Gel vs. Memory Foam Mattresses: Similarities, Differences, & Which Is Better
How do gel foam mattresses compare to memory foam mattresses? In this article, we dive deeply into the features of both types of mattresses and compare the relative composition, cooling, durability, and motion transfer of each of one them.
I also include a FAQ section that answers common questions about gel foam and memory foam mattresses such as which one is better, what to expect if you buy one, and how to take care of each.
What are Memory Foam Mattresses?
Memory foam mattresses are made of polyurethane foam arranged in a matrix. The open cellular structure of memory foam allows the material to breathe substantially better than traditional mattress materials (like layered fabric on innerspring). Breathability leads to a comfortable sleep.
NASA initially developed memory foam in 1966 to improve the safety of air cushions in vehicles during high-acceleration maneuvers. An added side effect of the construction is the 'memory' effect, whereas the foam molds to the shape of the sleeper due to the interaction between the foam and human body temperature.
What are Gel Foam Mattresses?
Gel foam mattresses are similar to memory foam mattresses as they are made from a combination of polyurethane foam, except they also include gel beads or infused cooling gels.
Much of the construction is therefore similar to that of memory foam, except that the presence of infused cooling gels often makes it much cooler to sleep on than memory foam. I've already discussed the specifics of gel memory foams. Besides that, we won't go into much detail, but we know that the main difference between gel foam and memory foam is the cooling factor.
Gel foam mattresses have exploded in popularity in recent years as the quest for sleeper comfort has continued to grow. In many ways, you can think of them as the next 'iteration' of foam mattresses - usually cooler and more comfortable than their predecessors. Often, this improved comfort leads to a slightly higher price tag (which we'll discuss below).
Similarities Between Memory Foam and Gel Foam
Both types of foam are soft and moldable and help distribute the body weight of the sleeper evenly. They also are composed of a polyurethane foam base, so their size, shape, and motion transfer are usually similar.
Both types of foam also have expensive and relatively inexpensive options and are quite durable. The polyurethane construction usually lasts much longer than a spring mattress, for example.
The Main Differences Between Memory Foam and Gel Foam Mattresses
Memory foam and gel foam mattresses have several differences, but the most important ones are cost and comfort. These two factors tend to be the main reasons why people choose one over another.
While memory foam and gel foam mattresses may look very similar on the outside, there are often differences in pricing. This difference is due to the improved comfort of the infused gel or gel beads in gel foam and the increased cost of manufacturing.
While specific prices depend on your vendor and their manufacturer, typical gel foam mattresses will cost between 20-30% more than an equivalently sized and constructed memory foam mattress.
For most people (myself included), this price difference is insignificant compared to the improved comfort - but for some, this makes a difference in their subsequent mattress choice.
Because gel foam mattresses contain infused cooling gels, they are usually much cooler to sleep on. This is particularly beneficial for people who tend to sleep hot or sweat while they sleep. Since the mattresses have some 'breathing room' in the form of the tiny gel beads, your body heat is absorbed and dissipated throughout the mattress's surface.
While this isn't a dealbreaker for some people, it's an important factor for people like me who tend to sleep hot. The difference between a night on a cooling gel foam mattress versus a memory foam mattress is like night and day - in fact, it usually chalks up to at least an hour or two of quality sleep for me!
You can, of course, minimize the heat retention of traditional memory foam mattresses with some neat tricks, but I prefer the cooling effect of gel foams.
Is Gel Foam or Memory Foam Better?
Most mattress specialists agree that gel foam is better than memory foam due to improved cooling capabilities and better comfort.
The only situation in which memory foam beats gel foam is usually in the cost factor. That's only if your budget is restrictive enough to warrant choosing the less comfortable option.
The Memory Study
Another thing that used to stop people from choosing gel over memory foam was the environmental practices required to create gel beads and foams. These were usually petroleum-based, and there was some concern over their impacts.
To combat this, Cargill did a bunch of research and development into sustainable, natural plant-based manufacturing of foam mattresses. Their results were a better, softer product, lower operational costs, and better environmental sustainability.
Your choice of foam type will come down to personal preference, as both materials have their advantages and disadvantages. If you're concerned about your carbon footprint, though, then plant-based products will certainly help you sleep better at night.
Taking Care of Gel Foam & Memory Foam Mattresses
Taking care of your mattress (whether it's gel or memory foam) is relatively easy, and it all revolves around two simple rules.
- Rule 1: Keep It Clean
Your foam mattress can easily be cleaned with a solution of water and mild soap. I'd suggest using this method instead of other cleaning methods since you want to ensure that your mattress doesn't absorb too much water. Make sure the foam dries completely before putting a sheet on your bed or using it again.
- Rule 2: Rotate Monthly
As a regular part of your mattress care, I'd suggest that you rotate your mattress monthly head-to-toe to ensure even wear. Doing so will ensure that you get the maximum lifespan out of your bed, as well as ensure even wear that won't result in you developing pressure points over time.
Some mattresses come with a special cover that can be zipped off and tossed in the wash - whenever you rotate your mattress is a good time to do so.
- Rule 3: Avoid Sunlight (optional)
Because of the specific chemicals involved in the construction of polyurethane foam, exposure of your raw foam mattress to sunlight usually results in a characteristic yellowing effect and can slowly degrade the foam over time.
For that reason, I recommend keeping your foam mattress out of the sunlight as much as possible. If you have a window nearby, it's not the end of the world - just be mindful of making sure your foam mattress is covered more often than not.
I hope this article helped you in your quest for better sleep!