How to Choose a Mattress:
The Ultimate Guide in 6 Steps

By Kealia Reynolds

Because you spend roughly a third of your life in bed, it’s important that you invest in a mattress that provides the best possible sleep for you. Choosing a new mattress is no small decision, but it can be made pretty simple. We’ve compiled the ultimate guide on how to choose a mattress, from budget and materials to sleeping position and warranty terms. We’ve examined it all to make the selection process easy for you.

How to choose a mattress

When choosing a mattress, there are six main factors to consider:

  1. Budget—Like any major purchase, start by setting a budget. Here are some basic price tiers that most mattresses fall into: under $500, under $1,000, under $1,500, and $1,500+. Those shopping in the below $500 price range will have limited choices, but there are well-made mattresses in that tier.
  2. Mattress size—The right mattress size depends on the size of your space, how many people (or animals) will be sharing the bed, and how tall those people are. Keep in mind that the size you choose will affect the price of the mattress.
  3. Type of mattress—The type of mattress that’s best for you will depend on your budget, sleeping position, firmness preference, whether you experience back or joint pain, and how hot or cold you sleep.
  4. Firmness level—Firmness is about your physical needs and typical sleeping position.
  5. Trial period and return policy—It typically takes about 30 nights on a mattress to really know if it’s right for you, so make sure the mattress you choose has a good trial period and clear return policy.
  6. Warranty—Mattresses should be replaced every 5–7 years, so your warranty should last at least this long. Keep in mind that some mattress companies will not honor a warranty if your mattress has not been kept on a specific type of base.

1. Set your budget

The first thing to do is set a budget for your new mattress. While some brands offer extremely affordable mattresses (some can run as low as less than $350 for a queen), spending a little extra money can get you a little more longevity out of your mattress. Even for budget shoppers, there are high-quality mattress brands, like Tuft & Needle, Leesa, and Brooklyn Bedding that offer mattresses for less than $1,000, and brands like  Lucid and Zinus that fall below the $500 mark.

Should I buy a mattress online or at a brick-and-mortar store?

Though choosing a mattress at a brick-and-mortar store has some benefits, we ultimately recommend buying a mattress online. Brick-and-mortar stores inflate mattress prices, sometimes by as much as 15%. Shopping in a retail store takes time, and there can be pressure from a salesperson to commit to buying a mattress on the spot without getting the chance to really try it out.

Purchasing a mattress online allows you to take as much time as you need and compare multiple mattress brands and products at once, all without the stress and hassle of going to a store and negotiating with a pushy salesperson.

Most online mattress brands also offer financing options (many even provide interest-free options) and even participate in promos and holiday sales just like brick-and-mortar stores.

And unlike most brick-and-mortar mattress stores, online mattress brands offer trial periods (so you can test the mattress with some solid Zzs), and even offer full refunds if you decide their mattress is not the right one for you.

2. Choose your mattress size

A common mistake when purchasing a bed is buying one that’s too small. Whether you sleep solo, with a partner, with a partner and a pet, or with a partner and your kids, you’ll need to consider mattress size. Most mattresses come in the following sizes: twin, twin XL, full or double, full XL, queen, king, and California king. Here’s how to choose a mattress based on the size of your room and your individual preference.

Look at the bed width (make sure you can comfortably reach out both arms), the bed length (check if your feet hang off the bed), the size of the room where the mattress will go, and how much space you like to occupy when you sleep (side sleeper vs. spread eagle).

Twin: 38” x 75”

Twin size mattresses are the smallest bed on the market and can accommodate a child or one adult. This mattress is perfect for smaller spaces, like studio apartments or guest bedrooms. Taller adults should consider buying a twin XL mattress to prevent their feet from dangling off a regular twin-sized bed.

Twin XL: 38” x 80”

Twin XL mattresses are the most popular size for college dorms. With its added length, this type of mattress is a good option for taller teenagers, adults, and those with limited space.

Full/double: 53” x 75”

Full-sized mattresses, sometimes known as double mattresses, provide more width than twin mattresses and are a great starter size for young adults and college graduates. Although it’s wider than a twin and twin XL, this mattress isn’t ideal for two people.

Full/double XL: 53” x 80”

Full-sized XL mattresses are one of the least common mattress sizes, as most sleepers tend to prefer a queen instead. However, if you’re on a tighter budget, or don’t think your child is ready for a queen-sized bed just yet, a full XL mattress is a great option.

Queen: 60” x 80”

Queen-sized mattresses are perfect for those who want plenty of sleeping space without crowding their room. This size mattress fits best in master bedrooms that are at least 10 square feet. A queen-sized mattress is one of the most popular mattress sizes available and provides enough space for two adult sleepers who enjoy sleeping closer together.

King: 76” x 80”

King-sized mattresses are great for couples who want maximum space. A king mattress will fit well in master bedrooms that are at least 12 x 10 feet. Since king mattresses are longer and wider than other sizes, they’re perfect for couples who want their individual space or for couples who will be sharing their bed with small children or pets.

California king mattress: 72” x 84”

For those looking for maximum bed length, a California king mattress is your best option. As the longest bed on the market, its length is great for taller individuals, specifically those over six feet tall.

3. Choose your mattress type

Despite the large variety of mattresses, the type you choose will depend on price (some mattresses are more expensive and higher quality and some, though more affordable, will be lower quality), sleeping habits (whether you’re a stomach, back, or side sleeper, or prefer to sleep cooler, there will be a mattress type that fits your needs), and environmental friendliness (some mattress brands provide mattresses that are organic, allergen-free, and all-natural).

Here are the most common types of mattresses available on the market today.

1. Innerspring

Innerspring mattresses are perfect for sleepers who want a little extra bounce and body contouring features in their mattress. Also known as a coil mattress, an innerspring mattress has one or more layers of coils, usually made of steel, that provide support and comfort.

There are several types of spring systems including those with springs connected in a single unit and those with individually wrapped pocketed coils. The shape, design, and number of springs in an innerspring mattress will vary. However, more coils typically means that the mattress is firmer and offers better comfort and support.

We recommend: Saatva

If you’re in the market for an innerspring mattress, we recommend the Saatva luxury innerspring mattress, especially for those who experience back pain. This mattress features “coil on coil” construction, where the lower coil unit offers a steel support base and the upper coil unit features an individually wrapped coil system that contours perfectly to your body. Because of its firm construction, the Saatva mattress is able to distribute weight evenly, making it a great option for those who need to relieve pressure points. If you do experience back pain, always consult your doctor before purchasing a mattress.

2. Memory foam

Memory foam mattresses, made up of viscoelastic polyurethane foam or low-resilience polyurethane (LRPu) foam, form to your body shape, reducing pressure points, offering great support, improving blood circulation, and providing an overall better night’s sleep. Unlike innerspring mattresses, memory foam mattresses have much less spring and bounce.

Those who sleep “hot” may find memory foam mattresses too warm. However, many are now made specifically with “hot” sleepers in mind, constructed with cooling materials and gel layers for a cooler night’s sleep.

Perfect for sleepers who are looking for pressure relief, memory foam mattresses will mold to your body and redistribute body weight to provide support to your neck, back, shoulders, knees, and legs.

We recommend: Tuft & Needle

If memory foam sounds like your thing, we recommend the Tuft & Needle memory foam mattress. One of the most affordable memory foam mattresses on the market (a queen-sized mattress costs only $575), this mattress has certified adaptive foam that provides pressure relief without feeling too soft. It also contains a heat-wicking graphite and cooling gel to keep the mattress breathable and cool.

The Tuft & Needle is also an ideal option for those who want an environmentally responsible mattress: theirs is the first mattress to be certified to be free of harmful chemicals. It passes the CertiPUR-US standards, which means that it’s low in harmful volatile compounds (VOCs), and it’s GREENGUARD GOLD certified, so it satisfies the chemical emissions standards tested for by UL Environment.  

3. Latex

Latex mattresses are built exclusively from latex and may be made from natural, synthetic, or a mix of natural and synthetic latex fibers. This type of mattress is known for its “bounce” and cooling properties, making it great for sleepers who want a responsive mattress but don’t want the contouring that comes with a memory foam mattress. Latex mattresses are the ideal choice for proper spinal alignment. However, they’re not great for providing pressure relief or optimal blood flow.

Latex mattresses are great for those who have allergies, as many are hypoallergenic. The Zenhaven by Saatva is a 100% latex mattress that is both hypoallergenic and mold resistant.

Latex is also a great choice for those looking for an environmentally responsible mattress choice. Many are made with 100% organic latex and some are free of harmful chemicals.

We recommend: Zenhaven by Saatva and GhostBed

In addition to the Zenhaven by Saatva, we also recommend the GhostBed mattress. With a luxurious cover made of viscose and polyester, and a 1.5-inch layer of aerated latex foam, this mattress provides a plush, naturally responsive sleeping experience without retaining any heat.

4. Hybrid

A hybrid mattress is exactly what is sounds like. It’s made up of two or more materials.Traditionally, hybrid mattresses are made of memory foam and innerspring coils (to combine support and bounce with body contouring and pressure relief), but they can also be found in the following combinations: foam and coils, coils and pillow top, latex and coils, and hyper-elastic polymer and foam.

Though hybrid mattresses provide the best of both worlds, they’re usually more expensive than a regular mattress, ranging from $1,000–$1,500. They also tend to be heavier than other mattresses, so if you may not want to lug this one up stairs or set it up solo.

Hybrid mattresses are perfect for individuals who have different sleeping habits than their partners and require a bed with comprisable qualities. Do you need pressure relief but find your partner wanting a firmer mattress? Hybrid mattresses provide pressure relief to back and stomach sleepers, aiding in spinal alignment while offering the firmness of an innerspring mattress.

We recommend: Nest Bedding Alexander Signature Hybrid

We recommend the Nest Bedding Alexander Signature Hybrid—it’s the perfect blend of pocket coils and memory foam, with an enhanced cooling cover and motion isolation properties. This mattress comes in a plush, medium, or firm feel.

5. Gel

Gel mattresses contain a gel-infused foam in their support system, upholstery layers, or both. Though incredibly similar to standard memory foam, gel-infused foam is blended with a gel or gel beads that improve the cooling experience and enhance air circulation for sleepers, and are great for those who sleep hot. Gel mattresses also provide even support for sleepers and reduce overall bed movement.

There are two main types of gel mattresses: thermally conductive and phase-changing. Thermally conductive gel mattresses feel cool to the touch, almost like a stone countertop. Phase-changing gel mattresses store and release heat within a certain temperature range, regulating a sleeper’s body temperature during sleep.

We recommend: Bear

If you’re in the market for a gel mattress, we recommend the Bear premium graphite-gel mattress. It’s a perfect blend of cooling comfort, contouring pressure relief, and core support, designed for all body types and sleepers.

6. Pillow-top

Pillow-top mattresses have a layer of soft padding sewn on top, creating a cloud-like feel. This additional padding is typically made from fiber and foam materials, like regular foam, memory foam, latex, cotton, and wool. Pillow-top mattresses are more likely to have issues with durability and heat retention—they’re known to retain a lot of heat. However, they’re perfect for those who prefer a softer, cushioned feel.

We recommend: Avocado

We recommend the Avocado mattress with the pillow-top option for its comfort and body contouring capabilities. It’s great for sleepers who have issues with tossing and turning, full-body support, temperature disparities, partner disturbance, and mattress sagging.

The Avocado is also a great choice for those looking for an environmentally responsible mattress. All four of its layers are sustainably sourced, non-toxic, and assembled with a chemical-free process.

7. Waterbed

There are two types of waterbeds: a hard-sided waterbed and a soft-sided waterbed. Hard-sided waterbeds have water chambers inside a rectangular, wooden frame, and soft-sided waterbeds have a water chamber inside a rectangular frame made of rigid foam zipped inside a fabric casing. Both types usually rest on a platform and are made to look like a conventional mattress.

Not only are waterbeds extremely easy to keep clean and maintain, but they’re also known to minimize pressure points and help those with back issues.

4. Choose the firmness of your mattress

When determining how to choose a mattress, one of the biggest factors you should look at is comfort and sleeping position. It’s important to find the right comfort and firmness level to properly support your spinal alignment in the desired sleeping position.

Another important factor to consider when choosing the firmness of your mattress is your body weight. The sinkage, hug, feel, cooling, and support of each mattress can be affected by how much you weigh. If you weigh less than 120 pounds, your body will sit lighter on your mattress, so you may want a softer mattress for adequate support. If you weigh more than 200 pounds, you’ll naturally sink a bit more, so consider a more firm option to cushion pressure points.

Ultimately, mattress firmness is highly subjective, but most mattress brands use the 10-point firmness scale, with 1 being the softest and 10 being the firmest. If you have back or joint pain, consult a medical professional for guidance on the right firmness level for you.

Firmness levels 3–5

The softest mattresses available are rated between 3 and 5 on the 10-point scale. These mattresses have the most amount of sinkage and are great for those looking for a mattress that contours to their body.

See our recommendations for the best soft mattresses.

Firmness levels 5.5–7

Medium firmness can be described as “universally comfortable.” These mattresses will fall between a 5 and 7 on the 10-point scale.

Check out the medium-firm Purple mattress.

Firmness levels 7.5+

The firmest mattresses available will probably be rated 7.5 or above. These mattresses are best for minimal sinkage.

Check out our recommendations for the best firm mattresses

Mattress firmness for side sleepers

Side sleepers generally prefer a softer mattress (between 3 and 5 on the 10-point scale) that can conform to pressure points in the shoulders, hips, and arms. A firm mattress will disrupt the natural curvature of your spine by resting your hips and shoulders on top of the mattress instead of helping them sink down for proper alignment.

See our favorite soft mattresses.

Mattress firmness for stomach sleepers

Stomach sleepers tend to prefer a medium–firm mattress (between 6.5 and 8 on the 10-point scale) to alleviate pressure in the hips and pelvis and prevent lower back problems. A medium-firm mattress will keep your hips and pelvis from sinking lower than your shoulders and creating an unnatural curvature in your spine.

Check out our favorite mattresses for stomach sleepers.

Mattress firmness for back sleepers

Back sleepers can find restful sleep on all ends of the firmness level spectrum—soft, medium, and firm—since their body pressure is evenly distributed as they sleep. However, a medium mattress (between 5 and 6.5 on the 10-point scale) might be best for just the right amount of support to keep the spine in alignment.

5. Evaluate trial period and return policy

Before buying a mattress, always check the trial period length and return policy.

Trial period

Always make sure your mattress comes with some sort of trial period. The manufacturer should let you try the mattress for at least 30 days to see if it suits your needs, and in fact, many require that you sleep on your new mattress for at least 30 days before you can return it for a refund. If you’re the indecisive type, Nectar provides one of the best trial periods in the business: you can sleep on your mattress for a full 365 days to decide if it’s right for you (if it’s not, you’ll get a full refund).

Return policy

Always check the return policy before you buy. Some mattress manufacturers will offer full refunds on mattresses returned within the trial period but may not refund shipping costs. Some will send someone to pick up the mattress to haul it away, others will require that you handle removal and then provide proof (like a donation receipt) in order to get a refund.

6. Read warranty

Most mattress warranties will last between 10 and 20 years, but because mattresses should be replaced every five to seven, make sure your new mattress has a warranty that’s at least this long. Some manufacturers will require that you keep your bed on a specific type of support or your warranty will be voided. Always read and warranty terms and conditions before placing an order.

Mattress Accessories Mattress topper

Other factors to consider before choosing a mattress

1. Mattress weight

While this may not seem like a big factor, the weight of the mattress could affect your purchasing decision, especially if you need help setting it up. Check manufacturer specifications before purchasing a mattress to observe its measurements and weight. Most mattress brands will provide white glove services and personally deliver and set up the mattress in the room of your choosing. However, if white glove services aren’t offered, you might have to hire another person to help you with the move.

2. Environmental responsibility

Not all mattresses are made of synthetic materials. If you want an organic and eco-friendly mattress, consider buying an organic mattress. Organic mattresses are hypoallergenic, mold-resistant, anti-bacterial, and have natural fire-resistant properties. They can be made up of organic latex, organic cotton, or organic wool. These materials are typically cultivated without pesticides and are manufactured using chemical-free processes.

Organic mattresses are the preferred choice for individuals who suffer from allergies, asthma, and other respiratory problems. They’re also a great choice for infants and young children. Though some organic mattresses may be on the pricier end of the spectrum, there are some organic cotton mattresses that fall on the lower end.

3. Additional accessories

When choosing a mattress, consider other accessories like a mattress topper, box spring, and adjustable bed frame for maximum comfort.

Mattress topper

Mattress toppers are perfect for those who want to make their firm mattress softer. Typically made of memory foam, mattress toppers contour to your body, relieve pressure points, and reduce physical pain during sleep. They’re also great at reducing movement by you or your partner, making it a viable option for restless sleepers.

When looking for a mattress topper, consider the density of the product as this will indicate the weight of the foam, its ability to contour to your body, and its durability. Most mattress toppers are priced between $50 and $250.

Box spring

A box spring is a support system that lifts your mattress off the ground and keeps it away from dust and cold air. There are two types of box springs—standard and low-profile—and the main difference between them is how tall they are (standard box springs measure nine inches in height while low-profile box springs measure around five inches tall).

Though box springs are required for those who use a metal bed frame, they aren’t necessary for most mattresses. In fact, most sleepers forego a box spring because the firmness of the box spring may cause poor sleeping habits or back problems if the mattress it’s supporting is too thin.

Adjustable base

Adjustable base mattresses allow sleepers to change the sleeping position of the mattress, usually by elevating the feet or inclining the back. Adjustable bases have built-in technology that allows you to set heat levels, massage options, and vibration levels; some even have dual controls that allow you and your partner to set individual sleep preferences. These mattresses are popular among those who have specific medical conditions, like chronic back pain, and require custom bed adjustments.

We recommend the Loom & Leaf Lineal adjustable mattress base. The lineal features zero gravity support, gentle massage features, under bed illumination, and a wall-hugging design that allows it to easily glide into position.

4. Mattress reviews

Before investing in a mattress, it’s a good idea to check out consumer and third-party reviews. These reviews will give you a sense of customer satisfaction, BBB rating, industry reputation, popularity, and more.

Do you need a new mattress? Here’s when you should buy

Mattresses should be replaced every five to seven years. Even the very best mattresses break down over time, and sleeping on a deteriorated mattress can cause back and joint pain and a generally lower quality of sleep. If you’re looking for a mattress that doesn’t break down as quickly, latex tends to last the longest, averaging around 12 years, while pillow-top mattresses last around seven years.

Regardless of the type of mattress you buy, dust mites, dead skin cells, sweat, and allergens collect in your mattress, so it’s absolutely necessary to replace your mattress with some regularity—even if it shows no visible signs of wear and tear.

Other signs that you may need a new mattress include:

  • Visible signs of wear and tear, like rips or stains in the cover or sagging in the middle or on the sides of the mattress
  • Sneezing or coughing at bedtime, which could indicate a buildup of allergens in the mattress
  • Lower back and joint pain, particularly in the morning
  • Waking up feeling not rested
  • Difficulty sleeping through the night, tossing and turning, or difficulty getting comfortable

How to get rid of your old mattress

Now that you know how to choose a mattress and are ready to purchase a new one, you might be wondering what to do with your current mattress. Though throwing your mattress in the dumpster or leaving it on the curb might seem like the easiest option, most municipal trash collection services won’t take it because of how heavy and bulky it is. Not to mention, throwing your mattress in the trash is environmentally irresponsible and illegal in some states.

Here are three environmentally friendly ways to get rid of your existing mattress.

  1. Donate the mattress to charity—There are a variety of non-profit organizations that will take used mattresses, like Habitat for Humanity, The Salvation Army, Goodwill, churches, and homeless shelters.  
  2. Sell or give away the mattress—If you know of a friend or family member in need of a new mattress, simply give them your current mattress. Note that you’ll probably have to transport the mattress with a truck or small moving van, so plan accordingly. You can also sell your mattress on online sites like Craigslist.
  3. Find a specialized recycling program—If you’re not able to sell or donate your mattress, check with your local municipality and see if they offer recycling programs for larger items like mattresses. Some cities will pick up your mattress curbside and dispose of them appropriately. You can also call companies, like 1-800-GOT-JUNK? that will remove your mattress for a fee.

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