What is memory foam?
Memory foam is a viscoelastic material, meaning it has malleable qualities when pressure is applied, but will return to its original shape once that pressure is removed.
As the name suggests, memory foam is a foam-like material with a softness and unique elasticity that provides responsive and support movement through an even distribution of weight. While in use, the material is able to respond instantly to support changing pressure points, returning to its original form once the point of pressure is removed.
The unique texture of this temperature sensitive material makes it ideal for use in bedding products, which naturally benefit from the ability to provide pressure relief over long periods of time.
Brief History of Memory Foam
Developed by NASA in the 1960’s to offer improved comfort and shock absorption for their airplane seats, memory foam was originally known by the far less catchy but functional title of “slow spring back foam.”
Certainly one of NASA’s most famous technological exports from development to civilian use, memory foam has evolved over the years as a key advancement in the bedding market to become an invaluable addition to the comfortable sleep of many, alleviating joint pain and supporting changing sleep positions throughout the night.
Memory Foam Really is Unique, and Has Unique Benefits
While specific types of memory foam do differ in the level of comfort they offer, looking at the broader picture, overall memory foams in general are unique in many ways versus other comfort products used in bedding.
I’ve looked at many bedding materials, from latex to cotton to wool. And nothing compares to memory foam in the way it conforms to your body and reduces pressure points.
Why is memory foam so different? There are a couple of reasons that memory foam is so unique.
First is the way memory foam cells deform when weight is applied. Unlike standard foams that compress and want to spring back to their original shape immediately, memory foam cells (open cell foam, which means the individual cells in the foam have holes in them) compress fully and spread their air pressure to adjoining cells.
This spreads the pressure through a greater number of cells of the memory foam – which decreases the pressure you feel in the cells of the memory foam that you are laying on. This accounts for the way that memory foam actually reduces pressure points.
This ability of memory foam to deform also allows it to really conform to your body’s shape and weight bearing areas, thereby reducing these pressure points. No other material has this ability to shape to your body – this is unique to memory foam.
However while memory foam’s characteristics offers unique comfort benefits, you wouldn’t want an entire mattress made strictly of memory foam. Memory foam is too soft a material and isn’t meant to be supportive. So it works best when layered over a firm, supportive material.
That is why you will mainly find memory foam as a 2″ or 3″ topper to be used on your existing, firm mattress, or as a 2″ or 3″ topping layer in a new memory foam mattress.
Second, memory foam is temperature sensitive. Which means that at lower temperatures it is firmer (more viscous), and at higher temperatures it is softer and more conforming (more elastic). This is the reason memory foam is known as visco-elastic memory foam.
This temperature sensitive quality accounts for the melting feeling that you get lying down on memory foam, and also accentuates the custom molding affect of the foam. Certain memory foams, such as Tempur-Pedic’s ® Tempur ® foam, are fairly temperature sensitive and can get firm even near room temperature.
The memory foam used in our toppers and mattresses, in contrast, have a broader range of temperatures where they stay nice and soft, so they are soft and responsive at common room temps.
How To Choose Between Different Memory Foam Options
While memory foam was hard to find 20 years ago, these days there are lots of options — both US manufacturers and also worldwide, notably a huge amount of inexpensive memory foam coming in from China.
As I discussed earlier, memory foam is not a commodity, and not all memory foams are created equal. But how are you to sort this all out?
I’m going to share with you how I do it — the actual criteria I’ve used for sourcing the memory foam I use in our mattresses and toppers. Hopefully, by explaining what I look it when evaluating memory foams, it will help you sort through the options when you are buying a memory foam mattress or topper
Here’s what I look at:
- First, I want the memory foam in our mattresses and toppers to be at least 4 lb density.What does the density of a foam mean? All that a particular density tells you is how much the foam weighs. So, for example, a 5 pound density foam simply means that a cubic foot of this material (a cube of this material measuring one foot in height, length and width) would weigh 5 pounds.Typically, when you buy memory foam, you will pay more for a denser foam. It simply costs more to make denser foam – more raw materials go into making a denser substance.And while density isn’t the end all or be all for memory foam, I’ve just found over the years that memory foams below 4 lb density just don’t have the cushion and conforming feel that I expect from memory foam.A lot of the inexpensive memory foam products out there do use lower densities, some a lot lower (the leading brand offers 2.5 lb densities in their most inexpensive line).
Since my goal, however, is to offer the best overall value, not the cheapest, I’ve stuck with the 4 lb memory foam in our toppers since I believe it offers the best combination of cushion and pressure relief along with a soft feel.
And I’ve gone with a layer of 4 lb memory foam on top of a layer of 5 lb memory foam in our mattress to offer the soft feel of the 4 lb as you first lay down, and the more supportive feel of the 5 lb as you then sink into the mattress.
- Next, I only consider foams made in the US, Canada and Europe. Why? Because I’m comfortable with the quality control of the major foam manufacturers from in these areas.I don’t consider foams made in China, despite their lower price. And the price difference can be really huge — some of the mattresses using Chinese foam are sold for a few hundred dollars. Which, to give you some idea of how this compares to US, Canadian, or European foam, means their price to the public is much less than the wholesale price I pay for a US foam produced bed.It isn’t that the lower prices aren’t seductive, they are, especially since US foam costs have more than doubled since Hurricane Katrina. So why won’t I consider Chinese foams?The reasons I’ve stuck with the US foams I currently carry is because I don’t feel comfortable that the cheaper Chinese foams would have the same quality of ingredients, not use cheap fillers to falsely up their density, or somehow substitute unsafe chemicals in the foams to save costs.There have just been too many stories I’ve seen of these sort of quality control issues with all sorts of Chinese products (drywall, lead paint in kids toys, toxic ingredients in toothpaste), so I don’t feel comfortable using them.
In addition, I don’t believe that these Chinese foams offer the same level of comfort due to these quality issues, but I will address that in the next section.
I understand if you want to go in a less expensive direction. The only thing I would say, without trying to sound hard salesy, is do you really get ahead in the long run saving a bit now on this sort of purchase. Not only because of the comfort and quality of sleep you might be missing out on, but also in having to perhaps spend more in the long run replacing the cheaper mattress much sooner than something using higher quality ingredients
- I only consider memory foams that meet Certipur-US® or similar standards for testing of foam for certain chemicals or toxins.It is really important to me that the foam I sell, and people sleep on, have met these strict criteria and testing.Here is what Certipur-US® standards mean:CertiPUR-US® approved foams are:
- Made without ozone depleters
- Made without PBDE flame retardants
- Made without mercury, lead and other heavy metals
- Made without formaldehyde
- Made without phthalates regulated by the Consumer Product Safety Commission
- Low VOC (Volatile Organic Compound) emissions for indoor air quality (less than 0.5 parts per million) 
In addition, I require that no additional fire retardant be used in the foams in our products as well.
I’ve had to work hard to get all the foams I use compliant, but it has been worth it given the importance of these issues.
- Next, I focus on the comfort of that particular memory foam.And while this used to be just my subjective test of different memory foams — and so explains my big collection of foam I have around the house — these days I do objective testing.That is, I get a bunch of folks to try out different memory foam options, and then use their reviews and ratings to see which foam got the highest overall scores.For my mattress test, this meant getting samples from lots of companies, then testing out 6 different memory foam mattress using a variety of foams — US, Canadian and European.Some of the memory foams used in these mattresses also used memory foams that had some portion of their chemicals coming from plant based sources. Which I found appealing from an eco perspective, although overall the actual % used in any memory foam is still pretty small (20 – 30% max)
At that point I let the chips fall where they may, and unfortunately the eco-foams tested much lower for comfort. So while I hope that this will be something that does get better as we go forward, for now these foams just didn’t rate as high for comfort as the more traditional memory foam.
As I said before, the memory foam used in our 10″ Memory Foam Mattress just got much higher ratings for comfort than the other memory foams I tested.
I know it may not be as easy for you to compare memory foams by this sort of objective tests. But if you can, look for objective reviews on the memory foam mattresses you are considering, and try to get a feel for both the overall ratings for comfort and also people’s sense of the feel (firmness and support) offered by that particular memory foam mattress.
- Finally, I look at the durability of the foam. I know how important it is to people, given the investment in a good mattress, that it lasts.In our particular case, since there wasn’t a track record for our mattress, I had the manufacturer do extensive tests in the lab to document its durability. And it performed so well the lab said it was in the top 10% of all the mattresses, across all types, it had tested.When you are looking for a mattress, see if the manufacturer has long term data on its durability. And if not, then has it done these sorts of tests to document its durability.
I hope this detailed look at what I look for when I am researching memory foam products is helpful.
In terms of a general rule of thumb based my research methodology, you should avoid the noticeably inexpensive pads or pillows you will find on the market. They are generally made of either low density memory foam or layered with other, cheaper foam products and ingredients. These inexpensive memory foams just won’t give the same comfort as higher quality pads and will wear out relatively fast.
About memory foam bedding
Memory foam pillows
Available with different firmness ratings to accommodate your individual sleeping style, memory foam gives both the head and neck the support they need to keep your spine aligned. The viscoelastic foam feels soft and comforting, gently cradling your head while keeping your neck and spine straight to help you get the rest you need and avoid placing stress and strains on your body.
Memory foam mattress
Memory foam mattresses combine sumptuous luxury with pressure relieving comfort and therapeutic support to ease the aches and pains connected with back pain, arthritis, or bone and joint disorders. The responsive material also helps to align the back and neck by moulding to your body and supporting your weight, readjusting itself as you change position.
Memory foam mattress topper
A simple way to incorporate pressure-alleviating benefits and improve your sleep, a memory foam mattress topper adds a layer of sumptuous comfort to help you get the rest you need. Easily attached to the top of your existing mattress, a memory foam topper can renew your old bed with improved comfort and continual support you where and when you need it.
Caring for memory foam
As with all bedding, one of the key ways to make sure your memory foam mattress and pillows last and continue to be a properly functioning enhancement for your bed is to use bedding protectors. Zipped anti-allergy pillow protectors and mattress protectors are machine washable and help to keep your bedding fresh and inviting. Always follow the care instructions included with your memory foam bedding to get the best from your product.