The right topper may help you get a good night’s sleep, but it won’t fix an old, tired-out mattress
By Janet Siroto
Whether you’re hoping for deeper, more restful sleep or a cushier way to drift off to dreamland, a mattress topper may be just the ticket.
Made of foam, latex, fibers, or feathers and typically 1 to 4 inches thick, toppers are designed to add a layer of cushioning to your mattress, and their popularity is booming. The global market topped $6 billion in 2020 and is expected to cruise to $7.5 billion in the next five years.
Those numbers may not be surprising, given that 70 million of us struggle with chronic sleep issues in the U.S., according to the CDC.
“A mattress topper can improve sleep comfort, from pressure relief to temperature control,” says Marlis Gonzalez-Fernandez, MD, PhD, an associate professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “But finding the right one is a very individual and potentially challenging decision.”
To help you make your choice, we’ve gathered intel on the various kinds of toppers available. Read on for details and advice on which may be right for you.
Mattress Topper Pros and Cons
Let’s start with the foundation: A mattress topper probably won’t make a mushy mattress more supportive, and it won’t fix a lumpy, worn-out mattress.
“It’s the icing on the cake, not a new cake,” says Zoë Ettinger, senior editor at Mattress Clarity, a mattress-and-bedding review site.
According to Consumer Reports’ extensive testing, the “cake”—i.e., a supportive mattress—is one that helps the spine maintain its natural curves for back sleepers and helps it remain horizontal for side sleepers. (If you’re a side sleeper and your hips and shoulders don’t sink in enough—or sink in too much—your spine can wind up twisting and curving.)
Simply slapping a mattress topper on a nonsupportive mattress isn’t likely to make it more supportive, says Chris Regan, who oversees CR’s mattress testing. So a mattress that craters in the middle isn’t going to stop cratering because you’ve got a topper on it.
But a mattress topper may be able to correct other mattress shortcomings.
“Some people like the feeling of sinking into a mattress, and some mattresses may not let you sink in enough. Adding a mattress topper may help provide that ‘enveloped’ feeling,” Regan says. “If you have a mattress that feels too firm to you, putting a 3-inch foam or a feather topper on it may make it feel softer and more comfortable.”
What’s more, “a softer, thicker topper can relieve pressure points,” Gonzalez-Fernandez says, which can be especially beneficial to side and back sleepers. “The toppers conform to and support the body. This means relief for, say, the thigh muscles, which can feel strained in back sleepers, or the hips, which can take on a lot of pressure in side sleepers.”
A topper can also reduce motion transfer, absorbing your movements as you sleep, rather than sending vibrations across the bed.
“Memory-foam toppers are what are called low-rebound toppers; once you lie on one, you sink into it, and it holds the shape of the body,” Gonzalez-Fernandez says. When you press a finger into dense foam, for example, it takes a moment for that indent to puff back up; that’s the low-rebound effect in action.
This cocooning and buffering property can be helpful for restless sleepers and their bed partners, as it minimizes mattress vibrations; look for a memory-foam topper that’s at least 1½ to 2 inches thick to get the full benefit.
But mattress toppers can have a downside: Some hold in heat, which can be a problem if you tend to sleep hot, regularly waking up sweaty and tossing off your covers.
“This is especially true with memory foam, a synthetic material that doesn’t breathe well,” says Buddy Delaney, president of Best Mattress, a West Columbia, S.C., mattress manufacturer and retailer for 90-plus years. “You sink into it and much of your body is in contact with it; air can’t circulate around you well and the heat becomes trapped.”
Foam to Feathers: Topper Materials
The feel of a topper depends on its composition. Here is a rundown of the various materials used, well-rated brands, and prices.
• Memory foam—Some of the most popular toppers are made of memory foam. “It gives you something to sink into, really nice cushioning,” says Ettinger.
Many manufacturers have added graphite, gel, or copper to memory foam to try and address the heat trapping issue, but it’s unclear whether they work.
“I am skeptical that there’s enough of those materials inside to make a difference,” Delaney says.
If sleeping hot isn’t an issue for you, highly rated brands include Tempur-Pedic (available at Amazon, Bed Bath & Beyond, and Tempur-Pedic), ViscoSoft (at Amazon and Viscosoft), and Layla (shop from Amazon and Layla). Expect to pay about $200 to $400 for a queen-size topper. (Queen-size mattresses are the top sellers; it’s the size we test in the lab.)
• Other types of foam—Egg-crate foam, convoluted foam, and polyfoam are less dense and cushy than memory foam, and therefore less supportive. Silver lining: They are also less likely to leave you roasting.
• Latex—Made from the sap of rubber plants, latex may be the springiest material, thanks to tiny air pockets throughout. It’s also naturally cooling. (Note that some latex toppers are a blend—say, 80 percent latex plus other materials.)
If you want an organic topper, look for GOLS (Global Organic Latex Standard) certification on the packaging. Well-reviewed latex brands include Saatva, Brooklyn Bedding, and Naturepedic (available at Naturepedic and Wayfair). Typically, prices range from $300 to $800 for a queen-size, with 100 percent latex products at the high end.
• Wool, cotton, and other fiber fills—These materials inside a topper can make it feel more like a fluffy, comfy pad than a deeply springy, supportive layer. However, they tend to be breathable and naturally heat-regulating.
Prices often nudge into luxury territory: PlushBeds’ handmade natural wool toppers, for instance, are typically $800 and up for a queen size (at Amazon and PlushBeds). You may also see combinations of fills: For instance, Birch makes a topper that combines organic wool, organic cotton, and latex and costs about $450 for a queen-size.
When searching for sustainability options, look for GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) Organic certification, which guarantees 95 percent or more organic fibers; the OEKO-TEX Standard 100 label, which means a topper has been tested for harmful substances and is deemed harmless to human health; or GREENGUARD certification, which means the topper has been shown to have low chemical emissions.
• Down, other feathers, and down-like fill—Like wool and cotton, they provide some fluffy padding but don’t deliver the kind of responsive support that memory foam and latex can. And they are less heat-trapping.
In terms of sustainability, toppers with downlike fill may carry the same certifications as those for the fibers above. For genuine down or feathers, look for ethical certification like RDS (Responsible Down Standard) or Global TDS (Global Traceable Down Standard), both of which indicate that the animals sourced have not been subjected to any unnecessary harm. Pricewise, you may pay anywhere from $150 to $500 for a queen-size topper. Look for brands such as Parachute and Pacific Coast (available at Amazon, Pacific Coast, and Wayfair).
Shopping and Care Tips
A topper can add anywhere from 1 to 4 inches to the height of your mattress. So it’s important to keep this in mind as you shop, especially if you have a thicker-than-normal mattress. If you put a 4-inch-deep topper on a 15-inch-deep mattress, for example, you may struggle to get your sheets to fit. (Note that CR’s top-rated sheets will fit an 18-inch mattress.)
And since the topper will lie directly on your mattress—under the mattress protector (if you use one)—you may want to look for a topper with straps to help it stay put, as well as a removable, washable cover, says Keith Cushner, founder of Tuck Sleep, a sleep-products review site.
Could cleaning be an issue? Virtually no latex or foam mattress topper can be washed—only spot-cleaned, perhaps. For toppers filled with wool, cotton, down, or other materials, check the label for guidance. Some are dry-cleanable (such as Parachute’s down mattress topper) or machine-washable (like Brooklinen’s down alternative mattress topper).
Before plunking down your plastic, read up on the retailer’s returns policy. Unlike mattresses, there aren’t many opportunities to try out a mattress topper before you purchase one. Many retailers, but not all, allow returns, so check before you buy. If you buy a Tempur-Pedic topper directly from the manufacturer, for example, it’s not returnable; purchase one from Costco, and it is. Also, some brands have generous “try-out” periods; Saatva, for instance, gives you 180 days to return a topper for a full refund.
As for lifespan, a high-quality mattress topper will typically do its job well for at least three to five years. Some come with warranties, which may last up to 10 years or even longer. That could mean a lot more nights of satisfied slumber.
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