What is a gel mattress? Your expert guide

For the look and feel of foam without the heat retention, try a gel mattress − I've outlined all the pros and cons to help you shop smart

(Image credit: Zinus)

A gel mattress offers all the plush comfort and pressure relief of traditional memory foam, without the heat retention. As someone who suffers from night sweats and hot flashes, I can't sleep on foam that isn't infused with a cooling gel.

Out of all the mattress types, a gel mattress is most suitable for hot sleepers who prefer a plush surface. Gel feels springy and responsive, which makes for excellent pressure relief and creates a nice amount of bounce through the bed. Still, even the best gel mattress isn't perfect, and you might want to shop elsewhere for solid support.

As H&G's resident sleep writer, I lead a team of expert testers in the search to find the world's best mattress. Over the years, we've tested dozens of beds, and we can feel the difference between an traditional foam bed and a gel mattress. I'm sharing all our wisdom in this article.

What is a gel mattress?

I asked sleep scientists and medical professionals to help me outline the pros and cons of a gel mattress, so you can make an informed decision. I've combed through our back catalog of reviews to pick out a gel mattress to suit every sleeper.

What is a gel mattress?

DreamCloud Luxury Hybrid Mattress on a bed against a white wall.

(Image credit: DreamCloud)

Before we begin, it always helps to define our terms. A gel mattress is made from viscoelastic foam, the same stuff that makes up a memory foam mattress, only it gets mixed with gel beads.

Gel is highly conductive, able to retain and release excess body heat at strategic intervals throughout the night. In that sense, gel is thermoregulating, though it isn't quite as cooling as natural fibers.

You might find gel in the layers of an all-foam mattress or infused into the top layer of a hybrid mattress. Like all mattress types, gel beds come in a range of comfort levels to support all sleep styles. On a scale of Soft to Firm, most gel mattresses are Medium: all those elastic beads help to soften things up.

What are the pros of a gel mattress?

Corner of the Zinus Cooling Green Tea Mattress on a bed.

(Image credit: Zinus)

As a hot sleeper, I can't stand the feeling of sweltering through thick layers of dense foam. I need something to dissipate heat and wick moisture so that I can sleep cool. For me, that's the major benefit of a gel mattress: the beads help to carry excess heat away from my body and out of my bed.

Otherwise, a gel mattress shares all the benefits of good-quality memory foam. Made to absorb movement, memory foam offers excellent motion isolation, which is good news for light sleepers and anyone who shares a bed with their pet or partner.

'Gel mattresses are excellent for those with joint pain, as well as side and back sleepers since they benefit more from pressure-relieving properties,' says Jill Zwarensteyn, Senior Editor for Sleep Advisor. Our expert testers would agree with her. Several of our sleep experts suffer from chronic pain conditions, from fibromyalgia to degenerative joint disease. They appreciate the plush comfort of a gel mattress, which contours to the curves of your body and helps to take the weight off your pressure points.

Headshot of Jill Zwarensteyn.
Jill Zwarensteyn

Jill is a certified sleep science coach. She's written dozens of articles for Sleep Advisor, from mattress buying guides to features on solutions for sleep problems.

These are a few of my favorite gel mattresses. I think these models are fairly affordable: no more than $1,000 for a Queen. If you're buying on a budget, and you'd like to save a couple hundred bucks on the best gel mattress, then I suggest you shop the mattress sales.

What are the cons of a gel mattress?

A Siena Memory Foam Mattress in a modern bedroom

(Image credit: Siena)

Your average gel mattress delivers on cooling comfort, but it lacks a little support. I asked licensed chiropractor Dr. Matt Tanneberg to tell us more about the long-term effects of an unsupportive mattress.

Right out of the gate, Dr. Matt says: 'I typically do not recommend gel mattresses, due to their lack of stability. Gel beds quickly deform and become indented, which will cause problems for your spine and non-neutral postures while you're sleeping'. For solid support, you might be better off with an innerspring mattress. Individually pocketed coils can better bear your weight, then spring back into shape once you get out of bed: I recommend the Avocado Green Mattress.

The other downside of a gel mattress is its short shelf life. Since gel easily forms impressions, it soon starts to sag. You might only get six or eight years of good use out of a gel mattress before you need to replace it. Buying a brand new bed every couple of years is expensive, and it's not exactly great for the environment, either. To get the most out of your gel mattress, I recommend you flip or rotate it once or twice a year.

Headshot of Dr. Matt Tanneberg.
Dr. Matt Tanneberg

Dr. Matt is a Sports Chiropractor and certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist. He owns and operates his own practice in Scottsdale, Arizona, where he works intensively with elite athletes.

Final thoughts

You might have made it all the way to the end of this article only to realize that a gel mattress isn't for you. Not to worry − you've still got lots to shop. Just like gel, a latex mattress is highly breathable, and it's a more sustainable option for eco-conscious shoppers, while a hybrid mattress would offers similar cooling comfort with enhanced support.

Emilia Hitching
Sleep Editor

Emilia is our resident sleep writer. She spends her days tracking down the lowest prices on the best bedding and spends her nights testing it out from the comfort of her own home – it's a dream job. Her quest to learn how to sleep better has taken her all around the world, from mattress factories in Arizona to sleep retreats in Scandinavia. Before she joined Homes & Gardens, Emilia studied English at the University of Oxford. She also worked on the other side of the aisle, writing press releases for regional newspapers and crafting copy for Sky.