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Gel Vs. Memory Foam Mattress Toppers: What’s the Difference?

In the 1980’s NASA introduced memory foam technology (known as Viscoelastic Foam) as a pressure relieving solution for astronauts who were experiencing stress on their bodies due to traveling at supersonic speeds. This same Viscoelastic Foam revolutionized the sleep experience as manufacturers traded traditional mattress springs for the body contouring memory foam that offered better support and comfort. Memory foam toppers are ideal for retaining warmth, but those who are naturally hot sleepers might prefer bedding materials that offer cooler temperatures while sleeping. This is where the difference between gel vs. memory foam mattress toppers distinguishes the two.

Both gel and memory foam mattress toppers conform to the shape of the body. The difference between gel vs. memory foam mattress toppers is that memory foam retains heat while gel foam offers a cooler sleeping environment.

3 great toppers we recommend 

The viscoelastic foam used in memory foam mattress toppers is a low-resilience polyurethane foam—which means the foam “remembers” and returns to its original shape after pressure is released, and won’t leave sagging body impressions in the foam over time. This ScienceDirect article: “NASA pressure-relieving foam technology is keeping the leading innerspring mattress firms awake at night” shares how the mattress manufacturers adopted the NASA technology to benefit their consumers.

While memory foam offers comfort and support—especially for side sleepers—some people experience excessive heat while using memory foam mattress toppers because of its heat retention abilities. For more information about the benefits of memory foam mattress toppers for side sleepers read our article: tips to choose a mattress topper for side sleepers.

An alternative to memory foam mattress toppers is a gel mattress topper—people who tend to sleep warmer will benefit from gel mattress toppers because of their ability to dissipate heat during the night. We like this hypoallergenic gel mattress topper from Amazon. Gel material was popularized in the 1980’s as a shock absorber in athlete’s shoe supports and Dr. Scholl’s gel insoles, and this cushion quality also makes it an excellent material for mattress toppers.

A gel mattress topper is similar to the memory foam mattress topper, but with an added layer of pure gel material placed on the upper or lower surface of the topper. This gel layer offers the same plush feeling of memory foam with the extra advantage of heat dispersion.

Alternatively, the same gel material can be injected as particles within the “cells” of the regular memory foam mattress topper. This gives the mattress topper a heftier feel, and greater resilience along with the same molding feel as well as the ability to distribute heat faster. We like this gel infused mattress topper from Amazon because it includes a removable cover.

Related articles:

Mattress topper vs mattress cover – what do you need?

What’s The Difference Between Gel Foam Vs. Memory Foam Mattress Toppers? 

When comparing gel vs. memory foam mattress toppers, gel mattress toppers sleep cooler than memory foam.3-inch Ventilated Gel Memory Foam Mattress Topper. Gel foam mattress toppers sleep cooler than memory foam mattress toppers (From: Lucid).

Gel foam (gel infused foam) and conventional memory foam (viscoelastic foam) boast many similar advantages. They are both equally efficient at isolating motion transfer—an especially valuable feature for those who share a bed with a restless partner, and they both offer phenomenal comfort because of their body contouring properties which alleviate pressure points during the night. Their main differences are temperature control and pliancy. Note that there is no difference between which mattresses either mattress topper can go on top of. In fact, you can even use a mattress topper on an air mattress!

The differences between gel foam vs. memory foam mattress toppers are that gel foam feels more pliant and cushioning, while memory foam is more resilient and feels firmer. Gel foam mattress toppers are also cooler because they draw heat away from the body, while memory foam toppers cause a warmer bed because they retain heat. 

The table below summarizes the differences between Gel Foam Mattress Toppers and Memory Foam Mattress Toppers: 

  Gel Foam Mattress Topper Memory Foam Mattress Topper
Density Tends to be higher in density and heavier 2–8 lb/cu.ft
Softness Feels softer More resilient
Ventilation Feels cooler Holds heat
Price Higher in price$50 – $500 Lower price
$60 – $250
Example From Amazon  Linenspa~$83 Zinus~$35

Is there a Difference Between Gel Infused Mattress Toppers vs. Gel Foam Mattress Toppers?

Gel infused mattress toppers and gel foam mattress toppers both offer the comfort and support of memory foam with the added benefit of temperature regulation that is synonymous with gel’s ability to diffuse heat during sleep. The choice between gel infused toppers or gel foam toppers will depend on the softness or firmness desired.

The difference between gel infused mattress toppers vs. gel foam mattress toppers is a gel infused mattress topper has pockets or cells of gel granules or beads distributed throughout the foam in the topper, while a gel foam mattress topper has either an upper layer or lower layer of gel spanning the entire surface. A gel infused mattress topper will provide a slightly firmer surface than a gel foam mattress topper. 

Gel memory foam is made by integrating gel granules into the memory foam—injecting liquid gel into memory foam during manufacturing, in the case of gel infused mattress toppers—or adding a gel layer on top of the foam surface, in the case of gel mattress toppers. We like this Lucid 4 gel memory foam topper with down from Amazon because it is three toppers in one. Cooling gel helps draw heat away from the sleeper, allowing a cooler sleeping environment, while maintaining the unique body-contouring and pressure-absorbing features of the memory foam.

Gel infused mattress toppers on sofa beds work really well because they keep you cool while also giving you support.

What’s the Difference Between Gel Infused vs. Gel Swirl Mattress Toppers?

Gel infused mattress toppers and gel swirl mattress toppers have similar characteristics and benefits—the main one being the heat retention of memory foam as well as the cooling effects associated with gel—which helps with temperature control during sleep. Both also offer effective weight distribution to prevent aches and pressure sores, while also feeling luxuriously soft. To learn how to use a mattress topper to soften a bed, read our article.

The differences between gel infused vs. gel swirl mattress toppers is the distribution of the gel in the mattress toppers. A gel infused mattress topper is injected with gel particles between the foam cells during the manufacturing process, and the gel swirl mattress topper is infused with swirls of gel that are dispersed throughout the foam.  

There are many techniques to inject gel into foam. One of these methods of gel-infusion into foam is called “gel swirl foam”, which is a method of injecting liquid gel into the standard memory foam—during manufacturing and casting—giving it the shape and color of a cloudy sky with eddies or swirls. This SealyChill memory foam topper from Amazon boasts these soothing gel swirls. Comparable to gel-infused or memory foam mattress toppers, the gel swirl topper offers the same comforting granular feeling, conforms to your body outline, regulates heat during sleeping hours, and deters germs and bed bugs, while also isolating motion disturbance.

Gel infused mattress toppers contain gel throughout while gel swirl toppers include gel in a swirl pattern

Gel Swirl Memory Foam Mattress Topper (By: Linenspa). Gel infused mattress toppers contain gel throughout while gel swirl toppers include gel in a swirl pattern.

Recommendations For Sleeping: Choosing the Right Mattress Topper 

A worn or older mattress could be rejuvenated by a mattress topper, when a new mattress isn’t yet in the budget. Simply overlaying a quality mattress topper can improve comfort and prolong a mattress’ lifecycle. 

Conversely, if a brand new mattress feels too firm, adding a gel-infused mattress topper will make it feel cosier and softer. There are several mattress toppers to choose from and we recommend reading our article: Mattress Topper Hack – How to Prolong Mattress Life and How to Make it Softer or Firmer to find out about the various mattress topper materials and densities. 

Follow the recommendations in the table below:

  What Material Do You Need? Gel Foam or Memory Foam? Product + Link from Amazon Why Does it Help? Price of Product
You Need To Make Your Bed Cooler Gel-Infused Foam Lucid Gel particles dissipate heat ~$49
You Need To Make Your Bed Firmer Natural Latex Take Ten Naturally more resilient ~$148
You Sweat Too Much Gel-Infused Foam Ruuf Gel particles dissipate heat ~$40
Your Bed Is Lumpy and You Want to Even it Out Memory Foam Polar Sleep Contours to body curves and relieves pressure points ~$40-110
Your Mattress is Old and You want to Increase Longevity Memory Foam Zinus Rejuvenates the mattress and protects from wear ~$35

Make sure to take a look at our article on how to store a latex mattress topper too for more information.

Is Gel Foam Toxic?

Gel is a manufactured synthetic material originally designed for the aviation and space industries, and is gaining popularity in the medical field for its temperature regulation and post-operative support according to this article from Wound Care Solutions, Inc. titled “Gel Mattress Overlays Prevent Pressure Ulcers and Bedsores.”

Gel foam is not toxic according to ongoing research from reputable manufacturers like CertiPUR-US® who certify their foam as non-toxic.

Gel memory foam bedding, like traditional memory foam mattress toppers, may release some organic and chemical vapors—most recognizable in that “new smell” often associated with bringing new furniture in the home, also called low volatile organic compound emissions or VOC. The 15th Global Conference on Sustainable Manufacturing published “A Method to Estimate the Total VOC Emission of Furniture Products” which determined that low emissions were not hazardous to health.

Additionally, certified manufactures don’t use formaldehyde in their gel foam mattresses and mattress toppers, which is considered a carcinogen and a common cause of poor air quality. Read the CertiPUR-US® “About The Seal” page and their “Frequently Asked Questions” page to find out more about gel and foam safety. 

Occasionally gel off-gassing can cause nausea and headaches for people who are sensitive to smells and organic or chemical compounds, while installing a new mattress or topper. To overcome this issue, spread the new gel foam product in a well-ventilated area—preferably outside the bedroom for 48 hours—with open windows that encourage good airflow. After adequate ventilation the new gel mattress topper will be ready to install on the bed, as the odors should normally dispel within 3–7 days. Read our other article about how to install a mattress topper for more information on mattress topper installation and care. 

Stick with the acknowledged bedding manufacturers, and only buy bedding products made in accordance to CertiPUR-US® that follow the law enacted in 2004. An interesting book in this regard is Walter Bader’s book “Toxic Bedrooms” on Amazon. 

Gel vs. memory foam mattress toppers are both non-toxic.

Gel Foam is not toxic. CentriPur certifies materials used in toppers like this Zinus 2-inch Gel Memory Foam Mattress Topper (From: Amazon).

Is Gel Foam Cooler than Memory Foam?

Some people complain that regular memory foam can accumulate heat as an unexpected result of the foam density. If too much heat is trapped in the mattress topper it can disrupt sleep and result in waking up feeling sweaty.

Gel foam is cooler than memory foam because the gel particles in gel foam draw heat away from the body during sleep, while memory foam is famous for its heat retention properties.

Integrating cooling gels into the foam blend enhances the mattress topper to disseminate and diffuse heat, because the gel granules absorb heat and draw it away from the body. The more even the distribution of gel particles through the mattress topper, the better the heat will transfer.

Gel memory foam involves additional ingredients and manufacturing processes, so it comes at a higher price than standard memory foam.

Gel-infusion is not the only method to manufacture a better cooling mattress topper. Many manufacturers integrate other materials, like metals such as copper, semi-metals as graphite, or they may infuse alternative mixture of plant-based oils; as in this Grant St. plant based memory foam mattress from Sleep Nation on Amazon. Read our article on the benefits and disadvantages of copper mattress pads to find out if this is a suitable alternative.

The choice between a gel mattress topper, gel infused mattress topper or gel swirl mattress topper will depend on the cooling or heat retention preferences, as well as the desired firmness or softness expected from the particular mattress topper.

It is important to look for an attached CertiPUR-US® Certification Label, sleep trial and warranty—when buying a mattress topper—to ensure the product has been made with high quality and non-toxic materials. Some sleep trials allow users the option to try out a mattress topper for 90 to 120 days, to ensure customer satisfaction.

Gel memory foam can be an excellent option for those who are a heavier weight or who suffer with pain caused by pressure points that other mattress toppers might not adequately support. Read our article on how to choose a mattress topper for hip support, to determine the best type of mattress topper for specific needs. The molding effect and resilience of memory foam combined with the cooling gel will provide luxurious comfort as well as temperature regulation that will ensure better sleep.