Quality sleep is essential for optimal health, both mental and physical. The key to a good night’s sleep is a comfortable pillow. Pillows come in a variety of sizes, materials, and comfort levels. If you aren’t sleeping on the right one for you, it could interrupt your sleep cycles and prevent you from getting quality rest.
Do your mind and body a favor by doing your research before buying a pillow to determine which one is right for you. This buying guide will give you all the information you need to make the best decision.
Before Replacing Your Pillow
If you’re waking up tired and groggy every morning or notice your sleep is being interrupted all night, consider replacing your pillow to potentially solve your problems and improve sleep.
Pillows can harbor bacteria and dust mites. If you’re frequently waking up sneezing, you should switch to a new pillow. Try a hypoallergenic pillow to see if your sleep improves.
Some additional signs that it’s time to replace your pillow or pillows include:
- Stains or discoloration
- Bad smells
Even without these signs, sleep experts suggest you replace your pillow every year or two to ensure you’re sleeping on a pillow that’s clean, comfortable, and allergen-free. Replacing your pillow regularly will ensure you get quality rest every single night.
Buying Considerations for Pillows
When it comes to picking a pillow, there are several different material types to choose between. Just as with types of mattresses, picking the right type or material for a pillow comes down to your personal preferences and needs.
Polyester-filled pillows are the most common and inexpensive pillows on the market. Sometimes referred to as poly-fill pillows, they are popular because of their relatively low price points. However, they tend to lose their shape quickly because they can be made from low-quality material, meaning you’ll have to replace yours more often.
Because the material contours to your body, memory foam pillows are perfect for any sleeping position. Whether you’re a side sleeper, a back sleeper, or something else entirely, you’ll be comfortable with memory foam. The downside is that the high-density memory foam isn’t very breathable, meaning it isn’t the best choice if you sleep hot.
Latex pillows are durable, moldable, biodegradable, and breathable. They’re excellent for those who sleep hot and need a cooling pillow to sleep comfortably. But latex is a common allergen, so make sure you’re not allergic before purchasing one.
Made from the soft fibers near the skin of a goose, swan, or duck, down is one of the most highly prized pillow materials on the market. It’s moldable and provides above-average head and neck support, but is still lightweight and soft. That said, down can retain body heat and harbor more allergens, such as dust mites, than some other materials, so it isn’t perfect for everyone.
Down alternative is a synthetic version of down and is often polyester mimicking the feeling of down. Down alternative pillows are hypoallergenic, so they’re a great choice for those who like the cushion-y feeling of down but suffer from allergies. These pillows are also often more affordable than true down pillows because they’re made from polyester, but that also means they can get lumpy over time and need replacing.
Perhaps the softest, fluffiest pillows are made from feathers. While feather pillows are lightweight and soft, they are incredibly supportive and moldable. To maintain its plushness, feather pillows need regular fluffing. They can be difficult to clean, but they are affordable, so buying a replacement won’t put you in the red.
Cotton pillows are versatile, meaning they work for almost all sleepers. They’re hypoallergenic and breathable, but they need regular cleaning and they don’t contour well. Cotton pillows are an affordable pillow option great for those who are allergic to synthetics.
Cooling and easy to care for, gel pillows are made from gel in addition to another material, like memory foam. The gel material is firm, while the foam (or other material) provides softness. Some sleepers may find gel pillows too firm, but give it a try if you are allergic to other pillow materials or if you sleep hot, as some gel layers claim to help keep sleepers cooler overnight.
Pillows come in a variety of sizes. Most sleepers will do well with a standard-size pillow, though you may go up in size if you move around a lot in your sleep. You may also choose to go up in size for aesthetic looks—if you have a king-sized bed, a standard pillow may look awkward and small.
Typical pillow sizes are:
- Standard: 20 x 26 inches
- Queen: 20 x 30 inches
- King: 20 x 36 inches
Consider whether you sleep mostly on your back, your side, or your stomach. Side sleepers should choose a lofty but firm pillow, while back sleepers and stomach sleepers should opt for less firm pillows that don’t cause them to crane their neck while sleeping. While shopping for your pillow, squeeze it to gauge how firm it is.
No matter your budget, there’s a pillow on the market that will work. Pillows are readily available at almost every price point. Pillows range in price from less than $10 to upwards of $1,000, with most costing less than $200. Price ultimately depends on the material of the pillow.
Shop Black Friday sales at department stores to find discounts on pillows (and everything else). Some stores may also offer discounts on pillows and bedding in January.
How to Choose a Pillow
Your perfect pillow depends on a few factors, including how you sleep, whether or not you have allergies, and the size of your bed. Consider these things while shopping for your new pillow to optimize your sleep.
What Is Your Usual Sleeping Position?
You ultimately want a pillow that perfectly fills the space between the bed and your neck. That allows the pillow to support your head without craning your neck or crumpling it down too far. Your usual sleeping position determines the type of pillow you should buy.
- Side sleepers: Down, down alternative, feather, cotton, latex, memory foam, polyester
- Stomach sleepers: Down, cotton, memory foam, gel, polyester
- Back sleepers: Down, down alternative, feather, cotton, latex, gel, polyester
In general, stomach and back sleepers will want a flatter pillow, while side sleepers want something loftier.
Do You Sleep Hot?
Some people just sleep hot normally. Sleeping hot can keep you up at night and even wake you up in a sweat in the middle of the night. Some pillow materials are more breathable and cooling than others, making them ideal for hot sleepers.
Cooling materials include latex and gel. Hot sleepers should avoid memory foam pillows without cooling gel layers because they tend to absorb body heat and make you even warmer.
Are You Allergic to Dust Mites?
Those with allergies should stick to polyester, down alternative, cotton, or gel pillows.
What Size Is Your Bed?
Consider the size of your bed before picking out your pillow. If you have a huge bed, pick a larger pillow so it looks proportional and vice versa. Pillows typically come in standard, queen, and king sizes.
Where to Shop
There are plenty of retailers, both with online and brick-and-mortar presences, that sell a variety of pillow types. Look out for pillow types that are specifically designed for certain sleep positions.
Buying a pillow online without being able to test it is risky—what if it’s too soft and hurts your neck, or what if it’s not cooling enough? Many consumers prefer to purchase their pillows in-person so that they can test it themselves before taking it home. That said, you can often find discounts at online retailers. If there’s a bedding brand you trust, consider buying online.
Once you find a pillow you like in-store, do the squeeze test. Squeeze the pillow with your fingers to test just how firm or soft it is. If possible, lay on it to see if it’s comfortable. And don’t be afraid to ask the salesperson a few questions. If they work at a bedding store, they’re likely well-versed in pillow types and can tell you which ones customers prefer. They may even let you in on their personal preferences.
If you decide to buy your pillow online, do your research. Review this guide thoroughly to determine what pillow material is best for you. Read every customer review to get a good sense of what people like and dislike about the product and read up on the company’s return policy. Ideally, you want to purchase your pillow from a company with a generous return policy. Some bedding companies will give you a month or two to try the pillow and send it back if you don’t like it at no cost.
Use this guide to determine the right pillow material for you, depending on how you sleep, allergies, the size of your bed, and your overall budget. There isn’t one pillow material or size that suits everyone. Finding a pillow is a very individualized process.
Side-sleepers should look for a medium-firm to firm pillow. Side-sleepers need relatively firmer pillows that don’t compress when they lay down.
If you’re waking up with neck pain, either in the middle of the night or when you naturally wake up in the morning, you likely need a new pillow. A pillow that is too lofty or too flat forces your neck to bend unnaturally, which can cause discomfort.
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Latex Allergy. American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology.
Dust Mite Allergy. Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.
Okamoto-Mizuno, Kazue and Koh, Mizuno. Effects of thermal environment on sleep and circadian rhythm. Journal of physiological anthropology, vol. 31, no. 1, pp. 14, 2012. doi:10.1186/1880-6805-31-14
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