Mattress pad vs mattress topper – what's the difference and which one do you need?

Mattress pads, also known as mattress protectors, do a different job to mattress toppers: here's what you need to know

Mattress pad vs mattress topper: a Saatva mattress protector and topper on bed
(Image credit: Saatva)

Both mattress pads and mattress toppers can enhance sleep quality. Often mistaken for the same thing, both pads and toppers sit on top of your mattress and offer an extra layer of comfort beneath the sheet. They may seem similar at first glance, but they do have a few key differences when it comes to design, features, and functions. 

Whether you've bought a new mattress or are wanting to refresh your current mattress that's past its sleep-by date, adding a mattress pad or topper can help. From material and thickness to purpose and cost, there are a few determiners to help you decide whether you require a pad vs a topper – or both. 

With expert helps, we've broken down the differences below, so you can decide which one you need. If you're thinking of buying one, I've made a direct comparison of our top tested mattress topper and pad. 

What's the difference between a mattress pad and topper?

Sijo Home cooling mattress pad on bed

(Image credit: Sijo Home)

The main distinction between a pad and a topper is the design. 

Mattress pads: Also called mattress protectors, mattress pads offer a thin layer of extra protection and slight improvement in comfort. 

Lauri Leadley, Clinical Sleep Educator at Valley Sleep Center, further explains: 'mattress pads rest atop the mattress similarly to how a fitted sheet “fits” the bed. The four corners are elasticized and grip the mattress to stay in place.' 

They're easy to care for and can be put in the washing machine with the rest of your bedding. 

Mattress toppers, on the other hand, are thicker and designed to transform an uncomfortable mattress into one that suits your sleep needs: think of a mattress topper as a shallower version of a mattress. 

Mattress toppers can be made from memory-foam, down, polyester or latex. Some will come with straps to hold it in place, and others have a gripped bottom surface that sticks itself to your mattress. 

Cleaning a mattress topper is a little more tricky. They can't be washed or dried in the machine, and will need to be spot-cleaned or dry cleaned only. 

Laura leady headshot
Lauri Leadley

Lauri is the founder and President of one of the largest independent sleep diagnostics centers in Arizona with the facilities to diagnose and treat a variety of sleep-related issues such as insomnia, sleep walking, snoring, and more.

Mattress pad vs mattress topper: a comparison

This is a direct comparison of the best-rated mattress pad and topper, reviewed by us. 

Do I need a mattress pad or a mattress topper?

Everyone should have a mattress pad / protector, whether your bed is new, or not. As Lauri Leadley says, 'a mattress pad protects the mattress from spills, stains, and allergens'. 

If you've invested in a new mattress, then a protector is key for keeping your warranty or trial period effective. Even if you've slept on your bed without a protector for a while, it's never too late to try and maintain its condition.

Some mattress pads also come with cooling properties, so if you sleep hot, you may find it solves the problem. After testing plenty them myself, my recommendation is the Sijo Home Climatech TempTune mattress pad. It's great at regulating your body temperature as you sleep. If your only sleep issue is overheating at night, then you can get away with just a pad, which is much cheaper than getting a cooling mattress.  

Whether you need a mattress topper will depend on your sleep situation. 'There to provide support and relief, if you experience chronic pain and are trying to get a good night's sleep, buy a topper too', advises Leadly. If you're unable to spend a lot of money on the best mattress, 'buy the one you can afford (or keep your current one) and add a topper that supports your body'. 

You can have both: a mattress pad will protect both your topper and mattress below from damage.


Do you put a mattress topper under the mattress pad?

If you're going to have both, you may be wondering whether you put your mattress pad under, or over, the topper. Since the pad is designed to protect your sleep surface from any spills, stains, and dirt build-up, you should put your topper directly onto the mattress and place the pad / protector over that. Finish off with a flat or fitted sheet. 

Will a mattress pad help with a bad mattress?

There's only so much a mattress pad can do. If you're sleeping on a mattress that is getting quite old but is still comfortable enough, then a mattress pad will help prolong its life by preventing further wear and tear. However, if your mattress is bad because it is too firm, or too soft for your liking, then a mattress pad won't change the feel of your bed. Instead, you should invest in a topper to customize your sleep surface. Featherbed options will create a plush place to sleep, whereas foam toppers are firmer for increased support. 

Mattress pads and toppers can make a world of difference to how we sleep, by protecting and prolonging the life of our mattress. Mattress pads / protectors may be a must, but it's seriously worth considering a topper too if you're not getting a full eight hours at night. 

Louise Oliphant
Ecommerce Editor

Louise is your eCommerce Editor and sleep specialist to help you wind down well. A connoisseur of the mattress world, Louise previously covered sleep and wellness (as well as the occasional organizational buy) at Real Homes, and has tried, tested, and reviewed some of the buys for your bedroom. With an MA in International Journalism and PR experience, Louise brings bags of bedding expertise and enjoys nothing more than helping readers find solutions and products that best suit their sleep needs.