Last Updated: June 01, 2018.
Choosing a pillow can be daunting. There are many types of filling, thickness, and designs. How can we tell which one is right for you? In this guide, we look what you should consider when picking a pillow, a list of specific needs and the pillows that might help, the many different types of pillow filling and what they do, and how your sleeping position can influence the type of pillow that can be best for you.
So What Makes A Great Pillow Exactly?
There are a lot of different pillows available. Some pillows are made with different stuffings or cover fabric. Others that are uniquely shaped or designed for particular uses.
When we consider what makes a great pillow, it really boils down to what works for you and your particular need. Perhaps you sleep on your side and need a thick pillow to support your neck. Maybe you have neck pain and need to consider a pillow that is built to support your neck. Other times, you might find that you sleep better with a pillow that is fluffy and soft. All of this is entirely dependent on you, so we want to be comprehensive and look at the different angles for choosing your pillow.
To keep things simple, we look at pillows based on particular needs, types of material filling, and based on sleeping position. We will also examine each pillow category and understand how they might improve your quality of sleep. It’s great and dandy to have so many different pillows available. So how should we go about choosing?
The Four Things To Consider When Picking Your Pillow
It can get pretty daunting picking a pillow. Below, we give a mini-guide on four key ideas to consider when you go about picking your perfect pillow:
Do you have issues with temperature?
Depending on the general climate and weather of where you live, you may find yourself looking for a pillow that can help provide a cooler or warming rest. This can mean searching for a filling that can help retain heat better or is breathable and can stay cool.
If you need a particular pillow for winter season, then we may want a foam-based filling, such as latex and memory foam. Foam-based filling does a good job at retaining heat as they conform to the shape of your head and snuggle up well to your body. They also relieve pressure extremely well as mattresses, too.
For the summer season, when we may need a cooler pillow. Memory foam infused with gel, down filling pillows, or down alternative fillings can be an excellent choices. Gel-infused memory foam is built for regulating temperature while down and down alternative fillings are naturally fluffy, filled with airspace for the pillow to breathe. This airflow can help heat dissipate easier and the material won’t trap and build up heat.
What filling have you enjoyed?
Picking a particular filling material means dictating the firmness and feel of your pillow. Some people enjoy a cloud-like pillow experience (kind of like the ones you find at luxury hotels) or pillows that are firm and focused on providing support for the neck. Foam-based filling tends to be much more supportive and consistent with the sleeping surface, while fluffy fillings (down and down alternative) provide a soft cushion sleep.
Depending on your general preference, you may want to pick a filling material you have always favored and can reliably fall asleep on. Filling material and general thickness of the pillow can also depend on the sleeping position you choose (more on this later).
Don’t forget the size of your pillow matter
When we speak of size, we concern ourselves with the length of which we can roll our heads on the pillow. You may prefer a longer pillow for your bed. Maybe you want to snuggle your hand underneath the pillow as you sleep on your side or you prefer a smaller size so you can scrunch up the pillow to satisfy your dark side (and that’s OK).
Luckily for us, nearly all pillows come in different available sizes and lengths. If you enjoy longer pillows, we recommend pillows one size up from the size of your mattress. If you have a twin size bed, then a full size pillow would be great. If you have a queen size mattress, then consider a king size pillow. However, if you enjoy a smaller size pillow, then choosing the pillow size that corresponds to your mattress size is perfect.
Thickness is another consideration. If you sleep on your side, you should consider a thicker pillow to support the space between your ear to the outside of your shoulder. If you sleep on your back or stomach, you very well might want a thinner pillow. The thickness of your pillow should support your sleeping position.
Your preferred sleeping position is important
Last, but not least, your sleeping position can determine many things for your choice of pillow. As much as we want to sleep on a fluffy pillow or a firm and supportive one, most material type for pillows are better for particular sleeping positions. Memory foam, for example, are great for side and back sleepers, but not so much fun for stomach sleepers and the strain it can place on their necks. We cover more detail on each of the three major sleeping positions down below.
What Is Your Pillow Need?
There may be other reasons we are looking for particular pillows other than “what it’s filled with” and “what size they are”. Maybe you find yourself sweating at night and in need of a cooler bed and pillow. Maybe you snore and have acid reflux that needs attention. In this section, we take a deeper look at specific needs and what the right pillow might look like for you.
I have neck pain
Neck pain can be debilitating and excruciatingly frustrating. Whether you are stressing each night or waking up in an awkward position with neck pain, pillows built for cervical support can provide much needed support to your cervical vertebrae and neck muscles so you can sleep better at night.
Cervical pillows are well known as the contouring pillow where two humps exist on both lengths of the pillow with a chasm in the center to fit the back of your head. They do a great job keeping the head in a straight and neutral position, and can be great for both side sleepers and back sleepers. These pillows tend to be made with memory foam because they can keep their shape better and provide the much needed firm support for neck pain.
I need cooler sleep
If you find yourself waking up in the middle of the night because of sweating or heat, you may want to find a pillow that is breathable and cool. To date, the most popular type of cooling pillows are gel-infused memory foam. You may also find pillows that use charcoal, copper, or other heat absorbing materials to help regulate the sleeping temperature of your pillow.
We should note that memory foam by itself is well known to trap heat. On its own merit, memory foam conforms very well to the body (pressure relief!) thus tends to do a good job at trapping heat between your body and the material. However, fillings such as latex, down, and down alternatives can be good at regulating temperature. Latex doesn’t trap heat and feather or microfiber fillings are less dense and can breathe well.
My snoring is disruptive
Snoring bites, especially for your sleeping partner We never want to be that kind of sleeper, but it happens. Aside from getting yourself checked for sleep apnea with a sleep specialist, we want to find a pillow that can elevate our head to provide better airflow.
Pillows built for snoring tend to be thicker for more loft. By angling your head somewhere between 20 to 40 degrees, we can shift the flab of elastic cartilage called the epiglottis slightly off to its side. The epiglottis protect you from swallowing food or substances that don’t belong in your lungs, but can be obstructive for breathing in your sleep at night when we are no longer standing. Aside from using the right pillow, we highly recommend sleeping on your side to minimize snoring.
Anti-snore pillows can be either cervical and contouring in design (to support the cervical vertebrae that is your neck spine), wedge shape (think: door stopper), or a regular pillow that is thick and firm to maintain the angle of your head. We write more about best recommended pillows for snoring here.
I’m a mommy or mommy-to-be
When you’re pregnant or nursing your infant, you go through a whirl of problems ranging from back pain to sore arms. There are several shapes and designs of nursing pillows and pregnancy pillows that can help. Most pillows are of some curved shape (think: letter ‘C’ and ‘J’ shape) that offer support and versatility in the way it can be used.
These pillows can vary in design, but the needs are more or less the same: comfort for the mommy. Pregnancy pillows tend to be thick and soft, and can allow it to be placed between your legs, snuggled up to your body, and help keep your head and neck leveled as you sleep on your side. They can also be placed on your back for supporting lower back pain.
Nursing pillows, on the other hand, are built for longevity because we can surely expect accidents to happen. They also tend to have pockets to carry important things such as clean diapers, wipes, baby bottles, and your smartphone. They are also thick enough to act as arm rest when you sit upright or lay on your side.
My allergies are flaring
Allergies can flare because of the filling type of your pillow. For those who love the soft and fluffy pillows filled with down, you might find your nose and sinuses clogging up. Feathers and down filling tend tocollect dust and other allergens very well, and can cause your allergies to fire up.
Pillows that are hypoallergenic can help. Down alternative filling, for example, use synthetic materials like polyester and microfiber filling or all-natural materials like cotton and silk. These materials resist allergens and are less able to collect allergens and dust. Down alternative pillows are usually bought because they are hypoallergenic and are very similar to down filling in terms of softness and feel.
I need to cuddle and hug
Looking for a big pillow to cuddle and hug? Body pillows might be your answer. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes. We can find body pillows as ‘C’ shape or ‘J’ shape or the traditional long designs, which provides full contact support and can act as a pillow to support your head and neck as well. This pillow type is great for helping with pregnancy as they can provide belly, breast, head, neck, hip, and arm support all at once. They are also great for cuddling, great for single people, and even more amazing for pillow fights. The extended reach provides an advantage for maintaining a safe distance from your enemies as you rain pillow strikes from afar.
Body pillows tend to be cool and are made to be highly breathable. They are comfortable for the skin and extremely versatile for use. If you would like more information and recommendations on body pillows, we wrote more about them in this buyers guide here.
The Five Types Of Pillow Filling
There are several types of material fillings that pillow uses. Filling greatly influences the feel of your pillow and is, therefore, one of the top consideration points when choosing the right pillow. In this section, we go through the major categories of pillow filling and what they can do for you.
Memory foam has gone up in popularity over the years, and for good reason. It does a fantastic job as a mattress for relieving pressure that we exert on ourselves from our body weight. It doesn’t come as a surprise that memory foam is also just as popular as a pillow, too. They retain their shape throughout the night, provide an amazing cushion, and offer excellent head and neck support for both back and side sleepers.
The biggest issue when it comes to picking a memory foam pillow is finding the right thickness. Memory foam pillows are not adjustable like down or down alternative fillings that you can squish and flatten to your desire. They can also get much warmer than other pillow fillings because of the nature of the material. Luckily, there have been improvements to memory foam pillow to solve these two issues.
Gel-infused, charcoal, copper, etc. memory foam pillows: These pillows are made with memory foam that is mixed with ingredients to absorb and dissipate heat much better than regular memory foam. We commonly find them in dog beds as well as more modern memory foam and hybrid mattresses. Although it does not guarantee that heat won’t get trapped, they can provide a much better experience compared to traditional memory foam fillings. With porous air holes and special cooling ingredients, your pillow can have a much better airflow and breathe better.
Shredded memory foam pillows: Pillows filled with memory foam pieces (usually thin strips) that you can put in or take out to adjust the thickness to your liking. The pillows usually have a thick cover to provide a relatively consistent sleeping surface, and the pillow brands will provide extra memory foam shredding so you can make it really thick if you need. Shredded foam filling means better airflow, breathability, and much better customization to your liking. We write more about memory foam pillows top recommendations in our buyers guide.
Latex is best described as the softer and bouncier cousin to memory foam. Latex as a mattress is a popular alternative foam for several reasons that also apply to pillows. In short:
- they don’t give you that sinked-in or trapped feeling, allowing you to get up and off easier
- they don’t leave impression so when you toss and turn at night, you won’t notice the sagging (fast responsiveness)
- they are much cooler alternative and trap less heat underneath
- they are bouncy and it feels great to dive onto
If you have had some experience sleeping full nights on memory foam, and you found the body impressions, the cushion, or the heat uncomfortable, latex can be a bump up to a more comfortable and forgiving sleeping surface. Latex pillows are generally cooler than memory foams, and more modern constructions aim to make it even cooler by incorporating the same design ideas such as porous air holes for ventilation or use of shredded latex foams for customizable thickness. They are made with pure natural latex which makes it hypoallergenic and unlikely to trigger allergies. However, we must warn that some people are allergic to latex.
Down pillows are the classic pillows of the century. Made with duck down or goose down, these pillows provide the classic lofty, fluffy, and cloud-like resting surface for your head. The filling is grouped into sub-categories: duck down and goose down.
Duck down costs less but have less fill power while goose down cost more and tend to have more fill power. Which is better? We’re a huge fan of both, but goose down can have the more luxurious experience. This is, however, highly dependent on the manufacturer. Fill power is the density of the down per ounce: The higher it is, the less empty air and more fluffiness a pillow can have. It should be noted that total ounce of a pillow is equally important as having high fill power but less filling overall won’t provide a great pillow sleeping experience.
Down pillows nowadays have a mix of feathers with it. Down looks like a little cotton ball while feathers have a quill (spine) with fluff on the sides. Feathers unfortunately do not last as long and the quills can be a nuisance for sleepers as they poke through the covers of the pillow. Most down pillows however make sure the quills are unnoticeable. Mixed with feathers, this lowers the cost of down pillow and makes it affordable for consumers who love down.
The drawback with down pillows is that they may have some initial odor because the filling comes from animals. They may be great for sleeping because of their fluffy and softness, but what about those with allergic reactions to down? Luckily, down alternatives provide the same experience minus the allergens.
Down alternative pillows are the brothers and sisters to down pillows. They don’t use materials from actual animals, but use synthetically created materials like polyester and microfiber filling to offer the same sleeping experience as down pillows. They have no feathers, come at a lower cost, but feel much more consistent than down and/or feather-mixed pillows.
Down alternatives are also hypoallergenic and last much longer. They can be washed way more and still retain their fluffiness after proper tumble drying. They also rarely have any odor and can make for a great fluffy, cloud-like sleeping surface. These pillows can also be scrunched and fluffed up as required. We find that popular comforters tend to be filled with the same material. The biggest plus to down alternative pillows is their price compared to all other pillow fillings.
Water pillows provide a very unique pillow experience. They are best described as comfortable and soft outside, with a very fluid resting surface when you first lay your head on top of the water pillow. Most water pillows are made with cotton or memory foam padding on the outside, with a plastic sealed-shut interior for holding the water. Our first concerns when it comes to water pillows is the leaking of water, but as long as your pets or sharp objects are kept away from the pillow, they are well made. If the usual pillow fillings aren’t satisfactory for your sleep, they can be a great choice for customizing the thickness and feel of your head resting surface.
How Your Sleeping Position Influences Your Pillow Choice
Your sleeping position will narrow down your research for the perfect pillow for you. You might find yourself sleeping 60% of the time on your side and 40% of the time on your back, or sleeping on your stomach is best for you. Whichever the case, knowing which sleeping position you prefer and the types of pillow suitable for that sleeping position will make finding the right pillow easier.
RELATED: What Is The Best Sleeping Position?
For side sleepers
Side sleepers have pressure mainly on the neck and shoulder area. When laying on your side, the gap between your head and the mattress needs to be filled. This gap is the distance between the ear and outside shoulder. What does this mean for a pillow?
Side sleepers will need a thicker and firmer pillow. The firm and thick pillow provides support to the head to maintain the neck alignment to the spine. It also relieves the strain that can come about with thinner pillows where the neck can become uncomfortably bent downwards, pulling the shoulder blades and neck muscles.
Memory foam and latex pillows can be an excellent choice. They provide the firmness and thickness to level the head to the body, and pressure relief for the neck and shoulder muscles. Softer fillings such as down and microfiber can work, but only if the pillow is extremely stuffed. For more information, check out top recommended side sleeper pillows buyer’s guide for more information.
For stomach sleepers
Stomach sleepers need a special kind of pillow that isn’t uncomfortably firm for the face but soft enough to relieve the potential pressure placed on the cheeks, jaws and chin area. The pillows typically best for stomach sleepers will be thin in design. Too thick of a pillow can elevate the head uncomfortably high, placing pressure on the neck muscles, jaws, and spine.
So what kind of pillow is best? We want a pillow that uses filling that is soft, cloud-like, and very relieving of pressure. down and down alternative fillings will be an excellent choice. Although some sleepers might prefer down alternative for its hypoallergenic properties. Down may feel incredibly soft and natural, but tends to build up dust and other allergens. Not great for the stuffy nose! We have written a guide on the best pillow for stomach sleepers. Be sure to check that out if you sleep on your belly often!
For back sleepers
The pillow type that fits back sleepers can vary depending on different needs and preferences. Generally speaking, the best kind of pillow for back sleepers is one that has extra loft and a thickness somewhere in between a side sleeper and stomach sleeper pillow. If you suffer from sleep apnea, snore severely, or have acid reflux, then you may want a pillow with more elevation.
The best pillow for sleeping on your back will be highly preferential. In our back sleeper pillows guide, we recommend memory foam pillows that aren’t too thick and offer a decent loft angle to take the weight of your head off your neck and shoulder muscles.
Not Sure When To Replace Your Pillow?
On average, we sleep on our beds and pillows for 7 to 9 hours each night. Over a year’s time, that comes up to 2500 to 3250 hours! As we sleep for one-third of our lives, we want to ensure the quality of our beds will take care of us so we can wake up feeling refreshed and ready to start our days strong.
When exactly should we be replacing our pillows? For simplicity, when you begin to feel aches and pain on your neck, shoulders, and upper back or begin to struggle with sleeping well. It’s not that easy to notice as we sleep on the same pillow over and over again with the pillow slowly but steadily becoming uncomfortable and overused.
Time-wise, we recommend to consider changing your pillow every 1 to 2 years. You can mark it down on your calendar to think about how your pillow is making your sleep better. If it’s not, then maybe it’s time to invest in a brand new pillow. We will find synthetic materials such as down alternative fillings (microfiber/polyester) to last longer than regular down fillings because of its synthetic nature. on the flip side, we might find memory foam begin to sag as body impressions are no longer disappearing.
What About Pillow Cases?
Once you have your perfect pillow, it’s time to talk about pillow cases. We want to ensure that your pillow last as long as possible. When we sleep on our pillow without a pillow case, we might get it dirty to the point where we must replace it because it is causing skin problems.
We naturally shed dead skin cells every day. Our skin also produces oil that can rub off on our pillow. Drooling is also something else to consider that might get our pillows dirty. with the right pillow case, you can ensure that your pillow will remain fresh, odor-free, and clean for use for the next year or two. All you have to do is find the right size and maybe design if you want your pillow and bed to look great together!
Our Final Thoughts
It can get confusing when you look at something as simple as a pillow and wonder what would make a great pillow for you. In this guide, we hope that you learn more on how to decide on the right pillow and all the different kinds that are out there. we link to some buyer guides with recommendations for you to start your pillow product research.
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