Mattress Pad vs Mattress Protector: What's the Difference & Which One Should You Pick

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If you’re looking to protect your mattress from accidental spills, you’ve likely come across mattress protectors and mattress pads. The two mattress accessories pretty much do the same job of protecting the mattress and prolonging its life. Still, there are key differences between them when it comes to functionality, pricing and durability.

In this guide, we’ll go over everything you need to know about mattress pads and protectors, so shoppers can make an informed call about which one to choose over the other.

Mattress Pad vs Mattress Protector

What is a Mattress Pad?

A mattress pad is a thin layer of padding, no more than 1 to 2″ thick, that sits on top of the mattress. It’s usually quilted and filled with down, cotton or polyester for a little extra cushioning. Mattress pads fit over the top of the mattress, similar to a fitted sheet.

Mattress pads usually serve a dual purpose: make the mattress a little more comfortable while providing a layer of protection from accidental spills and wear and tear. That said, a mattress pad does not drastically change the feel or firmness of the mattress as a mattress topper, nor does it offer the same level of protection as a mattress protector.

You can consider a mattress pad somewhere in between a mattress protector and a mattress topper. It’s not as thick or cushiony as a mattress topper but not as thin or flat as a mattress protector.

Mattress pads are usually rated as water-resistant and not waterproof. That means they can help protect your mattress from spills but won’t be able to keep out all liquids in case of serious accidents, as well as a mattress protector can. The absence of a waterproof layer makes mattress pads less noisy than some mattress protectors (especially vinyl or polyester ones), and it doesn’t make the mattress feel as though you’re sleeping on plastic (as is the case with cheaper protectors).

Points to consider: Mattress pads are not as durable as mattress protectors and may need to be replaced more frequently. Also, polyester quilted mattress pads tend to be less breathable than most mattress protectors. Finally, the quilted top may prevent the sheets from snugly fitting over the mattress pad and the mattress.

Mattress Pad

Mattress Pads Pros:

  • Adds a bit of plushness to the mattress.
  • Creates an additional barrier preventing stains and minor spills.
  • Doesn’t have the “plasticky” feel nor makes crinkling noise.
  • Machine washable.

Mattress Pad Cons:

  • Doesn’t significantly alter the firmness of the mattress.
  • Most mattress pads aren’t waterproof.
  • Not recommended for memory foam mattresses as it can interfere with the performance.
  • May make the mattress less breathable, especially polyester quilted ones.
  • Less durable than mattress protectors.
  • May cause the sheets to come loose due to the quilted top.

What is a Mattress Protector?

Mattress protector does a single job: it protects your mattress from spills, stains, dust mites and other allergens. It’s a thin layer of fabric that covers the entire mattress, similar to a fitted sheet.

Mattress protectors are usually made out of cotton or its blend (Tencel, terry cotton etc.) and polyester. Additionally, waterproof mattress protectors have a membrane layer under the fabric, making them impermeable to liquids. Cotton and its blend are usually more breathable but tend to be more expensive than polyester or vinyl.

Unlike mattress pads, mattress protectors don’t add any cushioning or change the feel of the mattress.

zipped mattress protector

Mattress Protector Pros:

  • Fully protects the mattress from all kinds of spills, dust mites and other allergens.
  • Doesn’t (or minutely) alter the mattress’s feel and firmness.
  • Except for cheaper ones, most protectors are more breathable than mattress pads.
  • Machine washable and easy to care for.
  • Durable.

Mattress Protector Cons:

  • Cheaper ones may trap some heat and may make a rustling noise with each movement of the sleeper.
  • Doesn’t add any plushness to the mattress.

Do you need both a mattress pad and a mattress protector?

No, you don’t necessarily need both. 

If your mattress feels stiff or it’s quite old, you can consider adding a mattress pad for some cushioning. However, if you’re happy with your mattress and need just to protect it from spills and other allergens, a mattress protector would suffice.

If you plan to use both, my recommendation would be to place the mattress pad below the mattress protector. If you place the mattress pad over the protector, it may slip and bunch up due to the lack of friction.

Mattress Pads vs. Mattress Protectors: Which one should you pick?

Mattress pads and mattress protectors perform similar functions but choosing between the two boils down to what level of protection you’re seeking for your mattress.

Mattress pads add a bit of cushioning to the mattress while protecting it from moisture and dirt. Mattress pads don’t significantly change the firmness of the mattress but can make the mattress feel a tad bit softer. They also help keep the mattress clean but mostly aren’t waterproof.

On the other hand, mattress protectors fully safeguard the mattress from spills and dirt but don’t add any cushioning. They also don’t change the feel or performance of the mattress.

If you want to everything-proof your mattress, from spills to dust mites, go with a mattress protector. However, If you’re looking for something to make your mattress a little more cosy and are ok with medium protection, go with a mattress pad.

Mattress Pad vs. Mattress Protector Situations

Still unsure if you need a mattress protector or a mattress pad? Here are some scenarios that might help you decide:

  • If you find your current mattress a tad bit firm or feels flat, a mattress pad may be a good option as it will add a bit of a pillowy feel to the mattress.
  • If you’ve kids, pets, or you tend to eat/drink in bed, go with a mattress protector for full protection. A mattress protector will also be a good choice if you have allergies.
  • If you sleep hot, go for breathable mattress protectors or mattress pads. That said, generally, mattress protectors are more breathable than mattress pads.
  • If you have a memory foam mattress, a mattress protector would be a better choice as it doesn’t interfere with the feel or comfort of the mattress.
  • If durability is your main concern, go with a mattress protector.

So, what’s the verdict?

A mattress pad or a mattress protector can help prolong the life of your mattress and keep it clean. But choosing between the two depends on your needs. If you want extra cushioning, go for a mattress pad. But if you’re looking for full protection, go with a mattress protector.

If you’re shopping for a mattress protector, you can check our top picks in Australia here.

Do you use a mattress protector or a mattress pad? Or do you use both? Let us know in the comments below.

James Lee

James Lee

James is the content director at WhatASleep, a certified sleep science coach from Spencer Institute and our in-house sleep product expert. Over three years, he's personally tested hundreds of mattresses. He likes to keep his reviews simple, objective, and straightforward so that the readers don't have to go through decision fatigue which is often the case while shopping for sleep products.

He hails from Sydney and has a journalism degree from the University of Queensland and an MBA from Melbourne Business School.

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