6 tips for stress-free mattress shopping
Don't sweat it—here's everything you need to know before buying your next bed.
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For most people, the basic sleeping arrangements are more or less the same: a mattress, sheets, maybe a pillow or two, and some sort of foundation or bed frame. But within each of these categories are a plethora of choices to make. The most complicated sleep-related shopping endeavor is buying a mattress, given that it’s an expensive purchase and one that should last you a decade, give or take.
If your mattress skews too far to one end of the spectrum—too soft, too hard, even too old—it boils down to one thing: insufficient support. This can leave you waking up with something to be desired. Maybe your hips are sore, or your shoulders ache, or your neck is stiff, which are all signs that your sleep surface isn’t serving you.
Whatever the reason, you’re looking at buying a new bed. Welcome to our Choose Your Adventure: Mattress Edition, where we provide our top tips for easier shopping.
1. Determine your mattress budget
You’ve spotted the perfect mattress: It’s got great reviews, materials you like, and everything lines up … and then you look at the price. It’s hundreds above your budget, so you go back to the drawing board ... and back to your saggy, old mattress, heartbroken and uninspired.
One of the biggest factors in determining what mattress you can pick is how much you’re willing to spend on it. And mattresses are a pricey to begin with—no matter what, you’re in for at least a couple hundred dollars. But thanks to the online mattress-in-a-box industry, it’s easier than ever to find a great mattress for any budget.
These companies' websites make shopping so much easier than the confusing in-store experience: You can breeze through different options and check out prices with the click of a mouse. If you’re ready and have the means to splurge, the Leesa Hybrid is a great option. A queen size comes in at $1,699, though the company frequently has sales, as most mattress companies do. If you’re on a tighter budget, the Tuft & Needle Original, our best value pick, offers a firm but supple sleeping surface at just under $600 for a queen. (Tuft & Needle also has regular sales.) Of course there are numerous options in between that we’ve testeda and enjoyed, including the Nectar Mattress for $1,198 for a queen, and the Chill Foam Mattress from Cocoon by Sealy for $1,080 in queen size (though it’s often on sale for around $700).
2. Pick your mattress type based on materials
Your brand-new foam mattress arrives. You tear through the plastic like the Hulk and watch the material expand to form a queen-size sleep surface—it’s like magic! That night you head into your bedroom, more excited to sleep than ever before. You crawl in and curl up ... only to find that the foam is sucking you down like quicksand, and you hate it. As you lie there, wide awake, you wonder where you went wrong. Doesn't everyone love memory foam?
Materials are of key importance in terms of how a mattress feels and the support it offers. There are four main types of mattresses to choose from, based on what they're made of: foam, coil (a.k.a. innerspring), hybrid, and latex. Of course, each has its pros and cons, so you have to find what’s best for you.
Foam mattresses are, yes, beds made from memory foam and other foams. They became more popular after the 1980s when NASA publicly released the formula for temper foam, which was initially developed for aircraft seats. The foam is great at distributing weight evenly and can be a good choice for side sleepers because it provides sufficient support for the spine without aggravating pressure points, like the shoulders and hips.
But the space-ready material isn’t for everyone. First, that quicksand feeling of the mattress absorbing your body weight isn’t everyone’s favorite. Another major complaint about memory foam is heat retention. Heat can have a major impact on your sleep, and foam has a tendency to absorb rather than dissipate it. Some companies have designed mattresses that claim to mitigate this with perforated or cooling foam, or fabric encasements made from materials that wick, like bamboo or wool.
Another consideration: Foam mattresses—and basically any mattress that contains foam, which is most of them these days—often go through a process called “off-gassing” after opening, during which they release chemicals left behind from the manufacturing process. This can be a hassle as it may create a noticeable odor that could take a few days to dissipate.
Innerspring mattresses are the classic mattresses you may remember shopping for in stores and seeing in old cartoons with springs poking out this way and that—though they shouldn’t look like that in real life (and if yours does, well, I think we know why you’re reading this). Of the prominent mattress materials today, springs are the oldest technology, with the first bed spring patented in 1869, but its age doesn’t mean you should discount it. Spring mattresses provide a buoyancy that some may prefer to the sink-in feeling of foam, and their construction is thought to help keep you cool by improving air circulation at night. Plus they don’t tend to off-gas like foam mattresses.
On the flip side, innersprings are, well, made with springs, which don’t generally isolate motion well—for example, if a pet jumps onto the mattress or your partner rolls over, you’re more likely to feel it. Some may also find these mattresses feel too firm. The selection of innerspring mattresses in a box isn’t as vast as foam or hybrid options, but there are still plenty available online, like the Classic Saatva Mattress.
Hybrid mattresses try to bring the best of both worlds by resting foam layers atop a base of innerspring coils. The coils are thought to give them more structure, supportiveness, “rebound,” and offer better air circulation for keeping you cool, while the foam top layer provides cushion to cradle you just enough, without letting you totally sink in. Hybrids tend to cost more than either of the two types they are composed of, but if our positive experience with the Leesa Hybrid is any indication, they may be worth the cost. And as with any mattress containing foam, the off-gassing process is something to keep in mind.
Latex, the least common mattress material, comes in two main types: natural and synthetic. Natural latex is derived from rubber trees, but the material can be synthetically mimicked. Like foam, latex can vary in texture and suppleness based on how much air is pumped into it during manufacturing, says Chris Winter, a sleep expert and medical doctor. For folks who prefer to purchase organic products, natural latex can be a good option as the rubber plants can be grown and managed with organic practices. The material is thought to be cooler than foam, but it doesn’t tend to isolate motion as well, meaning that you may feel a partner or pet when they shift positions or get up from or back into bed. Latex also tends to run on the pricier side as compared to other materials.
3. Consider mattress firmness
You dream of sleeping atop a cloud, so you purchase a super-soft mattress. Night one, it feels like heaven as you doze off—but the next morning, you wake up with a terrible lower-back ache … and learn there’s such a thing as too soft. You add a wood panel beneath the mattress to little effect, and ultimately return it, annoyed by the hassle you went through, and asking yourself where you went wrong.
Finding the right firmness is important because it ensures that you have sufficient support at night to maintain spinal alignment. However, as with every other decision you make about mattresses, the biggest factor is personal preference. What’s more, firmness and mattress material are inherently connected. Springs will generally yield a firmer mattress. Foam, in contrast, has more variability in firmness and feel, but often feels as though it provides a more giving and supple surface.
Winter recommends erring on the side of firmer rather than softer when you buy a mattress. He explained there are options to soften a firm mattress, but there isn’t much you can do to make a soft one one feel more firm. Memory foam or egg-crate toppers, or feather or down-alternative pads can adjust the surface cushiness of your bed without compromising its support.
Personal preference aside, certain sleep positions benefit from different firmness levels. Back and stomach sleepers should generally opt for a firmer mattress to support their spine. Side sleepers, in contrast, should look for something that allows their pressure points, namely the hips and shoulders, to sink in a bit, without leaving their spine sagging.
4. Choose your size
You buy a full-size mattress for your teenage daughter, an upgrade from the twin mattress she's outgrown. One night, your massive Bernese Mountain Dog decides to join her. The bed was crowded and hot to her with the new canine addition, and when she tried to roll over to find a cool spot on the mattress, she wound up on the floor.
For the most part, mattress size is a matter of personal preference, sleep habits and companions (human or pet), and the amount of space you have in your room.
- Twin and twin XL are the smallest adult-friendly sizes available, and may be what you slept on growing up or in college dorms. They are best for one person, measuring 38 inches wide by 75 inches long, or 80 inches for the XL.
- Full is the smallest mattress that could work for two, but it’s likely best suited to one adult. If you’re trying to squeeze onto a full with someone else, be sure you like to cuddle. A full size measures 54 inches wide by 75 inches long.
- Queen is the most common mattress size in the U.S. It’s bigger than a full in both length and width, and offers enough room for two people to sleep comfortably side-by-side, while not being prohibitively large for small bedrooms. This size measures 60 inches wide by 80 inches long.
- King is the widest bed you can get. This size can accommodate two people often with room to spare and may work well for individuals whose kids and/or pets also like to sleep on the mattress. A king-size bed is 76 inches wide by 80 inches long, so it takes up a lot of space in a room.
- California king is sometimes thought of as being even bigger than a king size. In reality, it’s 4 inches longer and 4 inches narrower, with the extra length making it appealing to taller folks. A California king measures 72 inches wide by 84 inches tall.
Aside from surface size, you may need to consider a mattress’s weight limit. Leesa and Purple are designed for individuals up to 300 pounds, or two people weighing up to 600 in total, while Avocado recommends no more than 350 pounds per person. Some specialty mattresses have higher weight limits like BigFig, which can support individuals weighing up to 550.
5. Settle on a setup
You throw out your box springs and buy a new bed to go on your old frame. But when the mattress arrives, it’s only 12 inches tall. Now sitting down or getting up from bed is an exercise in squatting you didn’t want or need.
Mattresses are designed to support you, but for your mattress to do its best, you also have to provide it some support. Most mattresses in a box are versatile and can be used with a variety of bases (or even a lack thereof), but more often than not, a good base for your mattress will make your sleep better—or at least make standing up from the bed easier.
Box springs are perhaps the most well-known mattress foundation. They are what they sound like—a wood box that contains springs. In the past, box springs were almost a necessity for most innerspring mattresses to provide height and additional give that a firm-coiled mattress may not have. While box springs remain in use and are still easy to come by, they’ve fallen by the wayside as foam and hybrid boxed mattresses—which generally should not be used with box springs because they don’t provide enough support and can cause the mattress to sag over time—became more popular.
Slats are a basic, cheap, and easy way to set up your bed. A slatted base is made with narrow pieces of wood that are usually held together with some canvas or cotton fabric strips, and run widthwise beneath a mattress. There are two types of slats: flat and sprung. Flat slats are what they sound like. Sprung slats, in contrast, have a curve towards the center of each piece of wood. This can make them more pliable, and slightly more giving than the flat options. Both types of slats are supported by the bed frame itself. I have slats, and as the main mattress tester at Reviewed, I have yet to run into a mattress that I can’t test with this setup. Depending on your bed frame, slats may not provide enough height beneath a thinner mattress, so take that into account when shopping. While slats are straightforward, there are still two key things to think about: the space between each slat and whether they’re flat or bowed. Reason being, if you purchase a foam mattress and use it on slats that are too far apart, it could cause your mattress to sag over time, and may even void your warranty. Sprung slats can also be problematic. The Leesa Hybrid, for example, shouldn’t be used with bowed slats, as the mattress should only be used on a flat surface, and use with the wrong slats voids the warranty.
Foundations can look similar to box springs, but contain no springs. Their surface slats may be exposed, like Leesa’s foundation, or covered with a fabric, like Casper’s foundation. Foundations are a good option to pair with foam mattresses, as they equally distribute weight and prevent sagging. They also add height to your mattress, which could be a pro or con depending on your setup. If your bed frame was designed for a box spring and mattress, but you’re switching to foam mattress, you’ll probably want a foundation.
Adjustable bases have motors and a remote so you can raise and lower the head and foot of the bed. This gives you the option to change not just your sleep position, but the shape of your entire mattress. Nectar, our favorite mattress brand, makes a well reviewed adjustable frame. Unfortunately mattresses aren’t always made with that type of movement in mind—some, like the Leesa Hybrid, are designed to rest only on a flat surface. If you already have an adjustable base or want to get one in the near future, be sure to shop for mattresses that are compatible. Amerisleep and Puffy are a good place to start.
The floor is the cheapest option of all mattress bases, but may not be the best choice. In fact, sleeping without a bed frame can negate some mattress companies’ warranties. It also increases the likelihood of your mattress picking up dirt. All that said, many mattresses can be used on the floor without a box spring or foundation if that’s your best option for budgetary reasons or otherwise.
Bunkie boards aren’t a substitute for box springs or slats, but rather a supplement. These boards are usually a couple inches thick and made from plywood wrapped in fabric. If you’re buying a foam mattress and already have box spring or widely spaced slats, the board can provide additional structure and support necessary to prevent the mattress from sagging in places over time.
6. Check out mattress certifications
You’re granola: a vegan, flannel-loving, Chaco-wearing environmentalist that swears by farmer’s markets and microgreens—and you expect nothing less of other products you buy, including your mattress. You just can’t quite tell if the hybrid you have your eye on fills the bill.
For better or worse, there are certifications for almost everything, claiming to ensure materials, fabrication, trade practices, and so on are above board. Whether or not certain mattress certifications are worth considering is really up to the individual buyer, but they can be a great way to narrow the pool if you’re shopping for a mattress and want it to meet certain standards.
Certi-PUR is perhaps the most common certification for mattresses that have foam construction. The vast majority of mattress-in-a-box companies we’ve tested here at Reviewed hold this seal. It demonstrates that the foam used won’t emit certain chemicals during off-gassing, and that it doesn’t contain heavy metals or use certain flame retardants that have been linked to health risks.
GreenGuard certifications demonstrate a mattress is emits little to no volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and is safer for children or sensitive adults. If you’re concerned about indoor air quality or have certain respiratory health concerns, this certification can be a great place to start.
Global Organic Latex Standard (GOLS) and Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) can be useful for determining if a mattress’s components were produced organically, meaning any plant-based materials were grown without certain chemicals.
Climate Neutral Certified is what you should look for if you’re concerned about the climate impact of the company that makes your mattress. This doesn’t certify the materials themselves—instead it indicates that a company has assessed its carbon footprint and offsets its emissions through carbon credits.
Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.