Have you been feeling like there’s something about your bed that just feels off and could stand to be improved? Have you recently purchased a new mattress and are finding yourself worried about it getting stained or waterlogged? Or have you always used a mattress pad but never really known why?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you’ve probably started thinking about adding a mattress pad, topper, or protector to your mattress. There are many ways to modify your bed, and the terminology and sheer volume of products can be dizzying.

To help you best customize your bed and find the most appropriate solution in your situation, we’ll review the key differences between pads, protectors, and toppers. We’ll also break down the main types of pads and offer our recommendations for the best products available. Keep scrolling through this guide to find all this information or click here to jump straight to our top choices for the best mattress pads on the market today.

What is a Mattress Pad?

A mattress pad is a thin material that is placed over your mattress that serves primarily to offer some barrier between the sheet and the mattress itself. By adding this layer, the main role of the mattress pad is to protect your mattress against spills or other things that could stain or damage the mattress. A mattress pad may also provide a slightly different feel when sleeping on the bed, although this type of change is usually minimal.

A mattress pad is most commonly used when someone expects that there may be some occasional spills or messes. For example, mattress pads may be used by people who sometimes eat and drink in bed or sometimes let their children and/or pets on the bed.

Do you need a mattress pad, a mattress topper, or a mattress protector?

It is common for people to get confused about the difference between a mattress pad, a mattress topper, and a mattress protector. In many cases, the companies that produce these products may use these terms in ambiguous ways, which furthers the uncertainty.

A mattress pad provides a thin layer that goes under the sheet and offers some protection to the mattress.

A mattress protector covers the whole mattress — it is sometimes called an encasement — and is much more resistant to all kinds of potential threats to the mattress. As an example, mattress protectors are usually waterproof and also are often hypoallergenic. Some are also built to resist infestation by bed bugs.

A mattress topper, on the other hand, sits on top of the existing mattress and is designed to change the comfort feel or the support level of the bed. A mattress topper is usually thicker and not built expressly for the purpose of protecting the mattress.

People who are shopping for a mattress protector usually know that their mattress is regularly at risk of being exposed directly to food, liquids, dust, or other allergens. On the other hand, those looking for a mattress topper are focused more on how their bed feels than about whether or not it is at risk of getting stained or damaged.

Mattress Pads – Protection and Comfort

People who want a mattress pad usually want some added defenses for their mattress but may not want or need to invest in something as robust (and potentially noisy) as a mattress protector. A pad can also provide a small amount of additional comfort or softness to the feel of the bed.

There are also situations in which someone may use more than one of these products together. For example, someone may purchase a topper to change the feel of their bed but want to protect the topper (and the actual mattress) with a pad or protector over the topper and under the sheets.

The following table gives a quick overview of the differences between these products.

Mattress Pad Mattress Protector Mattress Topper
Where It Goes Only on top of mattress Around the entire mattress Only on top of mattress
Usual Thickness 1/8″ – 1″ 1/8″ – 1″ 1/2″ to 3″
Usual Materials Cotton, polyester, rayon, down Polyester, rayon, cotton blends Foam, latex, wool, down, fiber, synthetics
Level of Protection Medium High Low-to-medium
Hypoallergenic? Sometimes Often No
Waterproof? Sometimes Almost always Rarely
Primary Uses To add light protection against spills and stains To provide robust protection for mattress, including from bedroom allergens To alter support, firmness, or comfort level of mattress

What are you hoping to achieve with your pad, protector, or topper?

In this section, we’ll consider some of the most common situations that get people thinking about these products and which one is usually best.

  • You need added comfort: in this situation, a mattress topper or a mattress pad are the best options. If the comfort need is significant, a topper will help much more than a pad.
  • The mattress is too firm: a topper is definitely your best choice as numerous topper designs and materials can provide a plusher feel. A mattress pad may suffice if the mattress is just barely too firm.
  • The mattress is too soft: a topper with a firmer material or design is the answer in this case.
  • The mattress is at high risk for spills or stains: a protector will do the best job of keeping liquids or crumbs away from the mattress. If the risks of spills are irregular or minor, a mattress pad may do the trick.
  • The mattress protector you’re using is too noisy: by nature of its materials, a mattress pad usually does not have the same issues with being loud. It won’t offer the same level of protection, but it will still help — and more importantly, won’t make a noise every time you move.
  • You need more support and pressure point relief: a topper, such as one made with memory foam, is going to have the greatest impact on the amount of support you’re getting at night.
  • The whole feel of your bed needs a refresh: again, a topper is the answer here, as it goes much further in altering the way your bed feels.
  • You’re worried about allergens accumulating in your mattress: while a pad can provide some extra defense, especially if you wash it regularly, a protector will do the most to prevent allergen buildup.

Types of Mattress Pads

If you’ve read through the prior section and realized that you are in the market for a mattress pad, you’ll want to know your options for the different types of mattress pads. Each type has a different composition and pros and cons — all of which are outlined in the table below.

Cotton mattress pads are typically made with quilted cotton on the top and come in a range of different thicknesses. The price range for cotton mattress pads can be huge because of the variance in the quality of cotton that’s used, whether it’s organic cotton, and the quality of the stitching and workmanship.

Cotton is often effective at providing added softness, and it does provide a barrier against spills. However, cotton is still an absorbent material and won’t repel water or keep a really bad spill from reaching your mattress. Thankfully, though, you can usually put a cotton mattress pad in the washing machine many times before it starts to degrade.

Fiber mattress pads, also sometimes called fiberbeds, can be made from a wide range of different synthetic materials including rayon and polyester blends. These are sometimes called down-alternatives if they are designed in a way that attempts to capture a similar feel as down. These fiber materials can usually be produced in a way to make them highly resistant to damage or liquids.

Most waterproof, bed-bug resistant, or otherwise stain-repelling mattress pads and protectors are made from these types of treated synthetic materials. Depending on how much fiber fill is used, a fiber mattress pad may or may not offer much of a difference in terms of comfort feel. One downside to these materials is that some of them, especially non-quilted ones, can be noisy. They may also require more care in cleaning.

Latex is rubber and can be created naturally or through synthetic processes. Many products are a blend of these two types of latex. Latex is less absorbent than cotton and provides added protection against spills, but latex alone is usually not sufficient to offer full protection.

Latex can do more than many other materials to change the feel of your mattress as it is offers a combination of responsiveness and bounce. However, to get the most benefit in terms of comfort and support, you likely would need to opt for a latex mattress topper, which is thicker and likely to stand up better over time. Also keep in mind that high-quality latex and natural latex is often more expensive than other mattress topper or mattress pad materials.

Memory foam mattress pads use a type of foam known as viscoelastic foam. This type of foam compresses when pressure is applied and then slowly retakes its form when the pressure is removed. Memory foam is not waterproof or resistant to most spills. It also can give off an odor when it is first unpackaged.

The biggest strength to memory foam is in providing pressure point relief for people who need more support from their bed, but usually, this is best provided by a thicker mattress topper. A thicker, denser memory foam topper is usually both more durable and more effective in providing support.

Wool, derived from sheep, is a very versatile textile. It provides warmth and is absorbent but at the same time is naturally wicking and can dry out quickly. Wool tends to resist odors and can be a very durable material as well.

For many of these reasons, wool mattress pads, especially those made with high-quality wool, can be quite expensive. In addition, while wool will offer some protection for your mattress, it is not a complete barrier and is not able to defend against major spills or tougher stains. Like with latex, memory foam, and down, most of the time, the wool products are thicker and really are mattress toppers rather than mattress pads. 

Heated mattress pads are not the focus of this guide, but we felt it was important to touch on them briefly. Heated mattress pads are not focused on stains at all. Instead, they are designed to help make your bed warm and cozy. These heated mattress pads are usually controlled by a switch, dial, or in some cases, a remote or phone.

Heated mattress pads are very popular in colder climates where the pad can be turned on before getting into bed to prevent those frigid first few minutes after crawling under the blankets. Most of these products are not waterproof and may lose functionality if regularly exposed to liquids or other spills. 

Our Top Picks

After you’ve settled on a mattress pad as the best choice in your situation, you’ll notice there are many brands and styles on the market. By far the most common are cotton and polyester blends, and those are what we think are the best choice for almost all shoppers. Here are our top picks for the best mattress pads:

Hypoallergenic Quilted Stretch-to-Fit Mattress Pad By Hanna Kay

This mattress pad combines polyester and cotton for a pad that offers some spill protection while maintaining softness. It has a track record of excellent reviews, is built with extra deep pockets to fit almost all mattresses, and is available at a fantastic price point. It also comes with a 10-year customer satisfaction guarantee. The biggest downside is that it’s only available in Twin and Queen sizes, so if you have a Full or King size bed, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

Available for purchase at Amazon.

Best for: value-conscious customers who want a basic mattress pad and not a topper or protector.

Material: Polyester-cotton blend
Price range: $22.95 – $24.95
Thickness: ~1/4”
Available sizes: Twin, Queen
Hypoallergenic: Yes
Return policy: 30 days under standard Amazon return policy; longer through Hanna Kay if ordered through Amazon
Warranty: The company offers a 10-year money-back guarantee. During this time period, you can return the mattress pad if it is defective or if you find that you just don’t like it.


Utopia Bedding Fitted Mattress Pad

There’s nothing revolutionary or exceptional about the Utopia Bedding mattress pad, but it meets the needs of a huge number of people who want a pad that provides increases in bed comfort and defenses against spills. While it won’t deter really tough messes, it will add a barrier that can help reduce damage to your mattress, and it comes at extremely affordable prices and in all of the normal mattress sizes.

Best for: budget shoppers who want a simple no-frills mattress pad available in all of the most common sizes.

Available online at Amazon.

Material: Polyester cover and polyester fiber fill
Price range: $15 – $29
Thickness: ~¼”
Available sizes: Twin, Twin XL, Full, Queen, King, California King
Hypoallergenic: Yes
Return policy: if purchased from Amazon, the standard 30-day return policy applies. Check with the retailer if you purchase this elsewhere.
Warranty: No warranty information is listed.


ExceptionalSheets Bamboo Mattress Pad with Fitted Skirt

This highly-regarded mattress topper uses a blend of different materials including a rayon cover and a polyester-cotton fiber fill. While many mattress pads, including the Hanna Kay model recommended here, are very thin, the ExceptionalSheets mattress pad has about an inch of lofted fiber fill to provide extra comfort.

Best for: people who want their mattress pad to deliver some extra comfort but who don’t want to opt for a full-on mattress topper

Available online from Amazon.

Material: Rayon cover, polyester-cotton backing, down-alternative fill
Price range: $89.99 – $119.99
Thickness: ~1”
Available sizes: Twin, Twin XL, Full, Queen, King, California King
Hypoallergenic: Yes
Return policy: eLuxurySupply, the retailer of this mattress pad, offers free returns for a full refund within 30 days of purchase.
Warranty: The company offers a 1-year hassle-free warranty.


Mattress Pad FAQ

We know we’ve covered a lot of information already, but there are likely still a few outstanding questions. For example,

How are mattress pads attached to the bed?

There are three main ways of affixing a mattress pad or protector:

  • Anchor straps: these are straps stitched in each corner of the pad. The straps slide under the mattress. There is no side paneling or other material. Anchor straps are the most prone to being loosened accidentally, but the open sides also are best at promoting airflow.
  • Elastic fitting: similar to a fitted sheet, mattress pads with elastic fitting are pulled down over the corners of the mattress. You can then pull the pad down over the sides of the mattress as well. Presuming it fits well on your mattress, a pad with elastic fitting usually does a solid job of staying in place.
  • Full encasement / wrapping: this is most common with mattress protectors and involves the entire mattress being inside the protector. This usually involves a zipper to seal the protector around the mattress itself.

Do I need to clean my mattress pad?

It is advisable to take steps to keep your mattress pad clean and to prevent any buildup of sweat, dust, or other allergens in the pad. And if there’s a big spill, of course, you’ll want to clean your mattress pad as soon afterward as possible.

Be aware, though, that it’s important to follow the manufacturer’s instructions for washing and drying a mattress pad. Some pads can be put in regular washer-and-dryer combinations, while others have more delicate washing requirements. Also be aware that the process of washing and drying in machines, including the use of fabric softeners, may degrade any waterproofing or water-resistance treatments on some pads.

Will a mattress pad make my bed sleep hotter?

In most cases, it will not. Most mattress pads are too thin to cause any significant obstruction of airflow around the body. If you opt for a thicker mattress pad or a pad made of down or wool, you may find some increase in heat retention. Issues related to sleeping hot are much more common with mattress toppers than mattress pads.

Will a mattress pad work well enough so that I don’t have to buy a new mattress?

Generally, no. If your mattress is badly in need of replacement, a mattress pad won’t be able to rescue it. But if your mattress is still in relatively good shape, a pad may revitalize it or add enough extra comfort to allow you to keep using that mattress for a longer period of time.

Is a memory foam pad an effective alternative to buying a new memory foam mattress?

No. In order for memory foam to really help provide comfort and support, it usually needs to be at least 2” thick, as it would be in a mattress topper. But in a mattress pad, the foam is not thick enough nor usually dense enough to replicate the feeling of a memory foam mattress.

Additional Resources

If reading this guide has helped you realize that you’re actually looking for a mattress topper or a mattress, check out our guides below:

by: Eric Seger