Mattresses 101

Everything you need to know about innerspring, foam, air and water mattresses.


By: Kathy McCleary

Here’s what I really want in a new mattress: I lie down, I fall asleep in minutes and I wake up eight hours later totally refreshed and with no aches or pains. I’m aware that my mattress may not be the only factor in this fantasy, but at the very least it should provide the best possible environment in which to make all this happen. I don’t really care if the mattress has intricately hand-quilted Belgian damask ticking or whether it has 800 springs or 8,000. I just want it to feel good.

The scientific formula for figuring out whether a mattress is comfortable enough for you goes something like this: Lie on it, roll around, assume several sleeping positions and have your partner flop around next to you. Actually, there’s more science to it than that. Here’s what you need to know about the types of mattresses available:

All innerspring mattresses and box springs have the same basic construction. The center of the mattress consists of a number of springs, or coils, joined together with wire or twine, or encased in individual pockets of fabric. The springs, are made of wire; the thicker the wire, the lower the gauge number (so 13-gauge is stronger than 16-gauge). Mattresses can have 800 coils or more, but you can get a very good mattress with far fewer.

The springs are surrounded by an insulator pad made of coconut husks or pieces of fabric matted and glued together. That’s topped with a layer of foam and then layers of cushioning materials, which can include viscoelastic foam, latex foam, wool, cashmere and silk. Finally, the mattress is covered in fabric ticking, anything from synthetic fabric to tightly woven damask. Paying more for luxurious fabric ticking seems somewhat ludicrous given that the first thing you usually do with a mattress is cover it up with bed linens, but it’s all part of the packaging.

If you’re buying an innerspring mattress, you’ll also want to buy a box spring. Newer mattresses are often heavier than the mattresses made a decade or more ago and need the support of a stronger box spring. Also, most mattresses aren’t covered by a warranty if you don’t buy a new box spring, too.


NASA originally developed viscoelastic foam for use in astronauts’ seats to reduce the pressure of G-forces and the discomfort of spending a long time sitting in the same position. Viscoelastic foam doesn’t bounce, so you’re less likely to be bothered by a restless bed partner, but it also doesn’t have the spring and give of an innerspring mattress, so it can take some getting used to.

Latex foam is another option. It’s hypoallergenic and resistant to dust mites, so it’s often billed as a top choice for allergy and asthma sufferers. It conforms to your body, so it relieves pressure points, and it’s breathable, so it’s warmer in winter and cooler in summer. It also has a bouncier feel than viscoelastic foam. However, those with latex allergies should consider something else.

Air Mattresses
No, this isn’t the blow-up version you take camping. This version has puncture-resistant chambers inside instead of springs. The chambers pump air into the mattress and release it, providing varying degrees of firmness. The air chambers are covered in a layer of support foam, and that in turn is topped with a comfort pad. A remote-control pump lets you adjust your side of the bed to whatever firmness level you like.

These days, water beds may be covered in layers of memory foam or have washable pillow tops. For those not wanting the full-motion experience, models that are practically waveless are available. Like latex and memory foam, water beds ease pressure points and are good for allergy sufferers.

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