Your Easy Guide to Buying the Best Mattress for You

Take the hassle out of shopping for a new mattress with these tips from industry and sleep experts.

We all know the story of the three little bears and the girl who tested each of their beds before finding the one that fit her "just right." But for many people, finding the perfect mattress is an enigma, even though as a nation, we spend about a third of our lives in our beds.

"The mattress is quickly losing its tag as a commodity, and people are starting to appreciate how it can make a difference in how they sleep and feel the next day," says Pete Bils, vice president of sleep science & research at Select Comfort. "Besides your house and car, buying a mattress is the third biggest purchase [decision] of your life."

As consumers become aware of the importance of their mattresses, demand for better products has increased. And quality, as well as price, is on the rise. Today, there are myriad mattress choices. Our guide breaks down the nine main types of mattresses on the market today to guide you to a product that fits your needs. Before you choose a mattress, read on to find out what you should look for when shopping for your new bed.

bedroom four windows wood floors
Kim Cornelison

How to Buy a New Mattress

1. Determine whether you need a new mattress.

First, strip off all the bedding and examine the sleep surface. Is there a hollowed-out spot where you normally sleep? Is the fabric covering worn? Did you add a foam pad or mattress cover a while back to soften the surface? Do you wake up with joints popping and limbs tingling? Have you gained or lost weight in the last few years (including through pregnancy)?

If you said yes to any of these, you probably don't remember what a good night's sleep feels like, and you need a new mattress. "In most cases, people suffer with their mattresses for three or four years before they actually replace the things," says Adrian Jones, owner of StruXure Outdoor Nashville and former director of sales for Hypnos U.S. "We're a lazy society."

2. Do your homework.

The mattress industry has undergone a significant shift in the past five years. Comfort and proper support are no longer mutually exclusive. The "firmer is better" mantra has given way to a new school of thought: "The industry's feeling is that you should buy something supple, not stiff," says Robin McRoskey Azevedo, president of McRoskey Mattress Company. "The mattress should conform to your shape." Manufacturers offer options to do just that, from shock-absorbing memory foam mattresses to silk and cashmere filling to adjustable air chambers.

The best way to find the mattress that suits you (and your partner, if you share a bed), is to do some of your own research for specific manufacturer information. Two independent industry sources are the International Sleep Products Association and The Better Sleep Council; they'll fill you in on innovations and the mattresses made by various companies.

Next, check out several manufacturers' sites to learn about their wares. Determine the answers to the following:

  • Does the company have a trial period? Many give you 100 days or more to decide if you like a mattress.
  • If you don't like the mattress, what is the return policy?
  • What is the mattress warranty?
  • Do reviewers note customer service issues?
  • How does delivery and disposal of your old mattress (or the new one if you hate it) work?

Finally, visit specialty sleep shops and showrooms to get a firsthand look at the most promising products.

3. Test mattresses in person.

Don't just run your hands across the quilted cushioning. Go to stores prepared for some serious relaxation—or even a snooze. Wear loose, comfortable clothing, and bring a pillow or two from home. Plan to spend at least 15-20 minutes on each bed, and curl up as you normally do (not just flat on your back, unless that's how you sleep).

One high-end manufacturer, Duxiana, offers a nap room in the shop so customers can test the mattresses. Others allow extensive in-home trials and generous exchange policies (partly because, they say, your body requires a few weeks to adjust to a new sleep surface).

4. Consider the costs.

The Better Sleep Council suggests researching the size and type of mattress that fits your needs and budget before you start shopping. Industry experts recommend buying both a mattress and its companion box spring or foundation because they are designed to work together. "Buying a mattress without the box spring is like buying a new car with old shock absorbers on it," says Bob Malin, vice president of licensing and managing director of international sales for Serta. "If you have a fixed budget, you should buy a cheaper set rather than a more expensive mattress only. You'll get better support."

woman buying a mattress in a mattress store
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Top Mattress Types to Know

1. Innerspring

The most traditional form of a mattress, innerspring models use internal metal springs to support the structure (and your body). The number of coils often indicates the quality of the mattress and can be a good measure of how much support it will provide. The coils or springs are often encased in fabric and then covered with more padding, upholstery fabrics, or even foam. For the best back support, look for innerspring mattresses with different sizes and types of springs; they'll conform best to your body. These mattresses are typically comfortable for back, side, and stomach sleepers. When you're testing out an innerspring mattress, make sure the coils are well distributed to support your weight. If you share a bed, test if you can feel your partner moving.

2. Pillow-top mattress

Pillow-top mattresses, or hybrid mattresses, are basically innersprings with an additional layer of cushion, making them ideal for side sleepers. The upholstered layer of foam or stuffing is attached to the mattress itself. One thing to consider is that the pillow-top layer makes it impossible for you to flip your mattress to avoid sagging. If you like the pillow-top option but want more versatility, look for a pillow-top layer that can be removed.

3. Memory-foam mattress

Memory foam has quickly become a very popular mattress material, largely because it contours to the body so nicely making it feel like a custom fit no matter how you sleep. Made from a material called viscoelastic, it was originally created by NASA in the '70s to improve seat cushions and crash protection. Memory foam can be used as the main mattress support, as a layer in the upholstery, or in a combination of the two.

Some dislike that memory foam mattresses can capture body heat, causing you to sweat while you sleep, so look for one that boasts cooling properties if you tend to run hot. Foam mattresses need a sturdy base like strong slats or a platform.

4. Gel mattress

A variation of the memory-foam mattress, a gel mattress is created by injecting the viscoelastic foam with a gel or foam substance. The gel can improve air circulation in the foam to prevent sleepers from overheating.

5. Latex mattress

Latex mattresses are similar to memory-foam models; they just use latex foam instead of viscoelastic foam. Latex tends to be less dense and tends to retain body heat less than memory-foam mattresses. And, latex mattresses can be made from either plant- or petroleum-based materials, whereas memory foam is a man-made substance. With varying degrees of plushness, latex mattresses are good for all types of sleepers.

6. Airbed

Today's airbeds are a far cry from the thin blow-up mattresses you might have used for camping or guests during childhood. Airbeds consist of a series of air chambers to give them support but are covered in layers of padding and/or upholstery materials that make them far more comfortable than their inflatable counterparts. You can adjust the firmness of an airbed by adding more or less air to the chambers and each side can often be controlled independently so you and your partner can adjust to your individual comfort level. Airbeds are best suited for back sleepers.

7. Adjustable bases

The adjustable bed has come a long way since its hospital room beginnings. Today's adjustable beds are sophisticated and stylish and allow you to tailor your sleep experience to your exact needs. You can elevate your head, your feet or adjust settings to provide additional back support, making them perfect for people with ailments such as acid reflux, snoring, heartburn, and more.

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