Memory foam is a hugely popular material in the mattress world, and found in many beds. Originally developed by NASA in the 1960s to absorb shock and add protection to airplane seats, it’s now used in the mattress world to add contouring and pressure relief to your bed.
But even the best memory foam mattresses can fall foul of the foam’s biggest problem. Memory foam is notorious for trapping heat, with the ‘hug’ of the mattress making it difficult for sleepers to move around and keep cool.
Mattress manufacturers have come up with various ways of combating this, with one of the most effective being the inclusion of gel in the memory foam.
In this guide we’ll look at the similarities and differences between the two types of mattresses. I'll break down the pros, cons, and compare between two of the best mattresses so you can decide which is right for you.
What is a memory foam mattress?
Memory foam is a type of polyurethane foam (also called viscoelastic foam). Originally designed by NASA, the polyurethane reacts with your body heat and slowly adapts to the shape of your body. This contouring feel helps promote spinal alignment and provides excellent pressure relief that helps soothe aches and pains.
Memory foam isn’t a single material but is a classification for a group of similar foams. This is why you’ll find memory foam available in a variety of different firmness ratings and with a number of different response times.
Regular memory foam mattresses are either traditional or open cell. Traditional memory foam has closed cells that can trap heat, whereas open cell memory foam is designed with spongy passages to help heat escape as you sleep.
What is a gel memory foam mattress?
Gel memory foam first appeared in 2011, with manufacturers designing it to try and provide a cooler sleeping surface. Traditional memory foam has a tendency to trap heat, so gel memory foam was designed to keep body temperatures down at night by drawing heat away from the body.
Brands have infused gel into their mattresses in a number of innovative and different ways. The most popular way to add gel is to pour it into the foam mould as it sets, providing a layer that is a complete mixture of gel and foam. Other ways included placing gel beads within the layers of the mattress, or a gel pad layer can be placed either on top of the mattress or in between other layers.
Although gel memory foam mattresses still have the contouring you’ll find with a memory foam mattress, they add in a little bounce and provide extra support for your lower back and neck.
Head to head
To make the differences a little clearer, here's a direct comparison of two of our reviewed mattresses.
Zinus' Cooling Gel mattress lives up to its name. It's an inexpensive, cool memory foam mattress, but not without its drawbacks, like its use of fibreglass.
- Available in four thicknesses
- Gel-infused memory foam regulates body temperature
- Great for pain relief
- Foam bounces back very quickly
- Surprisingly good edge support
- Long break-in period
- Need to buy deep fit sheets
- Includes fiberglass as a flame retardant
Memory foam mattress
The Siena is the cheapest mattress we've ever tested. It's surprisingly good given that it usually only costs $400, but like other memory foam beds, it sleeps pretty hot.
- Budget-friendly price
- Great support for stomach sleepers
- Low motion transfer
- Removable mattress cover
- Too firm for side sleepers
- Sleeps warmer
- Poor edge support
As both types of mattresses are based around memory foam, you’ll find several similarities.
- Pressure relief – Both types of mattresses offer a contouring feel, with the foam adapting to your unique sleeping position. The ‘hug’ of memory foam cradles sleepers and helps to ease pressure points at the neck, shoulders, back and hips.
- Pain relief – Memory and gel memory foams also rate highly with sleepers for helping with pain relief. This is because the cradling effect of the foam promotes spinal alignment and helps to support joints. It’s particularly good for back pain sufferers.
- Motion isolation – If you share your bed with a restless sleeper, or you wake up at the slightest movement, a memory or gel memory foam mattress is the perfect choice to help you sleep through the night. The ‘hug’ of memory foam isolates movement, as well as making it harder for sleepers to change position quickly. A gel memory foam mattress will, however, be a little bouncier than traditional memory foam.
- Firmness variety – You might think that all memory foam mattresses are the same firmness, but in fact they now come in a huge range of different firmness ratings, from soft to firm. This makes it far easier to find a mattress that suits your individual sleeping style.
As you might expect, there are also differences between memory and gel memory foam mattresses. Here are the three major deviations between the two.
- Temperature – This is the main difference between the two mattress types. As you might expect, gel memory foam looks, feels and sleeps cooler than traditional memory foam. The cooling gel helps to combat the heat that memory foam traps in its surface, wicking away heat and moisture. It also helps to regulate your body temperature throughout the night. But open cell memory foam also allows heat to escape, and many brands add extra perforations into memory foam mattresses to help with cooling. And gel isn’t the only cooling substance add to memory foam – you’ll also find mattresses using graphite and copper, to give a couple of examples.
- Bounce – The contouring ‘hug’ of memory foam provides excellent motion isolation, but the addition of gel gives gel memory foam mattresses a little bit more bounce than their traditional counterparts. This means that you’ll feel a fraction more movement but, on the plus side, the mattress will spring back into shape more quickly and it’s easier to change position throughout the night.
- Price – Extra materials in gel memory foam mattresses mean that it’s likely you’ll pay a higher price for one. If you’re on a tighter budget, a traditional memory foam mattress will offer more choices and cheaper prices. But the higher price tag could well be worth the output if you sleep very hot at night. Or you could consider investing in one of the best cooling mattress toppers as a temporary solution.
Buy memory foam if...
- You’re on a tighter budget, as memory foam on its own is cheaper.
- You want deeper sinkage and deep contouring to your body.
- You want a bed without motion transfer, so you won’t be disturbed by a partner.
- You want your pressure points cradled and aches and pains soothed.
Buy gel if...
- You sleep hot at night and need a mattress that will keep you cool.
- You’re a combination sleeper and want a little more bounce to make it easier to change position throughout the night.
- You want your pressure points cradles and aches and pains soothed – gel memory foam will do this just as well as traditional memory foam.
- You want extra support around your back.
Of course, it may be the case that neither of these options work for you. In that case, a traditional innerspring mattress might be a better choice - though you should bear in mind that these are often much more expensive, and the springs will start to creak with age. Another option is a latex mattress made of rubber, but these are also pretty expensive.
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Jo Plumridge is a freelance writer and photographer with over 20 years of experience writing for a variety of magazines, websites and books. She writes, perhaps unsurprisingly, about photography, but also on all things interior design and sleep-related, alongside reviews of home and tech products. Jo loves exploring the latest design trends, although she’s yet to find a carpet that doesn’t show up the cat hair from the cats she and her husband foster.
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