How to choose a pillow – A complete guide
The right pillow for you should be supportive and comfortable. If you’ve not yet started shopping for your new pillow, that may sound deceptively simple. A pillow that suits you, your mattress, and your budget can be surprisingly hard to find—but we’re here to help. Whether you’re wondering which filling lasts the longest, or what the benefits of a hard pillow are, we’ll walk you through how to choose a pillow that guarantees a good night’s sleep.
Why is pillow choice important?
When it comes to sleep, being uncomfortable isn’t something you can simply ignore. Straining your neck on a pillow that’s too soft, or ear discomfort from one that’s too firm, can make it almost impossible to sleep comfortably. Choosing the right pillow can support you in getting a good night’s sleep.
What are the different types of pillow?
Pre-1900’s, you might have been lucky to have the choice between a straw or down filled pillow, but today pillows are made with a vast range of materials. These dictate how much support they offer, and how comfortable they are. If you’re wondering what pillow is best for you, here are some of the many options you have to choose from:
Often made from memory foam, ergonomic pillows are shaped to fit the contours of your body while lying in a certain position. This helps to hold your neck and spine in a healthy posture, making them a great pillow for back pain. Orthopaedic pillows are similar, being firm and contoured to your body’s shape. The support they give to your neck and upper back relieves tension while you rest, which is one of the key benefits of orthopaedic pillows.
Down is a traditional pillow filling that’s still popular today for the light, fluffy and luxurious pillows it creates. Down pillows are often more expensive, and don’t offer a huge amount of support. For this reason, many pillows use a down-feather mix to create a firmer pillow. However, for many people the softness of down pillows is hard to beat.
Down comes from the soft insulating feathers from the undercoats of geese and ducks, and there are therefore ethical concerns about their production. To ensure your down pillow is produced as humanely as possible, look out for signs it has been made according to the independent and voluntary standards on down production, including the Responsible Down Standard.
Microfiber filling is the synthetic alternative to down, creating a wonderfully soft and lightweight pillow at a more affordable price. They’re great for people who suffer from allergies caused by dust mites, and those who want to avoid animal products.
However, their lifespan is more limited than down pillows, as the fillings tend to clump, creating a lumpy, uncomfortable pillow. This means that microfibre pillows need replacing every 1 to 2 years, and since the filling is made from plastic fibre, this adds to plastic waste.
Foam pillows are supportive, pressure-relieving and don’t flatten during the night, which makes them a firm favourite of side sleepers who often wake up with neck pain. The downsides of foam pillows are that they can be too firm for some, and they tend to retain heat more than other kinds of pillows, so may not be ideal for warm climates.
Latex is another type of foam pillow filling similar to memory foam, but the raw material comes from rubber trees instead of polyurethane. Latex pillows are slightly softer than memory foam, and don’t mould to your body in the same way.
Wool is a natural filling that is thermoregulating, hypoallergenic and long-lasting. The wool is sheared from sheep in the same way as the wool used to produce clothing and textiles, so if you are concerned about the ethical issues of down and feather pillows, wool could be a good alternative.
Wool creates a soft but more supportive pillow than down or feathers, that doesn’t flatten during the night. The longevity of wool pillows is impressive too: you can take out the fillings of a wool pillow and tease apart the clumps that can form after several years’ use, rejuvenating your pillow for years to come. Wool pillows aren’t as light or soft as down pillows, however, and some people report a mild woolly smell when they’re new.
What’s the best pillow for my sleeping position?
Although we all change position multiple times throughout the night, when choosing a pillow, it’s a good idea to consider the sleeping position that you spend the most time in. That’s because your position affects how much support your neck and head need while you’re asleep.
People who sleep on their back don’t need much neck support from their pillow, because on the right mattress your spine and neck are naturally resting in a supportive position. When lying on your back, using a too-full pillow can mean your chin is tilted towards your chest, straining the back of your neck. Back sleepers often find a soft, thin pillow best.
Sleeping on your side can put a lot of pressure on your shoulders, and strain your neck. Using a fuller pillow that fills the gap between your neck and mattress can help relieve pressure and support your spine in a neutral posture.
Many side sleepers also find that layering two pillows, one soft and thin and the other firmer, creates the perfect level of support. Alternatively, sleeping on an adjustable bed that is contoured to the neutral S-curve shape of your body can reduce the strain on your muscles and joints, helping you sleep comfortably on your side.
Sleeping on your stomach means your neck is twisted to the side, which can put pressure on your neck, back and shoulders. For this reason, sleeping on your front isn’t recommended, but some people find it the most comfortable position to sleep in regardless. Front sleepers often only need a soft, thin pillow, but there are some ergonomic pillows available specifically for front-sleepers too.
Other things to consider when choosing a pillow
Even once you’ve identified your ideal filling, firmness, and support for your sleeping position, there are yet more decisions to make. Here are some other things to keep in mind when choosing your perfect pillow:
- Amount of filling: the filling materials used make a big difference to the firmness of the pillow, but the amount of filling used does too. A microfibre pillow with more densely packed filling will feel firmer than a similar pillow with less filling.
- Cooling features: some fillings, such as foam, are warmer to sleep on than others. This may be a benefit if you live in a cooler climate, but for those of us who tend to overheat at night, a pillow that doesn’t retain heat is best. Natural fibres such as wool are good at balancing the heat emitted by your body – retaining it in winter while keeping you cool in the summer.
- Washability: pillows should be washed every 4-6 months, but some pillow types can’t be washed in a machine, such as memory foam, which is worth considering when shopping for your new pillows if washing them is important to you.
- Allergies: working out how to choose a pillow is even harder if you have allergies, but allergies exacerbated by pillows aren’t often due to the pillow itself, but by the dust mites that can inhabit them. Using a pillow protector and washing it regularly can help, and so can choosing hypoallergenic pillows such as wool or synthetic fibre pillows.
- Other medical conditions: certain conditions, such as sleep apnoea and acid reflux, mean it’s best to sleep slightly propped up. You can do this using one or two firmer, fuller pillows, or by putting blocks under the feet at the head of your bed. You can also achieve the same thing, with far less effort, using an adjustable bed, which allows you to lift the head portion of your bed with the touch of a button. And unlike a pillow, there’s no risk of it falling flat in the night.
When is it time to replace my pillow?
Experts recommend replacing your pillows every 1 to 2 years, depending on the type of pillow. A microfibre pillow might only last a year, but a latex pillow can last up to 3 years, and a down pillow 10 years or even longer with proper care. If you regularly wake up with neck pain, or if you struggle to get comfortable at night, your pillow might not be giving you the support you need.
So, what pillow is best for me?
While your pillow choice is an important part of sleeping comfortably, a new pillow or two can’t do much to improve a mattress or bed that isn’t supportive. If you’ve tried replacing your pillows, but still aren’t getting the sleep you need, it may be time to think about replacing your mattress. You can find out more about how an adjustable bed can help you sleep in a comfortable, healthy position in our Good Sleeping Posture guide.