We spend a third of our lives in bed (and how we sleep certainly affects the other two-thirds), so the humble pillow is actually quite the important purchase.
With so many choices on the market, you might be stumped about what type of bed pillow will give you the best night’s rest.
These tips will take the mystery out of finding the right bed pillow for your most comfortable night’s sleep.
Is it Time for a Replacement?
Pillows simply don’t last forever, so keep an eye out for lumps and sagging.
If you have a traditional fiberfill pillow, fold it in half and place a book on top of it; if it springs back to shape, it’s still good. But if it stays folded in half, it’s time for a new one.
Memory foam pillows that are crumbly or no longer hold their shape also need to go.
What Size Pillow Do You Need?
The size of bed pillow you pick will depend on the size of your bed and how you sleep.
- For a twin, you’d probably choose a standard pillow.
- For a queen bed you’d get two queens, and
- For a king bed you’d get two king pillows.
If you prefer a large pillow to snuggle with on a smaller bed, use a king on a twin bed.
Or if you want a stack of large pillows to lean on, you’ll get more. And you could choose 4 or 6 standard pillows for a king size bed.
Luxury hotels use 4 king pillows on a queen bed.
Of course, the choice is yours and depends on what you like.
Your Bed Pillow Budget
Like everything, you can pay a lot or a little for a bed pillow. And you usually get what you pay (or don’t pay) for.
A cheap foam pillow might cost as little as $5 but a top quality down or feather pillow can be over $100, depending on the size.
If you have a limited budget, select one or two good quality pillows to actually sleep on and use an inexpensive one for leaning up against for reading or for decoration with a sham on your bed.
Your Sleeping Position
People generally sleep in three different postures: on their back, on their stomach, and on their side. Some even sleep with all three postures at one point or the other during the night.
A Pillow must match your sleep profile:
- If you sleep on your stomach or have a small build, a low, soft pillow is best.The pillow should be relatively flat, or the head should rest directly on the mattress, so that the head and neck aren’t turned unnaturally to either side. It can also help to place another flat pillow under the stomach to help the spine keep its natural alignment.
- If you sleep on your back, a medium to firm pillow with a medium profile is best. The pillow should support the natural curvature of the cervical spine, with adequate support under the head, neck, and shoulders.
- If you sleep on your side or have a bigger body frame, a firm or extra-firm pillow might suit you better.The pillow should support the head and neck to help the spine maintain a straight and natural horizontal line. Weight should be evenly distributed so as not to create unnatural bending or pressure.
Most quality pillows give information about the best use for the type of pillow you’re considering. Try out several types for greatest comfort.
A pillow’s material can tend to determine how supportive it is, but its thickness makes a significant difference, too.
For instance, you can find thick down pillows in the market, and even memory foam’s texture can vary, says Natalie Dautovich, Ph.D., an environmental scholar at the National Sleep Foundation. She says –
“In general, side sleepers need a thicker pillow, stomach sleepers need a thinner pillow, and a back sleeper will fall somewhere in between.”
But it’s very possible you’re an exception to these guidelines. It’s all about the position of your neck; it should align with your spine in a neutral position as you sleep; so you may want to try a hybrid pillow that has a memory foam core surrounded with a softer down or synthetic layer. This version offers support and comfort, and can adapt as you change position throughout the night.
For example, the Z Convolution by Malouf, has a convoluted memory foam core encased in gelled microfiber filling. In addition, each side of the pillow offers different levels of support (for multi-positional sleepers).
The “loft” of a bed pillow is determined by the volume of fill it contains. For a firm pillow, the fill will be tighter. For a soft pillow, the fill will be lighter.
Regardless of the firmness, be prepared to renovate feather or down fill every 10 years or so. And of course, foam disintegrates or breaks down.
Choosing Your Pillow Fill
After size, the next most important thing to decide is what type of fill you want (more details on the various forms of fill below).
A foam pillow will feel firm and hold its shape throughout the night, even when you shift on the bed.
A down pillow will squish with your head and give it a soft cushion. You can crumple it up for snuggling.
Something right in the middle would be a pillow made with polyester filling, and a good quality compromise might be a hybrid pillow as discussed, with a core of foam or feathers, surrounded or wrapped with an outer coat of soft down.
Most top quality feather and down pillows are hypo-allergenic and can be used by people with allergies.
Bed Pillow Cover or Ticking
The cover on a foam bed pillow is not too important. But for a feather or down pillow, be sure that the ticking or cover is tightly woven cotton so that the feathers don’t leak out.
Buy a pillow cover for every pillow you own; pillow covers and protectors are staples of a healthy sleep environment. They provide not only protection for the pillow but stop dust mites and can even halt bed bugs.
From waterproof covers to allergen barriers and cooling, there are many choices on the market.
An essential to a clean, comfortable and healthy sleep environment, pillow covers and a pillow protector not only increase the lifespan of bedroom pillows but improve comfort and cleanliness.
Before purchasing a pillow, check the care label to make sure you’re willing to wash it as recommended.
Most are machine washable, but some are dry clean only, have front-loading machine restrictions, or only allow spot-treating.
It’s important to clean a bed pillow regularly, and your pillow should come with care instructions. Some feather and down pillows can be washed in a home washer. Others recommend dry cleaning.
Save the cleaning instructions in your linen closet and follow them for longest life.
In general, your pillow will last longer if you wash it two to four times a year, and if you use a pillow protector to keep it clean and safe from wear.
Test it Before Unwrapping
Just like you would when you buy a mattress, you should rest your head on a pillow to see if it’s right for you.
If you can, try it out for at least 10 minutes in the store, but if that’s not possible, test it at home before removing the plastic wrap.
If you feel your neck tipping forward or backward, or have any other discomfort, return it.
Your Needs May Change
Health-related changes (like weight fluctuation, new aches and pains, or other changes in your body as you age) affect the type of support you need, says Dautovich.
So if the type of pillow you’ve used for years is no longer comfortable, it’s time to consider something new.
Types of Pillow Fill
In the universe of bed pillows, firmness is just one of the factors. The type of material, called fill, can have a big impact on your comfort.
There are pillow fills that claim to cool you down, fills meant to contour to your cranium, and even fills that are said to keep bacteria at bay.
Feathers and down aren’t one and the same. Down refers specifically to the soft clusters under the breast feathers of geese and ducks that insulate the birds in cold weather.
Down is warmer than feathers and doesn’t have quills to poke through pillows and jab you. Keep in mind, though, that almost all down pillows contain a certain percentage of feathers to increase volume.
“Aside from being incredibly soft, the nice thing about real down is that it’s anti-microbial and hypoallergenic,” says James Maas, CEO of a sleep-research firm called Sleep for Success and a former professor and chairman of the psychology department at Cornell University.
“A lot of people think they’re allergic to down, but what they’re probably allergic to is dust mites.”
If you use a pillow protector—a tightly woven cloth sack that the pillow goes into before the pillow case—you can most likely sleep on down without a problem, according to Maas.
Down is pricey. “You need a lot of it to support your head,” explains Maas. So a pillow that’s 100 percent down is going to set you back. And those with feathers mixed in may have quills poking through.
Also, you’re going to be doing a lot of fluffing; that’s a constant requirement with down pillows. And eventually, down goes permanently flat. One last thing: Some down has a bit of a natural odor, a subtle, gamy smell you might not like.
Good to know:
If you’re shopping online and don’t have the opportunity to feel down pillows you’re considering, you can look at the “fill power” to get a sense of fluffiness. The figure (typically 300 to 800) refers to the space occupied by an ounce of down. The higher, the better.
Think of latex as a chemical-free foam. It’s produced from the milk of the rubber tree, and in the pillow world you’ll hear about two varieties: Dunlop, which is denser at the bottom than the top, and Talalay, more consistent in terms of texture—and more costly.
Many chiropractors prescribe latex pillows for neck or back pain. “Latex is buoyant and bouncy,” says Sam Malouf, CEO of the luxury bedding company Malouf, which makes pillows. “It pushes back so your head feels suspended, as if it’s floating.”
If you’re a warm sleeper, you should find latex comfortable; the material is porous and disperses heat. “It’s also anti-microbial and mildew-proof,” adds Maas.
Latex pillows are expensive, and they can have a rubbery smell at first, so you’ll want to air them out a bit. Also, some people are allergic to latex.
Good to know:
If you sleep especially hot, look for latex pillows infused with copper. “Copper is like a highway, distributing heat throughout the pillow to leave you cooler,” says Malouf.
Also known as visco-elastic foam, this petroleum-based high-density polyurethane foam was invented in the late 1960s by NASA to make airplane chairs comfortable and safe during takeoff. It’s supposed to evenly distribute weight—which explains its popularity as a mattress material—and respond to heat and pressure.
Memory foam feels cushy. It contours to the shape of your head and slowly returns to form, and you can find options in different densities based on your preference. “Some versions are soft as a marshmallow and others take time to sink into,” explains Malouf.
Since it’s hypoallergenic and anti-microbial, memory foam is low-maintenance and needs only occasional spot-cleaning. And unlike a down pillow, a memory foam pillow shouldn’t go flat over time.
Memory foam absorbs heat, which isn’t great for sweaty sleepers. And the texture is not for everyone. “Even a soft version may be firmer than what you expect,” Malouf says. Also, the firmness of a pillow can change. Because it responds to heat, Malouf says, “memory foam can get softer in summer months and harder in winter.”
Last but not least, memory foam can emit volatile organic compounds, and the smell may take a few weeks to dissipate. You’ll definitely want to air out your memory foam pillows before use.
Good to know:
For extra fluff, look for memory foam wrapped in down. It’s hard to determine how a memory foam pillow will suit you without sleeping on it, but when you’re shopping, you can get a sense of relative firmness by weight. A heavier pillow is likely to be firmer.
The gel used for pillows is generally polyurethane encased in plastic. Manufacturers layer this on top of a more traditional pillow material, like memory foam. Sometimes manufacturers shred or chop gel and blend it right into memory foam.
“Gel has marvelous cooling properties that can help you fall asleep,” says Maas, who notes that a drop in temperature is beneficial at bedtime. “If you take a hot shower, then lay your head down on a gel pillow, your temperature will plummet. This rapid change helps you drift off.”
It’s a temporary situation. “Gel absorbs heat but can’t dissipate it,” says Malouf, “so the coolness typically wears off in 10 minutes.”
Good to know:
If you’re committed to your current pillow but want to try the cooling effects of gel, consider a gel mat. You can put it in the refrigerator, then slip it inside your pillowcase before bed.
Polyester is a super-strong synthetic fiber made from petroleum. It can be processed and used many different ways, so you’ll find polyester pillows of various quality, comfort level, and price. “Down alternative” is one of many polyester code names.
You can throw polyester pillows in the washing machine and dry them on low in a dryer. And there are really comfortable fluffy, well-made poly pillows, often in the aforementioned “down alternative” category. Some even feature luxurious details like gusseting and cotton sateen covers.
The texture of poly provides lots of places for dust mites to hide. And polyester can sometimes be uncomfortable. “My issue with polyester is the unnatural feel of it,” says Maas. Some poly pillows have a short life span; they can get flat and lumpy in months.
Maas warns against super-inexpensive options: “Very few of them will be truly supportive.”
Good to know:
Many pillows marketed as “hypoallergenic” are made of polyester, but this is a specious claim. It just means that people aren’t allergic to polyester.
Wool pillows are, as you would imagine, stuffed with fine fibers from the fleece of sheep and goats, and sometimes other hairy mammals, like alpacas.
It’s easy to find manufacturers who use only unprocessed wool and organic cotton covers, an option for those looking for a truly chemical-free bedfellow.
Wool pillows have a rustic appeal (some are hand-stuffed). People tend to associate wool with warmth, but, Malouf points out, “the reason wool is used for things like military uniforms is that it’s a great insulator—against both heat and cold.” Wool pillows keep you warm in winter and cool in summer.
Wool is also good at wicking away moisture so mold and mildew can’t thrive.
Wool pillows can feel a bit dense and flat. “Most don’t conform to your head,” says Maas. “You’ll have to move around a lot to get comfortable.”
Good to know:
Some wool pillows have a zipped side, so you can remove some of the filling for less loft and add the fill back in when the wool settles. If you like the idea of wool but want more cushioning, consider a natural latex pillow wrapped in wool.
4 Fabulous Pillows
Good For Everyone – Xtreme Comforts Hypoallergenic Bamboo Pillow
Everyone sleeps differently, so it’s hard to choose a pillow that works for everyone the same way, but this Xtreme Comforts Pillow one comes as close as you can get.
The shredded memory foam allows the pillow to shape to your head and neck, no matter what position you settle into in your sleep.
It’s also hypoallergenic, so if you suffer from allergies or asthma, you can rest easier with this pillow on your bed.
And if you get hot at night, its Kool-Flow bamboo cover allows for greater ventilation, to keep your temperature regulated.
Reviews have been overwhelmingly positive for this pillow. One customer described it as “smooshy—but in a good way,” and said it’s neither too firm nor too soft—Goldilocks would approve.
People have also praised its cooling effect on warm nights.
Most of the negative comments had to do with personal preference, with some saying it was too flat or that it wasn’t as firm or soft as they’d like. But overall, the majority of people who purchased this pillow were satisfied.
The pillow is available in queen and king sizes in addition to standard.
Coop Home Goods Shredded Memory Foam Pillow
Need more support when you sleep at night?
A memory foam pillow could be the answer. They mold better to your head, neck, and back, which makes it easier to switch positions during the night because it adjusts its height depending on whether you’re on your back, side, or stomach.
The Shredded Memory Foam Pillow from Coop Home Goods is also hypoallergenic and has dust-mite-resistant technology, and it allows for more airflow to keep you cool at night.
This one was compared to a cloud by a reviewer, although a self-adjusting one. One side sleeper said it wasn’t quite supportive enough, but reiterated it wasn’t a bad pillow—it just wasn’t the right one for them.
Royal Hotel’s Goose Down Pillow (Set of 2)
Down pillows are a luxury that some people love and some people hate.
If you invest in a quality one, it can last for years, and save you money in the long run on replacements. However, if you suffer from allergies, a down-filled pillow might not be the best option for you.
Made from purified white goose down, this two-pillow set from Royal Hotel is a good choice if you’ve decided on down. It has a 500-thread-count Egyptian cotton cover that is soft and luxurious, which is a nice detail even though it will be covered by your pillowcase.
One customer said it supports side sleeping well, but also feels great when sleeping on your back or stomach. Some have complained about the pillows not feeling plush enough, although one consumer said that once they fluffed them, it was a perfect pillow for them.
Langria Down Alternative Pillow (Set of 2)
If you’re allergic to down, follow a vegan lifestyle or simply want the luxurious experience of a feather pillow at a more affordable price, you’ll love the LANGRIA Down Alternative Bed Pillows.
These pillows, which come in packs of two, are just as comfortable as real down pillows, but you can get them without breaking the bank.
The LANGRIA Down Alternative Bed Pillows have 100% cotton shells that are filled with a polyester fiberfill that mimics down. They’re breathable and hypoallergenic, so you won’t be sniffling and sneezing while you’re trying to sleep.
The pillow shells have a 233 thread count, and the edges are double stitched to prevent loose threads or the fill from coming out, so they’ll be durable, as well as comfortable.
Reviewers have great things to say about these LANGRIA pillows, writing that they fluff back up easily and provide generous support.
Before you buy, note that the pillow comes vacuum sealed, so you’ll have to fluff them up a bit before first use. Otherwise, these pillows are a comfortable and affordable down alternative.
You spend so much time with your pillow that it’s worth going to the trouble of selecting one that’s right for you.
You will have your own sleeping style; perhaps you sleep mostly on your side, perhaps on your back, stomach, or a mixture of all three. Depending upon the state of your neck, spine and back, you will also require a specific amount of support from your pillow. You’ll even have your own preferences for the pillow filling.
I hope this article will give you the confidence to you get it right by highlighting some of the strengths and weaknesses of the most popular pillow types.
Did I miss anything? Leave a comment and me know what you think!
What to Read Next
- Women Who Snore Risk Heart Attack (What Should You Do?)
- Best Portable Infrared Space Heaters For a Large Room
- How to Host a Dazzling (Stress-Free) Buffet Dinner
- Save Tons of Money This Winter (Do These Fall Chores Now!)
- Got These in Your Bathroom? (Throw Them Out Now!)
- Top Ways to Save Money With a Slow Cooker (And Which Ones are Best?)
- How to Choose a Vacuum Sealer (With Top Recommendations)