After 24 hours of research, interviewing three sleep experts, and nine nights and a full day catnapping on six memory-foam mattress toppers, we think the DreamFoam 2″ Gel Swirl is the best for most people. It’s as comfortable as toppers more than three times the price, and its medium-low density provided good support without sucking our testers too far into the topper. It isolates movement—a good thing if you share a bed with a fitful sleeper. And unlike some of the toppers we tried it didn’t overheat our testers.
We pored over thousands of customer reviews for dozens of mattress toppers, whittling down the wisdom of the hive mind to arrive at the top six mattress toppers to test in-house. We drew on our knowledge from interviews with experts Jennifer Marks, editor in chief of Home Textiles Today, Sleep Like the Dead founder Nick Robinson, and sleep educator Terry Cralle, as well as past talks we’ve had with experts for our guides to bed pillows and mattress protectors. For the past year and a half, I’ve been on the bedding beat for The Sweethome, writing our guides to pillows as well as mattress and pillow protectors.
Think of mattress toppers as the Goldilocks solution: If you’re uncomfortable on your bed, there’s a good chance a mattress topper will help, whether you want to soften up a too-hard mattress, firm up a too-soft mattress, or simply revitalize a middle-aged mattress. They’re not a cure-all, though—if your mattress is sagging or otherwise in really bad shape, a mattress topper won’t solve the problem. According to Nick Robinson of the excellent sleep site Sleep Like the Dead, most people who buy mattress toppers are looking to soften a firm mattress, and indeed, most toppers are designed for exactly that purpose.
They can also be helpful for couples: Memory-foam mattress toppers help isolate movement, meaning that you can minimize the effect your partner’s tossing and turning has on your sleep. (It also makes them good for people who sleep on spring mattresses, because those aren’t great at preventing motion disturbance.) Couples who have different mattress needs can also use mattress toppers, though there currently aren’t any mattress toppers that have different densities on each side, meaning that you’ll be stuck creating a DIY solution of either putting an XL twin-size topper on half the bed or simply cutting a topper in half. If you’re interested in a topper because you and your partner have different needs, read Sleep Like the Dead’s rundown of solutions.
If you’re getting a good night’s sleep, and neither you nor your houseguests are howling with back pain in the morning, there’s no reason to get a mattress topper.
We’re focusing on mattress toppers that are best for revitalizing a middle-aged—but not decrepit—mattress and giving general support and comfort. As with mattresses themselves, there’s no perfect mattress topper for everyone. What feels comfortable to you will feel too soft or not responsive enough to someone else. In making our selections, we focused on middle-of-the-road “hotel comfort,” in the sense that though you might prefer your home mattress, if you’re in a good-quality hotel bed, you’ll still get a good night’s sleep.
We homed in on memory-foam toppers for this guide. Of the five main materials used to make toppers, memory foam offers the best mix of value, support, and range of options. You can also buy a topper made from latex, wool, feather, or synthetic fiber. Latex is good for people who are looking to make a mattress firmer, not softer, as it’s the only material that can do this reliably. Sleep Like the Dead has an excellent latex topper guide here. Wool toppers are good for people whose primary concern is heat retention, but they’re expensive. Feather toppers, also known as featherbeds, require regular maintenance and aren’t particularly good for revitalizing a mattress. Fiber toppers are the least expensive type, but they may begin to feel lumpy quickly and aren’t particularly durable.
Memory foam is also referred to as “viscoelastic” foam, meaning that it’s been formulated to allow it to recover slowly from pressure. That’s what gives it the “memory” part of memory foam, and why your body will leave an imprint on a memory-foam topper for a moment after you’ve gotten up until the cells’ elasticity allows the foam to go back to its usual shape. Because of its contouring and slow recovery, sleepers have the sensation of sleeping on a soft surface while still having their joints supported; a soft surface without the support of memory foam would just make the heaviest parts of your body sink down and “bottom out.” Various formulations of memory foam may be created to give it additional qualities beyond its characteristic “squishiness.” All viscoelastic foams are temperature-responsive, but some toppers may respond more quickly to your body temperature and provide more support where you need it the most, or may contain specialized ingredients such as cooling gels that are designed to absorb heat, keeping you more comfortable.
Memory-foam toppers come in a breadth of thicknesses and densities. Thicknesses usually vary from 2 to 4 inches. The thinner end of that range gives you more mobility and a greater chance of staying cool throughout the night. But thicker toppers give you more cushion; the trade-off, besides heat retention, is a higher cost, and a greater chance that your sheets will fit awkwardly. The toppers we looked at were either 2 or 3 inches thick. Most brands come in a number of thicknesses; for the toppers we tested, we picked whichever thickness had the higher user satisfaction ratings on Amazon.
A topper that isn’t dense enough for your preference will feel like you’re sinking into it, but not in a good way—think of a bowling ball on a piece of egg-crate foam. Because memory foam responds to your body, heavier people need more density to achieve the same level of support as a lighter person would on a less-dense topper. If you weigh more than 240 pounds, err on the side of a denser topper; if you’re under 110, err on the side of a less-dense one. The toppers we looked at range from 2½ to 4 pounds per cubic foot, which should be suitable for men and women of average weight.
The number-one complaint people have about memory foam mattress toppers is that they retain body heat. To some degree that’s unavoidable with memory foam: Most people get a topper because they want a softer, “sinkier” surface that supports the body’s pressure points, as Nick Robinson of Sleep Like the Dead points out. But that means that your body is in fuller contact with the topper, trapping body heat. (You’d be uncomfortable sleeping on a wooden board, but you probably wouldn’t overheat.) Companies are infusing their toppers with cooling technologies like gel beads and ventilated foam, but these aren’t a cure-all. Sleep Like the Dead found that gel memory foam helped about one-third of hot sleepers; the others were left sweating through the night. Two of our three recommendations are gel toppers, and they did keep us cooler than our one non-gel pick, but we’d be hard-pressed to say they actively cooled us down—it’s more that they just didn’t overheat us. Robinson suggests choosing moisture-wicking linens if you’re concerned about overheating. (We’ve found that cotton percale sheets and linen sheets do this well.) Some toppers are covered with a moisture-wicking cover, usually made of bamboo.
Naturally, we considered price. All toppers we tested ranged from about $60 to $210 for a queen. We didn’t find that price corresponded with better user reviews, or with a better experience when we tested them. In fact, the least expensive toppers we looked at were two of our favorites.
You’ll also want to consider how your topper will fit on your bed and with your sheets. A thick topper could make your sheets fit awkwardly—we didn’t find many complaints about sheets being unable to fit onto the bed with the topper, but aesthetically it’s not the most elegant look. And a topper that’s a little short can create a sort of ledge around the sleeping surface. We looked for toppers with few complaints about fit. Some toppers slip around on the bed, though that’s less of a problem with memory foam than with other types of toppers.
From there, we looked for mattress toppers that had good reviews concerning durability and construction. We also gave brownie points to toppers that provided good motion isolation, making them good picks for couples with at least one tosser or turner. Two smaller concerns took less weight in our considerations: odor and how long it takes for the topper to completely unfold after unpacking, both of which resolve themselves with time. Mattress toppers are usually shipped rolled-up for delivery convenience, and a topper can take up to 24 hours to fully unfold and be suitable for sleeping.
We looked at dozens of brands, and our preliminary research suggested that it’s not hard to find a decent memory-foam topper if the goal is to soften your bed, so we immediately eliminated toppers that had more than the average amount of negative reviews. This took out some reputable brands, like Carpenter, Lucid, and BeautyRest. We settled on six toppers from five brands: the DreamFoam Gel Swirl, the Red Nomad Ultra Premium Gel Infused Visco Elastic, the Red Nomad 2-Inch Ultra Premium Visco Elastic (non-gel), the Malouf Isolus 2 Inch Ventilated, the Langria 3-Inch with Removable Zippered Hypoallergenic Bamboo Cover, and the Serta 3-Inch Premium.
Once we had our six semifinalists in our office, we measured them, put a top sheet on them, and took a 30-minute nap on each. We took notes on heat retention, ease of motion, which parts of our body felt more or less supported, motion isolation, and general comfort. We also scraped the corner of each topper with a fork for 60 seconds to mimic the wear and tear a topper would go through over the years. Throughout the process, we took notes on how long it took for odors to go away, how long it took for toppers to unfold, ease of handling, whether they slipped around on the mattress, general texture (paying particular attention to stickiness), and how the topper looked once fitted with a top sheet. Based on those results, we selected three finalists to sleep on for a few nights.
Spoiler alert: None of the toppers we tested were outstandingly good or outstandingly bad, despite a $150 difference between the most and least expensive semifinalists. There were some differences among them, with density making the biggest difference in how each topper felt. But within toppers that had similar density, we had to turn to tertiary factors beyond comfort and support—like price, size, and durability—to determine which ones to test overnight, let alone choose a favorite.
One overall note on support: Every single topper felt at first like it wasn’t supporting our hips enough, regardless of the bodily build of the tester. Yet despite the lower-back pain that plagues both of our overnight testers, neither tester woke up during the night test phase with an aching back. “I really think a very comfortable—yes, sinking, even—feeling is very relaxing, and leads to less pressure issues during the night for many, but not all,” said sleep expert Cralle. “Those few inches of comfort, softness, and, yes, some sinking are great for many and definitely worth trying.”
The DreamFoam was just as comfortable and supportive as the Red Nomad Gel and Malouf Isolus toppers—our other picks—but it’s cheaper. The queen Red Nomad costs around $80, and the queen Malouf Isolus around $210. From our tests, we think that spending more won’t necessarily get you a better topper. We will long-term test our winners to see if there are any differences that develop over time.
At a medium density (about 2½ pounds per cubic foot, depending on the amount of gel in the topper), the DreamFoam was plenty supportive, though it wasn’t so dense as to force our testers to sink down to the point where it was difficult to roll around. (Our testers ranged from 140 to 200 pounds; particularly heavy or light people may have a different experience.) Some of the other toppers of similar densities and textures didn’t provide quite enough support on the upper back, but the DreamFoam gave us even support all over, including for side sleepers. (Sleeping on your side puts more pressure on your hips, because the weight of your hips is distributed across less surface than it is when you’re sleeping on your back or stomach.)
Like most of the toppers we tested, the DreamFoam had good motion isolation. A Iight sleeper, I didn’t wake up at all due to my partner’s movement, a happy fact that held true for all three toppers tested overnight. Yet because the DreamFoam, like the Red Nomad, was still easy to roll around on with little effort, it’s a good pick for anyone who’s a restless sleeper (and doubly good for that person’s partner).
We felt overheated sleeping on some of the toppers, but not on the DreamFoam. The DreamFoam and its closest competitor, the Red Nomad, are both gel-infused, which theoretically helps cool hot sleepers. Given that people don’t report that gel in and of itself makes a significant difference, though, the DreamFoam’s relative coolness is probably because it’s of medium density, as opposed to high density. There were still plenty of heat retention complaints in customer reviews for the DreamFoam, it should be noted—as there are with every topper out there. The DreamFoam was on par with the Red Nomad, but felt cooler than the Malouf Isolus, our non-gel-infused pick.
The DreamFoam also edged out the Red Nomad for being just a hair larger. The difference is negligible—the DreamFoam was ¾ inch longer and ¼ inch wider than the Red Nomad—but what that minute difference translated to was a better fit on the mattress. The slightly smaller Red Nomad had a dropped ledge around the perimeter of the mattress, meaning that the tallest of our testers found that his feet and elbows grazed against that ledge, which he found distracting when he was trying to fall asleep. But this is really a technicality, and a variable one at that—even the most uniform of manufacturing processes allows for up to an inch of wiggle room in sizing.
We’re not the only ones who like the DreamFoam: It’s currently the highest-rated CertiPUR-certified gel-infused memory-foam topper on Amazon. It has a slightly lower satisfaction rating than the Red Nomad memory-foam topper, but we found that the verified purchase reviews were even more enthusiastic. (The Red Nomad’s verified purchase reviews are also excellent.)
The DreamFoam’s gel made it feel a little tacky on our hands. It didn’t actually leave a residue, but while putting it on the mattress and rotating it, we kept having the impulse to wipe our hands. The tackiness also made it difficult to place on the mattress—other toppers we could just drape onto the mattress and they stayed put without sliding around, but getting the right placement with the DreamFoam meant lots of tiny adjustments, because it tended to cling to the surface below it. This wasn’t the case with the Red Nomad gel topper. But we didn’t consider it a big deal, as the only time you’d need to remove the topper is to periodically rotate it or to take off a mattress protector for maintenance.
When we did our corner scrape test for durability, the DreamFoam didn’t fare terribly well; after 60 seconds of scraping at it with a fork, a deep crater resulted. But even the negative reviews of the DreamFoam on Amazon didn’t mention durability as a problem (though there were some complaints about it arriving torn straight out of the package, in which case the company should exchange it). Unless you have pets that are likely to sharpen their claws on your topper, we think you’ll be okay here.
The Red Nomad regular (non-gel) topper that we tried was the longtime favorite on Amazon, and the gel topper is a fairly new product from the company and hasn’t had time to become a favorite—but we wouldn’t be surprised if it eventually surpassed its big sister. It also held up a little better than the DreamFoam in the scrape test, so if you’re particularly concerned about durability, the Red Nomad gel might be a slightly better bet.
When you’re lying down on the Isolus, you feel like your whole body is sinking into the bed, cradling you more than either the DreamFoam or the Red Nomad—which may or may not be what you want. This sensation comes at a price, though: When your whole body is being cradled, that means more of your body is in contact with the surface, and with the Isolus that translated to feeling overheated. Our overnight testers fell asleep almost instantly due to its cushiony comfort, but woke up in a pool of sweat in the morning.
The “sinky” feeling comes at a literal price too—currently about $210 for a queen. But it wasn’t difficult to roll around on, and it has excellent motion isolation (as do our other two picks). It was slightly more awkward to handle than the two other finalists because it was heavier and more drapey, but again, you’re moving these only occasionally.
All of the toppers we tested use synthetic, petroleum-based foam that has a CertiPUR-US certification guaranteeing that it doesn’t contain formaldehyde, heavy metals like mercury or lead, phthalates regulated by the Consumer Products Safety Commission, or certain flame retardants. CertiPUR-US foams release less than 0.5 parts per million of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, which are compounds that the foam releases.
VOCs decrease significantly over time, so they’re at their highest when you first unpack a foam topper. Let your new topper air out for a couple of days to let it off-gas in a well-ventilated room before putting it on your bed. This will also help with the related odors that many of the toppers emit when you first unpack them. We read of complaints of the scent lingering for a week; in our tests the odors dissipated within 48 hours. But remember, VOCs are harmless in small amounts. For more on off-gassing, read this blog post from our science editor.
Maintenance-wise, think of your topper like your mattress, but easier to handle: You don’t have to do a lot to take care of it, but you’ve got to do something to keep it from getting grungy. It’s worth encasing your topper along with your mattress in a water- and dust-mite-resistant mattress protector. (Remember to factor in the height of your topper when selecting the size of a protector.)
Once a year or so, take the topper off your mattress for a cleaning. Overstock has a thorough guide on how to clean toppers, but in short: Vacuum it to remove debris, then lightly spray it on one side with diluted detergent in a spray bottle. Let dry, then vacuum again to pick up any dried detergent residue, then flip it over and repeat on the other side. Don’t put it back on your mattress until it’s thoroughly dried (this will likely take overnight), lest you wind up sleeping on a mildewy topper.
Rotate the mattress topper as often as you rotate your mattress; if you have a “no-flip” mattress, just make sure you flip your topper about every three months.
The Red Nomad 2-Inch Ultra Premium Visco Elastic (non-gel) topper was virtually identical to its gel sibling, though it didn’t fare quite as well in the scrape test; we selected the Red Nomad gel for further testing primarily to contrast it with the DreamFoam gel.
The Langria 3-Inch with Removable Zippered Hypoallergenic Bamboo Cover was comfortable and supportive, and the bamboo cover may have helped with heat retention (we’d love to see other manufacturers include this cover), but early testers found it more difficult to roll around on than other picks.
The Serta 3-Inch Premium topper felt luxuriously plush at first, but even five minutes into a test it was clear that was an illusion. Despite its density, it ultimately wasn’t supportive; two testers reported feeling like they were in a deep V shape, with their hips sinking down farther than they should. As we noted above, this was a common sensation, but it was particularly pronounced with the Serta. One tester also reported more motion disturbance with the Serta than with other toppers.
(Photos by Michael Hession.)
Originally published: March 14, 2017
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