What're the Differences in Mattress Topper, Pad, and Protector?

What's the difference between a mattress topper, pad and protector? To the average person, not much since they're all sitting on top of the mattress.

Adding to the confusion, the terms mattress toppers, mattress pads and mattress protector are used interchangeably. However, there are a number of differences between a mattress topper and mattress pad relative to a mattress protector. 

We’ll also explain what they are and tell you when each mattress product is the better choice for a given situation.

Here are 7 Popular Differences well Explained below!

Difference 1: Thickness

A mattress topper and mattress pad will be much thicker than a mattress protector. After all, the mattress protector is generally a thin sheet of vinyl or polyester while the pad and topper are intended to be thick, soft layers that supplement the mattress.

A mattress topper tends to be thick compared to pads and protectors. This is because the mattress topper can be compared to a small mattress. 

Consider the mattress topper to be a thicker version of the mattress pad.

Difference 2: Fit

A mattress protector tends to be quite fitted because you don’t want it to shift and expose the mattress should a child or adult have an accident in bed.

Only mattress protectors will entirely encase a mattress, such as when you want the mattress protector to prevent dust mites and allergens from getting into the bed.

Mattress pads tend to be fitted, too. They may take the form of a fitted sheet or have straps. Mattress toppers typically aren’t secured to the bed in any way. That isn’t seen as necessary because they’re so thick. 

They’ll generally be laid out on top of the bed and left there, held there by their own weight. However, you can remove it if you choose.

Difference 3: Intent

Mattress protectors are made to protect the mattress – any mattress – from messes. It is generally put on the mattress to prevent urine, vomit and other biological messes from seeping into the mattress.

In this regard, the mattress protector may go on any size mattress – including over one that has a mattress pad. If it is a slippery plastic bed cover, so be it. The feel of the mattress protector is irrelevant as long as it prevents the underlying mattress from being stained. 

There are mattress pads that do the same thing, but they are thin soft layers that double as a de facto pillow though they absorb waste.

Mattress pads are often used to extend the life of the mattress. The soft layer sits on top of the mattress, making up for worn out stuffing or covering up broken springs. Mattress pads may make up for shortcomings with the mattress in other ways.

For example, it may contain a layer of heat distributing or cooling foam to make up for the heat retention of a memory foam mattress.

If your goal is to change the feel of the mattress, a mattress topper is generally better than a mattress pad. If you’re attempting to make up for the change in sensation because of a mattress cover / mattress protector, then you can put a mattress pad on top of a mattress protector.

Also, If you want to maintain the current feel of your mattress but the top of it is wearing down, a thin mattress pad is sufficient.

Difference 4: Material

Mattress toppers are often made of cotton, memory foam, latex, wool, or down. The goal is to be as soft and/or supportive as a mattress. It may be made of a complementary material to make up for the shortcomings of the existing mattress.

For example, you’ll often find latex or memory foam mattress toppers to give someone the support they don’t get from a coiled wire mattress without the cost of a new memory foam mattress.

Mattress protectors are overwhelmingly made of materials that won’t absorb liquids. That means most of them are made of some sort of plastic, though treated fabrics are an option. They generally won’t be soft on their own.

Mattress protectors are generally flexible enough to be fitted over a mattress or a mattress with a mattress pad. You have to be careful of the dimensions before you try to fit it over a mattress with a thick mattress topper.

Mattress pads tend to be a combination of the two. It may be a cotton or foam layer covered on one or both sides by plastic. Or it is an absorbent cotton or other material that can be removed and throw in the wash when stained.

In these cases, it is similar to a mattress topper except it is made to be laundered many times. Mattress pads may be able to fit over a mattress topper if it has straps instead of a fitted body.

Difference 5: Degree of Difference

Mattress toppers and mattress pads are so similar that they can be considered siblings. It is literally a difference of thickness and intent. Mattress protectors are so different that they can be considered cousins.

The only real overlap is when a mattress protector doubles as a mattress pad, and you’ll pay more for those that do double duty.

You’ll also pay more for foam and cotton material based on how much is used, no matter how thick the “pad” is.

Difference 6: Price

Simple mattress protectors are cheap, and they’re certainly cheaper than cleaning or replacing a stained mattress. Mattress toppers are generally cheaper than mattress pads, since they’ll contain far more foam than a thin pad.

Mattress toppers could cost as much as a new mattress, though a down mattress topper is still cheaper than a down mattress. A memory foam mattress pad is always cheaper than a much thicker memory foam topper or a whole new memory foam mattress.

Note that you’ll pay more for more advanced engineering such as when a mattress pad/topper contains multiple layers of foam or layers specifically for enhanced ventilation.

Difference 7: Terminology

A mattress protector may be called a mattress cover. It is there to protect the mattress via the thin cover you put on top of it. Both the mattress pad and mattress topper are on top of the mattress to improve the feel.

This is why the terms for both are used interchangeably so often.


Mattresses are expensive. This is why we want to protect our investment and only pay for upgrades and additions as necessary. This is why mattress pads, mattress protectors and mattress toppers exist.

Determine what you actually want or need and choose the appropriate product to solve your problem.

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John S.

Hello guys! I'm a 37-years-old author, traveler, writer, blogger, and a camper. I enjoy life as much as I can and love to visit beautiful places in my RV. That's why while traveling I have decided to dedicate some time to share my experiences with everyone that might be interested in traveling, camping, and RVs.