5 Things to Know Before Buying a Pillow

Follow these tips from CR’s experts to find the best pillow for the way you sleep

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Choose the wrong pillow and you could literally lose sleep over it.

There are myriad fills and degrees of firmness, and prices range from a few bucks to hundreds of dollars. Indeed, it can be tricky—and expensive—to find just the right one for you.

Here, Consumer Reports pillow experts reveal the most crucial things you need to know before you buy a new pillow. Our extensive pillow tests combine technical assessments—including measuring 1,600 pressure points for proper head support—and real-world evaluations from a panel of human subjects on factors such as a pillow’s feel and comfort level. For more on how we test pillows, see our pillow buying guide.

1. Be picky about firmness. Do you sleep mostly on your back, your side, or your stomach? Generally, if you’re a side sleeper, you want a fuller pillow that makes up for the gap between the bed and your upper back and shoulder blades. It’ll help keep your neck aligned with your spine rather than angled to avoid any strain, says Joel Press, M.D., physiatrist-in-chief at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York. Back sleepers need flatter pillows since that gap is smaller, due to the curve of the upper back and shoulder blades. If you sleep on your stomach, a thin pillow is enough to keep your neck’s natural curve.

And don’t just rely on the manufacturer’s label for how firm a pillow is. Press down on the pillow to gauge its true firmness. Shake, fluff, squeeze, and even lay on it if you can to get a feel for what you’re buying. For pillows that are made of a loose filling—instead of a slab of foam—check whether it maintains its shape after you fluff it, and whether there any lumpy spots. You want a pillow that maintains a uniform shape and thickness.

More on Pillows

2. Know your mattress. Your pillow has to work in concert with your mattress to support your body during sleep. 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 says test engineer Chris Regan, who oversees Consumer Reports’ pillow tests. Firmer mattresses keep you from sinking in as much, leaving a larger gap between it and your neck to fill, so you’ll want a fuller pillow.

The No. 1 criteria for a great pillow: “The fullness or firmness of a pillow really matters,” says Regan. “A pillow that’s too firm or full puts your head at an awkward angle and can cause restlessness or strain.”

Here’s what else you should keep top of mind when you’re looking for a soft place to lay your head. For details on how well the pillows in our tests perform in our support and other tests, see CR’s pillow ratings.

3. Consider breathability. Feeling hot and sweaty does not make for a good night’s rest. You want a pillow that allows air to pass through instead of trapping heat. A rule of thumb: The denser the pillow filling, the less breathable it’ll be for your head and neck. In our tests, the pillows that stay cool are made of polyester or shredded foam. Ones made of a single slab of foam were the least breathable.

What about pillows with cooling gel pads? In our tests, these did initially give our human subjects a somewhat refreshing feel, but that quickly wore off, and the pillows turned out to be some of the least breathable ones in our tests.

4. Check the care label. Not every pillow can be washed—some labels may indicate that only the cover can be cleaned. Most of the pillows we test are machine washable, typically on a cold setting. If you have an allergy to dust mites, you’ll need to wash a pillow in hot water (130° F) once a month to kill off any bugs, according to The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. What about replacing a pillow? The National Sleep Foundation recommends getting a new pillow every one to two years.

5. Ask about return policies or trial periods. Pillows can be pricey: Many of the better pillows in our tests cost between $60 and $80. Before you buy a pillow, check if you can try it out for a period of time at home. Retailers like Walmart and Sam’s Club offer a full refund with a receipt within a limited time period. Some manufacturers, such as Casper and Coop Home Goods, offer a 100-night sleep trial during which you can return the pillow for a refund if you’re not satisfied with it.

Best Pillows From CR's Tests

Read on for a closer look at the top pillows from our tests, listed in alphabetical order. For even more options, see our pillow ratings.