Foam-based mattresses are hot on the market today and there are so many types to choose from. Latex vs. memory foam vs. poly foam and more—where do you even start? This guide is going to start with two of the biggest players: latex vs. memory foam. Both of these foams are extremely popular in the mattress world, but offer very different feels.
What is memory foam?
Memory foam is a man-made foam constructed with polyurethane and additional materials that create viscoelastic properties. When pressure is applied to this type of foam, the mattress will hug and contour to those pressures. Response times (how quickly the mattress changes to pressure) vary based on the specific type of memory foam, but in general, memory foam is going to respond slower than most other foams.
The best memory foam mattresses can take on many different firmness levels and feels. One thing to remember about memory foams is that all memory foams are polyurethane foams, but not all polyurethane foams are memory foam.
What is latex foam?
On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have latex foam. Latex has more elasticity and a more generalized hug than memory foam. When used in a mattress, this means a faster response time and more bounce (which has helped a few latex mattresses land on our best mattress for sex list). Latex foam found in the best latex mattresses comes in natural, synthetic, and blended varieties.
Latex Foam Breakdown
Latex foam can be constructed from three different material types; all natural latex, synthetic latex, or a blend of natural and synthetic. There are also a number of different ways to manufacture latex, however, the two most common types by far are the Dunlop and Talalay process.
These foams can be classified by either name. For example, you can have a natural dunlop foam, a synthetic dunlop foam, a natural talalay foam, or a synthetic talalay foam. Some manufactures advertise the technique used to make the foam, while others choose to focus on the materials instead.
- Natural latex (material) only uses the raw latex, which is harvested from rubber trees and naturally processed to create the foam layers. For sleepers looking for the best organic mattress, natural latex can be a great option. A certified organic natural latex mattress uses the purest materials and construction, and there is minimal off-gassing.
- Synthetic latex (material) can be made from a variety of different synthetic materials, however, it is usually constructed from SBR (styrene-butadiene rubber). This latex can have a similar feel when compared to an all-natural latex mattress, however, some describe synthetic latex as having less bounce when compared to an all natural latex. A synthetic latex is also not going to have quite the lifespan and durability of an all-natural latex.
- Dunlop latex (manufacturing process) refers to latex that is poured into a mold as one complete pour. This technique involves a bit of settling, which results in this foam feeling denser along the bottom and a bit softer towards the top.
- Talalay latex (manufacturing process) refers to latex that is poured into a mold, but is only partially filled. Air is then added to the mold by vacuum, which expands the latex to create the complete form. This technique results in latex that is less dense (and by some estimations less durable), but more consistient in feel from top to bottom.
Feel & Comfort
Sleepers who prefer latex are generally looking for a mattress with a lighter feel, more bounce, a faster response time, less hug, and a more generalized compression. One of the most important differences between latex and memory foam is the way it contours and hugs your body. Memory foam slowly contours to your body, trying to mold to a very exacting shape. Latex, by contrast, allows sinkage and compression, however, it is more of a generalized compression around the body. You won’t get the same type of exacting contour with latex that you do with memory foam.
For many sleepers, this helps to prevent the stuck or overly enveloped feel that can sometimes accompany memory foam.
In addition, latex foam will generally have less heat retention and better cooling. Aerated latex foams are a way to improve cooling even more. These latex foams have air pockets integrated into the molding of the foam and can make latex mattress some of the best cooling mattresses on the market.
Between all-natural latex and synthetic latex, the feel is going to be similar. The benefits of the all-natural latex are going to include the pureness of the materials and longevity. The benefits of synthetic latex include the lower cost. Natural latex mattresses can range from $1,000-$4,000, while a synthetic or blended latex gets you closer to the $700-$1,500 mark.
Memory Foam Breakdown
Memory foam is constructed with polyurethane that has added materials, which create that viscoelastic feel when you lay on it. It’s important to note that memory foam is not a single material, but a wide classification for a group of similar foams.
Memory foams can be:
- Virtually any firmness
- Partially or fully infused with gel, gel beads, copper, graphite, or other materials
- A variety of densities, most commonly being 3.0-5.0 PCF
- A variety of response times, most commonly slow to average response times
- Aerated (holes in the top), convoluted (channels in the bottom), or molded / cut / formed other ways
Above are the exposed layers of the Loom & Leaf mattress. This is a classic high density memory foam mattress. As such, it has a slower response, great hug, and great contour. Because of the deeper hug and high density foams, Loom and Leaf counteracts the potential heat retention issues with a lamented layer of cooling gel on top of a gel infused memory foam that has also been convoluted (air channels cut into base) for added breathable and cooling.
Above are the exposed layers of the Tempur-pedic Cloud Supreme Breeze. This is a classic high density memory foam mattress. It has a very traditional feel, with very slow response and pronounced hug / contour. It sits on a base of poly support foam.
Above is the Amerisleep Colonial mattress. This is more of a modern memory foam mattress, it provides great hug and contour, but the response is a notably faster. Additionally, the top layer of foam is put through a process called reticulation. This process opens up the cells of the memory foam, improving breathability and cooling.
Feel & Comfort
The feel of memory foam is very distinct, making it one of the most recognizable foams in mattress construction. The deep pressure relief and hug makes memory foam a nice choice for side sleepers or people who suffer from pressure-point-related pain. Possibly one of memory foam’s greatest pitfalls is heat retention.
Cooling can be a problem for memory foam mattresses due to that deep sinkage and contouring, which can result in less air flow and more material coming into contact with your body.
Mattress designers can counteract issues with heat retention a number of ways, including:
- Gel layers
- Gel infused foam
- Convoluted foam – cutting or molding channels to improve airflow
- Cooling fabrics and fibers within the cover
- Special foams with more open foam cells
- Active cooling features
There’s a lot to be said about cooling within the mattress, and we don’t have room for it all here. However, what’s most important to understand is that memory foam does not universally mean that the mattress is warm. There are many different memory foam mattress designs that manage heat retention issues quite well.
While the rate of response time can vary for different memory foams, it is generally more of a molding foam that conforms to the weight of your body. When used in a mattress, this slow response time provides deeper body contouring, greater hug, and more pronounced sinkage. Many manufacturers refer to their mattress as “memory foam,” but these mattresses can have very different feels.
Memory foam is any foam that has that viscoelastic property. Firmness, feel, and response time can all vary, but still be called a memory foam.
Should you buy a latex or memory foam mattress?
So here’s the big question: Latex vs. Memory Foam —which one is right for you?
I would recommend latex foam to sleepers who:
- Want more bounce – Latex foams are significantly bouncier than memory foam, which prevents that “stuck” or “sinking” feeling. It also can be a nice touch for amorous activities (see best mattress for sex).
- Want a faster response time – Active sleepers may find a faster response time to be more beneficial. A latex mattress is going to move and respond as you do throughout the night.
- Want a more natural mattress – Natural latex makes for a very “organic mattress” since it can be produced with only natural rubber. A natural or organic latex mattress is commonly considered hypoallergenic as well.
I would recommend memory foam to sleepers who:
- Want deep compression support – Generally speaking, the level of sinkage on a classic memory foam mattress is going to be significantly more than what you will get on a latex mattress. More sinkage translates to more body contouring and hug.
- Want a slower response time – If you are not an active sleeper, you may appreciate a mattress with a slower response time. This allows you to really sink into the mattress and get that deep pressure relief.
- Want varied materials – Whether you want to stick with traditional memory foam, gel memory foam, responsive memory foam, or other varieties, there is a wide range of options to choose from. Each type of foam has been created to meet the needs of different sleepers, all while maintaining that viscoelastic feel that is notable in all memory foams.