Mattress Protector vs Mattress Pad: What’s the Difference?

Trying to decide which to buy? Here’s what you need to know about the benefits, distinctions, and different types of mattress protectors and mattress pads.

By Nicole Gleichmann

Apr 13th, 2023

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You want to keep your mattress clean and comfortable so that you can get great sleep every night. Thankfully, mattress protectors and pads exist to help you do just that. Whether you have a brand-new mattress that you want to keep in pristine condition or a well-loved mattress that is starting to show its age, a mattress pad or mattress protector could be right for you.

But what exactly is the difference between a mattress pad and a mattress protector? And how do you know which one is the best choice for you? Below, we explore the similarities and differences between these two popular mattress accessories.

What is a Mattress Protector?

A mattress protector does precisely what you might imagine from its name—it protects your mattress from damage.

Mattress protectors safeguard your bed against spills and accidents and protect you from nasty things that might reside within your mattress, like bed bugs and dust mites. In addition, a mattress protector is a fantastic tool you can use to maintain your bed’s warranty, as stains often void mattress warranties.

A mattress protector is a great way to keep your mattress clean and keep you protected. Your mattress protector will protect against some or all of the following:

  • Spills
  • Bedwetting
  • Sweat
  • Dust mites
  • Allergens
  • Mold and fungi
  • Bed bugs

Some mattress protectors also use materials that help to wick away sweat or regulate temperature, allowing you to sleep cooler.

Types of Mattress Protectors

Depending on the level of protection you need, mattress toppers come in three basic styles.

Encasement: If you want to protect against bed bugs, an encasement is necessary. These zip all the way around your mattress, creating a solid barrier between you and your mattress. They’re also great for people with allergies, as they keep out dust mites and mold.

Fitted: Many mattress protectors fit on your bed just like a fitted sheet. This is an excellent choice if your primary concern is keeping your mattress clean. A fitted mattress protector provides a shield against liquids, keeping your bed dry and stain-free.

Anchored: An anchored mattress protector sits atop your bed and has straps that anchor it onto the corners of the mattress. This is the least protective of the three, as the sides and bottom of the mattress remain unprotected, and if it shifts around, you might even find some of the surface of your mattress exposed.

What Are Mattress Protectors Made Of?

Unlike mattress pads and toppers, mattress protectors are relatively thin. Because the purpose of a mattress protector is functional, its materials fit the particular needs of the mattress protector in question.

  • Polyurethane: Polyurethane is the king of materials when it comes to mattress protectors. Manufacturers combine polyurethane with natural fiber to create mattress protectors that are breathable, waterproof, and bed-bug-proof.
  • Polyester: Another fantastic choice for mattress protectors, polyester is waterproof. However, some cheaper polyester versions can be noisy, so make sure the noise won’t disturb you, or opt for a higher-quality version.
  • Vinyl: Vinyl protects against bed bugs, allergens, and dust mites. This material feels more rubbery and less like fabric than polyurethane and polyester blends.
  • Cotton and Spandex: While some mattress protectors contain only these materials, they are neither bug-proof nor spill-proof. A cotton protector can be cheap, and it can provide a small amount of protection against stains, but it does not safeguard against spills, bugs, or allergens.

What is a Mattress Pad?

A mattress pad is a 1-2” layer of quilted fabric or padding that provides comfort and protection. Unlike a mattress protector, a mattress pad’s primary purpose is to give you a more comfortable sleep surface. While some mattress pads contain hypoallergenic or waterproof materials, most are not designed to guard your mattress from bed bugs, spills, or stains.

Benefits of a mattress pad include:

  • Adding support and comfort: This is the most important feature of most mattress pads. They offer a more comfortable and luxurious feel for mattresses that are either getting old or are too firm.
  • Extending your mattress’s lifespan: By absorbing some of the wear and tear that would normally impact your bed’s surface, a mattress pad prolongs the lifespan of your mattress.
  • Regulating temperature: Some mattress pads contain breathable materials that promote airflow and allow you to sleep cooler. Materials like wool and down help keep you warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer by providing insulation.
  • Decreasing noise: If you use a mattress protector that makes a lot of noise when you move around in bed, a mattress pad can help reduce that noise. This is one reason someone might need both a mattress protector and a mattress pad.


What Type of Mattress Pad is Right for You?

The best mattress pad for you depends on what your goal is. The mattress pad you choose should align with your personal comfort and temperature preferences.

Foam Mattress Pads for Increased Support and Comfort

Are you looking for a little bit more cushioning of your joints or support for your lower back than your mattress offers? Memory foam, polyfoam, and latex mattress pads offer a 1-2” layer of comfort and support that may suit your needs. Here’s what you can expect from each type of foam pad:

  • Memory foam: A marshmallowy contouring eases pain along pressure points and makes a mattress feel softer. Be aware that memory foam traps body heat, so it’s not the best option for hot sleepers.
  • Latex foam: Latex foam is a firmer, more buoyant foam that’s naturally breathable, and it’s the best mattress pad for increased back support. Natural latex foam pads are an excellent eco-friendly option.
  • Polyurethane foam: Polyfoam has a more neutral, pillow-top-like feel that creates a soft cushion. It won’t drastically change your bed’s firmness level, but it can offer a touch of softness.

Down, Wool, or Cotton Pads for a More Plush, Luxurious Feel

If your goal is to feel a little bit more like you’re sleeping on a cloud, then you may like a down or cotton mattress pad. Down, in particular, is very fluffy and helps to regulate temperature. Cotton mattress pads are soft, machine washable, and easy to adjust. Wool is also a soft option—even softer than cotton, but also more expensive and usually thinner.

What is the Difference Between a Mattress Pad and a Mattress Topper?

When shopping for a mattress pad, you’ll likely also encounter mattress toppers. They contain many of the same materials and also claim to increase your comfort, so what is the difference between the two?

The primary difference is the height, with mattress pads measuring between one and two inches and mattress toppers coming in at two to four inches. Because mattress toppers are thicker than mattress pads, they have a bigger influence on the feel of your mattress. If you want a big change in firmness or comfort level, opt for a thicker topper over a thinner pad.

Mattress toppers are more expensive than mattress pads, but they can be a great choice if you have an older bed that is starting to sag or if you need a different comfort level but don’t want to buy a whole new bed.

Should I Buy a Mattress Protector or a Mattress Pad?

What type of protection does my mattress need?

A mattress protector aims to protect you from spills, stains, bugs, allergens, and more. A mattress pad may protect from some of these things, but it is more effective at protecting your mattress by reducing wear and tear. In addition, a mattress protector is more likely to keep your mattress under warranty as it helps prevent visible signs of use, such as stains.

Do I like how my mattress feels?

If lumps and bumps in your mattress are getting to you or you just like the feel of a bit more fluff, a mattress pad is a great choice. On the other hand, if you’re happy with how you feel when lying in your bed, you might not need a mattress pad. However, putting a layer of protection between you and your mattress is still a good idea, so a mattress protector might still be a wise investment.

Am I sleeping too hot or cold?

Temperature regulation is key to a good night’s sleep, and either a mattress pad or protector can improve this for you. A mattress pad made from a natural material such as cotton, down, wool, or latex will provide breathability and help you regulate your sleep temperature.

Some mattress protectors help with temperature, too, though to a lesser extent than mattress pads. In particular, they can help to wick away sweat.

Do I live in an apartment or travel frequently?

If you’re someone who lives in an apartment or who loves to travel, you should invest in a mattress protector that protects against bed bugs.

Bed bugs wreak havoc on your life, and you never know where you’ll encounter them. Unfortunately, businesses won’t share when they’ve had a bed bug infestation, so you don’t hear about these infestations nearly as often as they occur. It is painfully easy to bring bed bugs home from hotels and peer-to-peer rentals, so you could easily bring home some unwanted travelers.

Mattress protectors that fully encase your mattress and explicitly state that they protect against bed bugs are the only way to ensure your mattress (and your skin) is safe from bed bugs. These mattress protectors also lock bed bugs in, so if you are worried there may be a bug or two but not a full infestation in your home, a bed bug mattress protector can ease your fears while you figure out the next steps.

Final Thoughts

Whether you need a mattress pad or a mattress protector depends on your circumstance and desires. Mattress protectors safeguard against spills and keep your bed clean, while mattress pads offer a touch more comfort. Both help extend your mattress’s lifespan, and you might find that combining the two offers you the most protection and comfort.

If you’re looking for a new mattress protector or mattress pad, check out our roundups for the best of both!