What does a topper do for a mattress? We explain

Hand lifting underneath Linenspa mattress topper on bed
(Image credit: Linenspa)

A mattress topper, aka mattress pad, is an extra layer that lies on top of your mattress, boosting its height, cushioning and support. In this way, the best mattress toppers can help you get a better night's sleep, especially if you have an old, tired, or unusually thin mattress. 

That said, even the best mattress can be improved in this way. And given the relatively affordable price of toppers, that makes them quite the bargain. You can pick up a cheap toppers, like the Linenspa Gel Memory Foam Mattress Topper, for under $50.

Note, though, that a mattress topper is a different thing from a protector – the latter are thinner, and specifically designed to protect your mattress from dirt, dust, germs, spills, bedwetting and other issues. Many are water-resistant or waterproof. (Head to our best mattress protectors roundup for our top picks, or see our mattress protector vs mattress topper explainer for more info.) With mattress toppers, in contrast, the focus is less on protection and more on providing extra comfort. 

Recently there's also been a trend for pillow-top mattresses, where a mattress topper is essentially sewn onto the mattress, to add a luxurious, soft upper layer (our #1 best mattress, the Saatva Classic, has a pillow top). While an all-in-one approach is a clean solution, one potential benefit of going for a separate topper over a pillow-top mattress, is that if this layer does start to dip or flatten over time, you can replace it. That isn't an option with a sewn-on pillow top.

With all that in mind, let's dive further into the topic of what a topper actually does for a mattress.

1. It makes your night more comfortable

We'll start with the obvious: adding a mattress topper is designed to make your sleep experience more comfortable. So if you don't absolutely love the sleep feel of your current mattress, it's definitely worth considering. That's especially the case if you have a cheap, thin mattress, as the extra depth and support that a topper adds can make it a deeper and more comfortable overall. 

2. It can make your mattress softer or firmer

A man and a woman unroll a Tempur-Adapt Mattress Topper onto their bed

The Tempur-Adapt Mattress Topper is our favourite mattress topper overall (Image credit: Tempur-Pedic)

Specific mattress toppers can also fix specific comfort issues. For example, do you have a soft mattress that you'd prefer was firmer and more supportive? A memory foam topper can mould around your body more precisely, and provide an extra level of pressure relief. Our favourite is the Tempur-Adapt Mattress Topper.

Memory foam is also good for couples who toss and turn a lot, as it provides extra motion isolation. Be aware that some memory foams can trap body heat – opt for one with temperature-regulation properties built-in (head to our ViscoSoft Active Cooling Copper Topper review for an example), or consider something like a latex topper if you know you sleep hot. 

What about the opposite situation: your mattress gives you the firm support you need for your back, neck and shoulders, but lacks softness? In this case, too, adding a mattress topper can also even things up. 

Here, mattress toppers that incorporate wool, feathers or polyester fillings will be a better choice. We particularly love the Birch Plush Organic Mattress Topper, which is made using organic cotton, organic wool, and natural latex. It's quite expensive, though, so if you're on a budget, the Pure Brands Down Alternative Mattress Topper Pad, which is filled with breathable microfiber, provides a more affordable way of softening the top of your mattress. 

3. It revives an aging mattress

If you have an aging mattress that's lost its plumpness, adding a mattress topper can revitalize it and add a new lease of life, saving you the cost of buying a new mattress (although be aware that this market is packed with regular mattress sales, which means opting for a new bed might not be as expensive as you thought). Of course, sleep is so important we'd never advise compromising on your long-term comfort, just to save a few bucks. If you simply can't afford a new mattress right now, though, a topper is great stop-gap until you can. Especially in the case of guest beds that are only used sporadically. 

4. It keeps your mattress clean and hygienic

Linenspa 3 Inch Gel Infused Memory Foam Mattress Topper

(Image credit: Linenspa)

Although a mattress topper isn't designed specifically to protect your mattress in the same way a waterproof mattress protector would, for instance, it does still do a lot to keep your mattress clean, fresh and hygienic. If you think about it, the majority of dirt, dust and infestations are still going to reach your mattress topper before they reach the mattress, which means it can provide a very effective barrier to stop your mattress getting dirty. 

Of course, there's nothing to stop you using both a mattress topper and a mattress protector, for the ultimate combination of protection and comfort. A benefit of this approach is that a mattress protector super easy to wash – you'll almost always just be able to bung it into a washing machine when it could do with a freshen-up. If you're not using a protector, head to our article on how to clean a mattress topper for tips on keeping that hygienic over time (there's a separate guide to how to clean a foam mattress topper specifically).

5. It increases your mattress' lifespan

Birch Organic Mattress Topper

The Birch Organic Mattress Topper features a combination of premium fillings (Image credit: Birch Living)

While mattress toppers aren't cheap, over time they can pay for themselves, by taking pressure off your mattress, preventing sagging and stopping it getting worn down so quickly. This increases your mattress' lifespan, and saves you the bother and expense of replacing it. So if you think about it, not buying a mattress topper is kind of a false economy.

Tom May

Tom regularly writes about sleep for Tom's Guide and our sister site T3.com. Over the years he's tested a number of mattresses, duvets and pillows, and as a back pain sufferer, has a keen interest in finding ones that offer maximum support. Plus, in running a successful Airbnb business, sleep hygiene and providing the right bedding for guests has become a big part of his day-to-day life.