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All Foam is the Same, Right? Mattress Foam Education

All foam is the same, right?

Foam Series

Polyurethane Foam Education 101

WRONG! Not all foam is the same. In fact, not all memory foam is the same, and not all latex foam is the same. This is why some memory foam mattresses cost $200 while others cost over $2,000. Now granted, sometimes it is just a greedy salesman, but normally the difference is in the quality. If you really want to know how to shop for a mattress (or any foam product for that matter) then keep reading.

First of all, I want to address a common misunderstanding. Not all foam is memory foam. Not all foam is latex rubber. But all real mattresses have some foam in them. I’m not including those cheap air beds that you blow up for guests when you want them to leave sooner rather than later, nor am I talking about very dated waterbeds (which, by the way, if you still have one, it’s time to replace it.) Both of those items I would never sell. Honestly, I wouldn’t take one of the premium air beds either. I wouldn’t take one of those if you gave it to me for free. They all leak. But let’s get back to the topic at hand — foam.

This is going to get a little geeky but try to follow along. If you really want to know what you are buying, then you should know some basics. If you get bored, you can skip down to the section marked "Less Techy," but it won’t make as much sense.

Before I can explain the difference between foams, I need to explain how foam is made. Polyurethane foam starts out as a few main chemical components in their liquid form. One of those main chemicals is called Toluene Diisocyanate (TDI). Without TDI you wouldn’t have foam for your mattress, chairs, couches, carpet padding, the seat in your car, or even your backpack straps. Polyurethane foam is everywhere. One interesting fact about TDI is that it freezes at 57°F (14°C). So it must be kept hot until it is ready to be used. Without getting too technical, the TDI is mixed with Polyols to form a liquid. There are usually a few other additives to make each specific foam type. Basically, they mix the ingredients much like you do a cake, and just like a cake, the basic ingredients are the same, flour, sugar, eggs, etc. But you can add chocolate and make it chocolate cake. Or carrot and make it a carrot cake. In the same way, you can add other additives to the recipe and have a totally different type of foam. So, much like baking, there are endless possibilities when it comes to foam types.

What’s really cool is that when they pour the liquid it is like pouring it into a giant baking pan. In fact, the entire mixture heats up because of a chemical reaction between the ingredients. When they heat up, it rises. It looks like a giant loaf of bread or cake. They actually call it a "bun" of foam. Then, just like cake or bread, they slice it down to the sizes needed. Now, some people will say that it is much more complicated than that and they are right. But I just wanted to explain the basic concept.

So now that you understand how foam is made you need to know how it is graded. There are two sets of numbers to know when grading foam. There is the density and the Indentation Force Deflection (IFD). The IFD is also sometimes referred to as the Indentation Load Deflection.

I will try to give you the fast version. The density is the weight of the product — or better yet, it is the quality. For example, a 1.0lb piece of foam is what I call an "el-cheapo" piece of foam. You won’t find anything like that at Pike's. In the bedding industry, we see densities from 1.0lbs all the way to 2.3lb densities. There are much higher densities but they are too dense for bedding, and the higher the density, the more expensive the foam. In fact, most mattress manufacturers today don’t even carry a 2.3lb foam because it is too expensive to make a huge profit off of. However, at Pike’s Mattress, we believe that you deserve quality. So we are proud to offer our HR line of foam mattresses in a 2.3lb density foam.

The next thing to explain is the IFD or the ILD. Basically, they take a 50 square inch plate and compress a 15”x15”x4” piece of foam, and see how much force is required to compress it one inch. What that really translates to is firmness. The higher the number, the firmer the foam. In the mattress industry, most foams are between 10 and 50 ILD. Again, most mattress manufacturers only go as high as 38 in regards to firmness, but we like to offer things that no one else does. We offer a super firm mattress that I call “Lightweight Concrete” with our 2.3lb-50ILD HR50 foam mattress. You have to stretch out on it to believe just how firm it is. Believe it or not, we have dozens of customers that love it too.

So now that we covered the techy stuff here is the chart I promised for those that fell to sleep during the lesson above:

Less Techy - Density

1.0lb Density

Cheap, slow to recover (if it recovers), breaks down easily and quickly. You usually get a few months or a year out of it. Not a long term product. Chances are that if you are buying a mattress that is priced too good to be true, then you are getting a 1.0lb density foam.

1.2lb Density

A little better quality foam, but not something that you would expect to last more than 5 years. This is what most decent mattress manufacturers use for their basic models. Many of the national brands use this density only. They don’t feel the need to go any better in quality because they think the customer expects to replace it in a few years.

1.5lb Density Foam

This is a good quality foam for mattresses. Not the greatest, but good quality. You can expect a 5-10 year lifespan out of a piece of 1.5lb foam (if treated right and if it was designed right). This is what most mattress manufacturers today consider their Premium Quality products.

2.2 or 2.3lb Density

This is the highest density of foam that is used in bedding. Any denser than this and it starts to feel like rubber and doesn’t give the sleeper any comfort or durability. This foam, if built right, can last 20 years or more. We have had customers that have had some of our mattresses with the 2.3lb foam last over 30 years.


Range from 10-19

Super soft. I mean really, really soft. Everyone thinks they want a full mattress of this but you need something to hold this up or you will sink all the way through this type of foam. It is the equivalent of pinching a cotton ball between your fingers. You can easily collapse this foam. It makes a wonderful quilt foam, but you don’t want it in your support layers.

Range from 20-29

This is going to be a little firmer. This is what most mattress manufacturers use in their top few layers after their quilt layer. It is a nice transition from the soft quilt of a 10 or 15 ILD but again, not normally something you put in a base layer. It is a little more sturdy than a 10 but you will still compress it with little effort and end up folding your body in half instead of it supporting the shape of your spine.

Range from 30-39

This is the sweet spot. This is the firmness most mattress manufacturers use for their support layers and their base foams. This will give the average person a nice supportive base that you won’t completely collapse. But it isn’t a hard foam. It is moderately firm but with a cushiony feel.

Range from 40-50

These are your firm ranges. I call the 40 a firm and the 50 is lightweight concrete. We had a customer tell us once he didn’t know whether to sleep on his 50 mattress or put it out back and put his grill on it for a patio. While the 40 is firm it still feels nice for a lot of customers that like a firm mattress. I slept on a 2.3-40 for years and loved the support it gave my back.

65 or greater

Too firm for almost anyone. In all the years we have made mattresses we have had less than five customers that needed something firmer than a 50 and we made them a custom 65. I’m convinced that if you laid down too fast, you could get a concussion.

When foam is graded it usually looks something like this 1.5-30 foam or 1.8-17. Some foam companies like to be different and switch the numbers. And some like to put zeros between them and run the numbers all together so you have to guess what they are. But with a little studying, you can learn to read foam densities.

I know that all of that was utterly exhausting and many of you probably didn’t read it all but that’s okay. Because now that we have established the technical stuff here’s how you can test the real deal stuff. The quickest way to test a piece of raw foam is called the fingernail test. This works on regular polyurethane foam. It doesn’t work on memory or latex foams. We will cover those on another blog. The fingernail test is exactly what it sounds like. You squeeze a piece of foam as tight as you can in your hand, digging your fingernails into it (don’t try to claw it up just press your nails into it). Then count to ten and release. If the foam takes more than 5-10 seconds to recover its original shape then you have a low-density piece of foam somewhere in the 1.0lb range so don’t spend too much on it. If it springs back instantly then you have a good piece of foam, probably a 1.8 or 2.3lb density, and it’s going to last for a long time.

I want to point out that this week’s foam education is about the foam itself. We will cover a lot more down the road, and what that means is just because one layer is a nice quality of foam doesn’t mean you are going to get a mattress to last 20 years. You have to have it layered just right, you have to have a good smoothing layer to protect it from the springs, and you need good springs and a good foundation. But don’t feel lost yet. Keep reading my blogs. We will cover it all, and if you have any questions feel free to give us a call or send us a message. We will be glad to help in any way we can. Our goal is to give you the knowledge you need to pick a better night’s sleep. Because we believe that #YouDeserveSleep.

I wanted to cover all the foam types in this blog, but I have been told I tend to ramble on a little too much sometimes, so we will cut this one short. Don’t worry, we will cover more about foams next week. I hope this post helps you in your search for a better night’s sleep. You deserve it. God bless you and good night my friends.