What Makes a Gel Mattress?
Gel mattresses usually consist of gel in conjunction with memory foam, which is why you may see the term “gel memory foam.”
The gel is sometimes infused into the foam layer, but other mattresses include a standalone gel layer. In that case, the gel layer is typically at the top, closest to the sleeper’s body, where its cooling properties can work most effectively.
Like memory foam, gel is a polymer made from blending, heating, cooling, and molding plastics and chemicals. With gel-infused memory foam, manufacturers add gel microbeads to the memory foam mixture before it cools.
Most gel is made with “phase-changing materials,” which change from solid to liquid when heated. These phase-changing materials absorb heat and moisture away from the body, thus producing a cooling effect.
However, there is a caveat. When a liquid cannot evaporate, it maintains the same temperature as its environment. So, the gel microbeads will remain at the temperature of the foam surrounding them. That means that while they may remain cooler for longer than the dense foam, they most likely will not stay cool throughout the night if the surrounding environment is warm.
For this reason, some manufacturers use gel microbeads along with other cooling technology and techniques, such as a breathable mattress cover or built-in channels to improve air circulation within the mattress core.
The Pros and Cons of Gel Mattresses
Pros of Gel Mattresses
Better Temperature Regulation
Gel mattresses’ main advantage over memory foam is their superior temperature regulation and moisture-wicking capabilities. The biggest complaint about traditional memory foam is its tendency to retain body heat, a problem manufacturers have been working to address for years. While phase-changing materials may only provide temporary cooling effects, mattresses with gel layers or beads as well as other temperature-regulation features may be best for hot sleepers.
Another common complaint about memory foam is the quicksand effect (that sinking feeling that it can produce when attempting to move or get out of bed). Gel-infused memory foam mattresses provide sleepers with a game-changing solution to this common problem. While they do tend to contour to the body like traditional memory foam, they are more responsive and spring back faster after compression.
Cons of Gel Mattresses
As with any type of mattress, gel mattress’s cost can vary significantly from one brand and product to another. However, generally, these mattresses are more expensive because of the additional materials used.
Gel mattresses, like many traditional memory foam mattresses, can produce a foul odor at first. A phenomenon known as off-gassing, it’s generally considered harmless, but it can be unpleasant. It does, however, typically dissipate within a month or two.
What to Look for in a Gel Mattress
Density & Firmness
To get a good idea of the firmness and responsiveness of a gel mattress, you’ll need to examine the individual gel mattress’s foam density and ILD (Indentation Load Deflection) rating.
PCF, or pounds per cubic foot, indicates density, and the numbers range from 2.5 at the lowest to 5.5 or more on the high end. Denser foams take more time to bounce back after compression.
Most memory foam beds, including those infused with gel, include high- and low-density materials in different layers to provide sufficient support without sacrificing responsiveness.
ILD indicates the foam’s firmness, and most memory/gel foam mattresses fall between 8 and 20. For most sleepers, a 10 is ideal. Stomach sleepers may prefer a firmer mattress, however, to avoid feeling suffocated by the sinking foam.
Phase-changing materials can only do so much if their surroundings are hot.
Look for a mattress that utilizes additional cooling and air circulation solutions, such as built-in ventilation or an open-cell constitution. Mattress toppers and covers in natural materials can also promote temperature regulation and moisture control.
Gel mattresses with a separate gel layer atop the memory foam layer also tend to work more effectively to avoid excess heat absorption than gel-infused memory foam mattresses.
In addition to reviewing the firmness and density measurements, read reviews carefully to ensure the mattress does not produce excessive sinkage, a problem with many traditional memory foam mattresses.
You might also want to consider a product with different levels or zones corresponding to specific areas of the body. Such mattresses contain indentations at the shoulders and hips to provide enhanced relief for these pressure points. This is particularly helpful for sleepers with arthritis, musculoskeletal concerns, fibromyalgia, or other sources of chronic pain.
Maintaining spinal alignment through the night can enhance comfort and health. When the spine is off-kilter, it can put excess pressure on the back, neck, shoulders, and joints, exacerbating current conditions or causing aches and pains, and stiffness.