An aisle of bedding for a pillow shopping trip.

You spend a third of your life in bed, so you’re bound to have some concerns about how to choose the right pillow (and when to say goodbye). Consumer Reports took such predicaments—and more pesky pillow questions—to sleep experts and an industry insider to put a few pillow-related mysteries to bed.

How to Find the Right Pillow

When Is It Time to Get a New Pillow?
“If you wake up with neck pain more than twice a week, it’s time to get a new pillow,” says Michael Breus, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine who is widely known as the Sleep Doctor. Even if you’re not aching, your pillow might be past its prime. Sam Malouf, CEO of the luxury-bedding company Malouf, considers three years “a good run” for a pillow.

Can’t recall when you purchased yours? James Maas, Ph.D., CEO of the sleep research firm Sleep for Success and former chair of psychology at Cornell University, says to give it a test: “Fold the pillow in half, and see how long it takes to spring back. If it doesn’t come back within 10 seconds, throw it out or stick it in a closet for guests.”

Should You Buy a Queen- or King-Size Pillow?
“Most people over 6’2” would need a king,” Breus says, “but I think for others it’s a matter of personal preference.”

More on Pillows

How Can You Select a Pillow That’s Comfortable?
“The situation with pillows is the same as with mattresses—you have to try them out,” Maas says. “I notice when people shop, they push their hands into pillows rather than resting their heads on them. I’ll pull a pillow off the shelf and set it on one of those big bins stacked with pillows and put my head down on it. That gives you a pretty good sense for how it feels.”

Also, look at the packaging: “Better pillows are typically not completely sealed in plastic bags—which can trap smells and become yellow and cloudy,” Maas says. “They might be housed in clear plastic on one side and cloth or cardboard on the other.” Pillows that are carefully packed, Maas says, tend to be of higher quality.

How Thick Should a Pillow Be?
“As a general guideline for side sleepers, the pillow should be as thick as the distance between your ear and the outside edge of your shoulder,” Maas says. “This is what’s needed for your head to be straight and in line with your neck and spine as if you were standing.” In the store, stand with your shoulder against a wall and slip pillows into the space between your ear and the wall to find a fit.

Do You Need a Pillow Protector?
“If you want general protection against moisture secretions from your ears, nose, mouth, and eyes, get a good, breathable pillow protector,” Malouf says. “I leave my pillow protector unzipped because it can change the feel of a pillow and make it firmer.” For more protection, opt for an anti-allergen pillow protector that’s designed to block liquids, dust mites, and bed bugs—and keep it zipped.

Can Some Pillows Repel Bed Bugs and Dust Mites?
“Yes, natural latex is best,” says Raymond Hall, D.C., sleep-science expert and chiropractor who practices at Pacific Coast Sports Medicine in West Los Angeles. “It’s anti-microbial, hypoallergenic, and has bed-bug resistance because it doesn’t contain the nutrients and moisture that would allow bugs and microbes to survive.” (Read about getting rid of bed bugs at home.)

Can a Sleep Apnea Pillow Help You Sleep?
“Sleep apnea pillows are generally based on keeping the sleeper on his side. That’s fine, but just know these pillows will not cure sleep apnea,” Breus says. Many are shaped for those who wear CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) masks, with cutouts to create clearance for the mask and its tubing. “CPAP masks can save lives,” Hall says, “but 60 to 70 percent of people can’t tolerate them because they’re so uncomfortable. The pillows can alleviate the bulkiness of a mask, which could help people sleep.” Read more about specialty pillows.

Should You Air Out Your Pillow in the Sun?
“It’s okay for down or polyester,” Malouf says, “but don’t do it with [latex or memory] foam. Direct sun can make foam harder. It’s best to spot-clean foam pillows, then air-dry them indoors.”

When Should a Child Start Using a Pillow?
You should check with your pediatrician to be sure, but “most children should start at 4,” Hall says. This is partly about good sleep habits. “Getting them a pillow helps start them sleeping on their side or back. You want to encourage this, because stomach sleeping can lead to forced neck rotation and chronic pain.”

"By the time you’re 7,” Hall says, “you’ve already begun a permanent pattern of sleep.” In terms of fills, Hall says, “low-loft options are best. Soft latex or memory foam work well for kids, and down is also great because their heads don’t need much lift.”


Don't Forget to Check Your Mattress

To get a good night’s sleep, you also need a proper mattress that suits your size and sleep style (side, back, or a combination). Though Consumer Reports does not currently test pillows, we do test innerspring, foam, and adjustable air mattresses and have well over 100 models in our mattress ratings.

Can’t decide which type you want? Read our comprehensive mattress buying guide and you’ll be ready to shop.