Plush vs Firm Mattress: What's the Difference Between a Plush and Firm Mattress and Which is Right for You?

/ December 27, 2018

One of the first questions you'll likely encounter on the way to picking out a new mattress is how plush or firm you want the mattress to feel. Sounds simple enough, right?

Not necessarily. Choosing between a plush vs firm mattress can be a difficult task. “Mattress firmness is a comfort term," says chiropractor Robert Oexman, director of the Mebane, N.C.-based Sleep to Live Institute, which leads research on how the sleep environment affects sleep quality. Firm, plush, soft, and their many variations (think: cloud-like or cushiony) are subjective qualities meant to describe how a mattress might feel to any one individual.

The trouble is, there's no industry standard or uniform specification used to measure firmness, meaning that one company's “medium firm" mattress could be just as firm as another's “extra firm" mattress. And even if there were a standard scale, the same mattress firmness will feel different to different people depending on body size and muscle mass, Oexman explains. “When an elephant lies down on a mattress, for example, it's going to feel different than when a mouse lies on that same mattress," he says.

So what's a mattress shopper to do? First, understand a little bit more about what "plush" or "firm" in a mattress really means, and how it differs from that other essential quality, support.

A mattress doesn't need to be firm to be supportive

When deciding on mattress firmness, consider your specific needs. At minimum, a mattress needs to provide the right support for a person's body weight, size, and shape. A person who weighs 300 pounds is going to need a more supportive mattress than someone who weighs 120 pounds, Oexman says.

But support comes from the core of the mattress—the denser bottom layers of foam in foam mattresses and the spring system in an innerspring mattress—not from how firm or plush the surface, of “comfort," layers feel.

Oexman defines support as the ability to adopt a variety of positions throughout the night while maintaining your spine in a relatively “neutral" horizontal position. In other words, you want to avoid the U-shaped curve you'd get from sleeping in a hammock, as well as the unnatural bend you'd experience if you lie on your stomach on the floor all night. Instead, your spine should be supported in its natural S-shaped curve and your ears, shoulders, and hips should be aligned.

A soft or ultra-plush bed can still provide plenty of support, Oexman says, so long as the layers underneath are appropriate for the person who's sleeping on it. “You can still go ahead and sink into it enough to get the support you need," he says. (Here's how to match your mattress to your body type.)

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Plush vs firm mattress: Which one is right for you?

Think of firmness as how the mattress feels when you first lie down on it. That's a function of the top layers—what they're made of, the number of layers, and the thickness and density of the foam or padding. While lack of support is what causes you to wake up with back or shoulder pain or feeling like you didn't get a great night's sleep, Oexman says, comfort plays a role in how quickly you fall asleep versus how much you toss and turn once your head hits the pillow.

While there's no definitive standard, many mattress companies (including Saatva) rate the firmness of their products on a 10-point scale. Typically the higher the number, the firmer the mattress, from 3-4 at the low end to 7-8 at the high end. Not surprisingly, the majority of people tend to prefer mattresses that fall in the middle of the firmness scale—also called “universal comfort" or "hotel style."

Different sleep styles need different comfort levels

When it comes to mattress firmness, another important consideration is the way you typically sleep. If you're a side sleeper, for example, you have concentrated pressure points in contact with the mattress: your shoulder, hip, and outside of your knee and foot. In that case, a sleep surface that's a little bit plusher or softer and lets you sink in provides better pressure relief.

If you're a stomach sleeper, you'll probably do better on a medium to firm mattress, which will help prevent arching in the back (and potential pain later on). And if you're a back sleeper, count yourself lucky: You will likely sleep well on most mattresses, as long as it's not so soft or firm that it throws your spine out of neutral alignment. (Here's more advice on how to match your mattress to your sleep position.)

Bottom line: Whether you're waking up with aches and pains or it's simply time for a new mattress, think support first. Then, for your best night's sleep, choose the firmness or softness that feels most comfortable to you. You can't go wrong.

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