Photo showing how Consumer Reports tests pillows

For the first time ever, Consumer Reports is testing pillows—by poking, pounding, and prodding them in a series of rigorous machine-based tests, plus a number of tests with human subjects.

"We mix scientific data with human input to capture the more subjective aspects of a pillow," says Chris Regan, who oversees Consumer Reports' mattress tests.

We employ several machines and three sensors—including an X-sensor pressure mat, humidity sensors, temperature sensors, a C-frame material testing machine, angle gauges, and an environmental chamber for maintaining temperature and humidity.

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Our human subjects give us subjective impressions the machines can’t, to get at whether a pillow makes you say "ahhhh" when you rest your head on it; that’s just one of the tests for a pillow’s use-and-preference rating. We devote around 200 hours of testing per pillow, resulting in hundreds of data points for each one. 

Below we list out our tests, though if you'd like to see which pillows fared best, read our takes on top-rated pillows or check out our pillow ratings.

How Consumer Reports Tests Pillows

Support: Arguably the most important factor is proper support; that can make the difference between restorative sleep and a stiff neck. To gauge whether a pillow will keep your head and neck aligned with your spine—thereby eliminating strain—we use gauges and graph the angle at which our test subjects’ heads are positioned on each pillow. Pillows that minimize the angle between the head and the torso score better.

We analyze the data to see how well a pillow supports people of all sizes—petite, average, and large or tall—whether they sleep on their side or their back. A pillow may offer different support depending on factors such as how wide your shoulders are and how much your spine curves at the back of your neck. We have our human subjects lie down on a medium-firm queen mattress with each pillow covered by an approximately 20x20-inch rectangular area of an X-sensor pressure mat. Then we analyze roughly 1,600 pressure points within that area. The sensors on the mat transmit data to our computer screen. Where the pressure is lowest, we see a deep blue color; where pressure increases, the colors range from yellow to red and the numerical value of the pressure changes. We grade each pillow on the peak pressure point recorded.

Resilience: We assess how well a pillow holds up over time. We place a 225-pound evenly distributed load on each pillow placed in an environmental chamber with a temperature set to 98.6° F to mimic body heat, at 80 percent humidity, and we leave it for 96 hours. This allows us to simulate use over time. We measure the thickness and firmness of the pillow after we take it out of the chamber and again after hand-fluffing it. The closer a pillow goes back to its original height and firmness, the higher its resilience score and the more likely it is to maintain its support over time.

Use and preference: 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. Testers also note whether they think the pillow looks sturdy—whether the stitching is even or coming apart—and whether the pillow has a removable cover that you can wash separately. 

Breathability: A supportive pillow isn’t any good if it traps heat and makes you sweaty. To test how well a pillow dissipates heat, we measure how insulating it is. We also use a humidity sensor to evaluate how breathable it is. 

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the February 2020 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.