Memory Foam vs. Gel Memory Foam
Memory foam mattresses offer incredible conformability and motion isolation. Memory foam technology came to the domestic market from NASA, who invented it back in the 1970s. This space-age technology now cradles sleepers all over the world. However, those first traditional memory foam mattresses had issues with heat retention and slow response times that left sleepers feeling trapped. Today’s memory foam mattresses may have similar base materials, but advanced structures and additives have changed the memory foam sleep experience.
Gel memory foam addresses one of those early issues— heat retention. Gel can be infused or placed on top of memory foam to dissipate body heat for improved nighttime temperature regulation. However, it’s not the only technology used to cool hot sleepers. We’ve put together a mattress comparison between standard memory foam and gel memory foam, so you can see how each regulates body temperature, offers comfort, and whether or not a memory foam or gel memory foam mattress might be right for you.
What is Memory Foam?
Manufacturing memory foam begins with polyurethane foam. After undergoing treatment by synthetic chemicals, or in some cases plant oils, the polyurethane foam gains viscosity and elasticity to become memory foam. The resulting viscoelastic foam conforms and stretches with heat and pressure but returns to its original shape once those forces are removed.
While all memory foam starts as polyurethane, not all polyurethane foams are memory foam. For example, many foam mattresses have a dense poly-foam support core. These poly-foams do not have the same cushioning properties of memory foam, yet they’re made from the same base substance.
While all memory foam starts from the same base material, all memory foam mattresses do not feel the same. Each manufacturer has a different memory foam formula, giving their mattresses slightly different structures and properties.
What makes memory foam such a great sleeping surface is its response to heat and pressure. It softens as body heat warms it so that the contouring and conformability of the mattress increases the longer you lie on it. You’ve probably seen advertisements in which someone presses their hand into memory foam, and the shape of the hand remains until the foam returns to its original shape. That contouring also demonstrates how memory foam offers pressure relief. It shapes and forms to the body’s unique shape to reduce pain and increase comfort.
All-foam mattresses often have memory foam in the comfort and transition layers with a high-density poly-foam support core. Mixed foam and hybrid models may have it as a comfort or transition layer too. When used in the transition layer, memory foam still contours to the body, but there’s typically a poly-foam comfort layer to reduce the depth of the contouring and improve the mattress’s responsiveness.
Memory foam can be incredibly comfortable for the right sleeper. We’ve already talked about how it conforms to the body at the pressure points, but it also reduces motion transfer and absorbs sound, making it an excellent option for those who share a bed with a partner.
Memory foam does have its downfalls. In the first memory foam mattresses, overheating was a significant issue. The foam effectively trapped body heat against the sleeper. Secondly, the slow response rate led many sleepers to feel stuck in their mattresses.
Manufacturers address these issues head-on with unique formulas and designs. That’s where gel memory foam comes into the picture. It’s one solution to the temperature regulation problem inherent to memory foam.
What is Gel Memory Foam?
Gel memory foam entered the mattress market in the late 2010s as a way to help sleepers stay cool. The gels work in slightly different ways based on the type of gel and how it’s used, but the basic concept is that the gel absorbs heat and pulls it away from the body.
Typically, gel memory foam appears in a mattress’s comfort and transition layers. It may also be used with other cooling technologies like cooling mattress covers and convoluted or channeled foam structures. These structures create air pockets in the foam, which allow for better ventilation. Hybrid mattresses often have a gel memory foam layer over their innersprings.
Variations on Gel Memory Foam
How the gel is used and functions changes from model to model. Usually, the memory foam is infused with gel beads. However, other gel memory foams have standard memory foam with a layer of gel on top to cool the sleeper as the memory foam conforms to the body.
Not all gels are the same. Some foams have a thermal gel that absorbs body heat to lower the temperature of the sleeper. Other models have phasing gel, which starts as a solid but becomes liquid as it absorbs more heat.
Gel memory foam may also have channels or convoluted structures to improve ventilation, allowing more air and heat to escape from the mattress.
Does Gel Memory Foam Keep Sleepers Cool?
The answer to this question lies in the make and model of the mattress. Some gel memory foam performs well, while others don’t. It depends on the structure of the mattress’s other layers and how hot the sleeper gets at night.
Hybrids, mattresses with foam comfort or transition layers over innersprings, generally perform better at temperature regulation than all-foam models. But even within all-foam models, the performance of gel memory foam varies based on the structure of the other layers, the cover, and the sleeper’s perception of temperature.
Other Memory Foam Cooling Technologies for Standard Memory Foam
Gel memory foam is only one way manufacturers boost the temperature regulation of their mattresses. Open-cell structure, other infused additives, and mattress design and architecture can also keep sleepers cool.
Gel isn’t the only infused additive used to cool memory foam. Graphite and copper are common additives too. Copper beads infused into memory foam act as heat conductors. When the sleeper lies on the bed, the beads touch and heat flows away from and out of the mattress. Infused graphite works much in the same way. When the beads touch each other, they transport heat out of the mattress. With graphite, the higher the percentage of graphite in the memory foam, the better it cools the sleeper.
Mattress Design and Architecture
Air channels and convoluted structures create more space for ventilation. Some channels run from the top to the bottom of the layer. Other times, channels are zoned so that certain areas of the mattress near the body’s core are better ventilated than at the feet or head. The channels may have straight or swirling shapes at the top of the layer.
Memory foam with a convoluted structure looks like an eggshell mattress that you take camping. The peaks and valleys in the foam create air pockets into which the heat can escape.
Memory Foam vs. Gel Memory Foam: Durability
Memory foam and gel memory foam of similar densities break down at a similar rate. A typical all-foam mattress lasts six to eight years. However, there are mattresses with low-density memory foam that may break down faster, and models with high-density foams that last much longer.
The density of the foam has more to do with durability than any temperature regulating additives. To measure memory foam’s density, you weigh one cubic foot of the foam. If that one piece weighs 1.5 pounds, it has a PCF (pounds per cubic feet) of 1.5. Low-quality foams fall into the 1.5 to 4 range. Good or medium quality foams fall in the 4 to 6 range. High-quality, high-density foams that last the longest are in the 6 to 8 range.
All-foam mattresses usually have a mix of densities with the densest layers at the bottom. Higher density also means less breathability, so with the dense layers at the bottom, the body stays cushioned and cooler on top of the mattress.
One last thing to think about when it comes to durability— gel memory foam gradually loses its ability to cool the body. Over time, a mattress that once kept you cool may lose that ability.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is gel memory foam firmer than regular memory foam?
When you add gel infusions to a memory foam layer, it increases the layer’s density. Now, density doesn’t necessarily correlate with firmness, but gel-infused foam may feel more responsive because it keeps you more “on top” of the bed, and it will likely feel firmer in colder temperatures.
Is gel memory foam toxic?
As long as a gel memory foam mattress has a CertiPUR-US® certification, then it should be free from harmful chemicals such as formaldehyde and benzene, as well as chemical-based flame PBDE flame retardants. Some cheaper foam mattresses do contain toxic chemicals like so, but any gel memory foam mattress with a third-party certification should be completely safe for sleeping.
What is the best type of memory foam?
There are only three main types of memory foam: regular (or traditional), plant-based, and gel-infused. Out of the three, we prefer plant-based memory foam because it contains fewer petrochemicals than regular foam, and it’s also naturally more responsive and breathable. That said, hot sleepers may prefer gel-infused foams because they feel cool to the touch.
How long do gel memory foam mattresses last?
Gel memory foam mattresses last just as long as regular or plant-based memory foam mattresses—around 7 to 9 years. In comparison to other mattress types, gel memory foam mattresses are some of the most long-lasting, as only latex mattresses have a longer lifespan (15 to 20 years).
How thick of a memory foam mattress is best?
When shopping for the best memory foam mattress, look for a bed at least 10 inches thick. Beds thinner than 10 inches are more likely to break down quicker. Now, some shoppers may need thinner beds for specific needs (maybe you need an RV mattress, or you’re looking for a second mattress for your trundle bed), but even in those circumstances, you should avoid mattresses less than 6 inches thick.
Ideally, you should choose a memory foam mattress that’s around 12 inches thick.
Memory Foam vs. Gel Memory Foam: The Bottom Line
- Both conventional and gel memory foams come in different densities, which affects their comfort and durability.
- Memory foam can have different kinds of additives and structures to cool the body.
- Gel beads infused into the memory foam or as a layer on top of the memory foam can help dissipate heat. However, the effectiveness varies from model to model based on the memory foam formula and the type of gel used. The mattress’s other layers also play a role in the mattress’s ability to regulate body temperature.
- Both standard and gel memory foam can keep you cool, but it depends on the mattress.
- Over time, gel memory foam may lose the ability to cool the body.
Memory foam, gel-infused or otherwise, can be a component of a mattress with good temperature regulation. Your comfort will depend on your personal preference, your biochemistry (do you sleep hot or cold?), and your dominant sleep position. If you sleep with a partner, you may need a cooler mattress than if you’re sleeping solo.
The bottom line is there’s not one simple answer to whether or not gel memory foam or standard memory foam is the ticket to a cool night’s rest. Look for a mattress that tailors to your sleep position. Make sure it offers the durability and conformability you want. And, of course, keep it within your budget. Many manufacturers offer trial periods, so if you are getting too warm, you can keep looking for the best mattress for you.
This article is for informational purposes and should not replace advice from your doctor or other medical professional.