Pillow Buying Guide

Fluffy, white, rectangular, soft. Pillows may all look about the same, but they differ widely in how supportive they are. A great pillow for someone who sleeps on his back may be a terrible one for someone who sleeps on her side. And if your pillow fails to give the proper support to your head and neck, it can cause restlessness and strain, making for a poor night’s sleep.

So how can you tell whether a pillow is right for you? Read on to learn the factors to consider, the differences in pillow fillings, and the various brands you’ll see in stores and online.

 

Deciding What You Need

Your answers to these questions will help you home in on the best pillow for you.

What position do you sleep in? To give your neck and head the support they need, you want a pillow that won’t tilt your head either up or down too much. If you’re a back sleeper, you may need a flatter pillow than what a side sleeper needs. Stomach sleepers should look for a thin pillow so that it doesn’t push the neck up too high. You want your spine and neck to stay in as neutral an angle as possible, thereby relieving stress to both, according to Joel Press, M.D., the physiatrist-in-chief at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. If you tend to cycle between sleeping on your back and lying on your side throughout the night, choose a pillow’s firmness based on the position in which you fall asleep.

What type of mattress do you have? You may not think to ask this question, but it’s important. If you have a firmer mattress, you want a fuller pillow. If you have a softer mattress, you want a thinner pillow. That applies whether you sleep on your side or your back. The reasoning is that a softer mattress typically allows the body to sink into it, therefore there’s less of a gap between your head and the mattress, says Chris Regan, the Consumer Reports project leader who tests pillows. Firmer mattresses keep you from sinking in as much, leaving a larger gap between the mattress and your neck to fill. 

Are you allergic to certain materials? Some people may be allergic to latex or buckwheat—both fillings you’ll find in pillows on the market. Some people may have an allergy to dust mites, which tend to inhabit synthetic pillow fills like polyester fiber more than down, according to a study in The International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. The use of down and feathers in pillows is regulated, and both are cleaned to ensure that they are free of bird allergens, such as feather dust and mites, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.

Check the label carefully for the pillow’s fill to be sure that there’s nothing you might be allergic to. Even if you see claims of hypoallergenic materials on a pillow’s packaging or label, be wary: There are no federal standards for the term “hypoallergenic.” One material that doesn’t typically cause allergies is synthetic latex. However, it may off-gas volatile organic compounds or chemicals like formaldehyde, and may harbor dust mites, according to the AAFA.

Do you sleep hot or cool? If you tend to get sweaty while you sleep, you’ll want a pillow that breathes and dissipates heat. In our tests, pillows made with shredded foam or polyester tend to stay cool better than ones made of solid foam. And don’t fall for pillows with a “cool” gel layer: “Though they might initially give you a feeling of coolness, of the pillows we test, we find that this feature can trap heat and moisture,” Regan says.

The Two Types of Pillows in Our Ratings

We currently test polyester and memory foam pillows.

A polyester pillow.

Polyester Pillows

Often described as polyester fiber or fill, this is the most common type of pillow you’ll see on the market, and it’s usually the least expensive. Polyester pillows typically have a filling that looks like cotton. In our tests, they didn’t hold their shape well—so you might end up replacing this type of pillow more often than other types.

Pillows Ratings
A  memory foam pillow.

Memory Foam Pillows

This is the same material (polyurethane) many mattresses are made of. Memory foam pillows may consist of one solid layer of this foam or cut-up chunks of it. Pillows with memory foam fill are usually more dense than polyester or shredded foam pillows, and they tend to conform to the shape of your head. From our tests, we found that they may not breathe as much as other pillows, meaning these might make your head a little hot at night.

Pillows Ratings

How We Test Pillows

Consumer Reports uses 13 tests to evaluate pillows, including ones that involve human subjects. “We mix scientific data with human input to capture the more subjective aspects of a pillow,” Regan says. 

Ratings from both sets of data make up a pillow’s Overall Score. Our tests assess a pillow’s support; its resilience, or ability to hold its shape; and how breathable a pillow’s material is. For our support tests, we use human subjects and graph the angle at which the head is positioned on the pillow to see how well the pillow supports the head and neck of people of different sizes—petite, average sized, and large or tall—whether they sleep on their side or back.

We have our subjects lie down on a pressure mat that we place on top of a pillow on a medium-firm queen mattress so that we can analyze roughly 1,600 pressure points; we note areas where the pillow might be too soft or too firm, and where it fails to support the head.

In our resilience tests, we place an evenly distributed, 225-pound load on the pillow in a room with a temperature set to 98.6° F to mimic body heat, and leave it for 96 hours. These parameters allow us to accelerate use so that we can see whether a pillow holds up over time. We measure how well each pillow goes back to its original shape and firmness.

In our use and preference tests, we ask a panel of subjects to rate the pillows based on a number of criteria, such as whether the pillow conforms well to the head and whether the cover is comfortable. In our permeability test, we use a humidity sensor to gauge how breathable a pillow is—some pillows trap moisture between you and the pillow, possibly making for an uncomfortable night’s sleep.

Other Common Pillow Fillings

Latex
There is natural latex, which is made from tree sap, and synthetic latex. Pillows made of either can be a single layer of latex or chunks of it. Based on CR’s tests of both natural and synthetic latex foam in mattresses, latex responds differently to the body than memory foam—it has more spring to the touch and returns to its shape faster after being compressed.

Down or Feathers
Down pillows are typically made from goose or duck down. Down is rated by “fill power,” which measures the amount of space that an ounce of down takes up. The higher the number, the longer it will stay firm, though down generally makes for a soft pillow that flattens easily. Feather pillows are usually firmer and may not trap as much heat, though the feathers can poke through. So you’ll want to test how well the pillow holds its shape before you buy it.

Buckwheat
Buckwheat is a plant-based pillow fill made of small dry seeds. Some people like how a buckwheat pillow conforms to the head and neck, but others might find these pillows too noisy (the dry seeds rustle when you move) or too stiff.

Water-Filled
These pillows typically have a removable bag that you can fill with water to the level of firmness you prefer. The outer cover is typically made from cotton or polyester.

Pillow Maintenance

Most pillows in our tests are machine-washable, typically using the cold setting. But be sure to check the manufacturer’s cleaning specifications on your pillow before washing. Some materials, such as foam slabs, should not be washed by machine.

Unless your pillow is made of a single piece of foam, fluffing it every day will help it maintain its shape. Check the label on the pillow—some manufacturers recommend putting a pillow in the dryer for a few minutes to help fluff the pillow back up as often as you feel you need it.

The AAFA recommends washing pillows once a month with hot water (if the manufacturer allows) to kill off dust mites.

Pillow Shopping Tips

Whether you go to a store or order online, once you have the pillow in your hands, do the following:

Perform the squeeze test. Just because a pillow’s label says it’s “firm” or that it’s for side or back sleepers doesn’t mean it’s the right support for you. Go a step further and do your own firmness test. If you’re in a store, place the pillow on a flat surface and compress it with your palm to about half of its original thickness. The more pressure you have to apply, the firmer the pillow. At home, do the same test, and try out the pillow on your bed.

Fluff it. Pillows with pieces of filling inside instead of, say, a single piece of foam can lose their shape and make for uncomfortable sleep. So after you test a pillow’s firmness, fluff it to see whether it returns to its original shape and thickness. Make sure the fill is even throughout the pillow.

Consider how breathable it is. Most pillows allow air to flow through, though the denser the pillow, the less breathable it is. If you tend to sleep warm, look for a pillow with pieces of filling that allow air to circulate through, such as polyester fill, feathers, or foam chunks.

Check the cover. A well-made cover helps a pillow last longer. Look for neat stitches, straight seams, and piping, which reduces wear on the edges. Some pillows may have zippers, which makes it easier to adjust the filling and clean the cover. A tightly woven cover protects the fill.

Look for return policies and trial periods.  Not every pillow manufacturer or retailer will offer returns or trial periods, though some do. MyPillow, for instance, offers a 60-day refund policy. See what the policy is on your pillow before you buy it. You can also find return policies in our information on different pillow brands, below.

Pillow Brands

Casper pillows are available on the manufacturer’s website and at select Target stores. The bed-in-a-box manufacturer offers three types of pillows: a down fill pillow, a foam pillow, and a polyester fill pillow. As with its mattresses, Casper offers a 100-night sleep trial with its pillows. Prices range from $65 to $125 per pillow.
This bedding company sells pillows through its website, on Amazon.com, and through independent chiropractic offices. They offer several pillow sizes and shapes, and most are filled with a chunky memory foam and polyester fill. Coop Home Goods offers a 100-night sleep trial with free shipping and free returns. Prices for standard bed pillows at Coop Home Goods range from $60 to $80 per pillow.
The Made by Design pillow is sold only in Target stores. This brand offers pillows in a range of sizes with cotton blend, polyester, feather, and foam fillings. For those who aren’t sure about their purchase, beware: Items that are opened or damaged may be denied a refund or exchange, so you may be stuck with these pillows. Prices range from $6 to $45 per pillow.
Mainstays is a Walmart house brand. Mainstays pillows are typically filled with polyester fiber. Walmart offers refunds within 90 days of purchase for pillows, provided you have the receipt. Prices for these pillows start at $2.47 and top out at $7.96 per pillow.
Member’s Mark Hotel Premier Collection is the Sam’s Club house brand. They are filled with premium down-alternative-fill polyester and are available in only queen and king sizes. Sam’s Club will allow you to return pillows with a receipt. Prices range from $17 per pillow for queen size to $20 for king size.
You’ll recognize MyPillow as a popular infomercial brand. MyPillows are made of a patented foam fill and are available at retailers and online. The company offers a 60-day refund policy. Prices range from $40 to $80 per pillow.
Sealy is one of the largest mattress manufacturers, and it also produces a few lines of pillows. Sealy pillows are sold at large retailers, such as Bed Bath & Beyond and Kohl’s, and at sleep specialty stores. Sealy pillows are available in memory foam, down alternative, cotton, polyester, polyurethane, or gel foam fillings. The return policy depends on the retailer. Prices range from $8 to $70 per pillow.
Tempur-Pedic pillows are sold at Tempur-Pedic stores and online, as well as at specialty retail stores. These pillows are made from a single layer of foam, or several layers of memory and gel foam. There is a no-refund policy for pillows, unless the product is damaged at the time of delivery or there is a product defect. Prices for Tempur-Pedic pillows range from $50 to $200 per pillow.
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