If you are like me, the difference between the various types of mattress materials is a longstanding mystery. After all, most of us only buy less than 10 new mattresses in our lifetimes.

Because of the long time gap in between each mattress, every shopping experience is different.

Sure, you can go to mattress stores in the real world and sit on all the various mattresses all you like, but spending only 15 minutes with each mattress doesn’t really tell you what it is like to get a full night’s sleep on them. Whether you wake up feeling fully rested and refreshed remains a big question mark.

There’s also various marketing hype to cut through before you make a decision. Some brands were the first in the industry to use certain technologies in mattresses, and those claims and reputations may not withstand the test of time. Why should you fork out more for a pocketed springs or space-age memory foam, if newer materials like organic latex, or custom-manufacturing techniques can do the job better, cost less and last longer?

Indeed, with mattresses being big ticket items costing several thousands of dollars, it pays to learn the difference between various mattress materials.  Here’s a summary of what I have discovered while shopping for a new mattress last month.

Broadly, mattress materials fall into 4 categories: inner spring, bladder, foam and latex.

Inner Springs

Bonnel spring and pocketed spring mattresses come under this category. These mattresses use coil springs within the mattress to provide support for your body. The pocketed spring mattress is made from small coil springs arranged in pockets throughout the mattress; the Bonnel spring is similar but utilises larger coil springs, linked across the mattress to give a firmer feel.

Spring mattress proponents say that spring mattresses do a better job of moulding to a body’s contours because the individual springs give maximum support where needed.

However, spring rates – the distance a spring moves for a given pressure – are usually constant across the mattress. This does not make sense because the middle part of a mattress has to support more weight. Ideally, the springs around your hips and upper torso should have higher, more progressive spring rates, so they do not sag too much more than the rest of your body does, giving you bad sleep posture.

Unfortunately, not only is it difficult to find a spring mattress with spring rates that are customised for your unique weight and body proportions, finding one with spring rates that vary according to your preferred sleeping positions is insanely expensive.

What’s more, the springs wear out at different rates according to how much stress they undergo. This is the reason why many spring mattresses tend to sag in the middle as years go by, giving rise to muscle aches and back problems.

Bladders

Lack of progressive contouring for various parts of your body and sleeping positions is the same reason why bladder mattresses are usually reserved for guest rooms.

Think of an air mattress or water bed as essentially one giant pocketed spring. What’s more, air or water are usually too firm or too soft and not much variation in between. And of course, not only are they unsuitable for long term use, durability is also an issue – just a pin-prick is enough to damage your air or water bed.

Foam & Memory Foam

A foam mattress is essentially a big sponge covered by fabric, formed with many bubbles inside that allow air to circulate within. As a result, foam mattresses are recommended for sleepers who complain about feeling hot. The firmness of the foam mattress also spreads your weight around more evenly than inner spring mattresses, and is good at absorbing movement without disturbing your sleeping partner.

Later, memory foam was invented by NASA. The name comes from the ability of the sponge to slowly spring back into its original shape after being indented by a weight, unlike regular foam which deforms and loses its springiness over time.

Today, memory foam mattresses are widely accepted as amongst the most ergonomic, for their ability to mold and hold to the shape of the sleeper’s body even through many changes in sleeping position.

This helps prevent pressure points from forming, which in turn improves sleeping posture, reduces pain in the neck, shoulder and back muscles, and neutralises spinal misalignment.

However, because they are made with petrochemicals, they may emit toxic gasses over time, called ‘out-gassing’, which can cause respiratory irritation. Memory foam mattresses are also priced at a much higher premium compared to those made from regular foam.

And despite steady technological advances, memory foam mattresses do eventually lose their memory and start sagging, so they are not as durable as the name suggests.

Latex

These have all the advantages of memory foam as above, but are made of soft natural latex coaxed from the sap of rubber trees, so they do not emit toxic petrochemical by-products or lose their shape over the years.  Hence, latex mattresses are generally considered the best mattresses by orthopaedic surgeons, physiotherapists, chiropractors and other healthcare professionals for comfort, pain relief, durability and environmental-friendliness.

The other big plus for latex mattresses is that they can be made to contain different firmness levels within the mattress itself, to support the different weights, sleeping positions and preferences of a husband and wife couple sleeping side by side.

However, there is a serious downside: all that tree sap to make natural latex from doesn’t come cheap. And it’s not all that plentiful, either. But in return for your investment, the latex mattress also has the highest durability of all the materials, being able to last longer than the other materials without deforming or losing its suppleness.

How long exactly? Well, when it comes to durability, coil springs deteriorate the fastest over time, giving spring mattresses a life span of around three to ten years. Latex mattresses can last 25 years or more, while memory foam mattresses only last somewhere in between.

Which is better for preventing back pain? Medium-firm or soft?

Before I bought my mattress, I hit the Internet to see what it had to say about the best mattress materials for preventing back pain.

According to Wikipedia, in 2003, a randomized-controlled trial found that medium-firm mattresses were associated with less pain. This led to many European clinical practice guidelines recommending medium to firm mattresses for reducing lower back pain. Another review, conducted in 2015, concluded that medium-firm, custom mattresses were best for pain and neutral spinal alignment.

I also found this fun fact: In Europe, foam and latex mattresses make up a much larger proportion of mattresses sold, compared to North America, where spring mattresses dominate.

I opted for a custom made to measure latex mattress in the end, because the science, and my prior experience with 3 foam mattresses, speak volumes to me. I’m way too old to be living the rest of my life with back pain just because I saved some money buying a cheap mattress.

Too Long, Didn’t Read: What’s The Best Mattress I Can Buy?

To cut an even longer story short, I eventually bought a Mattress Made To MeasureTM latex mattress.

Dr. Andrew Macfarlane, an Australian osteopath and chiropractor, had at one point researched all the mattresses he could find, before finally creating a range of bedding products he named Sleep Made To MeasureTM.

Made To MeasureTM mattresses are made from three layers of natural, organic latex. Production of each one requires critical personal data such as your age, weight, preferred size and depth of a mattress, likes and dislikes in a mattress, sleeping habits and spinal issues that may affect your sleeping comfort.

The mattress itself is made of 100% certified organic latex, and has different firmness levels spread within the mattress to support the lower and upper back, shoulders, neck and spinal column. Because it is made from latex, I could even customise both sides of the mattress, so that my partner and I can both enjoy a good night’s sleep in the same bed.

Check out Blue Oktopus, Singapore’s Sleep Made To MeasureTM online mattress store, to order your very own custom-made latex mattress!

Sleep Made To MeasureTM is a registered trademark.  To order a Sleep Made To MeasureTM mattress online, visit Blue Oktopus (www.blueoktopus.com.sg) or drop by in person at one of their partner clinics to get measured by a health practitioner for your very own Made To MeasureTM pillow.