Memory Foam: Traditional, Gel, or Plant-Based?

As new memory foam mattress compositions emerge on the market, you may be left wondering which type performs the best. While personal preference is subjective, the qualities of each memory foam can be compared to understand which type would suit your personal needs best.

In this guide, we’ll discuss their components, manufacturing processes, as well as differences in comfort level and overall “feel”. Hopefully, after reading this article you will have a clearer understanding of what’s available right now. More importantly, which type of memory foam mattress will provide you with the best rest.

The three main types of memory foam

Although traditional memory foam is still the most popular choice when it comes to mattresses, other types of foam are catching up to it quickly. Many big brands within the mattress industry are introducing new mattresses with new memory foam compositions to provide a wider variety of options. 

The three main types of memory foam on the market right now are traditional, gel, and plant-based. All three types of memory foam come in different firmness levels, with excellent motion isolation, and a unique luxury feel. They can all be suitable for side sleepers, back sleepers, stomach sleepers, and more. Either one can be a good option for a comfortable mattress, as long as you understand what makes them different from each other.

Let’s look at each one individually.

1. Traditional memory foam

Traditional memory foam has been in use for a couple of decades and is made from petroleum-based products. Its manufacturing is still based on the original process so it has changed very little from when it was first developed. That’s why traditional memory foam tends to be the most affordable option out of the three.

Traditional memory foam has an open-cell structure, which reacts to body heat and pressure. That’s how it contours the sleeper’s body and relieves the pressure points. It does tend to trap heat too, so if you’re a hot sleeper, traditional memory foam will not be a suitable option for you.

2. Gel memory foam

Gel memory foam was introduced into the mattress market in the early 2010s. It was created to tackle the issue of trapped heat. There are a few methods mattress companies use to infuse the gel into the memory foam. One is to pour a thin layer of liquid gel on top, or the bottom, of the foam layer. This creates a separation barrier between the layers, which provides a cooling effect. Another method is to infuse the memory foam with gel beads. This allows the gel to settle within the memory foam layer, improving the temperature control of the mattress. 

A usual side effect of gel-infused memory foam is the extra buoyancy. This can be a benefit if you prefer a more responsive and bouncy mattress. But if you like the slow-response a traditional memory foam mattress provides, then a gel-infused memory foam bed won’t be right for you.

3. Plant-based memory foam

Plant-based memory foam was developed to address concerns regarding the release of VOCs (volatile organic compounds) and off-gassing. Off-gassing refers to the “new” smell that comes with new cars, wet paint, and in this case, new foam mattresses. This chemical-like odor is emitted as these products “air out,” and the carbon compounds in some of their chemicals break down. Off-gassing is usually harmless, but if the odor doesn’t go away, it can lead to headaches and skin irritations.

It’s important to note, you won’t be able to find a completely plant-based foam bed, as petrochemicals are needed to give foam its bouncy consistency. Despite the presence of some petrochemicals, partially plant-based memory foam mattresses are much safer when compared to traditional memory foam. They are also more breathable as they feature larger open-cells within the foam. This allows the mattress to have better airflow and be more responsive.

Comparison of different types of memory foam

Now that you have a basic understanding of the three main types of memory foam, let’s go into more detail about each one. Below you will find comparisons of their functionalities and differences when it comes to the most important part—sleeping on the mattress.

Off-Gassing 

The release of previously mentioned VOCs (volatile organic compounds) is usually followed by a specific smell called off-gassing. 

As discussed above, in larger amounts the VOCs can be harmful to your health. That’s why it’s important to know how much off-gassing your new mattress is likely to produce.

Traditional memory foam mattresses are known to have some off-gassing. In fact, Walder Bader, the author of Sleep Safe in a Toxic World, had a number of memory foam mattresses tested to find some contained up to 61 VOCs. It’s important to note that this is more common in cheap traditional memory foam mattresses. More expensive luxury brands tend to pay more attention to the manufacturing process and the materials they use.

The amount of VOCs in gel-infused memory foam mattresses is still unknown. Currently, there are no studies that have tested gel memory foam for this matter. Since the effect of the gel has not been thoroughly tested, the composition of the remainder of the mattress will be the indicator. It is believed most companies have combined gel with the traditional memory foam so the profile is likely to be quite similar. Some gel brands do exhibit fewer complaints about odor than traditional memory foams.

Plant-based memory foam mattresses can be made with very low VOCs, depending on the process and the manufacturer. A portion of the petroleum-based products can be replaced with plant ingredients that have low to no VOC output. Note, the plant-based materials that are low-VOC may still have a “new” smell, but this is not composed of harmful chemicals.

Heat Retention

As mentioned above, trapped heat is a known issue of most memory foam mattresses. This is because when they were first introduced to the market, memory foam mattresses used body heat to shape around the sleeper’s body. 

Since then, a lot of new memory foam manufacturing methods have been invented, and heat retention has gone down. However, each memory foam type is affected by that differently.

Traditional memory foam has received the highest rate of complaints, yet their manufacturing process has not changed much. Some manufacturers cut holes in the foam or use convoluted layer designs, but this does not seem to be as effective as they wish.

Gel-infused memory foam manufacturers have reported their mattresses sleep cooler than traditional memory foam beds. However, these claims have not been scientifically tested. The gel technology relies on ambient heat being passed through the gel to other portions of the mattress. However, it seems as though the gel tends to warm to body heat eventually.

Plant-based memory foam mattress manufacturers, such as Amerisleep, have proven to create a 10x increase in breathability over traditional memory foam and shown to sleep 25% cooler than gel. This is attributed to the open-cell structure many plant-based mattresses are comprised of, and the temperature neutral properties of this type of foam.

Response Time 

The response time of a mattress is measured by how quickly it bounces back to its original state. It’s rated by a number of factors, such as the composition of the foam, changeable viscosity, the rate of elasticity, and resilience. The slower the mattress returns to its original state or remolds, the more likely you are to feel “trapped”. The faster it lets go of your body weight, the better the pressure relief. 

The measured rate of the top brands in each category are as follows:

  • Traditional memory foam mattresses: 45-60 seconds.
  • Gel memory foam mattresses: 30-45 seconds.
  • Plant-based memory foam mattresses: 5-8 seconds.

Older sleepers or those with mobility problems may find it very difficult to get off a mattress with a slow response time. If you have issues with mobility, this should be a major determining factor in your decision.

Durability

The durability of the memory foam may vary even within lines from the same manufacturer, regardless of the type. It all depends on foam density.

Memory foam density is measured based on the weight of one cubic foot of memory foam. Anything with a weight less than 4 lbs is considered inferior as it will not last, while anything over 5.3 lbs will be too dense to be comfortable in thicker layers. High-quality memory foam will have a density between 4.5 – 5.3 lbs for comfort, durability, and proper support.

Price/Value

Prices of all three types of memory foam can vary greatly. And this is not to say that the higher the price, the better the quality of your mattress. It is crucial to read the product descriptions, check the density of the foam, and read customer reviews. Paying thousands of dollars will not guarantee the best mattress. At the same time, trying to get one for the lowest price possible will most likely result in disappointment too. Therefore, research is key.

Recommended memory foam mattress brands

Brand Type Recommended mattress Heat dissipation Off-gassing Response time Durability Price for queen
Amerisleep Plant-based memory foam AS3 Excellent None Excellent Excellent $1199
Zoma Sleep Traditional memory foam Zoma Mattress Excellent None Great Great $750
Bear Gel-infused memory foam Original Bear Mattress Excellent Small amount Great Great $800

The list of the best memory foam mattresses in the table above is what our editors recommend. If none of these seem like a good choice for you, there are plenty of other great options online. Whichever type of memory foam mattress you decide will suit you best, make sure to look at all of the aspects mentioned above. Pay close attention to the specifications and reviews. Memory foam mattresses are large purchases that last for years. Hopefully, you now have the knowledge you need to make a proper, informed decision to get your new bed.

This article is for informational purposes and should not replace advice from your doctor or other medical professional.

12 thoughts on “Memory Foam: Traditional, Gel, or Plant-Based?”

  1. What companies stock amerisleep brands in Australia.
    Or
    Can Amerisleep be purchased online and delivered to an address in Australia.

    1. What's The Best Bed

      Hello,

      It doesn’t seem like Amerisleep distributes via retailers at this time, you would have to contact the company about their shipping options. Thanks for reading!

  2. Tony Lima Saude, Johannesburg, South Africa

    I bought a Sealy GEL MEMORY FOAM mattress and I am terribly disappointing with it due to the heat retention. It is very hot. Just can’t sleep on it. I am trying to return it to Sealy. Let’s see how this is going to end: in court or an amicable settlement. I had for 25 year a standard foam only mattress; no springs. Lovely. I have on my holiday home for the last 6 years, another standard foam only mattress. Lovely. Now I tried this modern GEL MEMORY foam thingy and got stuffed. GEL MEMORY, never again. I am loosing my mind or is it memory because of the GEL MEMORY.
    Hope all mattress manufacturers consider this when making mattress with GEL MEMORY.

  3. Don Bye, Sun Lakes, Az.

    I have a foam mattress that came with my adjustable bed, shortly after I got the bed I felt the side edges were breaking down getting soft. I reported it to the dealer, got no satisfaction. As time went on I found that the mattress did not return from my form when I slept if I moved out of normal position I had a ridge. I do not wish to repeat this experience thus am looking for a mattress that will hold it’s shape. I have surgical repair on my back thus need a firm mattress

  4. debbie.grima@me.com

    Stay away from Sealyham firm try medium even with your back problem I just got an expensive posturpedic and it’s too firm can’t sleep on it.

  5. I never knew buying a mattress so going to be so hard!
    I have done the research, even though it is over whelming and frustrating.
    But now I can get a good bed!

    1. I forgot to mention, do not buy I Comfort by Serta, Europtop beds (Caversham). I was told to buy a firm bed and put a mattress topper on it. You can have body dents in a firm bed too.

  6. Vernadene Tolman

    I have a bad back and leg problems. I just purchased a Tempurpedic mattress. I purposely asked for a firm mattress. However I’ve slept on it for a week now and it is so firm that I ache in the mornings worse than before I slept. Does this brand (I was told memory foam would confirm to me) have different levels of firmness?

    1. What's The Best Bed

      Hi there,

      Yes, memory foam can be both soft and firm. Tempurpedic is a tempurature-sensitive foam, so if your bedroom is cold, it might increase the foam’s rigidity. You could try a topper/mattress pad, walking on the bed to soften it a little, or check into the exchange policy from the retailer you used.

    2. We bought a 6′ Tempur about 9 yrs ago cost over £3000 as I suffer with misaligned facet joints, my husband loved it but my experience was dreadful. We had to let it go after 3 months as I just couldn’t stand it, my back is much worse now as a result & I can no longer sleep on my right side.
      We bought it thinking it would be good for me, what a dreadful mistake that turned out to be, apart from my back now worse than before, we lost over £2000 when we sold it.
      I would not recommend a Tempur to anyone who has back issues.
      If you did want to try I would recommend you try one with a trial offer, that way you wouldn’t be out of pocket for much.

  7. ginger shoults

    You mentioned toppers could be made possibly in split firmnesses? We have queen size gel topper 3” which is comfortable to me (I weigh 123 lbs) but is too soft for husband who is (200lbs) does anyone make either gel foam queen with both density on same topper?

    1. Hi Ginger,

      Thanks for your comment! Yes, mattress brands do make toppers in split sizes; and while they’re somewhat rare and hard to find, there are split queen toppers available.

      We suggest shopping on Amazon for split queen toppers just because they’re not as common as split king or split California king mattress toppers. A search for, “split queen gel mattress topper” brings up hundreds of options. From there, shop by seller and reviews. Look for a seller who offers a warranty or at least a risk-free sleep trial, read the reviews to ensure the product is high-quality, and also look to see if the topper is CertiPUR-US® certified (guaranteeing it’s free of harmful chemicals.)

      We hope this is helpful — let us know what you find and if it helps you get the sleep you’re looking for!

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