Mattress Toppers: When to Buy and What to Look For
When you buy a new mattress, you make a long-term investment in your sleep health and comfort. Your mattresses should last seven to 10 years—if not more—and facilitate night after night of restorative rest.
A mattress should not only last a long time but also retain its original form and feel for its entire lifespan. However, not all mattresses have a durable design. Yours may need some outside assistance to stay supple and supportive through years of use.
Moreover, your sleep needs may change over the course of a decade, and given the cost of a mattress, buying a replacement isn’t always an option.
In either situation, a mattress topper or mattress pad can save you money and enhance your sleep. By adding a layer on top, you can extend the life of your bed and change the way it feels.
What’s the Difference Between a Mattress Topper and Mattress Pad?
First things first, you should understand the difference between the various products that can protect or modify your mattress. Once you know what’s available, you can decide which best suits your current circumstances.
Mattress Toppers vs. Mattress Pads
Both mattress toppers and mattress pads sit on top of your existing mattress, adding comfort, thickness, and protection. Mattress toppers are generally thicker than mattress pads, but many people use these two terms interchangeably—as will this guide.
What Is a Mattress Protector?
Mattress protectors are thin covers designed to keep bugs, mites, mold, bacteria, and other allergens out of your mattress. You’ll also find waterproof mattress protectors that lock out liquid spills and sweat, as well as cooling mattress protectors made with breathable materials to dissipate heat.
While mattress protectors keep your bed cool and clean, they don’t provide additional comfort or support. Many people purchase a protector to cover both their mattress and their mattress pad or topper.
Should I Buy a Mattress Topper or a New Mattress?
Maybe you have buyer’s remorse and want to change the feel of your mattress. Or, you want to get more bang for your buck by extending your current mattress’s lifespan. Either way, adding a mattress topper can transform your bed and the quality of your sleep. That said, there are issues you can’t cover up with even the best mattress pad or topper.
When It's Time to Buy a New Bed
We recommend trying a mattress add-on for a range of modifications and improvements, but you’ll likely want to buy a whole new mattress if:
- Your current mattress has significant holes, indentations, or sinkage
- Your mattress sags and has lost its structure, support, or bounce
- You consistently wake up with neck, shoulder, back, or hip pain
Your mattress is infested with bed bugs or mites beyond what you can clean
- You seem allergic to your mattress or allergens trapped within
- You’ve tried mattress toppers before, and they didn’t make a difference
- You want to try a different mattress type (ex: you want to switch from foam to a hybrid)
- You need a larger or smaller mattress size
Reasons to Try a Mattress Topper
These instances aside, a mattress pad or topper may be the perfect solution and will cost a fraction of what you’d pay to replace your mattress altogether. Under the following circumstances, a mattress topper is well worth a try.
You Sleep Hot
If you’ve already switched to cooling bedsheets and you still wake up hot and sweaty, your mattress may be the culprit. If that’s the case, adding a cooling mattress topper can offer much-needed relief. The best cooling mattress toppers feature breathable or moisture-wicking materials like cotton, breathable foam, and latex.
You Want a Firmer or Softer Sleeping Surface
Mattress “feel” ranges from 1 through 10 on the mattress fitness scale, 1 feeling the plushest and 10 offering the most resistance.
Depending on your weight, sleep position, and personal preference, you may find your mattress too soft or too firm. A tell-tale sign that you need a firmer surface is if your mattress lets you sink so far that it misaligns your spine. Conversely, with a mattress that’s too firm, you’ll feel excessive pressure on your shoulders, back, and hips.
Adding a mattress topper allows customization and can effectively make your mattress feel a few levels firmer or softer. However, an extra 2-inch layer with a softer feel won’t take a 12-inch, level-10-firm mattress and make it feel like a level 1. If you need a dramatic change, it may require a completely new bed.
Adding a mattress topper allows customization and can effectively make your mattress feel a few levels firmer or softer.
You Want More (Or Less) Contouring
Some mattress materials respond to pressure and contour around your body more than others. For example, standard innerspring mattresses offer very little flexibility, while memory foam mattresses are often too malleable.
For comfortable sleep and proper spinal alignment, you want a mattress that gently contours with pressure, cushioning and cradling your bones and joints. You don’t want a mattress that conforms too easily under pressure, allowing your spine to unnaturally bend. If you own a mattress that contours too much or too little, you can add a mattress topper for an entirely new sleeping surface.
Mattress pads and toppers also give you the opportunity to mix and match materials. For example, adding a foam topper can transform a stiff innerspring mattress into a close-contouring and comfortable bed.
You Need More Support or Pressure Relief
Thin mattresses made with soft, structureless materials don’t have the core strength to suspend your body in a neutral position. They also don’t redistribute your weight, which means the heavier parts of the body (like your shoulders, back, and hips) bear the grunt of the load.
Without proper spinal support and targeted pressure relief, your body will bend unnaturally as you sleep. Moreover, your tired muscles won’t have the opportunity to self-repair, and your joints and other sensitive pressure points will ache with soreness and pain.
Thankfully, a heavy-duty mattress topper can add thickness and zoned support to your bed. Purchasing a topper is a great solution if you’ve gained weight and need additional support or if your mattress has begun to lose structural integrity with age. However, a topper can only provide supplementary support. Even the best manufacturers can’t pack an entire mattress support core into a topper that’s only a few inches tall.
Your Sleep Situation Changed
As previously mentioned, a quality mattress should last for seven to ten years, if not longer. But a lot can change over the course of a decade, and a mattress you bought at 22 may not suit your needs when you’re 30.
For example, physical changes like weight gain, pregnancy, injuries, and developing conditions like arthritis or fibromyalgia can affect the way you sleep and what you need from your mattress. Lifestyle changes like moving in with a partner or welcoming kids can also alter your sleep setup and requirements.
Instead of buying a new mattress to adjust to these changes, you can use a mattress pad or topper to modify your bed. For example, you may prefer a softer surface after losing weight, and a plush topper can provide the cushioning you need.
You Want to Extend the Life of Your Current Mattress
With many mattresses costing well over a grand, buying a new bed is a big investment. Using a topper adds another layer of protection, ensuring your mattress lasts longer. The topper’s surface will take the worst of the wear and tear, and you can replace it for much less than replacing a mattress.
5 Types of Mattress Pads and Toppers
Like mattresses, mattress toppers and pads run the gamut in terms of materials, height, and features. Before buying, you should know what’s available, what advantages each model offers, and what to avoid.
1. Memory Foam Mattress Toppers
Memory foam mattress pads and toppers are among the most popular mattress accessories but not the best in terms of quality.
Many people choose memory foam because of its soft feel and flexibility. What they don’t know is that memory foam, also called viscoelastic polyurethane foam, uses harsh chemicals to achieve its malleability and “memory.” However, in large amounts, these additives can be toxic, and they trap heat within the foam. Memory foam toppers also tend to conform too much, letting your spine bend and sink.
- Soft and flexible
- Harsh, heat-trapping chemicals
- Conforms, not contours
2. Other Foam Mattress Toppers
Fortunately, memory foam isn’t the only type of mattress topper foam on the market. Other toppers also use polyurethane foam, but have temperature-neutral and breathable formulas. That means they don't require heat to contour—instead, they gently contour with pressure alone, offering cushioning comfort without sinkage. Nolah's mattress topper uses AirFoam™, our proprietary polyfoam with better pressure relief, durability, and heat dissipation than traditional memory foam.
- Breathable and temperature neutral
- Gentle contouring
- Excellent pressure relief
- Highly durable
3. Gel Mattress Toppers
The term “gel mattress topper” typically refers to a memory foam topper infused with gel for a cooling effect. The gel infusion also improves pressure relief by better distributing your weight.
However, gel-infused mattress toppers have some notable drawbacks. They tend to weigh a lot, don’t last as long as other models, and often cause off-gassing.
Moreover, the gel’s primary purpose is to offset memory foam’s heat-trapping qualities. For the same price or less, you can buy a mattress topper that’s temperature neutral to begin with.
- Improves pressure relief
- Harsh chemicals
- Conforms, not contours
- Costs more than other topper types
4. Latex Mattress Toppers
Though more expensive and not as common as other foam mattress toppers, latex toppers are an excellent choice. Like non-memory polyfoam, latex is temperature neutral and offers gentle contouring as opposed to conforming. Latex mattress toppers typically fall on the firmer side of the scale, so they’re great for sleepers who find their current mattress too soft or unsupportive.
- Breathable and temperature neutral
- Gentle contouring
- Excellent pressure relief
- Highly durable
- Cost more than other topper types
- Fewer options
5. Pillowtop Mattress Pads
Pillowtop mattress add-ons tend to be thinner than their foam counterparts, so they’re usually marketed as mattress pads rather than mattress toppers. They don’t offer as much support as foam mattress toppers, but they do add plush comfort and help protect your mattress. Many pillowtop mattress pads are also breathable and moisture-wicking, bringing cooling relief.
Typically, pillowtop pads have a fabric exterior and are filled with cotton, wool, feathers, down, or polyester fiberfill.
- Typically cost less than foam toppers
- Not designed to add structure or support
Other Considerations for Mattress Topper Shoppers
Once you’ve chosen which type of mattress pad or topper you want for your bed, you should compare your options based on two critical remaining factors:
Firmness Level– Just like mattresses, mattress toppers made with the same materials still come in a range of firmness options. You can click here to learn about the mattress firmness scale and determine which topper option works best for you.
Height (Thickness)– Most mattress toppers range from 1 to 4 inches thick. Typically, the taller the topper, the more support it provides—though it depends on the materials used and construction quality.
Adding Layers for Luxurious Sleep
If you’re not content with your current mattress but aren’t ready to take the leap and replace it, adding a mattress topper or pad can help you get quality sleep until it’s time to buy a new bed. With an extra layer on top, your mattress will last longer and feel newer. You can also strategically choose your mattress pad or topper to help compensate for a flaw in the mattress underneath.
Interested in transforming your existing bed?
The Nolah Mattress Topper features 2 inches of our contouring and pressure-relieving AirFoam™. This high-resilience and breathable foam is durable and temperature neutral, plus it comes wrapped in a breathable and moisture-wicking organic cotton cover. You can order the Nolah Mattress Topper in Plush or Luxury Firm.
Disclaimer: Nolah does not provide medical advice. All resources on the Nolah blog, including this article, are informational only and do not replace professional medical counsel. Talk to your doctor about any health, mental health, or sleep-related issues.
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