Mattress Pad vs. Mattress Topper: Which is Best?

Mattress pads and mattress toppers both serve a similar purpose—they add a layer of comfort to your bed. But, these two accessories are slightly different. While mattress pads add softness, they do not alter the overall feel of the mattress. However, mattress toppers can increase the firmness of a soft mattress or add contouring to an ultra-firm bed.

This article outlines everything you need to know about mattress pads and mattress toppers. Plus, we explain the benefits of both accessories and help you determine which one is right for you.

What is a Mattress Pad?

Mattress pads provide a thin layer of padding, typically between 1/2-1 inch thick, and are made of either cotton, wool, polyester, down, latex foam, or memory foam. This thin padding creates a plush, soft surface that can make your mattress feel more comfortable and inviting.

Mattress pads often have a quilted top and fit securely to the mattress, similar to a fitted sheet, but with straps that tuck underneath each corner. Some mattress pads are designed to protect your mattress from spills and accidents, so they can increase the lifespan of your bed and keep it free from mold, mildew, and bacteria. Like sheets, most mattress pads are machine washable and easy to care for.

Types of Mattress Pads

Mattress pads are made out of many different materials, each with a slightly different feel and comfort level. Below, we have put together a list of the various types of mattress pads you will find as you shop.

Cotton Mattress Pads

Cotton is a lightweight, soft, and durable material. Therefore, it is a popular choice for mattress pad manufacturers. Cotton mattress pads are also absorbent and breathable, helping you stay cool throughout the night. Mattress pads made with cotton are typically affordable, but those made with organic cotton may be more expensive.

However, since cotton is so absorbent, cotton mattress pads do not offer much protection against stains. Sweat and accidental spills will soak through a cotton mattress pad and eventually end up in your mattress. Unless the cotton material is blended with another fabric, such as polyester, cotton mattress pads are not waterproof or very protective. Therefore, it is best to use a waterproof mattress protector when using a cotton mattress pad. A high-quality protector will ensure that liquid does not leak through to the mattress.

Wool Mattress Pads

Natural wool is incredibly breathable and helps to wick away heat and moisture. Wool mattress pads are also soft and create a cozy yet cool surface for you to rest on.

However, wool mattress pads tend to be expensive and are harder to maintain. Since wool can become damaged when wet, most wool mattress pads are not machine washable. Like cotton pads, wool mattress pads are not waterproof and will not protect your mattress from stains.

Down Mattress Pads

Down clusters come from the soft underside of duck and geese wings. Most down mattress pads are made with a combination of down clusters and duck and geese wings, giving them a super soft and fluffy feel.

Down mattress pads are ideal for colder climates and for those who prefer a plush mattress top. While down mattress pads are soft and luxurious, they are not designed to protect your mattress. Down bedding also tends to be more expensive than cotton or polyester and can be difficult to clean on your own. Down mattress pads typically need to be dry cleaned.

Polyester Mattress Pads

Polyester is a synthetic material that is often used as a fiberfill and a down alternative. Depending on construction, some polyester fabrics may be waterproof, water-resistant, and stain-resistant. Polyester fabrics, such as microfiber and rayon, are also soft and lightweight.

The only downside to polyester is that it is synthetic, so it may break down quicker than natural materials, such as cotton. Therefore, polyester mattress pads often come with special washing instructions and may need to be dry cleaned.

Latex Foam Mattress Pads

Natural latex foam is derived from the sap of the rubber tree, so this material has a bouncy, responsive quality. Latex mattress pads have a thin layer of latex foam on the top of the pad. Depending on how thick this layer is, it may offer contouring.

Whether or not a latex mattress pad will protect your bed from stains depends on the material that encases the foam. A mattress pad made with latex foam and cotton will not be waterproof. However, latex mattress pads made with polyester may be waterproof or water-resistant.

Latex mattress pads are more expensive than those made with cotton, wool, or polyester. Since latex foam can become damaged when wet, latex mattress pads are not machine washable.

Memory Foam Mattress Pads

Like latex mattress pads, memory foam mattress pads have a thin layer of foam on the top of the pad and a casing made with either cotton or polyester. Most memory foam padding is not waterproof unless the casing is made with water-resistant polyester material.

Memory foam mattress pads are not washable and typically require dry cleaning. These pads also come with a higher price point than cotton and polyester varieties.

Benefits of Mattress Pads

Mattress pads offer sleepers the following benefits:

  • Lightweight and breathable; won’t trap warmth or cause the mattress to heat up
  • Adds a slight softness and plush feel to your mattress
  • Some are machine washable and low maintenance
  • Those made with polyester fabrics may be waterproof

What is a Mattress Topper?

Unlike mattress pads, mattress toppers are designed to change your mattress’s firmness rather than add softness. Mattress toppers come in many different comfort levels, including soft, medium, medium-firm, and firm. By placing a firm mattress topper on a soft bed, you can add some extra support. By adding a soft topper to a firm mattress, you can add contouring and pressure relief.

Mattress toppers sit on top of your mattress and are usually between 1 to 3 inches thick. Toppers are typically secured to the mattress with straps that loop around and underneath each corner. Some toppers even have non-slip grips on the bottom to keep them from sliding around as you change positions throughout the night.

Most mattress toppers are not machine washable and must be spot cleaned or professionally dry cleaned. Since they are much thicker than mattress pads, mattress toppers are the more expensive option.

Types of Mattress Toppers

Most mattress toppers feature 1 to 3 inches of foam, either memory foam or latex foam, with a cotton or polyester covering. However, you may also come across those made with a combination of down and feather fibers.

Memory Foam Mattress Topper

Memory foam mattress toppers contour closely to the body to cushion the joints and prevent pressure points. However, because memory foam is also responsive, it keeps the hips lifted and aligned with the shoulders to prevent spinal misalignment.

The only drawback of memory foam is that it tends to retain heat. Many companies are working to combat this issue by infusing their memory foam toppers with gel microbeads or minerals like copper and graphite. Mineral infusions allow warm air to quickly pass through the foam without causing overheating, while gel memory foam pulls heat away from the surface of the bed.

Latex Mattress Topper

As we mentioned above, latex foam has a slight bounce. So, while latex foam contours to the body similar to memory foam, it also has a slight bounce that keeps sleepers lifted on the mattress rather than cradled.

Latex toppers are also hypoallergenic and resistant to dust mites, bed bugs, mold, mildew, and other allergens, making them a great option for those with severe allergies and other sensitives.

Down Mattress Topper

Down mattress toppers, also referred to as “featherbed mattress toppers,” are filled with a combination of down clusters and feather fibers. These toppers are ultra fluffy and soft, similar to down mattress pads; however, down mattress toppers are much thicker and conforming.

The casing of a down topper is often made of cotton or polyester, or a blend of the two. Although down toppers are durable, they may need an additional cover to prevent feather ticking and may need to be fluffed up occasionally.

Benefits of Mattress Topper

Mattress toppers come with the following benefits:

  • Extend the life of your mattress by reducing wear and tear
  • Can alter the feel of a plush or firm bed
  • Can help alleviate pain associated with improper spinal alignment

Differences Between Mattress Pads and Toppers

Mattress pads and toppers come in similar sizes. They both also sit on top of your mattress and are designed to add a layer of comfort to your bed. However, these two mattress accessories are slightly different. Below, we offer a side by side comparison so you can determine which is best for you.

FeaturesMattress PadMattress Topper
Thickness Less than 1 inchGreater than 1 inch
Protection from Wear and TearSome protection against wear and tear, but not as effective as a mattress topperThickness offers adequate protection against wear and tear
Protection from SpillsWill protect against spills if made with a waterproof materialMost toppers are not waterproof or resistant to spills 
Maintenance Most are machine washableThick, heavy, and not machine washable
PurposeAdds some softness and comfort but will not alter the firmness of your bedCan alter the firmness of your bed by making it softer or firmer 

Frequently Asked Questions

How long should you keep a mattress pad?

A high-quality mattress pad will last between 1 and 3 years, depending on what type of materials it is made with. Mattress pads made of sturdy, waterproof materials tend to last longer than those made of cotton or wool.

Can you wash a foam mattress pad?

Some foam mattress pads can be machine washed. However, it is best to do so in a large, front-loading washing machine, using a delicate cycle and mild detergent. If you are unsure about whether it is safe to wash your mattress pad, read the care instructions first.

Mattress toppers with thick layers of foam are typically not machine washable. To keep your mattress topper clean, it is best to vacuum and spot clean it regularly.

What should I look for when buying a mattress topper?

The most important thing to consider when purchasing a mattress topper is the firmness. If your current mattress is too firm for your body type and sleep position, you may need a soft to medium mattress topper. The best mattresses for side sleepers are soft enough to contour to the body and protect the joints from pressure points.

If your mattress is too soft, you may experience uncomfortable sinking that forces the spine out of alignment. Therefore, you may need a medium-firm to firm mattress topper to increase support. The best mattresses for back sleepers are firmer to keep the hips from sinking too far into the mattress and forcing the spine to bow.

Do you use a mattress pad with a mattress topper?

In most cases, sleepers prefer to use only a mattress pad or topper, depending on the level of comfort they are looking for. However, it is perfectly acceptable to use both at the same time. Just keep in mind that using a foam mattress pad on top of a foam mattress topper may change the topper's overall effect and the support it offers.

How often should you clean your mattress pad?

Most manufacturers recommend washing your mattress pad at least once every two months. Be sure to check the care instruction label before washing and use a large, front-loading washing machine.

Conclusion

Mattress pads and toppers both provide a level of protection for your mattress and add comfort. The most important thing to consider when deciding which of these mattress accessories is right for you is how much you want to change the feel of your mattress.

If you are looking to add softness and create a cozier feel, a mattress pad may be all you need. However, if you want to increase your mattress’s support or add contouring and pressure relief, you will likely need a mattress topper to achieve this.

This article is for informational purposes and should not replace advice from your doctor or other medical professional.

Andrew Russell, Wellness Writer Andrew Russell

Andrew Russell is a part-time writer and full-time sleep enthusiast. At Zoma, Andrew lends his sleep expertise and writes many of our “better sleep” guides. Outside of Zoma, Andrew puts his advice to the test, always trying new ways to get deeper, more restorative sleep. We appreciate Andrew because he doesn’t give advice that he doesn’t follow himself, so you can feel confident his solutions for better sleep really do the trick. Andrew's work has been featured on Ladders, Bright Side, and several other publications.

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