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 their back may be a terrible one for someone who sleeps on their 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 if 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 it needs, generally, you want a fuller pillow if you're a side sleeper, and a flatter pillow if you're a back sleeper. Stomach sleepers should look for thin pillows so that it doesn’t push up the neck 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 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 actually pretty crucial. 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 mattress, says Chris Regan, Consumer Reports' project leader who tests pillows. Firmer mattresses keep you from sinking in as much, leaving a larger gap between it and your neck to fill.

Are you allergic to certain materials? Some people may be allergic to down, latex, or buckwheat—all fillings you'll find in pillows on the market. Some people may have an allergy to dust mites, which tend to prefer synthetic pillow fills like polyester fiber more than down, according to a study in the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

Check the label carefully for the pillow's fill to be sure there's nothing that 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, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.

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," says Regan.

How We Test Pillows

Consumer Reports uses 13 different 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," says Regan. 

Ratings from both sets of data make up a pillow's Overall Score. Our tests assess a pillow's support, 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 the neck of people of all sizes—petite, average-size, and large or tall—whether they sleep on their side or back.

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

In our resilience tests, we place a 225-pound weight on the pillow in a room with a temperature set to 98.6 degrees to mimic body heat, and leave it for 96 hours. These parameters allow us to mimic accelerated use so 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 if 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.

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 usually the least expensive. Polyester pillows typically have a filling that looks like cotton, but is actually spun plastic. In our tests, they didn’t prove to hold their shape well—so you might end up replacing this type of pillow more often than other types of pillows. 

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 tend to conform to the shape of your head. They may not breathe as much as other pillows, meaning these might make your head a little hot at night. 

Pillows Ratings

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 foams—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, which is the softer, fluffier layer of feathers without quills on the bird. Feather pillows use the other plumage of the bird. Not every down or feather pillow holds its shape the same, as there may be different amounts of each in the pillow, even for the same advertised firmness, and the loft or fluffiness of feathers varies. So you'll want to test out how well the pillow holds its shape before you buy it. See "Shopping Tips," below to find out how.

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 of these pillows 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 in a washing 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 Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America recommends cleaning pillows once a month on high heat (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 its "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 at night. So after you test a pillow's firmness, fluff it to see if 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 allows 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 that 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 brand pillows are available on the manufacturer's website and at select Target stores. The bed-in-a-box manufacturer only offers two pillow types, a down fill pillow and a polyester fill pillow. As with their mattresses, Casper offers a 100-night sleep trial with their pillows. Prices range from $65 to $125 per pillow.
This bedding startup sells pillows through its website, on Amazon.com, and through independent clinics nationwide. They offer several different pillow sizes and shapes, and each 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 a standard bed pillow at Coop Home Goods range from $60 to $90 per pillow.
The Made by Design pillow is only sold in Target stores. This brand offers pillows in a range of sizes with polyester, down, and foam fillings. For those who aren't sure about their purchase, beware: Target doesn't allow returns of opened items, so you may be stuck with these pillows. Prices range from $10 to $42 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 and top out at $20 per pillow.
Member's Mark is Sam's Club house brand. They are filled with polyester fiber and are available in only queen and king sizes. Sam's Club will allow you to return pillows with a receipt. Prices range from $8 to $10 per pillow.
You'll recognize My Pillow as a popular infomercial brand. My Pillows 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 $60 to $80.
Sealy is one of the largest mattress manufacturers, and they also produce 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. You won't find them on the Sealy website. Sealy pillows are typically made of polyester, polyurethane, or gel foam fillings. The return policy depends on the retailer—Bed Bath & Beyond and Kohl's both allow you to return a pillow for a refund within 180 days of purchase and with a receipt. 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. Prices for Tempur-Pedic pillows range from $50 to $200 per pillow.
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