Mattress Guides

Memory Foam vs. Gel Memory Foam

By Angela Nault, January 22, 2021

Upgrading to a memory foam mattress is a great way to improve the quality of your sleep. But, as you shop for a new mattress, you’ll notice several different types of memory foam on the market. One popular choice is gel memory foam.

While traditional memory foam and gel memory foam are similar, gel foams retain less heat and moisture and have a slightly different feel. This article covers everything you need to know about traditional memory foam and gel memory foam mattresses. Plus, we explain how to determine which style is right for you.

What is Memory Foam?

Memory foam is polyurethane foam that has been treated with chemicals to make it more conforming and elastic. For this reason, memory foam is often referred to as viscoelastic foam. This material immediately responds to pressure and molds to the curves of the body to reduce pressure points and without sacrificing support.

When resting on a traditional innerspring mattress, small gaps between your body and the mattress can cause muscle tension and pain. However, memory foam contours closely to the body, so it provides adequate support and pressure relief, helping you wake up feeling refreshed and rejuvenated.

Memory foam beds became popular in the 90s, and they continue to be a common choice today. While this material is ideal for pain relief, traditional memory foam varieties have a closed-cell structure, which can trap body heat, causing sleepers to become hot and sweaty during the night.

To combat this issue, most mattress companies now make memory foam with an open-cell structure. This is done by injecting air into the foam during manufacturing. Open-cell foam has more breathability and allows heat to quickly pass through the material without changing the temperature of the mattress.

What is Gel Memory Foam?

Manufacturers can improve heat retention in standard memory foam by infusing it with gel beads or a liquid gel solution during construction. Gel memory foam mattresses were first introduced around 2006 and quickly became popular among hot sleepers for their cooling abilities.

While each brand has its own proprietary gel formula, most use a type of thermal gel that absorbs body heat and moisture and pulls it away from the bed’s surface.

However, other brands may use phase-changing materials or PCM. These materials are treated with chemicals that are solid at room temperature but become liquid when exposed to body heat. As they change form, they absorb large amounts of latent heat.

Both gel infusions work to keep the bed at a comfortable temperature without changing the original shape or feel of the mattress. However, the cooling effect of gel may be temporary. After the PCM changes form, it may stop absorbing heat.

However, some gel mattresses perform better than others. This often depends on the type of mattress, the type of gel, and the number of foam layers infused with the cooling solution. In most cases, only the comfort layer and the middle layer of the mattress are infused with gel.

Memory Foam vs. Gel Memory Foam

Memory foam and gel memory foam are essentially the same thing. Gel memory foam is simply infused with gel, while standard memory foam varieties are not. Below, we outline the similarities and differences between these two mattress foams.

Similarities

  • Both materials are used similarly—they typically make-up either the comfort layer or middle layer of most modern beds, including all-foam and hybrid mattresses.
  • Both foams can be made in various firmness levels, including soft, medium-soft, medium, medium-firm, and firm. These firmness options are designed to accommodate different body types and sleep positions.
  • Both offer contouring and pressure relief to relieve muscle tension and prevent pressure points.
  • Both have minimal motion transfer, ideal for couples with different sleep schedules and those who frequently toss and turn during sleep.
  • In addition to mattresses, both materials are used in mattress toppers, pillows, seat cushions, and mattress pads.
  • Both memory foam and gel memory foam mattresses are available in all standard mattress sizes

Differences

  • Gel-infused memory foam tends to be more breathable than traditional memory foam. However, foam made with an open-cell structure can also have a similar cooling effect.
  • Memory foam infused with gel may have more responsiveness than traditional varieties, allowing it to spring back into place faster.

Possible Alternatives

To make their mattresses more breathable, and ultimately, more comfortable, many brands use other infusions and manufacturing methods of construction. While open-cell and gel-infused memory foam are both great options, any of the following alternatives may also help you find a cooler night’s sleep.

Plant-Based Substitutes

Most mattress foams are made with petroleum-based oils, which causes them to draw in and retain heat. Some brands now use plant-based oils to construct their foam, making them more breathable and more responsive than standard memory foam.

Generally, the method of producing plant-based foam is also more eco-friendly than those used to create synthetic foam. Plant-based varieties also emit fewer VOC emissions, making them safe for those with severe allergies and other sensitivities.

Mineral Additives

Minerals, such as graphite and copper, are natural heat conductors, meaning warm air can quickly pass through them. To increase breathability, some brands infuse their mattress foam with these minerals. Plus, copper and graphite have antimicrobial and antiviral properties, so foams made with these minerals are resistant to bacteria and viruses.

Structural Elements

Some mattress companies design their foam layers with air channels or cutouts that promote circulation and reduce heat-trapping. These structural elements may be used on one or several layers in the mattress.

In addition to breathability, cutouts in the foam are also designed to increase lumbar support and cushioning near the joints.

Cover Materials

No matter what the memory foam is infused with, if the cover is not made from a lightweight, airy fabric, it may still trap heat. To prevent this, most brands create their own unique covers with moisture-wicking materials, such as microfiber.

Many brands even feature covers with phase-changing materials, such as Celliant®, which absorbs heat and converts it to infrared energy. As the body reabsorbs this energy, it can increase local blood flow and promote healing.

Latex Foam

Latex foam is made with the sap of the rubber tree and contains all-natural materials, giving it more breathability than synthetic foam. While latex foam contours to the body similar to memory foam, it has a slight bounce that helps prevent excess sinking and spinal misalignment.

Latex mattresses are available in several firmness levels, from soft to firm. However, most latex mattresses are medium-firm, so they are recommended to sleepers who need even weight distribution to prevent muscle tension, such as heavier individuals and those with back pain.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is gel memory foam softer than regular memory foam?

While foams infused with gel tend to be slightly more responsive than traditional memory foam, they are not necessarily softer. Both gel memory foam and standard memory foam varieties are available in several different firmness levels, including ultra-soft and firm. Brands use different manufacturing methods to create the desired density and firmness.

Are memory foam mattresses good for side sleepers?

A soft to medium memory foam mattress is ideal for side sleepers. The hips and shoulders tend to bear most of the body weight when side sleeping. Therefore, these sleepers need a bed with enough contouring to cushion these areas and prevent pressure points.

It is also important that side sleepers do not sink too far into the mattress. If they do, the spine may bow and cause tension to build up. Therefore, side sleepers should also look for a memory foam mattress with a responsive comfort layer or transition layer designed to promote a neutral spine.

Is gel infused memory foam safe?

There is no evidence to suggest that gel-infused memory foam is unsafe. In fact, most gel mattresses come with a CertiPUR-US® certification, guaranteeing the foam is free of harmful additives and will have low VOC off-gassing when brought indoors.

Do you need a box spring with a memory foam mattress?

Most advanced memory foam mattresses do not need to be paired with a box spring. In fact, pairing a memory foam bed with a box spring could permanently damage the mattress. Since most box springs typically consist of only a hollow wooden or metal box, the soft foam could sink down, causing sagging and indentations.

Instead of a box spring, memory foam mattresses should be placed on a flat, solid surface or a mattress foundation with slats spaced no more than 3 inches apart.

If you want to use your current box spring with a memory foam mattress, you can place a 1-inch piece of moisture-resistant plywood between the box spring and the mattress. This layer will evenly support the mattress and help reduce sagging.

How long do gel memory foam mattresses last?

A high-quality memory foam mattress, whether infused with gel or not, will last between 8 and 10 years. You can increase your bed’s lifespan by using the correct foundation and by regularly cleaning your mattress.

Conclusion

When selecting a new mattress, you can’t go wrong with one made of memory foam or gel-infused foam. If you are a hot sleeper, it is best to choose one with a gel or mineral infusion designed to promote airflow or one with an open-cell structure.

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