In theory, it’s simple enough to find your ideal pillow—it just needs to be supportive and comfortable, after all. But putting it into practice can be tricky. Between size, firmness, loft, material and special features, there are a lot of pieces to the pillow puzzle. “It can be a sometimes frustrating detective game to find the perfect pillow set up,” says Ben Fung, a physical therapist and spokesperson for the American Physical Therapy Association, “particularly since all the action happens when we are asleep for it!”
We decided to dive into all the considerations you need to weigh when shopping for a great pillow, because when it comes to sleep, it’s usually more complicated than just waltzing into Target and plucking a product off the shelf. Whether you’re looking for information on which material to opt for, or how firm a pillow should be for your sleep position, we’ve got you covered. Spoiler alert: Experts generally advise focusing on support first and comfort second for the best chance of waking up rested, refreshed and pain-free.
Be prepared for some trial and error, because no one sleeps just the way that you do. Aside from that, here’s everything you need to know when choosing a pillow.
Pillows today are made with a range of materials, which dictate how they feel and perform in different sleep positions. Above all, a pillow needs to be supportive first and comfortable second.
“Research suggests that pillow comfort has no association with waking symptoms of cervical stiffness, scapula pain nor sleep quality,” says Dr. Dan Ford, a sleep psychologist and clinical director of The Better Sleep Clinic. “Most people will be better [off]prioritizing support in their pillow, as good support has been shown to reduce pain.”
Of course, it’s hard to fall asleep if your supportive pillow is so firm it makes your neck ache. What’s more, “pillows can play an essential part in easing our bodies during rest and allowing our muscles to relax,” Fung says. That means your dream pillow needs to be comfortable enough to fall asleep on, with the internal support necessary to cradle your neck or support your head all night long.
Materials play a central role in how a pillow feels and the support it provides. It can feel daunting to try and settle on something that’s just right, but fortunately you don’t need to overthink it. Fung advises that in most cases, the actual material is less important than the level of support and comfort a pillow delivers, so it’s generally a matter of preference. “Material considerations tend to be a decision of texture and temperature,” he says.
Fortunately, you have plenty of options. While personal preference is key, different materials have distinct benefits and drawbacks you’ll want to keep in mind as you consider pillows.
Down is a traditional pillow filling associated with an airy, cloud-like feel that’s incredibly soft. Down pillows are filled with fluffy clusters from the undercoats of geese and ducks—which means responsible sourcing is key. It’s one of the more expensive materials out there—a good down pillow can cost you upwards of $100.
If you’re a fan of down pillows, look for certifications from the Responsible Down Standard, International Down Standard or Downmark to be sure the fill is sourced from birds that are ethically raised, and down harvesting methods are in compliance with animal welfare guidelines.
When it comes to down pillows, you’ll want to find one with the right density to ensure you get the support you need. It’s a material that compresses easily, so density is essential for adequate overnight support. Even with the right density, you’ll still want to fluff your down pillow regularly to keep it in the best (and most supportive) shape possible.
Note that some pillows are marketed as “all down,” or “100% down,” but may still contain feathers. This isn’t because the company was deceptive. Down labels are regulated by the Federal Trade Commission, which requires pillows to have labels indicating the percent of down that’s used and included. Pillows that are “all down” are required to have at least 75% down, which means they may still have a few rogue feathers, as well—though you’ll be unlikely to encounter them unless you slice the pillow in half.
To make things more complicated, feather pillows are occasionally lumped into the down category, and some down pillows (typically marketed as having “down and feather fill”) intentionally use both materials. Like down, feathers are sourced from geese and ducks. Down and feather combinations can offer more structure and support in a pillow. Often, feathers will be separated from the rest of the pillow in a chamber or pouch, so you still get the added support without them poking through the fabric. Boll & Branch’s Down Pillows in medium and firm are one example of this construction.
You’ll often find all-down pillows for stomach sleepers, while medium and firm options include feathers. Pillows with feather and down fill can also bring down the otherwise high price tag common among all-down pillows.
If you want the soft, plush feel of a down pillow without the expense or ethical considerations, a down alternative can be a good choice. These pillows are made with synthetic or natural fibers (think polyester or eucalyptus-derived lyocell) that mimic bird down—and some brands do it really well. We like the Brooklinen Down Alternative Pillow, the Sijo FluffBase Eucalyptus Pillow and the Amazon Basics Down Alternative Pillow set. Typically they don’t have quite the same loft or sensation, but you can still expect good quality.
Down alternative pillows are often easier to wash than goose or duck down, as natural down often requires dry cleaning. If you have allergies, or if you like to regularly toss your pillow in the washing machine at home, down alternative fills can be a great choice.
Memory foam pillows impart the same benefits as mattresses made with the material. They’re pressure relieving, with the signature cradling sensation of memory foam. Some memory foam pillows are made as a solid piece, often in an ergonomic shape with elevated and indented parts to support the neck and cradle the head, for example. Others use shredded foam. These are often adjustable–you can add or remove foam to customize the height, loft and feel.
Some foam pillows, like the Tempur-Cloud Breeze Dual Cooling Pillow, are made with gel-infused materials for a cooling effect and even a cool-to-the-touch feel. This can be a major bonus for people who overheat at night.
Latex is another type of foam fill similar to memory foam—it can be used as a whole piece for more structure, or in shredded clusters for adjustability.
The key difference between latex and memory foam is the source of the raw material. Natural latex comes from rubber trees, which makes it more sustainable and eco-friendly than most memory foams. It’s also known for its durability. While it shares pressure-relieving properties with memory foam, latex has a softer, more buoyant feel and doesn’t mold or contour to your body in the same way. You won’t sink into a latex pillow as much as you would with a memory foam one. We’re partial to the Avocado Green Pillow, a blend of organic latex and organic kapok, a fluffy fiber derived from the kapok tree.
Fill And Loft
Fill and loft might sound interchangeable, but they’re actually totally different. The fill of a pillow will directly affect its loft, or its compressed height when your head is on it. It’s a factor worth considering carefully.
“Loft is the most important pillow feature,” says Stephen Light, certified sleep science coach and CEO/Co-Owner of Nolah Technologies. “To avoid neck strain, you need a pillow that raises and supports your head [to] the same height from the mattress as the base of your neck. This prevents your neck from curving, which stresses your muscles [and can cause] pain in your neck and shoulders.” The exact level of support you need will vary depending on whether you sleep on your back, side or stomach.
Pillows generally come in low, medium and high loft options. The idea is to find the height that will keep your neck and spine aligned.
Personal attributes play a significant role here. If you have wider shoulders, you’ll benefit from a higher pillow, especially if you’re a side sleeper. Those with higher body weights may sink more deeply into the mattress, so they’ll need a pillow with lower loft to keep that spine aligned. (Something I know from writing about sleep for many years.)
Unsurprisingly, exactly what you need depends not only on your frame, but also on your sleep position, which we’ll get into next.
Sleep Position And Ergonomic Considerations
Some pillows are marketed for specific sleep positions. The material, loft and firmness you need will, in large part, be dictated by how you sleep. Choosing the right thing will help keep your back, head, shoulders and neck comfortable all night long.
Folks who sleep on their side benefit from a pillow made with a medium to firm fill and material that’s medium to high loft. That’s because “sleeping on your side raises your head farther than any other sleep position,” says Light. “For proper head and neck support, your pillow needs to make up the distance between your head and the mattress that your shoulder creates,” he explains. That often means a pillow with high loft and firm support, though it depends on shoulder width and body weight. If you have broader shoulders, or higher body weight, you may need a lower loft option.
Foam and latex pillows, which have contouring and molding properties, tend to be good options. If you’re set on down, make opt for a firmer pillow. The Pillow Bar has a curved pillow design that accommodates the shoulder nicely without sacrificing sufficient head and neck support.
For back sleepers to stay comfy all night, they need a pillow with adequate loft to support the natural curve of the neck. These folks will often find low- to medium-loft pillows are best.
Back sleepers have a lot of options when it comes to firmness and material. “Foam, latex, down and down-alternative fill all make great options with comfortable cushioning and moldability,” says Light. Back sleepers won’t want an overly thick or ultra-firm pillow, though, as it can strain the neck.
In general, stomach sleepers benefit from low loft and softer materials and need a thin or low loft pillow. In this position, too much height or firmness can elevate the head and push the neck out of alignment. Pressure relief might be worth considering, too, as part of your face may press into the pillow. Light suggests soft foam or latex for pressure relief, but down and down alternative pillows are also good options for stomach sleepers.
The needs of combination sleepers are more complex. You’ll want to consider the positions you fall asleep and wake up in, then look for a loft, material and firmness to accommodate.
That can be tricky, depending on whether you move from side to back, side to belly, or flip flop completely from your back to a prone sleeping position. Pillows with structured internal chambers that provide support paired with a fluffy exterior, like Saatva’s Natural Latex Pillow, can be a good compromise. Adjustable pillows are also worth exploring, as they’ll allow you to tinker with the amount of fill over time, and manipulate where fill is in the pillow, itself, as needed.
Other Factors To Keep In Mind
Of course, choosing the right pillow extends beyond landing on a material that feels nice and aligns with your lifestyle (i.e., whether you like to wash pillows regularly, or prefer vegan products). In your search for that just-right pillow, you’ll also want to think about a couple other factors that can improve the quality of your sleep.
A pillow’s soft or firm feel is closely tied to materials, but density will pay a role. Density describes the firmness of the fill–the more fill in the pillow, the higher the density. Down pillows, for example, are soft and fluffy. They’re generally also lower density. High density, or firm, pillows offer more support. That makes them well suited to side sleepers’ needs, and they may work for some back sleepers, as well.
Cooling features, often gel-infusions and cool-to-the-touch fabric blends that are designed to wick away moisture, have nothing to do with support, but can make a major difference in comfort. For people who regularly wake up overheated and sweaty, cooling designs can vastly improve overall sleep quality. Breathable or temperature-regulating materials, like eucalyptus or latex, are also worth exploring if you’re a hot sleeper.
In fact, in one small study, researchers found that cooling caps can help induce sleep and even aid people with insomnia in staying asleep, making their sleep patterns similar to those of healthy counterparts. While we won’t go as far as to say a cooling pillow will resolve your sleep woes, products designed to help regulate body temperature could be with a shot.
Like bedding in general, pillows need to be cleaned regularly. They’re up close and personal with your face and head every single night, and with that comes dust mites, skin cells and oil. Bacteria, fungi and other pathogens can also make their way into a pillow’s outer fabric or fill. Fortunately, there’s a relatively easy fix: laundering.
In addition to using a pillow protector and a pillowcase, you should prioritize cleaning your pillows at least twice a year—more if you have allergies. Double check the manufacturer’s directions to be clear on the most appropriate cleaning method, and if they recommend more frequent cleaning. Some pillows can be machine washed, while others will need to be hand washed or dry cleaned. This might be something to keep in mind as you shop for a new pillow.
When Should You Replace Pillows?
The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA) recommends replacing pillows at least every two years. Like mattresses, pillows have a lifespan. Remember: The goal of a pillow is to ensure adequate support to the neck and head while you sleep. Once it’s no longer able to do that, it’s out with the old and in with the new.
The materials used in a pillow will dictate its longevity, and your care in washing them will also play a role. Still, even well-maintained pillows will need replacing. If you’ve noticed that you’re waking up with neck pain, or needing to fluff your pillow a lot more than you used to in order to get the same results, it’s probably time to move on.
What Should You Do With Old Pillows?
When you replace old pillows every so often, you have options beyond tossing them in the trash. See if you can donate them to a local pet shelter, or if there’s a textile recycler nearby that accepts your type of pillow. Note that feather and down fill can even be composted.
Upcycling is an eco-friendly way to reuse things that might otherwise end up in the landfill. A few ideas for pillows, in particular:
- Take the fill from old pillows and use it to re-stuff a dog or cat bed.
- Use solid foam or latex pillows as packing and moving material. Keep them in vacuum-sealed storage bags until you need them, then cut the pieces down to size to secure breakables or protect furniture edges.
- Drafty doors or windows? The filling from old pillows can be used in door socks, a DIY way to keep chilly weather from sneaking in under doors.