Memory foam mattresses have become increasingly popular over the last few decades, with studies often pointing to the physical and even psychological benefits of the added support they offer.

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Believe it or not, memory foam was first designed by NASA in the 1970s to support astronauts needing pressure relief as they faced extreme pressure changes upon exiting and re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere. These days memory foam is used for more humble purposes, and it adjusts to the natural heat of the sleeper’s body to provide more support for a good night’s sleep.

You can get both a memory foam mattress or a mattress topper to place on top of the mattress you already have. You can even explore a list of some of the best memory foam mattresses to buy in 2022, put together by sleep experts.

We will take a look at the details of memory foam mattresses, whether they are soft or firm, and the benefits and drawbacks for both softer and firmer mattresses.

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Are memory foam mattresses soft or firm?

Memory foam mattresses come in many different firmness levels and can be both on the softer and firmer side. However, because of the viscous substance that is in the memory foam, they are, on average, more likely to be softer than regular mattresses.

Whether you choose a soft or firm mattress, it is important that you choose whatever is best for your body, which may not mean the mattress you initially find to be the most comfortable. Every body is different and finding the right mattress can improve everything from chronic pain to stress levels and even your circulatory system.

So let’s jump in and take a closer look at memory foam mattresses.

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What is a memory foam mattress?

A memory foam mattress uses a layer of specially designed foam between the spings of the mattress and the mattress cover. Memory foam reacts to your body’s natural heat and softens itself to mold comfortably to your body shape as you sleep. This provides extra support to all areas of your body, so nowhere is left unsupported.

When the pressure is then released, the memory foam takes a while to return to its original position. Over time, it learns your body shape and uses your optimum sleeping positions as its default, which is why it is named memory foam.

On the other hand, a regular mattress is comprised of hundreds of coiled springs covered by a soft material lining. The springs are coupled together and move as one with the weight of the body or bodies on top of it.

This means heavier weighted areas press down harder onto the mattress, leaving the lighter areas unsupported. For example, if you sleep on your back, your head and buttocks will press harder into the mattress and parts of your spine are unsupported, which could result in back pain the next morning.

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How does memory foam work?

Memory foam is also known as visco-elastic foam, which gives us a clue into how it actually works. Visco comes from ‘viscous’, which refers to substances that are thick and fluid, such as honey, that move and change shape slowly. The memory foam topper on a mattress contains viscous fluids that slowly adjust to the shape of your body.

Elastic, of course, means anything that is stretchy or malleable but will return to its original form when any pressure or tension is relieved. So visco-elastic means something that will return to its original form but will do so very slowly.

Viscous substances, like honey, move with greater fluidity when they are heated up or warm. Similarly, the visco-elastic foam of a memory foam mattress moves when it is warmed by the natural body heat of the sleeper. So the human warmth causes the visco-foam mattress to shift beneath you and adapt to the shape of your body.

Memory foam and mattress firmness

As we already saw, memory foam mattresses can be both firm and soft, though they are more likely to be on the softer side. Here, we are going to take a look at some of the pros and cons of both softer and firmer mattresses.

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Pros and cons of soft mattresses

Soft mattresses have lighter coils so the springs allow for more movement to adjust to the sleeper’s body.

Soft mattresses can help to relieve joint and muscle pain. Because they aren’t very firm, the mattress is able to better adapt and offer more support to different parts of the body. This means that soft mattresses can be especially good for sufferers of hip pain and lower back pain.

A softer mattress is often recommended for light sleepers or those who have difficulty getting to sleep at night. This is because they provide more immediate comfort, which is good for anyone who often finds themselves tossing and turning for longer than most.

However, a soft mattress doesn’t support spinal alignment in the same way that a firm mattress does. Because the mattress moves more easily the spine is able to move more and its alignment is not supported.

Softer mattresses are also not so good for beds with more than one person or for those who have a heavier bodyweight. The extra weight on the mattress can wear it out quicker, which is another issue with soft mattresses as they generally have a shorter lifespan than firmer mattresses.

Pros and cons of firm mattresses

Firm mattresses have denser coils and are designed to stop the sleeper from sinking into the mattress.

Firm mattresses are particularly good at keeping the sleeper’s spine in good alignment. Good spine alignment can, in turn, help with other pains throughout the body by improving the overall condition of the sleeper’s back and posture. A lack of support from a mattress can contribute to poor sleep posture, resulting in back pain.

A firmer mattress also leads to better oxygen intake and an improved circulatory system. This is because the bed sinks less and keeps the sleeper’s midriff stable. Better oxygen intake is great for snorers as snoring can actually reduce the amount of oxygen in the blood. It also can improve stress levels and even the immune system.

Firm mattresses generally have a longer lifespan than softer ones. They are made to be durable and rigid, which means they keep for a longer time period.

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However, firm mattresses are not great for people with joint or muscle pain. And they can be particularly bad for sufferers of hip or lower back pain.

Firmer mattresses can also take a while to adjust to the particular needs of your body. Over time, beds mold to your shape, which is good as long as they remain supportive. However, firm mattresses are less adaptive and users may find that it takes time for them to get comfortable on a new, firm mattress.

What is the firmness scale?

The firmness scale refers to the firmness of a particular mattress. It is measured from 1 to 10, with 1 being the softest and 10 being the firmest. Anything number 7 to 10 is classified as a firm mattress and 1 to 4 are soft. Medium mattresses fall in the middle.

Before deciding whether to buy a firm or soft mattress, consider what type of sleeper you are and what would best suit any physical issues you may have.