"Consumer advice for mattress shoppers...
....and support for local retail businesses.
Support and Comfort in a Mattress are NOT the Same Thing
by Graham Challenger
I've been "inside" all areas of the mattress and bedding industry, for years. It still amazes me, how little mattress shoppers/buyers understand about the major purchase they are making. It's not your fault. Because the average person purchases a new bed so rarely, most shoppers don't know how to evaluate or compare mattresses. Much of the confusion comes from the mattress manufacturers, the bedding retail store employees, and/or the advertising you see. I hope my thoughts will help you find the "perfect bed" at a fair price.
The average person spends about one-third of his/her life asleep. You know this trivial fact because the mattress manufacturers and bedding retailers have been using it in advertising foreverâ€” but, it happens to be true. Getting a good night's sleep begins with a quality-made mattress. Any specific brand name won't make a difference in how well you sleep. In fact, it's very likely that a fancy name label will increase the price you pay, for no measurable difference in sleep quality.
Today's mattresses are built to support your spine during sleep. However, don't confuse the internal structure with features added to increase the comfort level, and sales appeal, of the mattresses you encounter when shopping. Support and comfort are not the same when selecting a mattress. It's important to understand the difference between the two features. It takes a combination of both for you to get a good night's sleep. A well made, quality mattress has two jobs. It should hold your spine in place, straight and flat, while evenly redistributing your body weight across a wide area to relieve pressure and allow your muscles to rest. A comfortable mattress has nice padding with cosmetic appeal that provides a "soft" tactile sleep experience.
Many misconceptions exist about purchasing a new mattress and foundation set. When the first caveman threw a pile of leaves on the ground, he probably told his neighbor that the maple leaves were "firmer and more comfortable" that the oak leaves. Some retailers still operate within this archaic premise. By generating confusion, some retail salespeople attempt to steer shoppers to the bedding with the biggest commission. Similarly, some retailers will try to push a featured brand or a mattress that is overstocked. Keep in mind that knowledge is power! Use the knowledge, here, and other online resouces to purchase the "best mattress", that your budget allows.
One at a time, Let me discuss the difference between support and comfort.
Support is delivered to your spine by the innerspring components of a traditional mattress. The innerspring system of all mattresses, regardless of the manufacturer, is constructed of the same basic materials; metal "spring" coils are stacked side by side on a flat surface. They are connected so they can work as a single unit. The "spring"/coils are surrounded by an edge support and wrapped in cosmetic upholstery. This is a huge, oversimplification, but, the point is that current build technology makes it possible for mattresses to be very supportive, while having a soft cushion surface. (The various widely advertised viseo-foam mattresses and "number" air-beds work slightly differently, but the theory is the same.) The innerspring system resists downward pressure, which is applied by your body's weight. A good innerspring system spreads your weight over a wide area and presents a flat surface with consistent upward pressure. Your body feels that as support.
In EVERY mattress manufacturers product catalog, the innerspring systems are similar across the brand name and models. Most bedding manufacturers use the same innerspring internal components under all types of mattresses in their product line. In other words, a mattress with a firm surface would provide the same support for your back as the softest Pillowtop mattress from the same manufacturer. Comfort is delivered to your body through the use of exterior padding layered on top of the innersprings. The exterior padding can be traditional or high density foams, or the newer pillowtop quilted surfaces. The marketable difference is in the cosmetic upholstery. This is the pretty, colored or patterned fabric, soft or hard, smooth or pillowtop exterior you'll feel with your hand when you press down on a mattress surface. The exterior upholstery provides the comfort component of a sleep experience.
Many mattress shoppers assume that a "plain" surface traditional mattress labeled "firm" will provide better support than a heavily cushioned, pillowtop-style mattress. As you now know, support and comfort are related, but they are not the same. There are no government "standards" or any reliable standard scale of measurement for the word "FIRM" within the bedding industry. The only valid way to measure the support or comfort level of two competing beds, is to lay on them, in an "A/B test", going back and forth to decide. Everyone has a different opinion of firm, and comfort is highly subjective. This vagueness allows for mattress manufacturers and bedding retailers engage in more than a little bit of advertising hyperbole. Millions of dollars are spent each year telling you what "firm" means. Ironically, who do you think ultimately pays for all those advertisements? The confused consumer, of course.
Here's my personal example of a "mattress comfort" scale from 1 to 5. Remember, the level of "comfort" built into a mattress has very little to do with the actual "support" your spine receives from the innerspring system.
Comfort Level #1
Is your bedroom floor carpeted? This is your Comfort Level #1 mattress. Some sleepers like a hard surface, no fluffy padding, just a flat surface. Grab the top sheet, pull it up to your chin, and snooze.
Comfort Level #2
If you have a bad back, Comfort Level #2 is what many mattress shoppers assume they need. Throw a heavy winter blanket on the carpeted bedroom floor or zip open a sleeping bag. That's a hard, supportive mattress with some cosmetic padding. The best orthopedic mattresses are this firm. You'll wake with no aches, pains, or stiffness in your back.
Comfort Level #3
A good, firm support mattress that is showing 2-3 inches of surface padding is Comfort Level #3. Press one finger down on the surface and feel the depth. For obvious reasons, this is the most common mattress. All mattress makers build this comfort level mattress. It's the safe choice for retailers to keep in stock as it sells most often. It makes a great in-between mattress for a couple with different preferences.
Comfort Level #4
Have you added a feather/fiber-filled/memory foam mattress pad to your bed surface? You can get that soft surface with a fluffy or a pillowtop-style mattress. These mattresses are noticeably padded to the touch. If you press your fingers into this mattress surface, your hand will sink 3-4 inches. These beds are fluffy bed surfaces.
Comfort Level #5
If you have ever looked at any of the memory foam mattress, as you walked by them in the mall, then you may know the comfort level at the softest end of the scale. Some add-on, plush, bed-pads are this soft. The memory foam mattresses mold to envelope your body. It's one of the advertised "advantages".
Not everyone likes this surface on a mattress, including me. That isn't a comment about the "firmness" of a memory foam bed, just to comfort of the surface.
Remember, the innerspring support is designed to carry your weight through the night and hold your spine, flat and aligned. Comfort is a personal choice of the tactile "feel" when you first lay in the bed [and unfortunately the marketing done by the manufaturers, TempurPedic and SleepNumber Beds being the obvious examples.] Personal preferences in comfort levels vary from one individual to another, which is why Goldilocks chose a Comfort Level #3! "Not too hard, not too soft. It's just right." Some bedding manufacturer's have even invented gimmicks to "measure" your comfort preference... designed to sell thier mattress sets, of course. When you learn "How to Shop for a mattress", you will find that the beds with huge pillowtop padding, five layers of memory foam or glossy advertising flyers and in-store displays will be the most expensive beds in any store. Follow Goldielocks example, test-rest every bed, and pick the one that is "just right", for YOU.