Lesson 6 – Know Common Mattress Materials

What actually goes in to a mattress?

In this lesson, we’ll explore the basis composition of a mattress, common mattress materials, and the highlights and drawbacks of each type of mattress material.

Here, we’ll offer a 10,000 foot view of mattress materials. This will give you a basic understanding of terms used on law labels. If you want more information on any of the mattress materials we describe, click through our links to learn more!

First, a caveat.

Know your off-gassing tolerance

You may have heard of chemical off-gassing. Off-gassing is the ‘giving off’ of a chemical, especially a harmful one, in the form of a gas. All products made with chemical compounds off-gas. Some products have an odor that’s worse than others, or have more of a noticeable impact on people nearby than others.

Research has shown that chemical off-gassing can actually be harmful. If you’re typically sensitive to this issue, you’ll want to consider avoiding any mattress made with vinyl, air or water bladders, poly foams, soy foams, and visco-elastic memory foam.

There are non off-gassing mattress options that will contain components like botanical latex, wool, or cotton, and have coil or latex support systems.

Non off-gassing mattress options will contain components like all natural latex, wool, or cotton, and will have coil or latex support systems. We’ll talk about these components in this lesson.

Common mattress materials

100% botanical latex is made from the sap of the rubber tree. Botanical latex is grown only in tropical and sub-tropical regions near the Equator, and raised and harvested in some of the most sustainably managed forests in the world. There’s only one latex foam rubber product this pure: Botanicore™. 


    • Dunlop latex – a method of turning rubber tree sap into latex foam rubber for mattresses; around since the 1930s; produces a good to great product that is fairly consistent in feel and fairly durable
    • Talalay latex – a method of turning rubber tree sap into latex foam rubber for mattresses; developed in the 1950s to mimic Dunlop while saving costs; produces a poor to fair product that is inconsistent in feel and degrades quickly
    • synthetic latex – a combination of four laboratory chemicals, blended together in an effort to resemble botanical latex; essentially, rubberized plastic
    • natural latex – despite its name, ’natural’ latex is actually 80% synthetic (Styrene Butadiene or SBR) and 20% botanical latex; often contains chemical residues and synthetics
    • blended latex – cheaper and less durable than botanical latex but pricier and more durable than synthetic rubber; may contain from 10-90% synthetic latex; often made using the Talalay process


Memory Foam is a polyurethane foam specially processed with an open cell structure to reduce the transfer of motion from one side of the bed to the other. Memory Foam is known to sink and sleep hot; it also retains body impressions more than other mattress materials.


Gel or gel memory foam is made of mineral spirits (petroleum distillate) and plant based oils (usually soy) along with a coagulant which varies depending upon the manufacturer. It’s often marketed as having ‘cooling’ properties. In reality, after your body warms up the gel on the surface (which usually takes 40-120 minutes), the bed will actually sleep hotter than a standard memory foam.


By far the most common material used in mattresses today. Available in every durability, density, and quality imaginable. Subject to body impressions at the rate of 20% every five years on average. Other names for poly foam include supersoft, quiltflex, and soy foam.


Every mattress sold in the U.S. must pass a flame test, but there are no laws governing what can be used on mattresses to make them fire-resistant. Common flame retardants include cotton and boric acid, dacron and rayon fiber, and approved chemicals. Wool is a natural fire barrier.


Coils, also called innerspring, remain a popular choice for mattress support systems. Coil systems made of tempered steel comprise the innermost core of a mattress, and the comfort layers are wrapped around it to provide softness. There are several types of coil systems available: the tried and true Bonnell style coil, the durability of a continuous coil system, or the often hyped pocketed coil system.


Air beds are just what you’d think: a mattress filled with air. People who love air beds remark on their adjustability and the fact that components can be removed and repaired, if necessary. The most notable problem is that trying to contain air (like trying to contain water) can lead to problems — and these problems usually occur in the middle of the night when you’re sleeping on the mattress! Also, a good airbed costs top dollar.


Waterbeds became wildly popular in the 1970s and 80s. The first waterbeds had a rigid wood frame; these were later joined by hybrid waterbeds that looked like conventional mattresses but had an inner bladder of water or water-filled tubes. At some point, conventional mattress manufacturers noticed how many waterbeds were being sold (up to 30 million by some estimates) and started to offer softer, plusher mattresses. Latex and other foam models hastened the decline in sales of the original style waterbed.


Most boxes these days, sometimes called box springs, are just fabric-covered height. They have wooden slats across the top; oftentimes there will be cardboard over the slats. The few companies that still use coils or metal in their boxes (the ‘spring’ in ‘box spring’) use a rigid structure with little to no give. Therefore, a box is merely height to hold a mattress on a frame. This is one of the reasons platform beds have become increasingly popular over the years. As boxes became an unnecessary part of a bed’s support system, people have chosen to save money by selecting frames that no longer require a box.

Which mattress materials are right for you?

Now that you’ve learned about some common mattress materials, take a step back and ask yourself, What’s important to me?

Here are the important questions we’ve explored thus far:

  • How long does the mattress need to last?
  • What’s your budget?
  • Which support system is best for you? (e.g. coils, fiber only, box, no box with platform bed)

Keep in mind that bigger and thicker is not necessarily better and doesn’t always translate to longer durability. Similarly, a high price tag does not always translate to greater longevity.

Next, we’ll talk about how to navigate inside the store.

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