FORT WORTH, Texas – It’s hard not to succumb to the mattress sales pitches that seem to promise the moon: less stress, deep sleep, no more lower back pain. And if you were just starting to wrap your head around the concepts of a Sleep Number bed versus a Tempur-pedic, along come new buzzwords: Coil count. Cashmere. ComforPedic. Latex. Pillow-top.

A mattress is probably the single most difficult product to buy, says Tod Marks, senior editor at Consumer Reports.

The names of mattresses can differ from store to store, so it’s hard to compare them. Plus, they’re often on sale. “But you really can’t see inside that mattress, so you don’t know what you’re paying for,” Marks says. “You’re just basically listening to the marketing spiel.”

At the same time, it’s an important purchase.

“I would say that a good quality mattress as about as important as diet and exercise, when it comes to feeling good and having a productive day,” says Nancy Shark, executive director of the Better Sleep Council, the consumer education arm of the International Sleep Products Association. “You should love your bed.”

We all want to sleep well. Here are a few things to consider when choosing what to sleep on:

Mattress types

There are loads of beds, from futons to waterbeds to Craftmatics. But to narrow things down, we’ll rein in our pillow talk to three types of beds, some of the most popular on the market: inner spring, foam and air beds. Judging from our research and reporting, there seems to be no “best” type of mattress for people with back pain or arthritis, for side sleepers or back sleepers. The best gauge is how it feels when you lie on it.

Inner spring: This mattress has been around the longest, and it’s the one people are most familiar with. The mattress’s core is made of tempered steel coils, which give it that all-familiar boing-boing. The mattress is covered in layers of upholstery for insulation and cushioning. Locally, an inner-spring queen mattress can go for roughly $200 or $300 and up to $4,000 or more.

Foam: These mattresses are either made of a solid core of foam or have several layers of different foams, including latex and visco-elastic “memory” foams, like the kind in Tempur-pedic beds – which, like most mattresses, come in various models in a wide price range ($1,200-$6,000 for a queen). Because of the special material, the mattress conforms to and supports your body and is supposed to relieve pressure that can cause pain while lying down. You’ll sink down into one of these and not spring back up. These mattresses are heat-sensitive, so they can often be a little warmer than an inner-spring.

Air beds: This isn’t the air mattress you bought for your first apartment. These look like a standard mattress and box spring, but instead of springs or foam, their support is filled with air; this is the type of mattress on Select Comfort’s Sleep Number bed ($1,000-$4,000 for a queen). This mattress allows you to fine-tune its firmness to your needs.

New stuff

So, now that you know about the different mattresses, what new trends should you know about?

Single-sided mattress: Remember how you never flipped your mattress every few years like you were supposed to? Ever since Simmons introduced its single-sided mattress in 2000, many of the newer mattresses are made so that you don’t need to flip them. (Some experts suggest that some mattresses still be rotated from head to toe.)

More layers, more comfort: Marks says there’s a big move toward increasing the amount of memory foam or latex, which provides a cushion and increases comfort. “This is certainly better than the polyester batting that we saw in years past, which has a tendency to compress and lose its loft over time, which can make for more of an indent.”

Latex: So what if you have a latex allergy – should you be concerned about buying a bed made with latex? No, says Mark Nelson, vice president of sales at the Carrollton, Texas-based Sleep Experts. Nelson says that according to manufacturers and medical professionals whom his company has consulted, people with latex sensitivity are allergic to a protein in the latex. And manufacturers run the latex through a process that cleanses those proteins, at least that’s the process that the big S’s – Sealy, Simmons, Serta and Spring Air – go through, Nelson says. “We sell quite a few products with latex in them, and we just haven’t had issues. There is no reaction if the protein has been washed out.”

A kinder, cooler memory foam: These mattresses are made with a new generation of memory foam, which keeps you cooler. We briefly tested Simmons’ ComforPedic, and found it quite dreamy. Some new Tempur-pedic models come with an “airflow system convoluted layer” – an egg-crate type pad that helps you stay cooler.

Outlast: Speaking of cooler, if temperature preference is crucial for you and your sleep partner, then keep the word “Outlast” at the top of your shopping list. Several mattress companies, including Serta and Select Comfort, are using Outlast technology, which adjusts the mattress to your body temperature. We tested the Sleep Number 9000 bed, and we’ll be doggoned; one side was warm (and perfect for us), while the other side was cool for our partner.

Cashmere, silk, merino wool: You’ll see these “luxury fabric” watchwords on more and more mattresses. Do they mean much? Not really, Marks says. “For the most part, it’s a miniscule amount that’s only used in the ticking – the outermost layer – which may not impact anything,” he says. “It’s a marketing tool; most of this stuff is meaningless.”

Some tips

How often should you shop for a mattress? “We’d suggest that consumers evaluate their own mattresses for comfort and support every five to seven years,” says Shark, of the Better Sleep Council. It’s not that the mattress isn’t durable. “The bed that you bought at 30 or 40 is not going to be comfortable at 40 or 50, because as we age, our bodies become more sensitive to pressure points,” Marks says.

The 15-minute test. Spend at least 15 minutes lying on a bed in a typical sleep position to evaluate it. When Consumer Reports did its last mattress evaluation in 2005, people tested beds for 15 to 20 minutes, then took them home and slept on them for an extended period. “We found that the 15- to 20-minute impression that people had jibed with their long-term satisfaction,” Marks says. It’s important to note that every mattress tested had supporters and detractors. “No single bed was perfect for everyone.”

Do I have to spend a fortune? The 2005 Consumer Reports evaluation found that people should expect to spend at least $800 for a queen mattress. “There’s no need to spend thousands upon thousands,” Marks says, “because from a standpoint of durability, all but the most cheap mattresses are apt to hold up over time.”

Beware the “Myth of the Comparable.” With so many different stores selling mattresses under so many different names, it’s common for a retailer to say it has a comparable mattress to something you’ve seen at a competitor. Consumer Reports checked out some of the claims. “And in most instances, most of the models that claim to be comparable, they’re not,” Marks says. If you’re overwhelmed, you might want to stick with one of the big S’s because they’re more widely available.

Negotiate. Marks suggests that shoppers approach the purchase as if they were buying a car. Tell the salesperson you don’t want to overpay. Ask if it’s the regular or sale price, and what is the best sale price they’ve ever had on this mattress. (Often, Marks says, they’re marked up about 40 percent to 50 percent.) “Then say: “OK, I’m not gonna buy the mattress unless it’s at your best sale price. If you won’t give it to me, I’ll shop elsewhere.”‘

Ask about “comfort return.” Make sure the store offers a comfort return policy – if you don’t like it, you can return it. Get the fine print. Finally, see if they’ll cart away your old bed.

Take the hotel test. Some of the more upscale beds are now being cross-marketed in hotels.If you’re interested in the Sleep Number bed, consider your next overnight lodging at a Radisson – the hotel chain has an exclusive deal with Sleep Number. You can find Tempur-pedics at many hotels; for a list, visit www.tempurpedic.com, scroll to the bottom and click on “hotel locator.”

Some myths

Firmer is better. You’ve probably always heard that a firm mattress is best to relieve lower back pain. But a 2003 study reported in the British medical journal The Lancet found that people who had slept on medium-firm mattresses for 90 days felt better than those who had slept on firm mattresses.

Coil count and cashmere are key. “You can ignore things like coil count,” Marks says, “and all these claims (about) cashmere, wool – about fancy stuff in the ticking. It doesn’t matter.” As for coil count, Consumer Reports says any number above 390 in a queen-size mattress should be plenty.


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