Fitted Sheet vs Flat Sheet – What is the Difference?

If you’re looking to buy a new bed sheet set then you might be wondering what the difference between a fitted sheet and a flat sheet is.

A fitted sheet is different to a flat sheet because the fitted sheet has an elasticated hem that allows it to fit securely around the mattress and can only be used to cover the mattress, whereas a flat sheet has no elasticated hem and can be used to cover the mattress or lie on top of your body.

The rest of this article reveals the pros, cons, and preferential uses of fitted and flat sheets in more detail.

Alternatively: check out my list of the best fitted and flat sheet sets to buy here.

What is a Fitted Bed Sheet?

A fitted bed sheet – also called a bottom sheet – is used to cover and protect your mattress from damage and staining.

Fitted bed sheets are typically elasticated along the hem or corners so that the sheet can be tucked under the edge of your mattress to ensure that the sheet stays in place securely and snugly overnight.

In the US, standard fitted sheets have ‘pockets’ that are designed to encase mattresses that are up to 9 inches thick [1].

Whilst ‘deep pocket’ fitted sheets have pockets that are usually in the 10 – 13 inch range [2].

And ‘extra deep pocket’ fitted sheets typically have corners in the 14 – 22 inch range [3].

Fitted Sheet Pros

Elasticated fitted sheets were invented by Bertha Berman in 1959 [4] and are favoured as bottom sheets mainly for the following reasons.

1: Protection

The main benefit of using a fitted bottom sheet is that it will protect your mattress from general wear and tear – such as minor abrasions, liquids, and staining.

Furthermore, anti-allergy fitted sheets can help to reduce the chance of allergens like dust mites, pollen, and pet dander from getting embedded in the material and causing flare ups.

Similarly, hypoallergenic bed sheets that meet OEKO-TEX® 100 Certification Standards can minimise the chance of your skin reacting to the materials of the sheet – useful if you have eczema or asthma that can worsen when coming into contact with irritants found in other bed sheets.

Anti-allergy and hypoallergenic bed sheets will complement your hypoallergenic mattress perfectly to help you sleep more comfortably.

2: Simple Maintenance

Depending on the exact materials used, fitted sheets are generally quite easy to maintain.

Because they are simple to remove from your mattress, and cotton sheets are easy to wash and dry without too much fuss.

3: Comfortable Sleeping Surface

If your fitted sheet is the right size for your mattress and applied correctly, sleeping on your bottom sheet should feel smooth and comfortable because the material will be pulled taut against the mattress.

Fitted Sheet Cons

Here are a few potential drawbacks that you should consider before buying your fitted sheet.

1: Difficult to Apply

Maybe I’m just doing it wrong, but I dread the task of having to fit my fitted sheet to my mattress (but not quite as much as putting my duvet cover on!) because it involves awkwardly having to lift up my heavy mattress.

And if I don’t get the distribution just right, then I’ll often wake up with one of the corners pinged off and the mattress top exposed to the elements.

This might sound like a minor inconvenience, but if you suffer from mobility problems then lifting and tucking might not be the best strategy.

2: Special Washing and Drying Requirements

I just said that fitted sheets are pretty easy to wash and dry – which is mostly true for cotton sheets (although ironing out the wrinkles can be a pain).

But things can get a bit more complicated when you go for a fitted sheet made out of a material that requires more care – such as silk or microfiber.

The golden rule is to check what the sheets are made out of before you buy and research how easy they are to wash, dry, and iron.

Check out the ‘what are bed sheets made out of’ section in my best bed sheets guide for the pros and cons of some of the main materials used, and their special washing and drying requirements.

3: Not as Easy to Fold

The elasticated hem can make it harder to fold up fitted sheets.

Whilst probably not a deal breaker for most, it may mean that ironing your fitted sheet is slightly more difficult.

What’s the Best Way to Use a Fitted Sheet?

There’s pretty much just one way to use your fitted sheet.

And that’s as a bottom sheet to protect your mattress.

I’ll discuss how using a fitted sheet compares with that of using a flat sheet for the same task in just a moment.

What is a Flat Bed Sheet?

A flat bed sheet is a non-elasticated sheet of material that can be used for two things.

The first is to act as a bottom sheet.

A flat sheet can be used as a bottom sheet – much like a fitted sheet – except the flat sheet is simply draped over and tucked under the mattress without the use of an elasticated hem.

A flat sheet can also be used as a ‘top sheet’.

Where the top sheet acts as a barrier between you and your comforter as you sleep.

Flat Sheet Pros

Here are some of the benefits of using your flat sheet as either a top or bottom sheet.

1: Easier to Fit and Fold

Because flat sheets do not contain any elastic, it can be easier to fit them to the mattress to act as a bottom sheet because you can simply tuck the edges under without having to battle with the corners pinging off.

Similarly, the absence of elastic makes it easier to fold a flat sheet – which could make ironing less of a hassle.

2: Protect Your Comforter

If you’re using a comforter rather than a duvet cover, then using your flat sheet as a top sheet can add an extra layer of protection.

This can make maintenance easier because you won’t have to clean your comforter as often.

3: Protect Your Skin

Similarly, if you’re finding that your comforter is irritating your skin, then purchasing a soft flat sheet that’s designed for sensitive skin could be a decent solution.

If you have eczema, psoriasis, or sensitive skin that’s worsened by your comforter, then a hypoallergenic top sheet might be good for you.

4: Temperature Regulation

It’s entirely possible to use your flat sheet as a top sheet that replaces your duvet or comforter during the warmer months.

This benefit can be enhanced if you purposely buy a flat sheet that’s specifically designed to help you sleep cool and wick away moisture.

Conversely, you could use a flat sheet as a top sheet in addition to your comforter or duvet in the winter months to help you stay warm.

Flat Sheet Cons

Here’s what you need to keep in mind.

1: Tangling

If you use your flat sheet as a top sheet then there’s a good chance that you’ll wake up with the thing wrapped around your body, arms, and legs in a way that’s pretty uncomfortable.

If you’re a light sleeper, then this could cause you to wake up – thus affecting the quality of your sleep.

One way around this might be to use a ‘nurse tuck’ to secure the flat sheet so that it has a better chance of staying in place.

2: Bunching

If you use your flat sheet as a bottom sheet, then you may find that the sheet tends to bunch up during the night as you move around.

This can possibly lead to awakening with temporary ‘lines’ in your face if you happen to shuffle on to one of the creases during the night!

What’s the Best Way to Use a Flat Sheet?

Looking at the pros and cons, I personally think that a flat sheet is best used as a top sheet.

A flat sheet may be just fine for you as a bottom sheet but I think that a fitted sheet does the job better.

More on this below.

Fitted Sheet vs Flat Sheet – What’s Better?

To summarise, you can use a flat sheet as either a top or a bottom sheet.

But you can only use a fitted sheet as a bottom sheet.

Personally I think that a fitted sheet is a better choice for a bottom sheet because although the inclusion of the elastic can make it harder to get the sheet in place initially, it will fit snugly against your mattress and prevent bunching and tangling if sized and fitted properly.

I would only recommend using a flat sheet as a bottom sheet if you have mobility problems and may physically struggle to lift the mattress high enough to get the elasticated corners far enough under the mattress to stop it from pinging up.

Now as far as top sheets go – you may find this unnecessary if you’re using a duvet with a duvet cover that doesn’t irritate your skin because the cover can easily be removed for washing.

Otherwise, a top sheet might be a good choice if you’re using a comforter and want to protect it – or require additional control in regards to temperature regulation and have additional hypoallergenic requirements.

The only real drawback to using your flat sheet as a top sheet is the potential for getting tangled up – but using the ‘nurse/hospital tuck’ may stop this.

Both fitted and flat sheets need to be washed, dried, and ironed with care – check the label for instructions.

What Are the Best Fitted and Flat Sheets?

Hopefully, you’ve now got a better idea of the similarities and differences between fitted and flat sheets and the best use for each.

If you’re looking to buy both a fitted sheet and a flat sheet then click the button below.

And you’ll be able to see the best deals on buying bed sheet sets – which will provide you with a flat sheet, a fitted sheet, and pillow cases too.

I’ve ordered them by their materials and their specific functions – such as the best sheets for allergies, sleeping cool, staying warm, and so on.

References and Sources

[1], [2], [3] Wikipedia – Bedding. Accesses 16/1/20.

[4] St. Louis Public Library – Friday’s Famous Inventor – Bertha Berman. Accessed 16/1/20.

Image Sources and References

Main image: ‘Stack of Clean Bed Sheets on Color Background’ by Serezniy (Getty Images) – used with permission under Canva’s One Design Use License Agreement.