Memory Foam vs. Pillow Top Mattresses: What’s the Best?

You want a soft mattress to sink into, but which is the better option—a memory foam mattress or a pillow top? Both offer plush cushioning, but the feel can differ because each has a different support system. Memory foam typically rests on top of rigid foam, while a pillow top mattress is an innerspring mattress with a layer of extra cushioning.

By knowing the pros and cons of each, you can determine the best mattress for you. You may also want to consider another bed such as a hybrid, or look at budget accessories such as memory foam toppers or pillow top pads.

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What Is a Memory Foam Mattress?

Memory foam is made from polyurethane with added chemicals to increase its responsiveness to heat and pressure. Memory foam mattresses soften and conform closely under your body to relieve pressure.

Memory foam mattresses only contain memory foam in their top layers. The basic model is a layer of memory foam on top of a stiffer foam, usually poly-foam.



Memory foam mattresses typically last at least 7 years. High-quality memory foam mattresses may last 8 to 10 years.

Pressure and Pain Relief

Memory foam yields to pressure, allowing it to mold to your body for pressure relief. Its conforming nature also relieves pain, which is why memory foam mattresses are one of the best mattresses for back pain and other chronic issues.


Heat Retention

Traditional memory can absorb and accumulate body heat. To solve this problem, manufacturers add cooling gels or other infusions to wick away heat.


Some memory foam mattresses, particularly lower-quality foams, release an unpleasant chemical smell when opened. The smell comes from volatile organic compounds (VOCs) breaking down at room temperature. Often, the smell vanishes within three to seven days.

If you’re sensitive to smells, look for a CertiPUR-US® certification as it means the mattress has small amounts of VOCs.

What Is a Pillow Top Mattress?

A pillow top is a plush layer of padding sewn on top of a mattress. The pillow top may contain materials such as down, cotton, wool, memory foam, latex foam, or fiberfill. Traditionally pillow tops are sewn on top of an innerspring mattress, but some latex mattress companies offer pillow tops you can purchase separately to offset latex’s firm feel.

You may find mattresses with the standard pillow top or a Euro top. A regular pillow top is sewn on top of the mattress with a visible gap between the comfort layer and pillow top. A Euro top is attached under the mattress cover for a uniform appearance and better edge support.


Pain Relief

Pillow top beds are a good mattress for hip pain and other chronic conditions. The plush layer can conform to the body for pressure point relief, although you’re likely to still feel the underlying mattress.


Pillow tops reduce some bounce, compared to spring mattresses without pillow tops. However, you’ll still feel lifted on the mattress.


Lack of Durability

At least 30 percent of mattress owners report their pillow top sags within 3 years, according to Sleep Like the Dead. More owners report sagging or compression within 3 to 5 years of ownership. When pillow top mattresses sag, they lose their ability to relieve pain.

Motion Transfer

Pillow tops are typically on top of bouncy innerspring mattresses, and the pillow top’s plush fill is often not enough to absorb motion, letting it move across the mattress’s coils. If you share a bed, pillow top mattresses might not be right for you.

Other Types of Mattresses

Perhaps neither a memory foam or a pillow top mattress sound right for you. You have other mattress options to consider.

People often compare memory foam to latex mattresses, as the two have similar feels. However, latex is a more bouncy, eco-friendly material. Manufacturers process natural latex from rubber tree sap to create a firm, breathable mattress.

Hybrid mattresses combine innerspring coils with a 2 to 3-inch foam top. Hybrids are more breathable and bouncy than a memory foam mattress and provide more pressure relief than an innerspring bed.

Budget Options: Toppers and Pads

If you’re interested in the feel of a memory foam or pillow top mattress but can’t afford a new mattress, you could instead buy a topper or pad.

Toppers add a few extra inches of foam to your mattress and range from soft to firm. You can find a cooling gel memory foam topper if you tend to sleep hot at night. Additionally, a topper can temporarily fix a sagging mattress.

Pillow top pads slip over the top of the mattress like a fitted sheet. Pillow top pads have one benefit pillow top mattresses don’t —you can remove pads for cleaning.

Both a topper and a pillow top pad tend to cost less than $200.

Which is Right For Me?

Memory foam and pillow top mattresses often have comparable prices, with quite a few queen size mattresses costing less than $1000. You’ll want to look beyond just price when deciding which is the right mattress for you.

Memory foam tends to have better durability and motion isolation. The material offers more pressure relief than pillow tops. However, memory foam can retain body heat and may have a strong but temporary smell when first opened.

Pillow tops feature bouncy support and better airflow because of its coils, but those coils may sag within a few years and compromise comfort. The coils also tend to transfer movement.

Sleeping position can affect your decision. While back sleepers and stomach sleepers can rest comfortably on both memory foam or pillow tops, we recommend memory foam mattresses for side sleepers. A side sleeper may feel the innerspring mattress through the pillow top.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is it okay to flip a pillow top mattress?

You shouldn’t flip a mattress if only one side has a pillow top. You can flip a double-sided pillow top mattress.

How do you know if your mattress is too firm?

Waking up with back pain is one sign your mattress isn’t the right firmness for you. Another sign your bed is too firm is that your limbs fall asleep and go numb.

New mattresses are often slightly firmer than expected and soften up as you sleep on them—you can break your mattress in faster by walking across the bed for several minutes each day.

What is the best mattress for a side sleeper with back pain?

We recommend memory foam mattresses for side sleepers to alleviate back pain. A medium feel mattress should offer the right balance of support and pressure relief.

How do I know if my mattress needs to be replaced?

Signs you should replace your mattress include:

  • You’re constantly waking up tired or sore.
  • Your allergies worsen in the morning. Most mattresses collect dust, dust mites, and other allergens over the years.
  • You toss and turn, trying to get comfortable.
  • The bed is sagging, lumpy, or otherwise losing its shape.
  • It’s more than eight years old—or worse, you can’t remember how old your mattress is.

Did We Help?

Only you can decide if a pillow top or a memory foam bed is better for you—memory foam provides a hug-like feel, while pillow tops offer a soft bounce. If you’re still unsure, find a mattress store where you can compare the two together. And remember, a sleep trial lets you try out a mattress for a few months.

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

Sarah Anderson, Certified Sleep Science Coach Sarah Anderson

Sarah Anderson is a sleep, health, and wellness writer and product reviewer. She has written articles on changing and improving your sleep schedule, choosing the right mattress for chronic pain conditions, and finding the best pillow for you. Sarah Anderson has her Bachelor of Arts degree from Arizona State University in Journalism and Mass Communications. Prior to working for Zoma, she wrote for a variety of news publications. Sarah's work has been featured on Bustle, PureWow, and other publications.

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