Mattress topper vs mattress protector: What's the difference and which one do you need?

Experts explain the difference between a mattress topper and protector and why you might need both for a good night's sleep

composite image of mattress protector and mattress topper with floral elements on either side
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Trying to upgrade your sleep setup but not sure where to start? Whilst mattress toppers and protectors might seem the same, the two offer completely different things for both you and your mattress. 

It's no secret that having one of the best mattress toppers can completely change your sleep experience, but should you also be buying one of the best mattress protectors to match? What seems like a similar product actually delivers different things. 

But do you really need both for your bed or can one substitute another? We spoke with bed experts to find out what you should be sleeping on and what the differences are between the two. 

What’s the difference between a mattress topper and a mattress protector? 

When it comes to the differences between the two, it's not just a visual difference but a functional one too. Unlike how to know if you need a mattress topper, deciding if you should have a protector is a little more straightforward. 

"A mattress topper is designed to add an extra layer to your mattress, giving deeper cushioning, whilst a mattress protector is a much thinner layer, simply designed to protect your mattress from spills, or help with allergies," explains Laura Burnett, the expert buyer at luxury furniture and bedding company Feather & Black

For this reason, there is more flexibility as to what you can get out of a topper compared to a protector and why more thought can go into the purchase. 

picture of mattress topper/protector

(Image credit: Getty Images)

What does a mattress topper do? 

A mattress topper can have various uses and depending on your sleep preferences they can improve several problems you might suffer from when sleeping or lying in bed. They can even be a great way to make a bedroom feel like a luxury hotel and can save you money on replacing an uncomfortable mattress.

Models like the Woolroom deluxe mattress topper can offer a cooling effect for when you sleep, or if you struggle with back pain then the Panda bamboo mattress topper could aid you. It really does depend on what support you need during the night as to which topper would be the best fit. 

Emma Beck, the buying and merchandising manager at Bensons for Beds, says, "The benefits of using a mattress topper are vast. They can rejuvenate an older mattress by adding extra cushioning and support, improve sleep quality by enhancing comfort, and alleviate pressure points, reducing the risk of waking up with aches and pains."

She goes on to explain that whilst toppers aren't necessarily essential they are highly recommended for those who want to optimise their sleeping expert whilst also prolonging the lifespan of their mattress. 

What does a mattress protector do?

Unlike mattress toppers, protectors have a little less flexibility when it comes to the functions and advantages to your sleep they can provide. There is a question as to how often should you wash your mattress protector, whereas toppers require a little less maintenance. 

"A mattress protector is a thin cover that is placed on top of your mattress, which protects it from stains, spills and other potential damage," explains Theresa Schnorbach, the sleep expert at Emma. "Mattress protectors, similar to mattress toppers, can prolong the lifespan of your mattress. They are usually made from impermeable or water-resistant materials."

Having a good quality mattress protector can mean a world of difference when figuring out how to clean your mattress properly. 

Luxury cotton rich quilted waterproof Mattress Protector: £65 King Size at The White Company 

Luxury cotton rich quilted waterproof Mattress Protector: £65 King Size at The White Company 

If you're looking for something that will put your mind at ease, this waterproof mattress protector is the one for you. It's quilted with a soft cotton feel and won't add too much bulky thickness to your mattress. 


Do I need both a mattress protector and mattress topper?

Should you be particularly concerned with how long your mattress will last, then investing in a good quality topper and protector might be just the thing to give you peace of mind. 

Theresa explains that it depends on what you require for your bed preferences as to whether you should buy both items or not. She says, "If you are just looking to shield your mattress, a protector should suffice. However, if you’re looking for an additional layer of support as well as protection, a topper is a great option." 

Whilst a topper is less helpful when it comes to stains and protecting your mattress, it can act as a barrier between you and the mattress should any spills occur. If you're wanting to invest in only one but still want that protection, definitely look for a topper that can be easily machine-washed as it will make stain removal that much easier. 

corner of a mattress with mattress protector on

(Image credit: Getty Images)

What is a mattress encasement?

Now you know what the difference between a protector and a topper is, what's a mattress encasement and do you need one of those too? 

"Rather than the usual blanket-style mattress topper or protector, a mattress encasement is a protective cover that completely surrounds a mattress on all sides, typically including the top, bottom, and all four edges," explains Alison Jones, a sleep expert for Sealy UK

This is perfect for anyone who is sick of figuring out how to keep a mattress topper from sliding around, and even more so if you're trying to get as much life as possible out of your mattress. Alison says that encasements are designed to protect against a variety of elements that might interfere with your sleep and the longevity of your mattress, whether that's spills and stains or bed bugs and allergens. 

If you're now looking to purchase a mattress topper and protector but aren't quite sure what order to place them on your mattress then Rhiannon Johns from Piglet in Bed has the answers. 

She says, "When using both a mattress topper and protector, you should put your mattress topper on top of your mattress, followed by your mattress protector. This ensures that not only your mattress is protected, but your topper is too, keeping dust mites and bacteria at bay." 

Emily Smith
Digital lifestyle writer

Emily joined woman&home as a staff writer after finishing her MA in Magazine Journalism from City University in 2023. After writing various health and news content, she now specialises in lifestyle and home writing where she covers all things cleaning, interiors and homeowning.