Considering that most people spend about one-third of their lives in bed, it's hardly surprising that your mattress can have a big impact on your overall health. Mattresses come in several different types, each with its own particular set of advantages and disadvantages. Traditional innerspring models remain the most common, but newer alternatives -- including memory foam, latex foam and air mattresses -- tend to earn higher overall ratings from owners.
Innerspring mattresses have been the most popular type of bed for decades, and countless styles, features and options are available. However, surveys show that only about three out of five owners are satisfied with their innerspring mattresses, which is lower than for any other model. Innersprings vary greatly in cost, from a few hundred dollars to several thousand. Price differences may depend on the number and size of the coils, the amount and type of padding, and details such as fabric and stitching.
Compared to other mattresses, innerspring types tend to retain less body heat and come in a wider range of firmness levels. Yet they also transfer more motion, which can be a concern if you share your bed with a partner. They're also less durable and more prone to sagging than other mattresses. Most experts say innerspring models should be replaced after 10 years at most.
Memory foam mattresses are made from viscoelastic, a polyurethane-based foam that molds itself to the shape of the body. While the best-known manufacturer is Tempur-Pedic, which sells mattresses costing $1,000 and up, several other companies offer less expensive versions that receive highly favorable reviews from owners.
According to SleepLikeTheDead.com -- a site that analyzes data from thousands of individual mattress reviews -- about four out of five owners are happy with their memory foam mattresses, a higher percentage than for any other mattress type. However, a significant number of those who try memory foam dislike it for being too firm, too hot or too hard to move on. Overall, memory foam models are more durable than innerspring mattresses and they transmit less motion, making them a good choice for couples. On the downside, they may produce an unpleasant odor when new.
Latex foam mattresses, which are constructed from natural or synthetic rubber, are nearly as popular with owners. Reviewers say latex foam is springier than memory foam and doesn't retain as much body heat, so it can be more comfortable in the summer. Like memory foam, it's more durable than innersprings, and it's naturally resistant to mold and dust mites. It's also eco-friendly: Latex is a renewable resource and can be biodegradable. However, latex mattresses aren't appropriate for people with latex allergies. They can also cost thousands of dollars, although some lower-end brands go for $500 for a queen size. Latex mattresses perform best on a slatted bed base rather than a box spring.
One of the newest mattress types is the permanent-use air mattress, but don't confuse this with inflatable models like the AeroBed; those aren't considered suitable for long-term use. Permanent air mattresses are padded like an innerspring, but instead contain air chambers that can be adjusted to provide tailored support. Some, like the Select Comfort Sleep Number bed, allow each side to be adjusted independently to provide different levels of firmness.
One problem with air mattresses is they rely on mechanical parts that can fail. While reviews indicate that most owners are happy with their air mattresses, some complain of air leaks, mechanical problems and noise from the air pump. Those who use two different firmness settings are especially likely to be dissatisfied. Still, dual-chambered airbeds are one of the few options available for partners who strongly prefer different mattress firmnesses. Air mattresses are more expensive than other types, generally costing at least $1,000 for a queen, but they may last longer because each component can be replaced as it wears out.
The most important quality of any mattress is comfort, but this can be difficult to measure since each person has different preferences of firmness, temperature, bounciness and so forth. What can be assessed, however, is support. Lab tests at ConsumerReports.org and its U.K. equivalent, Which? magazine, measure the alignment of testers' spines as they lie on mattresses and compare that to the spine's normal shape when standing. Both sources also use rollers to test durability, another key consideration when purchasing a mattress.
Most of our other sources are based on user reports of how satisfied they are with their mattresses. We draw on consumer-satisfaction surveys, owner reviews and a meta-analysis of feedback at SleepLikeTheDead.com -- which has compiled more data about mattress satisfaction than any other -- to evaluate comfort, value and durability. Although we don't recommend individual mattress models because retailers often use different names for very similar mattresses, we can name the brands within each mattress type that perform the best in both the test lab and the real world.