Why are mattresses so expensive?

I’m not a mattress snob — far from it, actually. My partner and I make do with a $300 Ikea mattress he bought a few years ago, padded with an egg crate foam topper. Meanwhile, I’ve heard of people dropping $1,000 or more on mattresses, all for a good night’s sleep. I’m skeptical, though. Why are mattresses so expensive, especially the high-quality ones? And do they really help you sleep better?

According to one mattress brand I reached out to, the cost of a mattress largely reflects the processes and materials used to make it. That said, an orthopedist told me that a high-end mattress may promote better sleep, but not for everyone.

Cheap mattresses — those you can buy for a few hundred dollars — are often made of inexpensive materials that don’t feel as comfortable or last as long as those used in expensive mattresses, according to Ron Rudzin, CEO of luxury sleep brand Saatva. They have a lifespan of roughly 5 to 7 years, whereas high-end mattresses can last 10 to 15 years. Saatva’s mattresses are made with expensive materials and processes, but as an online-only retailer sans brick-and-mortar expenses, it can afford to sell them at a lower rate: Its mattresses start at $599.

Most mattresses contain steel coils, made by winding steel wire around a mold. The shape of the coil can be solidified in two ways. Electric shocking is a quick, inexpensive method that produces more rigid coils. “You’ll never see an electric shock coil unit in a mattress that costs over $1,000,” Rudzin tells me. In higher-quality mattresses, the coils are oven-baked, a slower process that makes them more flexible and durable.

A mattress’s price can also reflect the density of the polyurethane foam used in it, Rudzin says. Higher-quality mattresses are made with denser foams, which provide more support and last longer. Mattress brands use foam density ratings to indicate the weight per cubic foot of foam. Think about it — more density would ideally create a moree supportive base for you to slee on. A density rating of 2.0 means the foam weighs 2.0 pounds per cubic foot. Cheap mattresses often have a density rating of about 1.3, Rudzin says, while those with ratings of 1.5 to 1.8 tend to be of higher quality.

Memory foam is even denser, making mattresses built with it more expensive. Saatva’s memory foam-containing Loom & Leaf mattress starts at $849, while mattresses from Tempur-Pedic, which have an even denser memory foam, according to Rudzin, start at $1,999.

The fabric covering the mattress can also affect the price. Cheap mattresses tend to use polyester and other synthetic fabrics, which generally aren’t breathable, and feel and warm and sticky, according to Rudzin. On the other hand, higher-end brands, such as Duxiana, may use soft, luxuriant fabrics like cashmere. Saatva uses an organic cotton, which is breathable and keeps the bed nice and cool.

Most budget mattresses are also coated with spray-on flame retardant while more expensive ones sometimes use a flame retardant barrier that consists largely of a natural material — wood pulp, with a bit of polyester as a bonding agent.

Although the price of a mattress mostly stems from material costs, brick and mortar costs, such as rent and payroll for showroom staff, can also factor into the price, Rudzin says. Again, that’s why Saatva can sell mattresses cheaper than, say, Tempur-Pedic, even if it’s also a high-end brand.

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But is an expensive mattress worth it? Will it translate to greater comfort and a more restful sleep?

The short answer: Not necessarily. A 2015 Sleep Health review of 24 previously-published controlled human trials found that a medium-firm mattress is ideal for promoting sleep quality, reducing pain, and improving spinal alignment in people with or without back pain — so, “whatever material it is that will give you a mattress that for you feels medium-firm is probably the best,” says Mostafa El Dafrawy, an assistant professor of orthopedic surgery and rehabilitation medicine at University of Chicago Medicine. That said, what counted as medium-firm in the trials was subjective, based on participants’ own ratings of the mattresses they tried.

Plus, whether you’ll sleep soundly on a given mattress largely depends on your spinal alignment. El Dafrawy points out that one of the studies included in the 2015 review found that a sleep position that maintains the posture you normally have when you’re standing up — your “erect posture”— promotes sleep quality, and reduces back pain and stiffness. “Erect posture differs for everyone,” he explains. If you naturally have more sway in your lower spine, you might benefit from a softer mattress, which would allow you to maintain that curvature. But if you have a really straight spine, a rigid mattress might feel better, even if it has a low price tag. In other words, what feels comfortable for you might not feel comfortable for someone else.

A similar rule of thumb applies if you have spine issues. If you have spinal degeneration, for instance, bending forward can cause pain, so a rigid mattress would probably work best; you might sag into a soft mattress, bending your spine and irritating it.

If you believe a bougie mattress is what it’ll take to catch some quality z’s, then go for it. But know that you may not have to shell out that much for a mattress suited to your body’s unique needs.

Basically, “it depends on what position makes you more comfortable,” El Dafrawy says. “It’s all very individualized and changes according to what shape your spine is.”

The first step to finding the right mattress for you, then, is to figure out your spinal alignment, which happens organically when you try different mattresses, El Dafrawy says. Sprawling out on a mattress once or twice in the store probably won’t be enough to give you a real feel for it — the good news is, most retailers have a return policy if it doesn’t end up being a good fit.

If you believe a bougie mattress is what it’ll take to catch some quality z’s, then go for it. But know that you may not have to shell out that much for a mattress suited to your body’s unique needs. I haven’t experienced any aches or pains from my $300 mattress so far, so I’ll stick with it, at least for now.