You wake up groggy after a restless night on your mattress that used to feel like a cloud—well, 10 years ago that is. If your mattress no longer provides the comfort and support you desire, you have a few options. You can, of course, replace the mattress. Or, you can purchase a mattress pad or topper for a fraction of the price. While these accessories are often used to enhance old or poorly-made mattresses, some people use them to complement high-quality mattresses. Plus, pads have the additional benefit of extending your mattress’s lifespan. 

Illustration of a mattress topper and a mattress pad

Mattress Toppers vs. Mattress Pads

Mattress pads are a thin layer of quilted fabric, typically made of cotton, wool, latex, synthetic fibers, feathers, or memory foam. They’re usually attached to a fitted sheet with straps or zippers, which help the pad fit snugly with the mattress and stay in place. Pads are designed to make the bed feel softer and more comfortable. They also protect the mattress from spills and stains; because they’re removable and sometimes machine washable, they’re easy to clean.

Mattress toppers are thicker than pads. They’re placed atop the mattress, just like pads, and may also come with security straps. They range in thickness from something akin to a duvet to a mini secondary mattress and are designed solely to enhance the primary mattress’s comfort and support.

While they are not technically the same, the two terms have become more or less synonymous.

Sizes

Mattresses toppers and pads are available in a broad range of sizes, from twin to California king, just like mattresses. You’ll want to choose one that corresponds with your mattress size, but what’s more important is the thickness. Keep in mind you will need to place your mattress topper and mattress protector (if you have one) into a fitted sheet. This may require buying larger or more flexible sheets if yours are already snugly fitted to your mattress alone.

Softness & Firmness

Mattress firmness is a subjective subject. Some prefer to sink into the mattress a bit, while others prefer a more reliable support system. As mattresses age and degrade, they tend to become softer and less supportive. Mattresses are rated on a 1–10 scale, with 1 being the softest. Nonetheless, even with the rating, the actual firmness level can vary from one brand to another. Mattress pads and toppers make it easy to customize your sleep setup by adding another layer.

Pads and toppers, like mattresses, come in a range of firmness levels. If your mattress is too firm for your liking, a soft mattress topper can provide an additional layer to soften it. A firm mattress topper, on the other hand, can provide additional support. Factors like body weight, musculoskeletal conditions, and sleep position can affect your firmness level preferences.

Soft mattress toppers and pads fall within the 3-5 out of 10 range on a firmness scale. They usually contain materials such as quilted pillow tops or memory foam to provide body-contouring and deep sinkage. People who sleep on their side and who need pressure relief on the hips, shoulders, or lower back, may prefer a soft mattress.

Medium-firm mattress toppers are designed to provide a balance of support and softness. Like medium-firm mattresses, these may comprise a mixture of materials, such as latex foam and plush.

Firm toppers are designed to provide robust support for the entire body. They often contain two layers of foam rather than a foam and plush blend. With these, you’ll experience little or no sinkage. Heavier people and those who sleep on their stomachs may prefer a firm topper.

Materials

Like mattresses, pads and toppers are available in various materials, from cotton and wool to viscoelastic polyurethane and latex. Some materials provide superior softness, while others offer enhanced support. Likewise, some materials contain antimicrobial properties for a hygienic environment, while others promote air circulation or have cooling technology, reducing the risk of nighttime overheating.

Memory Foam Mattress Toppers

Memory foam toppers are among the most popular. They are made of viscoelastic polyurethane, the same material used in memory foam mattresses. They’re softer than those made with latex. However, They can still provide plenty of support and cushioning, making them ideal for side-sleepers and people with certain musculoskeletal conditions, such as back pain. Memory foam can benefit those who sleep with a partner because the body-contouring foam can reduce movement-related disturbances during the night.

The downside of memory foam is because it conforms to the body and is not inherently breathable, it can trap heat more than some materials. However, many manufacturers implemented cooling technology to reduce heat retention.

Prices vary significantly, but you can expect to pay anywhere from $60 for a value option to $400 for a higher-end product.

Lucid’s 5-Zone Gel & Lavender Memory Foam Toppers are excellent options. The topper, made with plush memory foam, is available in cooling gel, which dissipates body heat to prevent overheating, or an aromatherapeutic lavender-scented material for a soothing effect—these range from $59.99 to $99.99 depending on size.

Gel Mattress Toppers

Gel toppers are very similar to memory foam and offer the same body-contouring attributes, as well as comparable support and comfort. However, gel foam is constructed with tiny gel beads which draw in and disperse body heat, unlike memory foam which tends to retain warmth, leading to overheating.

These range in price from around $60 to $400.

The Linespa 2-inch Gel-Infused Memory Foam Mattress Topper offers a balance of value and quality. Good Housekeeping named it their Best Value Mattress Topper for 2020, and it received tens of thousands of positive Amazon reviews. The soft foam is described as “ultra plush,” capable of softening too-hard mattresses. The gel infusion also ensures temperature control.

Latex Mattress Toppers

Latex can be derived naturally from the rubber tree or made synthetically. Like rubber, latex is firm but not rigid, offering optimal support. Latex is also more durable than some materials. The downside is, like memory foam, it tends to retain heat.

These tend to run $200 to $500 on average.

Saatva’s latex topper is an excellent option in this category, especially for sleepers who tend to overheat. Made with renewable natural resources, including hypoallergenic, all-natural ventilated Talalay latex, and organic cotton, it is good for the environment and body. As the company website explains, Talalay latex is buoyant and supportive for optimal pressure relief. It is also more durable than Dunlop latex. Both the latex and cotton cover provide optimal air circulation to prevent overheating.

Wool, Goose Feather, and Down Feather Mattress Pads

Mattress pads are often constructed with lightweight, natural materials, such as wool, goose feather, or down feather. Mattress pads are primarily designed for protection and added softness. Of the materials available, feathers tend to be the most popular due to their exceptional fluffiness. However, these don’t offer much support. Feathers also retain body heat, which may be problematic if you tend to run hot. Wool offers more support than featherbeds and is naturally temperature-neutral, allowing air to flow through the fibers.

These products range from $100–$300 on average. Wool is generally the more expensive of the two.

Avocado Green Mattress’s Alpaca Wool Plush Mattress Topper is a favorite, made with organic, natural materials, including GOTS organic certified alpaca wool and cotton. As the company website explains, alpaca wool is prized for its incredible softness, unlike some wools, which can be a bit rough to the touch. These toppers are also GREENGUARD Gold and Formaldehyde Free certified.

For featherbeds, The Company Store Legends Down Alternative Featherbed is a popular option. With 4-inch deep baffles, it is exceptionally soft and fluffy. Made with a down alternative, it is cooler than natural feather beds and contains no animal products, nor will it trigger allergies.

Cooling and Heated Options

In the hours before bed, your body temperature decreases by a few degrees to help you sleep better. However, factors like hormonal changes, a high metabolism, bedding materials (especially memory foam or high thread-count cloth), or the environment may cause you to wake up uncomfortably warm in the middle of the night. You may even experience night sweats, causing more discomfort. Alternatively, many people can’t seem to get warm at night. This, too, can be a result of hormones, metabolism, or the environment. Fortunately, whichever camp you’re in, certain bedding accessories can help.

Cooling Mattress Pads

Cooling mattress pads are constructed to promote airflow or produce a cooling effect. They may, for example, be made with foam that contains gel beads or air channels to increase air circulation and reduce heat retention. Or, they may contain, which naturally attracts and disperses heat.

TEMPUR-Pedic was the first memory foam mattress brand to produce body-contouring bedding for American consumers. The company improved its original formula with cooling technology, exemplified in the TEMPUR-Adapt + Cooling Topper. This topper contains the same thick memory foam as all TEMPUR-Pedic mattresses with a cool-to-touch cover on top, dispersing moisture and body heat to promote coolness and comfort.

Heated Mattress Pads

If you have difficulty getting warm, whether due to a health condition or living in a northern locale, a heated mattress pad may offer a solution. These tend to be more energy-efficient than turning up the furnace and safer than using a space heater. Because heat rises, some sleepers say utilizing a heating pad is more effective than a heated blanket. Queen and king-size pads often come with dual controls that allow partners on either side of the bed to adjust the temperature to their liking independently.

Heated pads are typically constructed similarly to heated blankets, with a series of heated wires or tubes filled with temperature-controlled water. They are often covered in cotton, microfiber, or polyester fabrics.

The OOLER Sleep System with Chili Cool Mesh™ offers the best of both worlds with dual cooling and heating options. It utilizes patented heating and cooling hydropower technology with heating options from 55 to 115 degrees Fahrenheit and a reversible Chili Cool Mesh™, making it optimal for various sleepers and any season. It also comes with an ergonomic control system and mobile app for convenience.