All about pillows
A pillow is an essential part of the sleep experience, but many sleepers don’t know how important a pillow is to a good night’s rest and overall wellness. A pillow is not just a comfortable place to rest one’s head; it’s a key component of spinal support that can cause or alleviate pain and tension in the entire body. Sleepers who experience aches and pains often blame their mattress, but the truth is that their pillow may be the culprit.
There are four main components to a pillow that need to be considered:
- Size: How big is the pillow?
- Materials: What is the pillow made of?
- Loft: What is the height of the pillow?
- Density: How firm is the pillow?
All of these components have to be just right in order to avoid discomfort. Having to fluff a pillow often, sleep with an arm underneath it, or having to fold it over for comfort are all signs that a better pillow is needed. Unfortunately, it isn’t as simple as purchasing the newest or fanciest model.
The right pillow for any sleeper depends on many factors, such as sleep style, weight, personal preference, and more. Pillows also vary widely in their make and materials. Traditional pillows are made with down or wool, while newer pillows contain memory foam, latex, and advanced cooling and moisture absorbing fabrics.
Who knew pillows could be so complex? Luckily, you won’t need to do much research. We’ve done it all for you and put it in plain English in our comprehensive guide to pillows for all sleepers.
When you’re ready to choose a new pillow of your own, check out our picks for the best pillows on the market.
The first component one should consider in a pillow is its size. Here are the standard sizes to look for:
- Toddler: 14” x 20”
- Standard: 20” x 26”
- Queen: 20” x 30”
- King: 20” x 36”
Choosing the right pillow size depends on the size of the sleeper, not the bed. Buying King size pillows for a King size mattress may seem obvious, but if the sleeper is quite petite, a large pillow may be too big for comfort.
Types of pillows
All the components of a pillow are important, but the most critical is the materials that make it up. The materials that are used as the stuffing of a pillow are the primary elements that provide comfort and support, and these are how the types of pillows get their names. Let’s take a look at all of the types of pillows and what they offer.
Memory foam pillows
Memory foam pillows are made from a special type of foam that fits the contours of the head and neck. They can be made from different types of foam, such as polyurethane foam, organic foam or gel foam. Some memory foam pillows consist of one piece of molded foam, while others are filled with shredded foam. Choosing the right memory foam pillow depends on the density and loft that a sleeper enjoys.
Memory foam pillows are known for providing excellent support and joint relief due to their density and cradling comfort. These pillows may not have the fluff and coolness of traditional pillows, but they are among the best for eliminating aches and pains.
- Excellent support
- No fluffing needed
- Pressure point and joint relief
- May sleep hot
- Initial odor due to offgassing
- Heavier than traditional pillows
- May be too firm for some sleepers
Memory foam pillows are available in a range of firm and soft options to suit any type of sleeper, though they do tend to be on the firmer side. These pillows tend to cost more than traditional pillows, but they are also more durable and often come with a warranty from the manufacturer. Memory foam pillows are recommended for sleepers who need more support or who suffer from joint pain or tension.
Latex foam pillows
Latex is another type of foam which is made from all-natural, organic latex or synthetic latex. These pillows are typically filled with shredded latex, making them loftier and lighter than other foam pillows. Latex pillows have many of the same advantages of memory foam, such as great support and pressure relief, as well as the added benefit of being cooler and more breathable. The downside is that latex pillows are often more expensive.
Another benefit of latex is that it keeps its form over time. These pillows don’t require flipping or fluffing to eliminate clumps or empty space. Latex foam may not be as effective as memory at holding its shape, but it makes up for it in extra fluff and bounce.
- Great support
- Cool and breathable
- Can be costly
- Can be heavy
- Synthetic latex may have initial off-gassing odor
Latex pillows come in a variety of sizes and firmness options to fit the needs of most sleepers. Latex is known for providing a more lofty bounce and less of a “sinking in” feeling than memory foam. For this reason, we recommend latex pillows more to side sleepers and back sleepers. Stomach sleepers need less loft in order to support healthy spinal alignment.
Natural and organic pillows
Natural and organic pillows are ideal for sleepers that want to take the environment into consideration while pillow shopping. Before we take a look at the benefits of these pillows, we should distinguish the difference between the two.
- Natural pillows: Natural pillows are made from materials that can be found in nature, opposed to materials produced in a lab. Polyurethane foam, a type of memory foam, is not considered to be natural. A wool pillow, on the other hand, would fall under the natural category. It should be noted that natural pillows are not necessarily organic, nor are they guaranteed to be environmentally friendly.
- Organic pillows: Organic pillows take natural pillows one step further. Organic pillows are made from materials that can be found in nature and must also be certified organic by a reliable third party. A certified organic material cannot be processed with any harmful chemicals or pollutants. Many latex and buckwheat pillows are certified organic.
- Organic is earth friendly
- Many are naturally hypoallergenic
- No offgassing smell
- “All-natural” may not mean cruelty-free
- May be difficult to wash
- Most need fluffing
Down feather pillows
Down feather pillows are traditional pillow styles and are considered to be an ultra-soft and luxurious option. As such, they come with a higher price tag. They also must be cared for and washed carefully, as they are more fragile than other pillows. Down feather pillows are stuffed with down feathers from goose, duck, and other fowl. Small feathers are used to provide a softer, fluffier feel, while larger feathers are sometimes added to increase firmness. Some down pillows are stuffed only partially with down and are filled in with another material such as cotton.
Down pillows are ideal for sleepers who like an extremely soft pillow, or for sleepers who like low loft. A feather pillow may seem lofty when fluffed, but it will flatten out quite quickly under a sleeper’s head. Stomach sleepers enjoy down pillows particularly because of the soft feel to the cheek and the low loft that benefits their spinal alignment.
- Optimal softness and fluff
- May be too soft for some sleepers
- Allergen prone
- Must be dry-cleaned
- May not be cruelty-free
Something important to note about down feather pillows is the possibility of cruel techniques used to pluck feathers. Live plucking is common practice and is known to be very painful to the animals involved. To avoid these products, look for pillows which use recycled down or consider a down feather alternative.
Down alternative pillows
Down alternative pillows have long been popular choices for sleepers who seek the comfort of down at a lower cost. Sleepers can also rest easy knowing that no animals were harmed in the production process. Down alternative pillows are filled with natural or synthetic materials that feel very similar to down. These materials include cotton, polyester, and silk.
The idea of down alternative pillows is to imitate the real down experience, but there are some differences. While down alternatives are much cheaper than down, they may not reach the same level of softness. They are typically easier to take care of and wash but are often not as moldable and fluffy as down. That being said, there are a wide variety of down alternatives to choose from, and some are much better imitations than others.
- Less allergy risk
- Holds form better
- May not be natural
- Shorter lifespan
- Not quite as soft
Down alternative pillows are ideal choices for a variety of sleepers. Stomach sleepers who would like a down pillow but want to spend less money will receive the same benefits in terms of cool, soft comfort. Back sleepers or side sleepers who enjoy the feel of down but need more support will find a good compromise in many down alternatives.
Cotton and polyester pillows
Cotton and polyester pillows are traditional pillow styles that provide a solid standard of loft and comfort. There are not a lot of frills here, but the right cotton or polyester pillow can make for a good night’s sleep at an affordable price.
Cotton and polyester are known for being soft and breathable. While they do require some fluffing to retain their shape, they will hold their form much better than down or down alternatives. These pillows may sink down a bit at night under the weight of a sleeper’s head, but they maintain their shape well enough to provide adequate support. Cotton and polyester pillows are not known for their long lifespan, but at their price, they are easily replaceable.
- Very affordable
- Good mix of support and comfort
- Machine washable
- Short life
- Needs fluffing
- Can flatten over time
Cotton and polyester pillows are not our top picks for adults who need more support, tension relief, or extra comfort. They are quite standard and don’t offer much in terms of custom capabilities. These pillows are ideal for young children or for a guest room, as they are inexpensive and easily washable. A sleeper who feels hot at night may also want to add a cotton or polyester pillow to their bed, as they remain quite cool.
Buckwheat pillows are an alternative pillow style that has been increasing in popularity. These pillows are filled with all-natural buckwheat hulls (like shells), which provide a high level of density. Some sleepers don’t like the low-density, standard style pillows or the sinking-in feeling of dense foams. Buckwheat pillows are an ideal option for them, and they’re priced about the same as a nice foam pillow.
Apart from being all natural, buckwheat pillows also retain no heat, making them one of the best options for a cool night’s sleep. They are naturally hypoallergenic and impervious to intruders like dust mites. Because this pillow is full of small hulls, it can be quite noisy, at least compared to pillows made from soft fibers. It is also not washable, so sleepers will want to purchase a protective pillowcase.
- Very dense
- Retains no heat
- May be too rigid for some sleepers
- Not washable
Buckwheat pillows may seem fringe, but they actually represent a good option for all sleep styles. They are dense and supportive while providing cooling, natural comfort. Although they aren’t washable, buckwheat pillows are said to be quite durable and long-lasting. We would only warn combination sleepers (sleepers who sleep in different positions throughout the night) against buckwheat because of the noise it can produce when changing positions.
What to look for in a pillow
Now that we’ve seen the materials that pillows are made of, let’s look at some of the distinguishing factors that all pillows have in common. Once the right material has been chosen, it’s important to make sure the design fits the sleeper as well.
Size: We looked at size briefly above, but it’s worth repeating that the size of a pillow is important. A large pillow may seem luxurious, but if it begins to angle the neck, it will start to cause joint pain and tension. The size of a pillow should correlate to the size of a sleeper. To test the size of a pillow, make sure your whole head can fit on the pillow while your shoulder still rests comfortably on the bed.
Loft: The loft of a pillow is a measurement of its height. This is not to be confused with density, as some materials can have high loft and low density, such as wool or down. Loft is important to take into consideration along with density. High loft with high density will hold the head high up, which may be good for taller, larger sleepers, but bad for smaller sleepers or stomach sleepers. High loft with low density will provide a soft, sinking feeling, but won’t provide much support.
Density: Density refers to the firmness of a pillow and how deep a sleeper’s head will sink into it compared to its loft. Denser pillows are better for sleepers who need more support and tension relief. Remember that the most important objective is to keep the head, neck, and spine aligned. Keeping this in mind, side sleepers will likely need a denser pillow, such as a foam pillow, to keep their head at the same level as their spine.
Here are some other factors that sleepers will want to consider when purchasing a pillow.
Comfort: An uncomfortable pillow cannot be effective. Look for stuffing made from high-quality materials from reputable companies and casings made from soft fabrics like organic cotton, Tencel, or silk.
Support: This is the most important factor. Proper support will keep the spine aligned and prevent aches, pains, and pressure.
Coolness: Keeping cool at night is a problem for many sleepers. Look for cool materials like latex or cotton, or choose a memory foam pillow with cooling gel incorporated to keep from waking up hot.
To find out more about pillows that sleep cool, read our review of the best cooling pillows.
Allergies: If you suffer from allergies, it could be the result of dust mites living in your pillow. It has been suggested that dust mites are the leading cause of year-round allergies. Choose a hypoallergenic option like latex, memory foam, or buckwheat to avoid dust, bacteria, and other intruders.
Organic: Earth-friendly pillows are slightly more expensive but come with peace of mind. Almost every pillow type has an organic option or alternative.
Warranty: Spending more on a pillow may be the more affordable option in the long run. Many pillows are covered by warranties, some of which last up to a decade.
What type of pillow is best for you?
We’ve now seen that a lot of materials and styles are available in the pillow market today. This is because there are so many types of sleepers. Finding a pillow that matches a particular sleep style, body type, and comfort preference can be tough, so we’ve listed the different types of sleepers below to make it easier. Try to decide which type you identify with before choosing a shopping for a new pillow.
Side sleepers need extra support or they risk their head sinking to the level of their shoulder. This puts tension on the neck and aggravates pressure points. These sleepers should consider pillows with a higher density and extra support. They will also want to be very particular about loft. Even a few too many or too few millimeters of loft will cause some strain. For this reason, we recommend dense yet form-fitting foam pillows to side sleepers.
We recommend: Latex and memory foam pillows; organic cotton or polyester as a cheaper alternative
Pillows to avoid: Down feather and down alternatives
Back sleepers’ shoulders rest on the mattress while their heads rest on a pillow. This can cause the neck and spine to lose alignment if a pillow is too lofty and dense. Back sleepers will need to take the weight of their head (which correlates to height) into account when purchasing a pillow. Taller and bigger back sleepers should consider a medium-loft pillow, while smaller or younger back sleepers should go with a low-loft option.
We recommend: Down alternatives or low-loft memory foam
Pillows to avoid: Lofty or bouncy latex
Stomach sleepers often suffer from neck pain, as their pillows are usually too lofty. Stomach sleepers need the lowest loft of any sleep style to keep their head at near-mattress level. This will guarantee that their necks stay aligned with the spinal cord. These sleepers also suffer more from waking up hot, as their face is directly against the pillow. Stomach sleepers should consider a very soft, low-loft pillow that is highly breathable to maintain comfort throughout the night.
We recommend: Down alternatives
Pillows to avoid: Cotton and polyester, lofty foams
Combination sleepers change position throughout the night. This means that they need a pillow with a good mix of all the qualities we’ve looked at. Combination sleepers will want to consider what they do with their current pillow throughout the night. Do they fold it over? That may mean more support is needed. Do they push it back? It may be too lofty. Do they flip it? It may sleep too hot. Combination sleepers will typically want to choose a mid-density, mid-loft option.
We recommend: Memory foam and latex
Pillows to avoid: Buckwheat
Heavier sleepers (those who weigh over 200 lbs.) deal with more sleep issues due to their weight and size. They often experience joint pain during the day and overheating at night. These sleepers need to choose a pillow of the appropriate size and density for their weight. They also need to consider that their mattress will likely depress to a greater degree, meaning they will need to compensate for that with a pillow that has high loft and density. They should also consider an option that is highly breathable.
We recommend: Buckwheat and dense foams
Pillows to avoid: Low-density down and alternatives; standard, cheap cotton or polyester
People with back pain
Many people suffer from lower back pain and have no idea that it can be cured by something as simple as a new pillow. If the pelvis sits higher or lower than the head and neck, lower back pain can creep in over time. A new pillow with a higher or lower loft or a foam pillow that aligns the neck and spine can greatly help these problems. The loft will vary per sleeper, but those with back pain will want a pillow with at least medium density to provide adequate support and spinal alignment.
We recommend: Memory foam and latex
Pillows to avoid: Low-density pillows like down feather
People with neck pain
Neck pain is often caused by the misalignment of the neck and spine during sleep. It’s not easy to keep the neck and spine perfectly aligned throughout the night, but certain contour-fitting pillows can help. Stomach sleepers are the exception to this. Their heads may be up too high even with supportive foam options. The best way to avoid neck pain is to shop smart and test pillows until one is found that feels right. Remember, a pillow may feel comfortable, but if the head is angled up or down compared to the spine, this comfort won’t last long.
We recommend: Memory foam and latex
Pillows to avoid: Cheap pillows with poor support
Joint or muscle pain from sleep can be very detrimental to an athlete’s lifestyle. Athletes also have a tendency to wake up hot at night to flip their pillow and return to sleep. These sportspeople need a particular mix of attributes in a pillow to ensure a solid night’s sleep. Athletes should first seek a denser, form-fitting option to cradle and soothe their joints. They also need optimal cooling and should always choose a hypoallergenic pillow to prevent sickness and fatigue.
We recommend: All-natural latex
Pillows to avoid: Down feather pillows
Seniors are some of the most susceptible sleepers when it comes to pain. They may have been sleeping with a poorly aligned neck and spine for many years. A more supportive, higher-density pillow can help to alleviate these problems even if they are deeply ingrained. Another problem seniors face is a lack of mobility. Pillows that sink in deeply may prevent them from easily changing positions. Seniors should look for pillows with good mobility and bounce that don’t sacrifice density and support.
We recommend: All-natural latex
Pillows to avoid: Soft memory foam and lofty down feather pillows
How to take care of your pillow
Once you invest in a pillow that meets your needs, you’ll want to take good care of it. Most people never do anything but wash their pillowcases. This is not good for a pillow or for personal hygiene. In order to keep your bed clean and your pillow’s warranty from being voided, make sure to follow this advice.
Wash your pillow
Pillows need washing two to four times a year. Here’s how to do it.
- Standard pillows: Cotton, polyester, and down alternative pillows are machine washable (do not machine wash if the machine has a central agitator). Put them in two at a time. The first time, wash with detergent. Then, wash them again without detergent to make sure they are soap-free. Dry on low heat.
- Foam pillows: Memory foam and latex pillows have special washing instructions depending on the type of foam. The pillow should come with washing instructions. Follow them carefully or any associated warranty may be voided.
- Down pillows: Down feather pillows will need to be dry-cleaned.
- Buckwheat pillows: Leave the pillow out in the sun for a few hours to revitalize the hulls.
Invest in a pillow cover
Not to be confused with a pillowcase, a pillow cover goes between the pillow and the case. Pillow covers are generally hypoallergenic and moisture-resistant. Nicer varieties are also breathable, so they won’t get in the way of a pillow’s cooling capabilities.
Pillow covers are intended to protect a pillow and its warranty. They typically shut tight with a zipper and seal out moisture and dust. The average pillow should be thrown out after just a few years, but pillows protected by pillow covers last much longer.
Buying a new pillow
Now that you’re confident about which pillow type suits you the best, you’re ready to choose a new pillow. Check out our guide to the best pillows to see what our experts have to say about the best pillows on the market.
Do you have trouble sleeping hot? Then you’ll want to read our guide to the best cooling pillows. This guide focuses exclusively on breathable, cool pillows. We’ll walk you through all the details, including comprehensive reviews, and we’ll show you the best cooling pillows available for purchase.