Gel Foam vs. Memory Foam

by | Mattress, Mattress Education | 26 comments

If you’ve spent any time searching for a mattress lately, you might have run into the latest battle for comfort: gel foam vs memory foam.

Which is best? Well, that depends on what you want from a mattress and how much you want to spend.

When it comes to gel foam and memory foam, you’re going experience a similar amount of comfort; the real pickle is the choice between the heat-retention and lower price of memory foam or the higher cost but cooler sleep of gel-infused memory foam.

Memory Foam

What is Memory Foam?

When the memory foam mattress hit the market, it was a pretty big deal. There were plenty of reports about how they were derived from a material NASA started developing and how if you are sleeping on it and your partner moves around you won’t feel it.

Memory foam, unlike more common polyurethane foam, has chemicals infused into it to help increase its density and viscosity. Because of this, it is often referred to as viscoelastic foam. Thanks to these added chemicals, the foam can be manipulated with body heat, softening and forming to your body.

Memory foam comes in three primary types. First is your traditional memory foam, which is what started showing up in the mid ’90s. People loved it, but it had potential to be warm for sleepers. As a fix to the heat issue, open cell memory foam and gel-infused memory foam were developed. Open cell memory foam is designed to increase the air flow through the mattress, helping to pull away some of that trapped heat. Gel-infused memory foam is actually the other subject of our discussion today, so read on for more.

The Benefits of Memory Foam

Traditional spring mattresses had several issues, some of which you may have experienced. First and foremost, the springs themselves. Sleeping on an old mattress, not necessarily of the old style, but one that’s been in your house for a few years, often led to some awful aches and pains. Springs would start to poke pressure points on your body as the soft part of the mattress wore through.

Memory foam doesn’t have this issue, as it doesn’t have any springs. Additionally, the material is designed to conform to your body. The way the viscoelastic material does this is by softening with your body heat, allowing the material to flow in a way that gets you to sink in, giving you full body support.

Motion Transfer

Secondly, there was the movement issue. On a spring mattress, if your husband or wife got out of bed too quickly you might find yourself on the floor, having been bounced right out of bed. (I admit, this may be a bit of an exaggeration, but you never know!)
With memory foam, motion is absorbed by the mattress, keeping it from transferring to your partner and causing a disruption in their sleep.

Densities

Foam density also plays a big factor in how long a foam mattress will last. If you’re looking for the most benefit, you’re going to want to aim for a higher density, particularly if you’re a heavy person. If you find a mattress in the 4 lbs per cubic foot range, you’re looking at about a good quality mattress you can expect to last a while. If you have a mattress with anything less, you’re likely to see it start losing durability sooner than a good density mattress.

If you really want to kick it up a notch, look for a mattress with a foam density of 5 lbs per cubic foot. You’re going to pay more, but it will last much longer.

Negatives of Memory Foam

Memory foam isn’t all butterflies and rainbows, as it has some potential issues. The same technology that keeps you from bouncing all over also can make it somewhat difficult to get out of bed, or even to change positions in the night. I’ve found myself on multiple occasions trying to get comfortable and worrying about shuffling my partner to waking. Fortunately, the foam keeps that from happening, but it’s still a somewhat awkward feeling.

Heat Retention

One thing that also cropped up, which led to the development of gel-infused memory foam, was an issue of heat retention. Sleepers found, and I can attest for this myself, that memory foam mattresses had a hard time pulling heat away from the body. In my time using a memory foam mattress topper, I experienced exactly this, often waking up drenched in sweat in the middle of the night, which was not very comfortable.

Not the Best for Heavier Weight

Also, for the heavier-set crowd, memory foam may not be the perfect option. You’re going to want to aim for a density of at least 5 lbs per cubic foot if you want to make sure you’re going to be comfortable and your product is going to last.

Strong Odors

Another thing of note is something called “offgassing.” Memory foam, as discussed earlier, has chemicals in it. These chemicals tend to have an unpleasant smell, and some folks have even reported respiratory issues. This is an issue typically found in the poorer quality foams available, so it’s important to know what kind of foam is being put into any mattress you are considering.
Be sure to check for certifications of the foam, as several of the testing organizations out there not only test the density and such of the memory foam mattresses, but they will also test the gasses released by the mattress for any potential harm.

Offgassing is less common in more natural materials, so that’s something to take into consideration if you’re concerned about this issue.

Gel-Infused Memory Foam

Gel-infused memory foam is actually incredibly similar to regular memory foam. This is because, in its most common form, it is simply memory foam which has had gel microbeads mixed into it.

The gel concept, it seems, really kicked off when Serta released their iComfort gel memory foam mattress. Thanks to the addition of the science, gel-infused memory foam tends to do a better job of regulating sleep temperature and can increase the density of the mattress.

Different Types

There are two types of gel which can be used in this way. One is thermally conducted, which would feel cool to the touch, much like a stone countertop. The other is a phase-changing material, which is a little more complicated, but pretty exciting. This material can store and release heat within a certain temperature range. In this way, it helps regulate temperature as the body cools during sleep.

The gel microbeads manage to create a structure similar to the aforementioned open cell memory foam. By creating extra space for air to flow through the memory foam, it helps increase the amount of heat which can be transferred away from the body. Additionally, the gel itself works to absorb some of that heat, making it cooler still.

All of this, of course, depends highly on the amount of gel which has been infused into the mattress, as well as the quality. These are things to ask when you’re shopping.

The Benefits of Gel-Infused Memory Foam

In many ways, the general feel of the material is fairly similar. You still get little to no movement if your partner moves around, you still get nice, even support across your body, which should lead to fewer aches and pains once experienced with spring mattresses, but you also now have millions of gel beads infused into the mattress, designed to wick away heat and keep you cool through the night.

Foam density plays a role in gel-infused mattresses, as well. All the same rules apply, but a gel-infused mattress has one big benefit: The gel microbeads actually add to the density of the mattress. This means you’ll experience some added durability and comfort.

Negatives of Gel-Infused Memory Foam

As with the benefits, the negatives for gel-infused memory foam are fairly similar. One thing of particular note, however, is the fact the gel beads can lead to more rapid degradation of your mattress.

This factor relies greatly on the size of the gel beads mixed in with the memory foam, but larger beads can cause the cellular structure of the mattress to break down over time, rather than strengthening it.

Another problem folks have run into with gel-infused memory foam is that, while it does initially keep heat away, it isn’t a permanent thing. Eventually, you will find yourself warming up, but this is considered less of an issue as our bodies cool down when we sleep, anyway.

Cost

One of the biggest factors for most people, I think, is going to be the cost. When it comes to gel foam vs memory foam, gel foam mattresses tend to be a bit higher in price. From my research, I haven’t seen gel-infused mattresses be significantly more expensive than regular memory foam, but there is a difference.

This is something to keep in mind when considering that the gel itself can cause the mattress to wear faster. Remember, the smaller the beads, the better.

Gel Levels

This next thing isn’t necessarily a negative to the gel-infused mattress, but perhaps to the manufacturers. If there is not enough gel in the memory foam, you will actually see little to no effect from it. A mattress with a very low percentage may as well not have any at all. You’re going to have your best experience with something up in the 30 percent area.

At lower percentages, you’ll find it may feel cool at first, but the eventual heating will happen much faster, leaving you feeling as though you only had a regular memory foam mattress, further making it not worth that higher cost.

One More Thing

There is one more thing to factor in this competition: latex. Latex has been around long before memory foam, but recently several companies out there have begun promoting latex mattresses, and they appear to be of pretty good quality with high customer satisfaction.

While this should, perhaps, be the battle of memory foam vs gel memory foam vs latex, we can save that discussion for another day, but it’s something to keep in mind when looking for a new mattress. Latex offers great cooling, a low carbon footprint and durability for a low price. Latex also has less of an offgassing issue.

Conclusion

So, which mattress is best for you? Again, it comes down to comfort and cost.
In my experience, gel-infused mattresses do a great job of keeping you cool. They do, sometimes, get a bit warm, but adjusting your position tends to help this, and I know I haven’t woken up sweaty in the time I’ve had one.

In truth, you can’t go wrong with either memory foam or gel-infused foam, as both function fairly similarly. Movement doesn’t transfer, which is nice; you don’t experience springs stabbing you in your pressure points, which is fantastic, and it’s just generally a good experience. If staying cooler through the night is worth the extra cash for you, I highly recommend you go gel, because it works.

Just keep in mind, lots of gel. If that pops it out of your price range, you might actually find more success with a nice gel-infused memory foam topper.

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