What’s the Difference Between Memory Foam and Gel Foam Mattresses?

Did you know that memory foam is also used in football helmets for the same reason it’s used in mattresses – comfort? Memory foam is widely known due to NASA-funded research that provided test pilots with better cushioning material during their flights. First developed in the mid-1960s, the visco-elastic foam is now used in a wide range of products

And just like many breakthrough products, memory foam has its own spinoff product – gel memory foam, the result of innovations against the most inconvenient drawback of memory foam, namely, heat retention. Indeed, necessity is, then and now, the mother of innovation! 

But how much do you know about memory foam and gel memory foam? Read on, and you may be surprised by their similarities and differences! 

Table of Contents

Materials 

Memory foam consists of polyurethane, a polymer characterized by large molecules and used in various products, including car parts, spray foam, and insulation. Specifically, it’s known as low-resistance polyurethane foam (LRPu), created by mixing additives and compounds with polyurethane. While every manufacturer has its proprietary recipe for memory foam, most use polyether polyol, a compound that provides memory foam with its elastic and viscous properties. 

But memory foam retains heat, a characteristic that doesn’t make it suitable for hot sleepers. Manufacturers sought ways to make memory foam less heat retentive and, thus, the third-generation memory foam with gel particles was introduced in 2006. Peterson Chemical Technology is credited as the original developer and patent holder of the gel Visco technology. By 2011, mainstream brands, including Simmons with its Beautyrest line and Serta with its iComfort line, made gel foam mattresses more popular.

Basically, gel memory foam has memory foam as its base material. The gel material is spread throughout the memory foam or as a thin layer over its topmost surface. In either case, the gel material absorbs heat from the sleeper’s body and then draws it away, resulting in a cooler sleeping experience. 

The gel material itself can be one of two types, namely: 

  • A thermal gel, which has cooling properties, feels cool to the touch and typically comes in the form of beads or particles  
  • A phase-changing gel, which changes from a solid to a liquid state as the mattress’ temperature rises 

The cooling effect is similar in both types of gel material. The gel material isn’t the only material that has been added to memory foam to decrease its heat retention property, either! Green tea extract, activated charcoal, and aloe vera have also been infused for various reasons, from aromatherapy to odor elimination. 

Due to their base material being the same, memory foam and gel memory foam mattresses have more similarities than differences. This is with the assumption that two mattresses being compared have similar, if not the same, firmness level, materials and number, and types of layers. 

Conclusion: Gel beads or particles differentiate gel memory foam from standard memory foam. Both, nonetheless, are made of the same basic material – polyurethane. 

Firmness

Both memory foam and gel foam mattresses come in a wide range of firmness, from plush to firm. Indeed, you will find a memory foam or gel foam mattress that will fit your unique needs and wants to a tee! You will find a medium-firm all-foam, 15-inch, queen-size mattress as easily as you can buy a plush, hybrid, 12-inch twin XL-size mattress. 

But in terms of comparative firmness, gel memory foam mattresses are more likely to be firmer. This is because the gel beads or gel layer adds to the overall density of the memory foam. The gel material also slightly increases the mattress’s buoyancy, meaning you will experience just a bit more of a “lift” when lying down on it.   

The general rule dictates that a foam material with high density feels firm under your touch and withstands high pressure. The lower the density, the softer it feels, but the less weight or pressure it can withstand. 

But foam density and its overall firmness aren’t the same things, although these are related. Density refers to the objective measurement computed as the weight for every unit of volume, known as pounds per cubic foot (PCF) in mattresses. For example, a foam mattress measuring 25 cubic feet and weighing 100 pounds has a density of 4 PCF. 

Firmness is a subjective experience, although the mattress industry uses firmness categories from extra-plush (1-2) to extra-firm (10); medium-firm is between 6.5 and 7. But what may feel medium-plush to you may be plush to another person because of the differences in weight, sleeping position, and physical condition. Firmness is also the sum of the mattress parts, particularly the materials used and the specific thickness of the comfort, transition, and base layers. 

Conclusion: Gel memory foam may be denser and, thus, firmer than standard memory foam due to the addition of gel materials. 

Conformability/Contouring 

Both memory foam and gel memory foam mattresses have excellent contouring properties that result in optimum comfort and support for the body. When you lie down, your body’s combined heat and pressure slowly “activate” the mattress’ foam material so that it molds to your body’s unique curves. 

You will feel your body’s weight being evenly distributed so that there isn’t a single part that bears the brunt. Your shoulders, lower back, and hips, which are the heaviest parts when you’re lying down, are cushioned by the foam. 

But once you get up from the bed, the memory foam returns to its original shape. Such resiliency or responsiveness means that memory foam mattresses are less likely to exhibit signs of premature sagging than latex foam or poly-foam. 

However, memory foam and gel foam have different responses depending on the amount and speed of pressure placed on their surfaces. A moderate and quick pressure means the foam will change its shape in a slower manner; a heavy and prolonged pressure will result in a faster contouring effect. 

When you lie down on either memory foam or a gel foam mattress, you’re exerting heavy and prolonged pressure on its surface. The effect is that the foam reshapes itself around the unique indentations or curves of your body, whether you sleep sideways or on your back. 

Both memory foam and gel memory foam mattresses also have fairly slow “bounce back” once the pressure is removed. On average, it can take around 5-10 seconds. While it may seem like a trivial thing, you benefit from the time lag since the foam absorbs some of the impact energy from your previously prone body. 

These mattresses are also known for this “sinkage,” a term that refers to the way that the body sinks into the foam’s surface. Of course, you don’t sink into the base layer, but you will enjoy the feeling of being embraced by the foam material (i.e., hug). 

Conclusion: Both types of memory foam mattresses have exceptional contouring effects and a hug that enhances the sleeping experience. 

Pressure Point Relief

Pressure points refer to the specific areas of your body that come into significant and direct contact with your sleeping surface. These differ depending on your sleeping position and, to some extent, your birth sex. 

Back sleepers have their pressure points concentrated on their shoulders, tailbone, and heels. Stomach sleepers have these points on their knees, thighs, and ribcage, a particularly sore point when sleeping on a plush mattress. Side sleepers tend to experience sore pressure points on their shoulders and knees, especially on a firm mattress. 

The location of pressure points can also be attributed to your birth sex, not for sexist reasons but the innate differences in the physical anatomy of men and women. Men with a higher center of mass tend to experience discomfort in their upper bodies, including the shoulders, due to uncomfortable mattresses. Women have their pressure points in and around the hips. 

Gel Foam and Memory Foam Spine Support fact

The beauty of both memory foam and gel memory foam mattresses is in their exceptional pressure point relief. When lying down on a memory foam mattress, it slowly but steadily yields and molds to your body’s unique shape. You won’t feel unnecessary and unwelcome pressure on any of your pressure points, whether these are concentrated in your upper or lower body. 

You can then relax faster and, thus, sleep better. You’re less likely to wake up several times during the night to find a more comfortable position. Many fans of memory foam mattresses say there’s little need to change positions during the night because memory foam is just so comfortable! 

Furthermore, memory foam and gel foam mattresses have the sweet spot in “push back” or upward thrust against pressure placed on their surfaces. Unlike innerspring mattresses, these foam mattresses don’t exert too much upward pressure on the sleepers’ bodies. This means the foam material still cushions your pressure points while your body enjoys adequate support, particularly for your spine. 

Conclusion: If you want excellent pressure point relief regardless of your weight, sex, and preferred sleeping position, you should consider getting either standard memory foam or a gel foam mattress. There’s little to no difference in their comfort and support aspects. 

Temperature

Your body temperature and your quality of sleep are directly connected! Your core body temperature has a 24-hour cycle connected to your body’s sleep-wake rhythm. You are more likely to sleep nearly as soon as your head hits your pillow when your core temperature decreases in the evening. 

Normally, your body’s core temperature increases in the morning when you wake up and then peaks during the day. But some factors can mess with your body’s normal rise-and-fall of temperature concerning your sleep-wake cycle. These include your bedroom’s temperature and humidity, pre-sleep activities like exercising and drinking caffeine, and medications. 

Of these factors, the type of mattress you sleep on can be overlooked. But if you sleep on a standard memory foam mattress, you won’t overlook it, not by a long shot! This is because standard memory foam isn’t the most breathable of mattress materials, and it’s one of the reasons that it isn’t recommended for hot sleepers. 

As your body remains in contact with a standard memory foam mattress, you will likely feel hotter, even with the air-conditioner in full blast. This is because your body heat increases the mattress’s surface temperature, not that its base material retains heat. 

Due to the higher density of standard memory foam compared to latex foam, its structure doesn’t allow for optimum air circulation, if at all. Plus, it doesn’t efficiently absorb moisture and wicks it away from your body due to its compressed particles. These characteristics result in the reflection of heat back to your body, so you end up overheating, perhaps waking up covered in sweat. 

And then there’s gel memory foam with its infusion of gel particles or beads. These gel materials absorb heat from your body and then wick it away, so you have a cooler and more comfortable sleeping surface. 

Gel memory foam also provides a slightly firmer surface, a welcome feature for heavier sleepers. Instead of providing extra sinkage or a hug, it provides a more on-the-bed sleeping experience. There’s less risk of overheating since the gel memory foam doesn’t wrap around your body a little too much. 

Conclusion: Gel memory foam mattresses are the best option when it comes to temperature regulation. You will enjoy a cooler sleeping experience while still enjoying optimal comfort and support. (The cooler temperature is its main difference with standard memory foam mattresses.) 

Motion Transfer

Nonetheless, both types of mattresses have similar motion transfer properties – low, to be more specific. Indeed, when it comes to motion isolation, standard and gel memory foam mattresses are the best bets! Innerspring and hybrid mattresses tend to transfer motion from one area of the bed to the other. 

But what’s motion transfer in the first place? It’s the amount of movement transferred or shared between two areas of a mattress and how the sleepers experience it. The movement itself can be due to one of the sleepers changing sleeping positions, getting on and off the bed, or even just the act of sitting down from a prone position. 

A mattress with high motion transfer will have more energy transfer from one part to the other, usually resulting in both sleepers feeling the movement. A mattress with low motion transfer, also known as a motion isolation mattress, will have less or little energy transfer. 

An informal motion transfer test is placing a sealed container of water, such as in a small jar with a lid, on one side of a mattress. Then, you get on the bed, lie on it and change your sleeping position. If the container immediately topples, then the mattress has high motion transfer; if it remains nearly upright, it has low motion transfer. 

While it isn’t a scientific process, it’s a good way to differentiate mattresses with high and low motion transfer. Both standard memory and gel memory foam mattresses have satisfactorily low motion transfer. 

This is an important characteristic for the following cohorts: 

  • Light sleepers who tend to wake up at the slightest movement will benefit from low-motion transfer mattresses since they’re less likely to be disturbed. 
  • Co-sleepers who have different sleep schedules, whether couples or parents and children in a co-sleeping arrangement. Again, there’s less likelihood of disturbing each other’s slumber. 
  • People who toss and turn or sleep with another person. While a larger bed can be part of the solution, a memory foam mattress is an excellent choice, too. 

Conclusion: Both types of the mattress have similar low motion transfer features. 

Smell 

Let’s skip the complicated chemistry lesson, but you’re aware by now that memory foam isn’t exactly a natural product harvested from rubber trees. Instead, its polyurethane material has volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that break down and release into the air as a gas. The result is off-gassing, which can be unpleasant for many individuals, particularly those with skin or respiratory issues. 

The amount of off-gassing differs depending on the brand and model of standard memory and gel foam mattresses due to differences in their chemical composition. Mattresses-in-a-box is more likely to have higher off-gassing since their airtight packaging results in a buildup of chemicals in the foam. 

Lest you start panicking about the harmful effects of VOCs and other compounds in these mattresses, don’t be! These aren’t harmful to human health, and the off-gassing itself subsides within a few hours or days. If you have respiratory issues, you may experience headaches, slight difficulty breathing, and nausea, but these are temporary. Just keep your distance from the mattress while it’s still in its off-gassing phase to resolve your health issues. 

There are also simple yet effective steps that can be done to speed up the off-gassing process. First, ensure that the bedroom where the mattress will be placed has sufficient ventilation. Open as many windows as possible. Second, use electric fans to improve circulation in the room. If possible, you may want to place the mattress in an open area – keep it off the ground – and let it air out for a couple of days before transferring it to your bedroom. 

Conclusion: Off-gassing is a common issue but a manageable one for both types of memory foam mattresses. 

Durability

Standard and gel memory foam mattresses are widely considered as among the most durable mattresses today. Their density is part of the reason, but it must also be said that their lifespan depends on proper care and maintenance. 

Keep these tips in mind to get the most out of a memory foam mattress:  

  • Ensure that it has the proper support, usually a foundation or a box spring. Stable and solid support must ensure that the mattress will not sag and sink in places. Be sure to check the frame or box spring, too, at regular intervals so broken parts can be promptly replaced. 
  • Place a mattress protector on the mattress. It will prevent solid and liquid stains, including your oils, dead skin cells and sweat, and food and drinks from penetrating the foam. It is an excellent way to quickly clean your mattress since little of the dust, dirt, and detritus fall into the comfort layer. 
  • Rotate the mattress regularly, preferably once every three months. You may also flip it, but it must be designed for this purpose; otherwise, you will lie down on the firm base layer and wake up with body aches.  
  • Avoid vigorous physical activities on the mattress – sex, of course, is an exception. On the other hand, jumping and other rough horseplay can result in premature wear and tear on even the densest and thickest memory foam mattress. 
  • Air out the mattress, perhaps even place it under sunlight, for several hours. Be sure to strip the mattress of its covers so that the excess moisture in it can evaporate. (But, if there’s a risk of a bedbugs invasion, keep its mattress protector on.) 

Clean the mattress based on the manufacturer’s recommendations, too! These usually include spot treatments of stains and regular vacuuming. 

Conclusion: Long-term durability, typically between eight and ten years, is the hallmark of standard and gel memory foam. 

Price

Generally speaking, gel memory foam mattresses tend to be more expensive than standard memory foam mattresses. The addition of the gel beads or layer adds to the overall cost. 

But, it must also be said that other factors determine the actual price. These include the mattress’ brand, model, and quality, including its size, number of layers, and materials used. 

Conclusion: Both types can be more expensive than latex foam mattresses and other types. 

Pros and Cons of Memory Foam 

From the abovementioned discussion, these pros and cons of memory foam can be concluded. 

Pros: 

  • Optimal comfort and support are guaranteed due to its extraordinary contouring effect and sweet pushback. The customized feel that you will think that the memory foam mattress was made specifically for you! 
  • Significant relief from pressure point pain because your body’s weight is evenly distributed over the surface of the mattress. You will sleep better, too, since it’s like sleeping on a bed of firm clouds if you can imagine it. 
  • Decreased motion transfer, so sleep disturbance becomes a thing of the past. 
  • Suitable for all types of sleepers! Back sleepers like it for its excellent lumbar support. Stomach sleepers benefit by enjoying less pressure on their lower back, thanks to neutral spine alignment. Side sleepers appreciate that it supports the heaviest part of the body, the shoulders, and hips, which means pressure relief. 
  • Higher resistance against dust mites, which means less risk of allergic reactions. 
  • Proven long-term durability with proper care and maintenance. You will be getting great value for the money, and you can consider it a good investment in your health. 

Cons: 

  • Heat retention resulting in overheating among non-hot and hot sleepers has always been a major concern. 
  • Waterproofing is an issue, too, since memory foam can be prematurely damaged by prolonged exposure to water, including moisture. Liquids, including sweat and oil buildup, spills from food and beverage, accidents by kids and pets, and environmental humidity are a concern. 
  • That sensation of being “stuck in the mattress” is also a common concern. The deeper “hug” can make it more difficult to move, such as changing sleeping positions, which can be a major issue for people with mobility issues. 
  • Off-gassing can turn off many people, but it’s a manageable issue. 
  • The heavyweight can also be a problem since it means more difficulty moving the mattress from one room to another. In many mattress-in-a-box products, two or more people may be necessary for the task. Changing the sheets and rotating the mattress may also pose more challenges. 

Overall, standard memory foam mattresses are well worth their expensive price and their downsides!

Pros and Cons of Gel Foam 

The advantages and disadvantages of gel memory foam mattresses are the same as those of standard memory foam mattresses. The main difference that makes the former more attractive than the latter is better temperature regulation in decreased heat retention. 

If you’re a hot sleeper or someone who has night sweats, you will benefit from using a gel memory foam mattress. You will love that you are sleeping cooler instead of waking up one too many times to wipe your sweat. Of course, you must also address the underlying causes of your night sweats, such as stress or anxiety, low blood sugar, or menopause. 

In conclusion, both traditional and gel-infused memory foam mattresses are excellent choices. But you must choose based on your personal preferences and budget, particularly as these beds are among the more expensive.