Plush vs. Firm Mattress: What’s the Difference?
Some people’s idea of comfort is sinking into a soft, plush mattress, while others prefer a firm, supportive sleeping surface. So many of us have strong opinions in the plush vs. firm debate, but what do these terms really mean? Read on to learn the difference between a plush and a firm mattress, and to pick up some salient points about density, thickness, and support.
Because everyone sleeps differently and has different preferences, people have varying criteria for what constitutes a comfortable mattress. Some, like the fairytale princess whose sleep was disrupted by a pea, desire multiple layers of soft cushioning that allow them to sink into the fluffy embrace of a plush mattress. In the real world, those who suffer from joint pain often opt for a softer mattress. Other sleepers, particularly heavier individuals, or side- or back-sleepers, may prefer the density, support, and structure of a firm mattress.
The interesting thing is, Americans seem to be pretty much evenly divided in their preference for a plush vs. firm mattress. A 2020 consumer survey by the Better Sleep Council, the consumer education arm of the International Sleep Products Association, found that 51 percent of respondents prefer a “firm or very firm” mattress, while 49 percent favor a “soft or very soft” mattress. Surprisingly, the percentage of people choosing a soft mattress is increasing. The same survey in 2016 found that just 42 percent of consumers favored a soft mattress. One of the factors fueling interest in softer, plusher mattresses may be the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic: The survey found that consumers under stay-at-home orders were more than twice as likely as other consumers to prefer a very soft mattress (45 percent vs.19 percent).
When we consider the difference between plush and firm mattresses, it’s important to note that mattresses come in a continuum of firmness levels, and that the firmness of a mattress is determined by the materials used and how the components are assembled. The mattress industry typically rates mattress firmness on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being the softest and 10 being the firmest. Plush mattresses are softer and have more cushioning materials, allowing the sleeper to sink deeply into the mattress; firm mattresses offer more support and don’t contour to the body as much. If you are not sure what type of mattress you prefer, it’s best to go to a brick-and-mortar store to check some out; most retail stores will allow you to test multiple mattresses. You can also check in with friends and family to see who has bought a mattress recently and ask if you can give it a try. Before you do any serious browsing, though, read up on the ins and outs of mattress shopping.
1. Both plush and firm mattresses are made of similar components, used in different configurations.
Most mattresses feature a similar structure, which involves a base, foundation, or platform, such as a conventional box spring or a newer adjustable base; one or more layers of support material, including traditional innerspring coils, memory foam, or latex foam; and one or more layers of cushioning material, which can be foam, gel, fiberfill, down, wool, or cotton. The difference between a plush mattress and a firm mattress typically lies in the proportions in which these materials are used. An innerspring mattress usually offers a bouncier, firmer feel, while a memory foam or latex mattress provides more cushioning. Either an innerspring or a foam mattress can be made more plush by the addition of a “pillow-top” construction, which adds one or more layers of soft foam, fiberfill, down, wool, or cotton. There are also hybrid mattresses that combine both a foam layer and an innerspring layer to create a medium-firm feeling. If you’re considering a foam mattress, note that there are different types of foam, including memory foam, latex, and gel-infused foam. The firmness level of a foam mattress is related to the density of the foam used, measured by the weight (in kilograms) of a 1 meter cube. The greater the density of the foam, the firmer it will probably feel, although other factors can come into play; likewise, a less dense foam will have a softer, plusher feeling. Many mattresses combine multiple types and densities of foam to achieve a combination of support and comfort. If you’re interested in a plush mattress, you might want to research the best pillow-top mattresses or learn more about latex options before you start shopping in earnest.
2. Plush mattresses are usually more expensive than firm ones because…
In order to achieve that cloudlike sensation of sinking into a soft sleep surface, plush mattresses are often constructed using multiple layers of cushioning material. These additional layers cost more, sometimes a lot more, depending on which materials are used. For example, a layer of natural fiber cushioning, such as down, wool, or cotton, is generally more expensive than a layer of polyester fiberfill or foam. And some foams are more expensive than others. Latex, for instance, is usually more expensive than memory foam, and gel-infused foams, which offer both softness and cooling properties, can also add to the cost. Finally, the ticking, or outer cover used in plush mattresses, is typically made from more expensive fabrics, contributing to the luxury feel…and the higher price tag.
3. A plush mattress offers a cloudlike feel, yet it provides ample comfort and support for the back; firm mattresses provide great support but without the extra layers.
Comfort and support are two interrelated concepts when it comes to choosing a mattress. All mattresses should provide adequate support to keep your spine in alignment, which means they should prevent the hips from sinking below the rest of the body. Good spinal alignment contributes to a better night’s sleep, relaxes the muscles, and promotes circulation. The support of a mattress typically comes from its core, which may be a traditional innerspring or coil construction, a foam support structure, or, in the case of hybrids, a combination of the two. The plush component comes from the soft, cushioning top layers of the mattress; firmer mattresses have much thinner layers of cushioning materials than plush mattresses. But both plush and firm mattresses can be supportive and comfortable, because both types should provide the proper amount of support. If you wake up with back or neck pain, it is most likely caused by inadequate support in the inner layers of the mattress rather than the relative firmness or cushioning of the top layers.
4. A firm mattress is the best choice for back- and stomach-sleepers.
Sleep position is an important consideration when choosing a firm or plush mattress. Back- and stomach-sleepers as well as individuals who weigh more than 230 pounds will typically feel more comfortable with a firm mattress. The reason comes back to proper spinal alignment: Firmer mattresses prevent back- and stomach-sleepers and heavier individuals from sinking so far into the mattress that their hips and spine fall out of alignment. Another reason firm mattresses work well for heavier people is that they won’t “bottom out,” or stop providing sufficient support, as readily. For stomach-sleepers, a firm mattress will also prevent the back from arching, which over time can contribute to back pain.
5. A plush mattress’s cushiony feel usually makes it the best choice for side-sleepers.
Sleepers of average weight, or those who suffer from joint or muscle pain or sleep on their sides, will often be more comfortable with a plush mattress. This is because side-sleepers have more body pressure points in contact with the mattress, including the hips, shoulders, outer knee, and outside of the foot. Having a softer, plusher mattress with a thick and cushiony top layer will alleviate these pressure points and provide a more comfortable night’s sleep. Similarly, people who suffer from joint or muscle pain may find a plush mattress more comfortable because of the extra cushioning that can help cradle the body. Petite sleepers who weigh less than 130 pounds may also feel more comfortable with the extra cushioning provided by a plush mattress.
6. A firm mattress is typically a better choice for heavier couples; lighter couples may be more comfortable with a plush mattress.
Just as with individual sleepers, weight makes a difference in mattress comfort for couples. When one or both individuals are relatively heavy, the couple will probably feel more comfortable with a firmer mattress that will do a better job of keeping their spines aligned. Couples where one or both individuals are lighter may be more comfortable with a plush mattress that provides extra cushioning.
When choosing a mattress, couples should also consider motion transfer, which refers to the amount of motion that the person sleeping on one side of the bed feels when the person on the other side moves around or gets in or out of bed. Couples should look for a mattress that offers minimal motion transfer. For this reason, couples may want to consider a hybrid mattress, because these mattresses generally fall into the medium-firm category and combine many features and benefits of both plush and firm mattresses. Couples who have different sleep positions or dramatically different body types may want to consider a split mattress with a split adjustable frame, which offers each sleeper a customized firmness level.
Mattress size is yet another important consideration: Couples often opt for a queen- or king-size mattress, while individuals will be comfortable in a full or queen size. Children are usually the only ones comfortable in a twin mattress.
Related: The Best Mattress Brands of 2021
7. Both plush and firm mattresses will last about the same amount of time: seven to 10 years.
It might seem logical that a firm mattress would last longer than a plush mattress, but this isn’t really the case. Both types of mattresses are constructed of similar materials and therefore have similar durability and longevity. The average lifespan of a mattress is about eight years, but numerous factors influence how long a mattress will last. These include the quality of the initial construction, the type of materials used, the number of sleepers and their weights, their usual sleeping positions, and how well the mattress has been cleaned or maintained. On average, traditional innerspring mattresses will last five to eight years, foam and hybrid mattresses about six to eight years, and latex foam mattresses from eight to 12 years.