Mattress pad vs mattress topper: which one is best for your sleep?

Mattress pad vs mattress topper, a side-by-side look at Saatva's offerings for each
(Image credit: Future / Saatva)

Mattress toppers and pads are easy options if you want to upgrade your existing bed to make it cooler, more comfortable or supportive. They’re simple to use – just place them on top of your existing mattress to transform it according to your needs. Some of them can be just as luxurious as one of this year’s best mattresses, only they are much, much cheaper. Otherwise, as we’ll explain throughout this mattress pad vs mattress topper comparison, they’re quite different products.

The best mattress toppers can be used with new mattresses until you break them in a bit better, and on older mattresses that are still in relatively good condition. But if your mattress is on the way out, then adding a topper will only temporarily mask any issues. Mattress pads are a little different in that they won’t instantly change the feel of your bed but they'll add some extra comfort.

Below, we'll explore the key differences between mattress pads vs mattress toppers to help you narrow down the right choice for your bed and sleep. And if you’re thinking of buying either one soon, we’re coming up to a great time of year for it thanks to upcoming Labor Day mattress sales, which often include savings on other sleep-related products, too.

Mattress pads vs mattress toppers: What are they?

  • Mattress pads and mattress toppers change the feel of your bed
  • Mattress pads subtly make your current bed more comfortable
  • Mattress toppers upgrade and prolong the life of your current bed

You’d be forgiven for thinking there’s not a lot of difference between a mattress pad and a mattress topper, but look closer and you’ll see that they can affect your sleep in different ways...

Mattress pads are affordable, easy-to-fit layers that subtly change the feel of your mattress to make it more comfortable. They are available in different materials including feather, wool, cotton, latex and foam — which offer different feels depending on what you need. For instance, foam will be squishier while wool will be more cosy, and latex will be hard-wearing. Cotton, meanwhile, is a cooling, breathable option. Mattress pads can usually be washed in the machine.

Mattress toppers upgrade your existing mattress and prolong its life for a year or two, provided the mattress is already in good condition. Also known as bed toppers, they add extra comfort in terms of pressure relief, firmness and cooling to help you sleep more comfortably. They're made from the same materials you would find in a mattress, including memory foam and latex, although some come with extra comfort layers of feather or wool if you need a little extra coziness. Mattress toppers are generally not machine-washable, but may include a cover that is. 

Mattress pads vs mattress toppers: key differences

Amazon Basics Mattress Pad

(Image credit: Amazon)
  • Use a mattress topper to totally change the feel of your bed
  • A mattress pad is thinner but helps protect against spills and allergens
  • Most mattress toppers aren't machine-washable

When thinking about whether to buy a mattress topper or a mattress pad, here’s what you need to know about the differences between them...

  • A mattress pad subtly makes your bed more comfortable, while a mattress topper transforms the feel of it. Depending on what you need to help you sleep better, you’ll have to make a decision between a pad or a topper. If you’re looking to significantly alter the feel of your mattress so that it is softer, firmer, or cooler, then a mattress topper will do the job. But if you want a little extra coziness, then a mattress pad will be a better option for you.
  • A mattress pad is thinner than a mattress topper. Mattress pads are thinner layers of around 1-2 inches, while mattress toppers are similar to a mattress layer and start from around 2 inches and thicker. Because mattress pads are thinner they are less likely to protect against wear and tear, and spillages, but they still offer more protection than a thin mattress protector and can also protect against dust mites and allergens.
  • Most mattress pads can be cleaned in a washing machine, unlike many mattress toppers. Because they are thinner and lighter, it’s generally easier to wash mattress pads in the machine and tumble dry them. If you’d prefer to use a mattress topper, then you can protect it by using a washable or waterproof mattress cover, or alternatively, look out for bed toppers with a removable washable cover.

Mattress pads vs mattress toppers: prices

  • Mattress toppers typically cost more than mattress pads
  • Both toppers and pads are available across a range of price points
  • Either option is more affordable than buying a new mattress

Both mattress pads and toppers are an inexpensive way to upgrade your bed compared to buying a new mattress outright — and either are available in a wide range of budgets. But because they use slightly more in the way of materials, bed toppers are usually more expensive than mattress pads. Most mattress brands make pads and toppers using the same high-quality materials and manufacturing; one great example is the Nolah Bamboo Mattress Pad, which is plush, antibacterial, and temperature-regulating as well as being great value. You’ll also find plenty of options from online bedding retailers.

Amazon has a wealth of choices when it comes to mattress toppers and mattress pads, and you can easily pick up either for under $100 — which is ideal if you need a spare or are just looking to spruce up a guest bed. You can also buy direct from the brands; companies like Lucid have toppers starting from $80 for a queen, with plenty of cooling options, too. 

Upgrading your current bed with a topper from a premium mattress brand is a great compromise if you can't readily afford one of their mattresses. For instance, Tempur-Pedic makes toppers using the same famous NASA-inspired foam found in their mattresses but at a much lower cost. Better yet, if you browse Tempur-Pedic mattress sales, you will often find fantastic savings of up to 40% off Tempur-Pedic toppers. 

Or, if you’re looking for luxury, head over to a high-end eco brand such as Saatva and find quality options made using graphite, latex and foam. Saatva’s toppers start from around $175 for a twin, while a mattress pad starts from $155 for the same size. You'll sometimes find these items discounted in Saatva mattress sales.

Ultimately, how much you spend on a mattress topper or mattress pad will boil down to several factors, including:

  • How often you need to use it
  • The state of your existing bed
  • How much comfort you need
  • What you're able (or willing) to spend

If your existing mattress is relatively new or still in good condition, then spending more on a decent mattress topper or pad will help prolong the life of your bed and keep it in good condition for longer. If you only need a little bit of adjustment, then a mattress pad should be enough, but if you’re looking to greatly alter the feel, then a mattress topper is probably a better option, provided your existing mattress is stable enough.

Mattress pads vs mattress toppers: Design

The Lucid 4 Inch Gel Mattress Topper placed on a white mattress and dressed with cushions

(Image credit: Lucid)
  • Both toppers and pads are easy to fit and transport
  • They're made with the same materials as top mattresses
  • Options are available for pressure relief or cooling

Both mattress pads and mattress toppers are easy to fit and practical to transport. They come in the same sizes as standard mattresses – from twin to California king, and sit on top of the bed, attached either by corner straps, or in the same way as a fitted sheet. Some toppers come as just a layer with no attachments. You can easily stop this style of bed topper shifting around by adding a mattress protector over the top.

Mattress toppers and pads are made using the same materials you would find in the top-rated hybrid and memory foam mattresses. And like mattresses, they vary in build and quality according to price. 

As for mattress pads, you can buy a ‘pillow top’ option filled with softer fibers to offer a little bit of luxury should you need it. If you need a topper or pad that is hypoallergenic, look out for materials like organic latex or cotton that will keep your sleep surface fresh and clean.

If you need extra pressure relief, then bed toppers made with memory foam will help cushion the shoulders, hips and knees. If you’re after temperature regulation or breathability, then wool and cotton mattress pads will serve you well, or look for mattress toppers with added cooling gel.

Mattress pads vs mattress toppers: which one should you buy?

For anybody looking to quickly and affordably upgrade their bed, a mattress pad or a mattress topper is a great choice. However, it’s worth bearing in mind the differences between the two, so you get exactly the qualities you need for better sleep...

Mattress pads are practical, portable and easy to wash, but they have less support than a mattress topper, which offers more cushioning for pressure points. If you only need a touch more warmth and coziness, then a mattress pad is the best choice for you. Otherwise, pick up a mattress topper to markedly enhance the feel of your bed — whether you need something more firm or cooling.

While both a mattress pad and bed topper will protect your mattress, a topper is thicker, more durable and a better option for wear and tear. Toppers, however, aren’t as easy to clean as mattress pads, although some have removable covers that can be washed in the machine. (Most mattress pads can be machine-washed and tumble-dried.)

Another factor to consider is cost. Mattress pads are generally cheaper to buy than bed toppers, something to bear in mind if you are looking to freshen up a guest bed or don't need to substantially transform your existing sleep setup. In either case, you'll still be saving plenty of money versus buying a new mattress outright — especially if you regularly browse ongoing mattress sales for deals on pads and toppers. 

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Grace Franks

Grace Franks is an experienced sleep and mattress writer who has written for our sister sites Tom's Guide and T3, among other brands. She's interested in organic and eco-friendly sleep products, and how good sleep can improve our general wellbeing. When not writing about mattresses, Grace loves reading, creative writing, and practicing yoga.