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How to Buy a Mattress. Four things you need to know. Part Three.

Posted on July 11 2017

Part Three. The Third Most Important Factor to Consider When Buying a Mattress: What It Is Made Of.

Compounding the mattress comparability challenge is the fact that mattresses are not simple constructions and can vary significantly in terms of their inner design and materials.  There are “innerspring” mattresses with steel coil springs being the primary support system, “foam” mattresses made of a variety of flexible polyurethane foams, latex foams, and visco-elastic or “memory” foam, and “bladder” mattresses designed to hold either air or water.  It is common for manufacturers to mix these various support systems; for example, innerspring mattresses with substantial foam layers of various types (often referred to as “hybrid” mattresses), or adjustable air mattresses with foam layers.  The variety of these various support systems (such as different numbers of coils or coils of differing gauge), and various combinations of different materials (like different foams), makes a detailed comparison of one mattress to another a difficult design engineering challenge that most consumers are ill equipped to undertake. 

Innerspring mattresses are the most popular type of mattress.  Most consumers are familiar with this type of mattress, they offer many firmness, quality and comfort options, and they are generally more affordable than latex, hybrid, air, and memory foam mattresses.  But, mattresses are often compared on a number of other factors in addition to quality and comfort, including motion isolation, heat retention, edge firmness (for ease in sitting on the edge of the bed), ease of movement on the mattress (turning over and adjusting one’s sleep position), and odors (particularly from foams and "off gassing" fire retardant chemicals in the mattress).

Odors can be evidence of unhealthy or toxic emissions from the polyurethane foams and other materials used in the mattress, like flame retardants.  Some foams and flame retardant chemicals give off formaldehyde, ozone depleters, phthalates, and PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers), which have been linked to decreased male fertility, decreased uterine size, increased ovarian size, and breast, liver, thyroid, pancreatic, cervical and ovarian tumor cells and cancer. Perhaps even more alarming, it is possible that these chemicals dispose us to gaining weight!  Now that sounds serious!!  According to a cover story on losing weight, Time Magazine reports that flame retardant chemicals used in mattresses (and other places) have the ability to mimic human hormones which may wreak havoc on our endocrine system, which in turn can make our body store fat (June 5, 2017, p.55).  So, it is important to look for a mattress certification to ensure that approved foams and fire retardants have been used and that they do not produce harmful emissions.  CertiPUR-US is one such certification.

Because of this complexity and accompanying difficulties, most consumers give up on finding the ideal mattress and default to assessing the mattress’ overall “comfort” and “support” by the traditional “laying down on the mattress in the showroom” which is very subjective and difficult to assess in any standardized fashion.  Because of their subjectivity, it is almost impossible for two people to agree on a single mattress’ degree of comfort and support, increasing the popularity of adjustable firmness beds that permit different sides of the bed to be adjusted independently for softness (i.e. comfort) or firmness (i.e. support). However, as subjective as it is, Consumer Reports does suggest buyers lie down on a mattress for at least 15 minutes, because in their survey of nearly 20,000 readers who had bought a mattress in the last three years, 77% of respondents who spent more than 15 minutes trying out the mattress were especially happy with their purchase.  But only 28% of their respondents said that they had laid down for even a few minutes because of the perceived awkwardness of lying down on a mattress in a showroom.  Indeed, a majority of consumers report that buying a mattress is a somewhat anxiety producing experience.

Online retailers have dealt with the desire of some consumers to lie down on and “test” a mattress before purchase (and who can’t test it if the online mattress company has no showrooms, and most do not) by offering an extended trial period (up to 100 or even 120 days) during which the mattress can be returned for any reason.  This seems like a safe bet, but who wants to deal with the hassle of returning the mattress (you will never get it back into that 4 foot box again) after buying sheets and then having to deal with the hassle of starting all over looking for another mattress if the mattress you just purchased is at least “okay”?  It seems likely that you would choose to keep the mattress, even though you are somewhat dissatisfied with it, rather than having to deal with the whole return process and starting your search again.  The online mattress companies are counting on this possibility.

However, there are other objective assessments in addition to these fairly obvious issues that can make a difference in the quality of sleep you enjoy.  One of the less obvious factors is what percent of the bed is comprised of components made in the USA rather than in other countries, like China.  We are all familiar with the horror stories of Chinese products made with health damaging chemicals and ingredients (such as the stories about harmful ingredients contained in flooring or construction materials, toys, dog food, etc.).  These same issues can potentially arise in lower-priced mattresses that often include low-cost components made under less-than-ideal quality assurance standards in other countries.  So, one question to ask is whether the mattress carries any certification that it is made of components obtained from a supply chain that has been audited for country of origin determination, and that a designated percentage of those components are made in the USA.  One such assurance is evidenced by a “Made In USA Certified” designation offered by the Made In USA Industries Association.

So, buying the right mattress can be challenging.  In our last post (Part 4) we will describe and summarize the best overall approach to buying the right mattress for you.


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