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Bed Basics
Bed Basics

Mattress Toppers 101: Everything You Need To Know

The Sleepy's 3" Gel Memory Foam Mattress Topper on a child's bed

Few things are as personal and individual as the way a person likes to sleep. While most of us have long since figured out which side of the bed we prefer and exactly which temperature to set on the thermostat, finding your perfect comfort level can be trickier.

For some people, a mattress topper could be worth trying.

Mattress toppers are often made from memory foam or filled with down feathers to provide anywhere from about two to six inches of extra comfort and support. While mattress toppers undeniably have the ability to instantly transform the feel of your existing bed, can they really be your best bet for better sleep? Here’s what the experts have to say about mattress toppers and when to know when a topper could help you or if it’s time to get a new bed.

Can a Mattress Topper Solve Your Sleep Problems?

While plenty of people have anecdotally noticed a major difference in their sleep quality with a mattress topper, sleep specialists say there’s limited evidence to prove their effectiveness. But that doesn’t mean they can’t have a significant impact on comfort.

“There is very little scientific data on mattress toppers, actually,” says Associate Professor of Psychiatry Michael A. Grandner, PhD, director of both the Sleep & Health Research Program and Behavioral Sleep Medicine Clinic at the University of Arizona College of Medicine. “But what we do know is that sleeping on a comfortable surface can be really important for overall sleep health.”

Grandner says the reason comfort could play such an important role in sleep health is that sleeping on uncomfortable surfaces has been shown to cause some serious issues. “An uncomfortable sleeping surface can lead to more fragmented sleep, less restful sleep, and worse functioning the next day,” he says. “So, if a mattress topper can help you feel more comfortable and keep you asleep more soundly, then it can definitely be a good idea!”

While comfort is subjective, research has shown that for some, sleeping on a mattress that’s too hard, soft, or unsupportive for their anatomical needs can result in discomfort, pain, and stiffness in body areas like the lower back and shoulders. And while some studies indicate that medium-firm mattresses seem to help reduce pain and improve sleep quality for many, individual needs vary. This is why some people may want to try a temporary solution before swapping their harder mattress for something softer.

Mattress Firm Senior Store Manager and Sleep Expert® Erich Bunofsky says he’s seen firsthand the positive impact a mattress topper can have on sleepers. He often recommends the added layer, specifically for individuals who have a firm mattress and just need a little extra coziness. “The addition of a mattress topper can significantly improve the quality of one's sleep,” he says. “This is because it adds an extra layer of pressure relief and makes the mattress more comfortable. While there are some toppers that aim to make the mattress feel firmer, the general purpose of a topper is to add a layer of softness to the mattress.”

Do Mattress Toppers Really Work?

When it comes to knowing if mattress toppers “work” or not, it depends on how you define success. For some, the added padding can make a big difference in their overall comfort through the night and help prevent pain that could disrupt sleep. The key is to be honest about your sleep issues and concerns when you speak to a Sleep Expert®.

For example, there is some science to indicate mattress toppers could work for those experiencing back pain. “Several studies have shown that mattress toppers can add extra cushioning and support to help with back pain,” Grandner says. “These studies show that people with back pain actually see better next-day comfort levels when using the right kind of mattress topper for them.”

One such study, published in the PLoS One Journal, found that mattress toppers with “high rebound,” specifically, were associated with better sleep. The high rebound mattress toppers were made of polyethylene fiber resin and offered a “firm, supportive feel,” which seemed to translate to more quality sleep.

What Does a Mattress Topper Do To Improve Sleep Quality?

According to Bunofsky, mattress toppers can help offer extra support to those suffering from certain types of aches and pains—but they’re not a replacement for a high-quality mattress. “Toppers fill in the space of the lower back area, which aids in supporting the back,” he says. “However, if your mattress's support system is failing, then it's time for a new mattress.”

Though you should aim to replace your mattress every eight to 12 years, by adding extra padding and support, mattress toppers may help extend the life of an aging mattress. “A mattress topper can help you get a little more mileage out of an aged mattress,” Bunofsky says. “However, if your mattress is over eight years old, we recommend visiting one of our stores and speaking with a Sleep Expert®. Our goal is to help you sleep well so you can live well.”

Finding the Right Mattress Topper for You

The key is to look for features that are meaningful for your specific situation and to start with a topper that’s thick enough to make a difference. While toppers come in a variety of styles, Bunofsky says they should be at least three inches thick. “Anything thinner than this will typically not make a noticeable difference,” he says. “Some sleepers may prefer to go with a four- or five-inch topper if they want to make their mattress feel a lot softer.”

Another detail to consider when shopping for a mattress topper is whether any specific materials could trigger or exacerbate your allergies. Bunofsky points out that while mattress protectors are designed to prevent the accumulation of dust mites (which is why a good protector helps allergy sufferers get a better night's sleep), toppers aren’t designed with that in mind. Some mattress toppers are made of materials like down feathers, so be sure to share relevant considerations with your salesperson during the shopping process.

“Some mattress toppers can protect you from allergens through the mattress,” Grandner says. “However, if they are largely impenetrable, that means that the allergens may be sitting on top of them. So make sure that you still wash and clean your bed coverings regularly.” Experts generally recommend washing a topper once every few months, and sheets, duvet covers, and pillowcases should be washed about once a week. When properly maintained, the average topper can last three to five years.

For those on the market for a mattress topper, Bunofsky recommends heading to Mattress Firm for a peek at the selection. “We have a carefully curated selection of the best brands,” he says. “We even have toppers with cooling features to help hot sleepers stay cool at night.”

Try out these mattress toppers