Futon vs. Mattress: Is There a Real Difference?


We spend, hopefully, at least 8-hours of our 24-hour day sleeping and want to be comfortable during that time of rest.  There are very strong opinions about what the best mattress is for the best sleep possible, but what about futons?  

Futons vs. Mattress: is there a real difference?  Or is the difference in name only?  How do we decide if we want to rest our overworked bodies on a futon or a mattress, and do we really know what that even means?  There is actually a difference between the two.

A futon is a very specific type of sleeping surface, as is a mattress, and they are not the same at all. Knowing the origins of these two items, what they are made of, and what you want when you sleep are all very important variables to take into consideration when choosing what you are going to use in your bedroom. 

What is a Futon?

In order to really grasp the difference between a futon and a mattress, we need to have a working definition of what a futon actually is.  A futon is defined as a thin quilted mattress that is unrolled onto a floor to be used as a bed.  Think of what is called a bedroll.  If you have ever watched any Japanese movies or movies set in Japan, then you have seen one of these. 

It is also defined as a low wooden sofa that can be folded down into a bed. Americans know there well, and most of us have probably seen them even if we have never owned one.  There are some bunk beds that will have a bottom bunk that is a futon.  

The futons that we see most often – the ones that go from sofa to bed – come of a variety of sizes.  This enables flexibility and versatility, allowing people from different walks of life to find futons useful. 

Origin of a Futon

Futons originated in Japan in the late 19th century.  They were designed to be rolled and stored easily during the day and then brought back out for easy set up at night for sleeping.  While it is hard for us to grasp the concept of not having a room that is dedicated to sleeping, this is very common in other parts of the world.

Having only a few rooms in a small home or apartment is very normal for a large number of societies. While the Japanese have to been using futon mattresses for a long time, what we know as futons is a relatively new thing. 

The first futon sofa bed hit the market in 1982, thanks to William Brouwer. The futon was no longer a quilted mattress on the floor that could be stowed away every morning. It was not a framed sofa by day and a framed bed by night. 

What is a Futon Made of?

The original Japanese futon is a thick quilt that would be stuffed with either feathers or wool, but they are not usually made like that anymore. They used feathers or wool because it is easy to roll up into a small package for daytime storage. 

You can still find traditionally made futons online, but the materials, for most manufacturers, are quite different now. 

If you buy a futon sofa bed, it is likely they are made from foam or some other type of compressed materials that are flexible enough to go from a sofa to a bed.  

Many futons are made of mostly cotton, both the interior and the exterior.  This makes them breathable.  If material that you sleep or sit on is not breathable, then you are in for a very warm sleeping experience.  This could be good if you live in a cold climate, but it won’t be very good for summertime.  

How Comfortable are Futons?

This is really a subjective question because the answer can change from person to person.  Some people love futons and rave about how comfortable they are and how good they are for their back.  Other people say they are extremely uncomfortable and hurt their back and hips. 

The quality and material also matter when talking about the comfort level to expect with the futon.  The traditional bedroll lays on the floor, so there is no bed frame that you will be able to feel if the mattress is not thick enough.  This will definitely affect the comfort of a futon. 

Also, something that affects how comfortable the bed will be is the size and weight of the person.  Lighter people won’t compress the mattress as much as they sleep while a larger, heavier person will likely feel every single support beam.  

This is not true for everyone, but generally speaking, it is a helpful thing to consider when deciding between a mattress and a futon. 

Best Futon

There are good futons and not so great futons.  Knowing which ones are best and why will help make a decision between a futon or a traditional mattress.  Futons are really good for guest beds because they can either be stored easily or turned into a functional piece of furniture between visits. 

  • Emoor Traditional Japanese Futon. This is a very traditional futon mattress.  There is a mat you can purchase for it to use instead of a frame, or you can just lay it on the floor.  This stows easily and can be purchased in twin or full size.  There is an optional cover that you can use to keep the nonremovable outer layer clean and fresh. 
  • DHP Emily Futon Sofa Bed with Chrome Legs.  This is a chic and modern sofa by day and a comfortable bed by night.  You can use this as a guest bed when you have a visitor, or it can be your bed if you live in a small studio apartment. 
  • Novogratz Brittany Sofa Futon.   Designed to look slightly retro with a mid-century look, this sofa futon would be a great addition to any living room even if you don’t have guests often.  Furniture should be versatile, right?
  • Stanford Futon Set.  If you miss the futons of the 1980s, then this is the futon for you.  It is a classic design, and it is comfortable.  It is a win-win for those that want comfort and nostalgia. 

How are Mattresses Different?

So far, we have spent a lot of time talking about futons but not anytime talking about the traditional mattress as we know it.  While it may be tempting to use the terms “futon” and “mattress” interchangeably, they are not synonyms. 

The definition of a mattress is a case filled with resilient materials, such as cotton, foam, or an arrangement of springs and coils, used for sleeping.  A mattress is not something that can be rolled away or folded up every night.  It has, typically, a frame and is always out in the sleeping space. 

A Mattress is typically thicker than a futon and can be made of different types of materials depending on what you are looking for or need support wise. 

Origin of Mattresses

Mattresses of one type or the other have been around for a long period of time.  The materials have varied as society advanced, and new technologies came onto the scene.  This is why what we consider a mattress is very different from what someone in the 1600s considered a mattress. 

It wasn’t until the late 1800s that the first innerspring mattress was invented.  Steel springs had not been invented very long before that and were beginning to be used in chairs and horse-drawn carriage seats. 

Once people realized the chairs were more comfortable, it wasn’t long before someone used the same concept to make sleeping surfaces better.  That, someone, was Heinrich Westphal.  He used spring technology to change the way people slept for the better.  

Nowadays, we would likely find those first modern mattresses unbearably painful to sleep on, but they were top of the line back then.  Before that, mattresses were stuffed with straw, horsehair, and anything else that might make sleeping a more pleasant experience, so I’m sure you can see why the innerspring mattress was such a big hit. 

Now we used pillow tops, memory foam, or a combination of memory foam and inner springs.  We love our comfort when it comes to sleeping, and we go to great lengths to continue improving the technology. 

Can a Mattress Be Used as a Futon?

The answer to this question is, unfortunately, not a clear “yes” or “no” because it really depends on the mattress and what materials are used. 

There are mattresses that have been specifically designed to function as both a regular mattress and a futon mattress.  This, essentially, means that the mattress is firm enough to be used on a traditional bed frame and is flexible and light enough to be used on a sofa bed futon frame.  

This is not an easy thing to accomplish, but it is a very versatile design that can really be useful in many different phases in life.  

However, most traditional mattresses cannot be used as a futon mattress.  They simply are not flexible enough to be folded up and rolled away during the day or to be folded into a sofa.  There is also the issue of weight that needs to be talked about. 

You may be wondering what weight has to do with it. We are talking about a mattress functioning as a futon.  Well, when we are talking about futon sofa beds that come with frames, we need to consider that those frames are made with a certain weight range in mind. If the mattress is too heavy for the frame, then it will become shaky and unstable.  This is not safe and does not protect the investment you have made in the frame.

That is why it is essential to consider the manufacturer’s recommendations when it comes to mattress style, size, and weight before purchasing a new mattress for your sofa bed frame. 

Can a Futon be Used as a Mattress?

We now need to think about the reverse situation.  Can a futon pad/mattress be used as a traditional mattress on a normal bed frame?  Whether or not this will work depends on the type of frame you have in your bedroom.  

Platform frames are very good and can be used with a futon, but if it is not a platform frame, then you will need a box spring for the added support, so the futon doesn’t fall through the slats of the frame. 

A futon and a mattress are not fully interchangeable, but there are certain situations in which one can be used in place of the other.  We encourage you to do your research and follow the manufacturer’s recommendations whenever possible. 

How to Choose Between a Mattress and Futon

Now we are talked about what a mattress is and what a futon is.  We have also discussed at length the differences and similarities between the two going back in time to look at the origin and history of the two types of sleeping surfaces.

It is now time to decide which of these two are right for you and your needs.  Everyone is different, and that includes their sleeping habits, space for a bed or mattress, support needs, and basic wants.  

Keep an open mind because you may want or need both.  If you have a lot of guests or even periodic guests, it might be useful to have a futon sofa bed in your living room and your regular bed in your bedroom.  

However, if you are thinking about your personal use, then keep the following things in mind as you make your choice. 

Support

What kind of support do you need?  Do you have a history of back or hip problems? These all play a part in your mattress decisions, as they should.  A mattress or futon is a decent-sized investment, depending on what your budget is, and needs to be a purchase made with the long term in mind.

You will likely be sleeping on this mattress or futon for four to eight years, if not longer, so you need to have the support your body requires.  Futons sometimes don’t have the support that a traditional box spring and mattress have or the more modern platform beds with memory foam mattresses.

That isn’t to say futons can’t be supportive. They just may not meet your specific needs.  Make sure you evaluate those needs carefully before you make a purchase. 

Space

How much space do you have to sleep?  Do you live in a small studio apartment that requires your living room to also be your bedroom?  Or do you live in a larger apartment or house that has a designated bedroom?

These questions and the answers to the questions matter when deciding if you want a futon or a traditional bed frame and mattress. Having only a living room with my discernable bedroom will really push you to have a sofa that also doubles as a bed.  There are many kinds of futon sofa beds that you can choose from.

However, if you have an actual bedroom that will hold your bed frame and mattress, then you will likely want to get a bed frame and mattress.  Even if you have a bedroom with a traditional bed, you may want to have a futon sofa bed in your living room for invited or unexpected guests. 

Use

We have alluded to this a few times throughout the last few sections of this article, but what you are going to use the mattress or futon for matters. We rarely buy something just for the sake of buying something.  Knowing what we need something for will keep us from wasting money and will make sure we have made a wise investment. 

If your main use of the sleeping surface is for guests, then a chic or even very simple futon sofa or chair bed will be a great choice to spend your money on.  It makes sense to go this route because you get to enjoy your investment too.  It is a functional piece of everyday furniture that is always ready for someone that needs a place to sleep. 

However, if your main use is for yourself to sleep on and you have a bedroom, then you may want to go with a traditional mattress unless, of course, you like the minimalist lifestyle, then we recommend the traditional Japanese floor futon.  

As with anything, we recommend highly that you do your research before you make any purchases and know clearly how you will be using your sleeping surface.  

Personal Style

Also, you need to consider the style you like as well as your lifestyle. Personal style and choices will be something that will be a consideration when making any furniture choices. If you like the minimal look then you will go with something clean and modern, maybe even a traditional futon. 

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