levels of comfort for different parts of the body (often marketed as “zoned support”). Although we only see zoned support in more luxurious mattresses.
Depending on the gauge of the coils, we can find innerspring beds with a wide variety of firmness. Typical gauge can range between 12 to 16. gauge Firm mattresses will use 12-gauge while softer mattresses use 15 or 16-gauge coils. The higher the gauge number, the more give the steel coils offer. Firmness of innersprings also depends on the density and thickness of the foam top layers.
Mattress companies building innerspring have moved towards hybrid mattresses as an improvement to the foam top layers, combining the best properties of several materials. However, the innerspring mattress market is filled with inexpensive, budget friendly beds. More often than not in lower price classes, we can find lower quality upper foam with thinner build and less comfort.
Pillow tops on mattresses also play a role. We still see much love for both tight top and euro-box tops. Generally speaking, euro-box tops are softer with the additional stitched on top padded layer but not by a significant amount. The foam layers will play a significant role in the quality of the innerspring mattress construction.
Feel and comfort
Memory foam mattresses do a great job at relieving pressure. Its sensation can be described in many ways: cradling, hugging, contouring, conforming, molding, and so on. The bottom line is the memory foam is able to provide full-contact support to all parts of your body, absorb the pressure, and evenly distribute your weight. It’s with good reasons why NASA designed it in the first place and memory foams become trendy over time.
However, the drawback of its hugging effect is the trapping sensation that comes along with it. Heavier individuals may find it a nuisance to toss and turn, or even get up and off the bed. It’s not difficult, but it can be cumbersome to move around on. This can make it not ideal as a mattress for sexual activities if there is too much sink or softness. The mattress type is also known for its heat and off-gassing odor, which we cover more below.
Otherwise, the slow responsiveness of the mattress (bouncing back to its original shape after you move) and its general softness make the memory foam mattress idea with those with physical ailments such as back pain and shoulder pain.
Memory foam mattresses come with a wide variety of firmness, with manufacturers being able to easily change the density and thickness of the foam layers during its production process. The inclusion of other materials like cooling gel and copper can also change the way the mattress can feel, by increasing its density, reducing the sinking and trapping feeling, and providing a slightly better regulated sleeping surface. As we mentioned in the Construction section, memory foams also come in different designs to provide better breathability and airflow for the mattress, thus cooler sleeping temperatures.
Innerspring mattresses highlight is its noticeably bouncy sleeping surface. The coils do an excellent job at pushing back whenever force is applied, and with individually encased coils, we find much better support as each coil work in isolation and does not affect the rest.
Let’s talk about the foam layer as this is arguably the most important part of the mattress. Without the foam top, you would feel all the steel coils digging into your body. Innerspring mattresses can be very cheap. We generally advise against lower price classes but understand not everyone has a large budget. However, we highly recommend against buying cheap innerspring mattresses due to the quality of the foam being used. However, if you do choose to go with lower priced innerspring beds, find one with a foam layer at least 2 inches thick for sufficient cushion.
There is not many choices with comfort levels for innerspring. Often times, we find coils either 12-gauge or 15-gauge, with nothing in between. We also frequently find mattress owners complaining that their innerspring beds are either perfect or too firm. When an innerspring mattress is plush, this is due to thicker layers of foam cushioning sleepers with intentionally less dense, softer foam layers being used.
However, the buoyant and springy nature is tried and tested as one of the most comfortable sleeping surfaces. The combination of a spring system with the foam top layers provide a floating and supportive sensation with minimal sink relative to memory foam beds. This back sleepers and stomach sleepers will find innerspring mattresses suit them well. Side sleepers will want a spring-based mattress with thicker foam layers for relieving pressure on their shoulders and arm.
Responsiveness and bounce
Responsiveness for memory foam is the slower than innerspring and any other material. Higher quality blends does return to its original shape faster. The slow responsiveness is part of what makes memory foam great at relieving pressure and evenly distributing body weight. The application of heat and pressure over time makes memory foam respond slower, which can make tossing and turning a nuisance enough to disturb sleep. Firmer and denser memory foams have less sink which can make it easier to move.
Innerspring are extremely responsive. Spring systems are designed with tension that force the coils to maintain their shape, pushing back on bodyweight placed on it. This, in turn, makes the material very bouncy. When it comes to pocketed coils, innerspring can be the bounciest. The responsiveness and bounciness make it easy for sleepers to move around on their mattress. The only drawback is that some sleepers have reported waking up in the middle of the night because of how buoyant the mattress can be, pushing back when they move during sleep.
Note: As fun as it can be, it is best to avoid jumping on your spring bed or sitting frequently on the edge. The concentrated weight on individual springs can cause premature sagging. This applies especially for innerspring, but is also important for any type of bed.
Memory foam is notorious for its heat. The temperature sensitive of the memory foam makes it amazing for pressure relief, but poor for sleeping cool at night. Heat and pressure is required for memory foam to change its shape and mold to the unique curves of our body. This contouring and hugging is what makes memory foam popular, but does it so well that airflow is restricted and the material around the body becomes dense enough to retain heat. There have been major improvements in this area for memory foam.
The infusion and mixture of other ingredients such as cooling gel, charcoal, and bamboo have changed the nature of the memory foam. We find density is decreased, responsiveness is improved, and the material becoming a better conductor of heat (absorbing and dispersing). Other designs have also been implemented to provide better breathability and airflow, such as constructing layers with top-down holes (aerated) or designed as open-cell (much more common now).
Heat retention can still be a concern. If you find yourself in love with memory foam still, we have written a guide on the best cooling mattresses that include this type of mattress with notably better regulated sleeping surface temperatures.
Innerspring is clearly the better choice for a cooler sleep. The amount of open space within the mattress provide an unbeatable airflow and breathability for the mattress. The steel coils are also conductive of heat, albeit have a minimal effect overall.
The biggest problem with innerspring temperature has to do with the foam top layer used. If the foam is too dense and thick, sleepers may find some heat build up that can affect the quality of sleep. However, the amount of space for airflow makes innerspring generally better with getting rid of heat compared to memory foam mattresses.
Hybrid mattresses that use innerspring with memory foam makes for a much better, cooler sleep.
The smell of memory foam can be extremely unpleasant. The chemical odor found on new mattresses are equivalent to the new car smell or fresh paint. This chemical smell is a reaction known as “off-gassing” where something called “volatile organic compounds” (VOCs) break down. Unlike “stable” compounds, “volatile” ones will break down to gas.
As awful as it may be, the smell eventually goes away. On average, it can take anywhere between 3 to 7 days to dissipate. This is one of the biggest complaints of memory foam. One of the reasons why it takes so long is because mattresses are encased in a plastic wrapper and stored for some time before they are finally unpackaged by consumers.
Although the chemical smell can be alarming, the odor emitted isn’t high enough to cause harm to your health.
Innerspring mattresses also have off-gassing when first unpackaged. The upper layer foam is made with chemical ingredients that also produce an odor. However, because only a small fraction of the mattress contain foam, innerspring tend to air out quicker and its smell go away sooner. Like memory foam, it may take anywhere between 3 to 7 days for the off-gassing to dissipate.
Good for sex and noise
Memory foam can offer a decent sex experience. However, compared to innerspring, memory foam may not be the best choice. The moldability of memory foam makes movement difficult as hands and legs sink into the mattress. Motion is absorbed very well, and can take a effort to achieve climax.
The heat retention also makes memory foam less desirable for sex. It gets hot enough during sex, and memory foam trapping heat can make it disruptively sweaty. There have been major improvements on the construction, blend, and general density of memory foam so it would be unfair for us to say that heat trapping will make for a bad time. The introduction of cooling gels in most memory foam, aeration of layers for better airflow, and changes to the density and blend reduce the “hugging” effect of memory foam that trap heat so well.
Memory foam generate no noise, which can make it ideal for both pressure relieving sleep and discrete fun.
Innerspring is one of the best mattress types for sexual activities. The coil system create a bouncy mattress that offer a buoyant surface, giving a springiness to movements. This springiness makes sex much more rhythmic, makes it easier and takes less effort, and can help achieve a stronger climax. The buoyant surface also makes changing positions and movement on top of the mattress easier.
The only drawback is the lack of discretion that comes from innerspring. The noise level can be disturbing to sleep and disruptive to sex. Roommates or neighbors may hear the bed squeaking, especially If walls are thin or they are close enough. This can make sex less desirable. During sleep time, the natural tossing and turning can cause noise that wake up even the deepest of sleepers.
Memory foam can vary in pricing. Of course, this also means the quality of the memory foam and the bed in general will vary as well. Top memory foam mattresses and mattress brands can be anywhere between $800 to $1400. The cost can be directly associated with the quality of the materials, not so much the manufacturing process. We find lower price class mattresses under $300 to have a very thin layer of memory foam that may not due your sleep justice for getting the full pressure relieving effects of memory foam.
Mattresses at a higher price class can vary in density, with more custom comfort levels available and more pure ingredients used in the memory foam. We also find multiple layers of memory foam and even patented mixtures with the infusion of cooling agents for better sleep.
Innerspring mattress do not cost much to manufacture today. The only time you will pay less is with a futon or hand-me-down spring bed. Pocketed coils do cost slightly more than other types of innerspring mattresses because of the extra attention required to test, encase and place each coil. However, innerspring have been around for more than a century. Production efficiency and competition have driven innerspring mattress prices down.
Lower price class innerspring under $200 tend to use a lower quality and thinner foam. As we cannot sleep on the tempered steel coils themselves, the poor quality of foam can have a negative impact on sleep. However, they do work and if you are on a tight budget, innerspring will offer more variety for smaller budgets. Innerspring made worth their money range between $400 to $600, with better foam layer design and ingredients for cooler sleep, edge support, and improved overall comfort.
The Similarities Between Memory Foam and Spring
- Both pressure relieving with use of foam layers, where memory foam is the better choice
- Both with a range of comfort levels. memory foam density during manufacturing can be tweaked while for innerspring different thickness (gauge) coils and foam density can be used
- Both have off-gassing and an initial odor that eventually go away
The Differences Between Memory Foam and Spring
- Memory foam offer a unique contouring, pressure relieving sleep experience
- Memory foam transfer the least amount of motion compared to innerspring, and is less likely to disturb your sleeping partner
- Innerspring offer a unique bouncy and buoyant sleeping surface experience
- Innerspring tend to sleep cooler than memory foam, with better airflow and breathability