Are You Buying A Mattress?
UPDATED 15 Mar 2017
Buying a mattress is a terrible experience. A mattress is something we buy only rarely. So each time we head out shopping, we’re unfamiliar with the current trends in mattress technology, comfort and safety. Like many other manufacturers, mattress makers often try to save money by using low quality materials or construction methods, especially on the inside where it’s hard to see. A month ago, my wife and I bought a bigger bed and needed to replace our mattress. Here is what I discovered.
Mattresses are often made from materials that can be politely described only as unnatural. Over time, they can break down, wear out, give off potentially harmful gasses and quickly become uncomfortable. If you have allergies or are sensitive to smells, noises or motion transfer, buying the wrong mattress could lead to years of difficulty getting a good night’s rest.
I spent way too much time reading, searching and researching on the Internet. I ruled out foam because of off-gassing, odor and durability. Innerspring mattresses are bad at preventing motion transfer, even the ones with separately wrapped coils (which is what we’ve been sleeping on for the last few years). While there are many mattress that use a combination of materials, a solid latex mattress seems like the best option.
Latex is the tree sap from which rubber is made. A latex mattress is made from natural rubber foam molded into shape using one of two processes: dunlop or talalay (see here also). Dunlop is older, while Talalay produces a slightly finer and more even foam. Synthetic latex is also used in mattresses. A “blended” latex mattress is a mix of natural and synthetic latex. If you have a latex allergy, you’ll want a synthetic mattress. If not, natural latex seems to last longer.
Latex mattresses are most often composed of several layers of latex stacked on top of one other, encased in a cover. Latex layers (and toppers) are made by only a few large corporations. You can ask the manufacturer where they get their latex. Latex International seems to be highly regarded.
Latex layers have different levels of firmness measured in ILD (Indentation Load Deflection). Soft latex typically has an ILD of 20-25, while firm latex might be 35-40. The most common arrangement seems to be 3″ of firm latex on the bottom, 3″ of medium latex in the middle and 3″ of soft latex on the top. Another common option is 6″ of firm on the bottom with 2″ of medium or soft on top. Having several 3″ layers with differing firmness gives you the flexibility to rearrange them if desired. For example, moving the soft layer to the middle and putting the medium layer on top gives the mattress a firmer feel without requiring another purchase.
Most covers (also called ticking) for a latex mattress will have a zipper so you can swap layers or stack them in a different order. The best covers are made from quilted cotton with wool padding. The quilting keeps the padding from bunching up over time.
By law, mattress cover padding must be resistant to fire. Wool is naturally fire-resistant. Other materials, like polyester, must be chemically treated to provide resistance. If you’re going the latex route, especially for health or environmental reasons, it seems best to avoid chemically treated synthetic material in your mattress, all of which can off-gas.
Getting a mattress pad is important to protect the mattress from spills because latex and most mattress covers are not machine washable. Any pad labeled “waterproof” is going to have a layer of vinyl or plastic, or use a thin coating of polyethylene or polyurethane. Water-resistant pads are available in cotton, cotton-and-polyester and cotton-and-wool varieties. Pads range from 1/4″ to 1.5″ thick.
Latex and other foam mattresses do not require box springs. Instead, if extra height is needed, use a mattress foundation. A foundation is basically a wooden box covered by fabric that does not have springs. They vary from 4″ to 10″ in height. Most foundations have wooden slats on top. The gap between slats ranges from 2″ (very good) to 5″ (less so). Too much space between slats allows the mattress to sag and decreases back support and the lifetime of the mattress. The covers for many self-assembled foundations use a drawstring and are open on the bottom.
If you have a box spring that you’d like to continue using, you can put plywood (or something similar) on top to help improve support and stability.
Buying high-quality cotton sheets seems easy. The best sheets are woven from single-ply thread made from Supima™ or Egyptian cotton. Thread counts in the range 400-800 are great. Any higher and the sheets start to feel flimsy because of how thin the thread has to be.
Sadly, there have been many cases of manufacturers lying about thread counts or using fabric incorrectly labeled as Egyptian. And make sure your sheets say “100%” or else they may not be. A good return policy is your best defense.
Where To Buy Online
If you are shopping online, there are many places to buy a latex mattress. You can even buy latex layers and a cover separately as a money-saving DIY project. What’s The Best Mattress is a good place to do research. There is a great list of places to start shopping. I looked at PlushBeds, Rocky Mountain Mattress, SleepEZ, Foam By Mail, Foam Sweet Foam, Tranquility Mattress and The Natural Bed Store. Be sure to check the return policies because shipping costs, restocking fees, return periods and warranties all vary.
Interestingly, nearly all of the foundations I found online were re-branded versions of this one. Look for that image as you’re shopping. Alternatives include one by U.S. Box Spring and another by Bed In A Box, which is manufactured by KD Frames. Any foundation from a local store will work too. If you buy locally, you can probably have your old mattress taken away for free.
Here’s What I Did
I decided on a DIY project. I ordered a cotton-and-wool cover and three latex layers from mattresses247 on eBay: one soft, one medium, one firm. Their latex layers are blended “factory seconds” which are new, but have cosmetic defects — like lumpy M&Ms that can’t be sold at retail. The defects are visible, but do not seem to affect the feel of the mattress at all. And saving $1,000 is pretty nice. They have great return policy (30 days, no restocking fees, only pay return shipping). Valerie was responsive and very helpful over email.
I bought the American Hardwood Mattress Foundation from BedInABox. It’s extremely well made and perfectly quiet. The cover is open on the bottom and made from polyester and cotton, which was a little disappointing at first. Polyester doesn’t off-gas much, and I can buy another cover later if I want. The slats have a 3.5″ gap, which seems a little wide considering the price. I nailed using some thin sheets of hard material on top of the slats to try to avoid sagging. But while looking underneath later on, it didn’t seem like the mattress was sinking into the remaining gaps much.
UPDATE Oct 10, 2012: Scott Ravenhorst, owner of Foam Sweet Foam, reached out to me about my experience. I’ve updated my comments here to reflect that.
I ordered my first mattress pad from Foam Sweet Foam. I really liked the quality and construction, but ended up returning it. Foam Sweet Foam has a great return policy and gladly took it back despite the fact I had washed it twice. The owner later read my article and called me about my experience. He confirmed I’d gotten a defective pad and that nearly all of their customers are very happy. If I hadn’t already found an alternative, I would have given them another shot. Foam Sweet Foam takes good care of their customers, which isn’t something that is common on the Internet.
My second pad is a Washable Wool-Filled Fitted Mattress Pad by Natura World from Amazon. I confirmed with Natura that the “Wash N Snuggle” fitted pad is the same product as the “Washable Wool-Filled” fitted pad. We’ve been sleeping on it for
a week four months, and I really like it. We aired it out for a day, washed it once, and can’t smell anything.
I ordered two sets of sheets from Costco. They have a great reputation and return policy. While I liked the Charisma Egyptian cotton sheets, I ended up keeping the Kirkland Supima sheets. They are really soft, seem durable and feel great.
Overall, I’m very happy with my new mattress: latex, hardwood foundation, cotton-and-wool cover and pad, high-quality cotton sheets. It’s true that it takes a while to get used to a new mattress, and it’s only been a week. But I find myself looking forward to laying down at night. It’s too soon to say if I’m sleeping better, but I definitely find myself smiling more.
2 Years Later
It’s been over two years since we purchased our mattress. I thought I’d add a quick footnote on how things are going.
We are still sleeping on our mattress, and it’s held up pretty well. The mattress is sagging a little where we sleep, though not in the middle, and it doesn’t seem to be getting any worse. It’s still really comfortable. My parents house-sat one night and told me later that they thought it was really comfortable.
If I had it to do over again, I would probably not buy my latex on eBay. It wasn’t made by Latex International, and I wonder if that is why it’s not wearing as well as I’d hoped. And if there had been a problem, it would’ve been nearly impossible to return because the latex expands and no longer fits in the box.
The sheets wore out a few months ago, and we’ve replaced them. We sit on our bed a lot at night, and they tore where I sit. They’d gotten pretty thin. The new ones are not as comfortable, but seem sturdier. I’m not sure if I prefer comfort or durability. Next time, I’m going to try to find both. :)
Everything else seems as good as new. My wife sleeps very lightly, often waking up when the kids talk in their sleep. I don’t wake her up at nights on this mattress, which is great. No smells, not much movement, very comfortable.
5 Years Later
Our mattress is starting to sag some. We sometimes fight over the middle. :) However, after a recent trip staying in hotels, we couldn’t wait to get home to our (still) much nicer mattress. When it starts to bother us, I’m planning to just buy replacement latex (or perhaps a full mattress).