The difference between innerspring and memory foam mattresses is clear just from the names: one has a core of coiled metal springs, the other is made from layers of polyurethane foam. The difference between latex and memory foam, on the other hand, is a bit more subtle.
Latex and memory foam are both types of foam, but when it comes to sleep, they definitely are not interchangeable. “There can be lots of differences in the look and feel of these surfaces,” says Terry Cralle, RN, a certified clinical sleep educator and co-author of Sleeping Your Way to the Top. The way they feel, what’s in them, how long they last, and what they cost are just a few things that factor into the decision to choose one over the other.
So how do you decide which type of foam is the best fit for the way you sleep? Start by peering under the hood to really understand the differences. Below are some key points of distinction between memory foam and latex.
How they’re made
Memory foam, also called viscoelastic foam, is a type of high-density polyurethane foam. Greener versions of memory foam use plant-based ingredients, such as soybean oil, in place of some of the petroleum derivatives. Memory foam softens in response to heat and pressure, which gives it its characteristic body-hugging feel.
Most memory foam mattresses are not 100% memory foam—if they were, they would be so soft that you’d sink too deeply into the surface. Instead, premium memory foam mattresses are made from layers of foams of different thickness and density, for the right combination of comfort and support.
(For a closer look at what’s in a memory foam mattress, see How to Pick the Perfect Memory Foam Mattress.)
Latex, on the other hand, is a natural material, made from the sap of the rubber tree. To convert it into foam it undergoes processing—including being frozen and then baked—but because the material is derived from a natural source, it is biodegradable, hypoallergenic, and generally more eco-friendly. Just keep in mind that not all latex is natural: Some mattresses are partially or completely composed of synthetic latex foam, which, like memory foam, is usually made from petroleum-based materials.
(For a closer look at what’s in a latex mattress, see How to Pick the Perfect Latex Mattress.)
How they feel
Memory foam is known for perfectly contouring to your body’s curves. That conforming quality also makes it great for reducing “motion transfer” from one side of the bed to the other, so one sleeper’s movements don’t disturb his or her partner.
Latex foam has a somewhat similar contouring feeling, but the foam pushes back more against your weight, giving a greater sense of buoyancy. Here’s a test: If you spread out your fingers and press firmly on each type of mattress, the latex will “bounce back” fairly quickly, while your handprint will take more time to disappear from the memory foam mattress (that’s the “memory” in action).
That said, neither memory foam nor latex is going to come close to the liveliness of a traditional innerspring mattress.
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Zenhaven Latex Mattress
100% Talalay latex responds to every curve for pressure-free support and responsive comfort. Talalay latex is supple, resilient, and durable, for the ultimate in elevated sleep. (It’s naturally hypoallergenic too.)
Loom & Leaf Memory Foam
Premium memory foam, handcrafted in the U.S. with eco-friendly materials. Breathable organic cotton, cooling spinal gel, and layers of high-density support foam assure a cool, comfortable night’s sleep.
Off-gassing and allergies
Petroleum-based memory foam mattresses can release volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, a byproduct of the manufacturing process. VOCs are responsible for the unpleasant chemical smell referred to as “off-gassing.” Common VOCs include such potential irritants as formaldehyde, toluene, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), benzene, trichloroethane, and perfluorocarbons.
Not all mattress foams off-gas. Foams that carry the Certi-PUR label, for example, are verified to be low-VOC, meaning they meet low-emission requirements for indoor air pollution. On top of lacking mattress off-gassing, they are also guaranteed to be free of harmful chemicals and flame retardants.
Natural latex, as a plant-based material, doesn’t off-gas (though some people report a slight vanilla smell when new). Latex is also hypoallergenic and naturally resistant to mold and dust mites, so it’s a good choice for anyone who suffers from allergies or chemical sensitivity.
Historically, the knock on memory foam is that it “sleeps hot,” a function of the foam’s closed-cell structure, which can trap heat, and its body-hugging properties. Latex, on the other hand, sleeps cool; the material has an open cell structure that promotes better airflow through the mattress.
Note, though, that many newer memory foam mattresses have addressed the issue with the addition of cooling gel layers and other ventilation features, so they don’t necessarily retain as much excess heat. Plant-based memory foams also tend to be cooler than other types.
How long they last
All-natural latex mattresses are among the most durable, typically lasting several years longer than other mattress types. (The same isn’t true of partly or all-synthetic latex.)
Memory foam doesn’t last quite as long, but its durability can vary greatly depending on the quality and density of the foam. Denser foams typically last longer than lighter ones.
How much they cost
Natural latex mattresses tend to fall on the higher end of the price spectrum, owing to the cost of harvesting and producing latex. (Synthetic latex mattresses can be cheaper.) Memory foam mattresses run the gamut on price, from a few hundred dollars into the thousands. To make sure you’re getting the most for your money, no matter which material you choose, check out The Lowdown on Mattress Costs, and don’t forget to look into other factors which may be affecting your snooze like the relationship between coffee and sleep.