Ever since they were first introduced to the public, all-foam mattresses have dominated the mattress market. People tend to pick foam beds over any other mattress type. The two most popular types are gel-infused memory foam and traditional memory foam beds. Although they are very similar, there are some key differences that set them apart.
In this article, we will look at both types individually, discover how they are manufactured, what special features they offer, and who they’re most suitable for. We hope this guide will help you choose the best memory foam mattress for your needs.
What Is Memory Foam?
Viscoelastic polyurethane foam, or memory foam, is the ideal material for mattresses because it contours closely to the body and relieves pressure points. Its rise in popularity is largely thanks to these features, and because of the bed in a box trend, memory foam is now a favorite in many households.
When memory foam was first invented, it was mainly used for industrial or medical purposes. Mattress companies saw the potential and started developing an improved version of the polyurethane foam that would be suitable for mattresses. They added extra petrochemicals to make the foam more viscous and dense. This “improved” polyurethane foam is now known as traditional memory foam—the most popular material used for all-foam mattresses today.
Although traditional memory foam allowed the mattresses to be more responsive and offer better pressure relief, the closed-cell structure within the foam trapped heat. To tackle this issue, manufacturers went to the next stage of development, injecting air into the already-upgraded poly-foam to create small, open chambers. The new open-cell structure design improved the airflow, resulting in a much more breathable material.
How Does It Work?
Standard memory foam adapts and contours to the body by using heat and pressure. It molds around each curve of the sleeper, allowing them to sink into the foam. This keeps the whole body supported during the night, and the spine naturally aligned.
Another feature that makes traditional memory foam unique is its slow return to the original shape when the pressure is removed. Unlike other types of materials found in mattresses, memory foam doesn’t bounce back right away. Instead, it regains its shape slowly, minimizing motion transfer. That’s why memory foam mattresses are great for sharing.
Advantages of Memory Foam
Now that we understand how traditional memory foam is made, it’s time to talk about the advantages and disadvantages that it offers. Let’s start with the positives.
Because of its structure, traditional memory foam makes virtually no sound when it’s slept on. No matter how many times you change your sleeping position, the foam will be completely silent throughout the night. This makes a traditional memory foam bed perfect for sharing in a kids’ room, a master bedroom, and a guest room.
Pressure Point Relief
The slow response of the memory foam encourages thorough contouring of the sleeper’s body, while still providing great support and pressure point relief. Even with no specific zoned support system within, a traditional memory foam mattress will naturally relieve the pain points, making it a good option for sleepers with back pain and side sleepers.
Minimal Motion Transfer
Toss and turn all you like, memory foam will not transfer any motion. Same as with being silent, the structure of the foam absorbs the movement and dissipates it locally within the mattress. This feature makes memory foam beds a good choice for restless sleepers, as well as kids who will be sharing the bed.
Unlike some other types of mattresses, memory foam beds come in a variety of firmness levels. The density of the foam can be manipulated with ease during the manufacturing process, allowing the mattresses to range from soft and plush to firm and supportive.
When memory foam mattresses were first introduced, they came with a big price tag. Manufacturing costs were high and people were willing to spend on this new and exciting invention. Now, traditional memory foam mattresses are one of the most budget-friendly options available on the market. Depending on the brand and the quality of foam, prices can range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars.
Disadvantages of Memory Foam
Now that we have discussed the pros of traditional memory foam, it’s time to look at the cons. It’s important to know all of the positives as well as the negatives in order to choose the best new mattress.
Although the open-cell design within memory foam improves the overall airflow, heat retention can still occur. This can be a real issue for people who tend to get night sweats or those that prefer a cooler sleeping environment.
Because poly-foam is mainly made from petroleum-based materials, a certain smell can occur from the mattress when it’s first unpacked. Usually, if the mattress is made from higher quality foam, it dissipates within a few days. However, low-quality memory foam can have a slight scent for the rest of its lifetime.
What Is Gel Foam?
Created in 2006 and introduced to the public in 2011, gel-infused foam mattresses are the second most popular choice for all-foam beds. Their structure and manufacturing process is very similar to that of traditional memory foam, except for one additional feature—the gel.
The three most common methods of infusing memory foam with gel during the manufacturing process are:
- Injecting small gel beds into the memory foam as it’s setting.
- Adding gel swirls into the top layer of memory foam.
- Placing a thin layer of gel on top of the comfort layer (sometimes a gel layer can also be found in between other layers within the mattress.)
As for the gel itself, there are two types that are most commonly used for mattress manufacturing—thermal gel and phase-changing materials (also known as PCM). Thermal gel is cool to the touch and is usually positioned on top of the foam layers. It regulates body temperature, cooling you down as you sleep.
Phase-changing materials usually come in the form of gel beading. They are completely solid at room temperature but begin to liquify as body heat gets absorbed. PCMs are very effective at the beginning of the night when they are solid but sometimes lose their functionality when the morning nears. This is because they are unable to absorb any heat in their liquid form, leaving body heat to be trapped within the memory foam.
Advantages of Gel-Infused Foam
Now that we have discussed the technology behind gel-infused memory foam, let’s look at its advantages.
Adding gel to traditional foam tackles the issue of heat retention. Instead of having heat trapped within the memory foam, gel particles absorb it instead. This provides a cooling effect, regulating the temperature of the sleeper and the mattress.
Gel-infused memory foam is naturally bouncier and more responsive than traditional memory foam. This could be a huge benefit to sleepers who have trouble changing sleeping positions or people who do not enjoy the “sink-in” feeling that memory foam provides.
Minimal Motion Transfer
Although more responsive, gel memory foam beds are still great at motion isolation. Same as traditional memory foam mattresses, gel-infused beds absorb motion and stop it from transferring through the mattress.
Gel memory foam mattresses can range from super soft to very firm. It all comes down to the density and the quality of the foam. This ensures that no matter your preferred sleeping position or personal preferences, you can find a gel-infused foam mattress that will suit your needs.
Disadvantages of Gel-Infused Foam
Just like any great invention, gel mattresses have some downsides too. Let’s have a look.
To infuse memory foam with gel takes extra time and resources. This raises the costs of manufacturing, automatically increasing the mattress’s overall price. That is why the gel-infused mattresses come with a bigger price tag, pushing them closer towards the “luxury” bracket.
Same as with traditional memory foam, gel-infused foam can also produce some off-gassing when it’s first unpacked.
Which Is Better, Gel Memory Foam or Traditional Memory Foam?
Although the structure and the manufacturing process of both types of mattresses is very similar, the addition of gel to memory foam brings out three key differences:
- Improved temperature control
- More buoyancy
- A higher price
Only you can decide which type of memory foam mattress will suit your needs better. If you tend to sleep hot or prefer a more responsive bed, go for the gel-infused memory foam. However, if you enjoy the unique contouring that standard memory foam provides, go for a traditional memory foam mattress instead. Both types of foam offer great special features, but the final choice is yours.
This article is for informational purposes and should not replace advice from your doctor or other medical professional.