Memory foam and latex are two of the most popular and most sought-after materials currently used in mattress design. They have a few notable (and often surprising) similarities, but they’re on the whole very different materials.
Today we’re going to put these two titans of the mattress world head to head to compare and contrast their firmness, construction, price, and other properties. We’re also going to provide you with recommendations based on sleeping position, and our overall opinion of each material.
Let’s get started.
- Both have some contouring capabilities
- Available in a range of firmness levels
- Both are great for side sleepers
- Latex is a natural material
- Memory foam is cheaper than latex
- Latex sleeps cooler than memory foam
In this first section, we’re going to take a look at what the materials are made from (and how they are constructed) to give us a better understanding for the comparisons we’re going to make later in the article.
Memory foam was first created by NASA when they were trying to find new materials that would improve upon foams that were currently used in airplane seats. After a few years, they made the information required to create memory foam public, and the mattress industry literally transformed overnight.
Manufacturers were racing to get products to market with this new wonder material inside of them – and it didn’t take long for it to dominate the industry.
However, there were problems with the first versions of memory foam…
The way memory foam works is that it’s made up of countless little individual pockets of air (or cells) that are nearly microscopic in size. In normal memory foam, these cells are completely enclosed and the air inside them cannot escape. When body weight is applied to the cells they contract, and when the weight is removed they snap back to their original state.
It’s this which gives the material its famous contouring properties.
However, the problem is that throughout the night body heat enters the mattress. When the mattress makes its way inside these cells, it gets trapped inside and can’t ventilate out into the bedroom. As such the mattress heats up and becomes uncomfortable for the sleeper.
There are two ways that have been developed over the years to combat this issue.
The first way is called open cell memory foam. As you’ve probably already guessed from the name, the cells we talked about above are partially opened on one side in this material. This means that the air is no longer trapped inside the cells and can ventilate relatively freely throughout the mattress.
It’s a super simple concept, but actually manufacturing the material is a difficult (and expensive) process compared to normal memory foam.
The second way is by adding a cooling gel into the memory foam when it’s being made.
Despite the name, cooling gel doesn’t actually work by cooling the mattress down. Cooling gels come in a wide range of different varieties and they have a weird and wonderful list of potential additives in them (many of which are marketing gimmicks). But regardless, the principle is the same.
Cooling gels are excellent thermal conductors, the idea is that they will absorb the heat that has entered the mattress instead of it going into the cells and becoming trapped. The cooling gel then distributes the heat over the entire surface of the mattress instead of it staying underneath the sleeper.
With cooling gel, the overall amount of heat in the mattress hasn’t changed (more or less) but it’s much more evenly spread out. This reduces hotspots underneath the sleeper and results in a much cooler sleeping sensation.
There’s a debate in the mattress world about if cooling gel technology or open cell memory foam is best in terms of thermal regulation, and we’d be foolish to make a concrete claim about this.
However, we can say one thing for sure.
If you manage to find a mattress that has both cooling gel technology and an open cell design – it’s going to be a super cool sleeping surface (and it’s probably going to be expensive too).
The production of a latex mattress is a very different process compared to memory foam. Memory foam uses a wide range of horrible, polluting, and harsh chemicals that are all cooked up in a toxic brew to create the wonderful properties of the material.
Latex is much more natural…
It all starts with the rubber tree Hevea Brasiliensis. These trees are mainly farmed in South East Asia, and sap is withdrawn from them on a regular basis. This is done by cutting a diagonal slit in the bark of the tree which the sap escapes from and spirals down into a bucket.
Once enough sap has been collected, there are then two different ways that latex foam can be made from the reasonably uninspiring milky material – the Talalay method and the Dunlop method.
The Dunlop method works by adding chemicals to the sap that makes it immediately turn into a foam. When the foaming reaction starts the material is placed into a mold which is then sent into an oven to harden. After the oven has done its job the latex is pressure washed to remove any bits of unreacted sap or unused hardening agent, and it’s then left to dry (usually in the open air) until ready for use.
The Talalay method is much newer and much more complex than the Dunlop method. With this method, a different blend of chemicals is added to the sap and the foaming process doesn’t start immediately. Instead, it’s forced into a mold which is then put under a vacuum to ensure a completely even distribution throughout.
Once this has taken place it is then dipped into a supercooled solution to flash freeze the material in place, it’s then quickly transferred to an incredibly hot oven for a short period of time to flash heat the material to permanently make it keep its shape.
So what’s the difference?
The Talalay method has some serious downsides, the main one is that it can only create reasonably small pieces of latex at the moment. This means that any mattress created from Talalay latex will have several individual sections glued together.
The Dunlop method, however, can create slabs of latex of almost any size (within reason) and mattress layers made from Dunlop latex will almost always be a single solid piece.
The Talalay method is a little more expensive than the Dunlop method too. The amount of time and effort required to create the latex in the first place is increased, and then you’ve also got to add on time for stitching or gluing the individual sections together.
Fun Fact: Latex mattresses are made even more eco-friendly by the fact that in its lifetime a single rubber tree that the sap is harvested from will remove around 140 tonnes of carbon from the air.
The firmness of a mattress depends on a huge number of factors, and more often than not there will be other materials inside that mitigate or enhance the effects we’re about to talk about below. But for argument’s sake, let’s pretend we’re talking about a pure memory foam vs a pure latex mattress in this section.
On the whole, if you put a gun to our heads we’d have to say that most memory foam you will find in mattresses will be medium firm.
We’d also hasten to add, that this is not a “golden rule” and you’ll find many exceptions to this.
Memory foam can be made into different firmness levels with very little effort on the part of the manufacturer. Upper layers that are in direct contact with the sleeper will usually be made from softer memory foams for plush luxury and comfort. On the other hand, we’ve seen products that have base support layers made with extremely firm memory foam that barely contours at all (yet it still technically memory foam).
Latex mattresses can also come in a wide range of firmness levels, and the firmness of latex mattresses usually depends on the kind of latex being used.
The reason people go to all the expense and effort of creating Talalay latex is that it produces a much softer final product that many people find to be more agreeable. Talalay latex is on the softer side of medium firm (whereas Dunlop latex is on the firmer side of medium firm).
Note: There are other factors involved that are far outside the scope of this article in terms of Latex firmness. But as a general rule of thumb, Talalay latex is softer than Dunlop latex.
There’s a huge difference in price between latex and memory foam mattresses.
As much as we would like to, it’s hard for us to put an exact figure on the difference between latex and memory foam in terms of cost. We’d need to find two identical beds from the same manufacturer where the only difference is a latex section being replaced by a memory foam section.
We’d be shocked if we found a product like this, so instead here are some general costing rules…
Standard memory foam is being purchased and created in such huge quantities these days that it has now become a reasonably cheap material. Even budget mattresses are able to include a memory foam layer or two.
Open cell memory foam and cooling gel memory foam are both more expensive to create compared to standard memory foam (with open cell memory foam probably being the most expensive of them all).
However, with the exception of some super advanced kinds of proprietary memory foam – latex is always going to be more expensive.
It’s a natural material that has many more steps involved in its manufacture. There are very few pure latex mattresses on the market purely because the cost of the raw materials alone put them out of reach for the vast majority of people.
Which Material Sleeps Cooler?
Traditional memory foam is the warmest material we’ve spoken about today. In fact, it’s probably one of the warmest materials used in mattress design anywhere.
The effectiveness of open cell vs cooling gel memory foam is a hotly debated topic, which we’re not going to get into. In all honesty, they’re both pretty good ways to reduce the amount of heat felt by the sleeper – and they’re both drastic improvements over traditional memory foam.
However, latex is a cooler sleeping surface than all three kinds of memory foam. It’s a natural material that has some ventilation and doesn’t retain heat like memory foam.
Open cell and cooling gel memory foams are “fixes” for a problem that latex simply doesn’t have in the first place.
However, aerated latex is the king of coolness today. It’s a reasonably niche material that has been produced to improve upon the already impressive ventilation properties of standard latex. It provides an exceptionally cool sleeping surface.
Which Material Would be Best for A Side Sleeper?
To be honest, both latex mattresses and memory foam mattresses are good for side sleepers. Side sleeping is the most popular sleeping position, and as such a huge amount of time and energy is put into creating products that meet their needs.
If we had to pick one material as the winner, we’d choose memory foam. The contouring properties of the material allow for a reasonably unique optimal alignment of the neck and spine while supporting the hips and shoulders at the same time.
Should I Buy A Memory Foam Or Latex bed?
Unless you’re a super warm sleeper, we’d usually suggest a cooling gel or open cell memory foam mattress over a pure latex product. They’re available in a wide range of firmness levels, their cooling capabilities are more than acceptable, and most importantly – they’re nowhere near as expensive as latex.
Note: However, we’d suggest a latex product over a traditional memory foam product – providing you’ve got the budget for it. Traditional memory foam is often too warm to be comfortable.
So there you have it, that’s what we think about memory foam vs latex mattresses.
They’re two excellent materials, with different properties, and very different price tags. Latex mattresses are awesome products, and if you’ve got deep pockets they’re more than worthy of your consideration.
But 9 times out of 10, we’d recommend a quality memory foam product instead.