You’ve tried doubling up on pillows. Or punching them back to their formerly fluffy form. But no matter what, you’ve finally come to realize: You’re just plain uncomfortable, and it’s time for an upgrade. Only buying a pillow isn’t quite as simple as just grabbing something fluffy—and it’s beyond frustrating to drop anywhere from $5 to $150 on something that still leaves you tossing and turning (or worse, with a pain in the neck). Save yourself the agony with our guide to the top types of pillows on the market, so you know exactly what to buy for your needs.
First: What kind of sleeper are you?
Back —Your ideal pillow is medium-medium: medium firmness and a medium height, so your head isn’t pushed upward, resulting in neck pain in the morning
Side — You’ll want a taller, firmer pillow that can keep your head, neck and spine aligned
Stomach — Thick, ultra-firm pillows are the enemy. You want something thinner and softer, so your neck isn’t tilted at such an angle that your ear’s practically touching your shoulder
Combination — If you switch positions throughout the night, focus on how you fall asleep—and in what position you spend the most time sleeping, then shop for something in that range. (Or try an adjustable pillow, which lets you change its height to suit your needs.)
The Second Thing to Look for: Loft
Simply put, this is the height of the pillow when it’s lying flat. Side sleepers tend to like a high loft—about 5 inches thick or more—whereas stomach sleepers will likely enjoy a lower loft, around 3 inches thick.
The Third Factor to Consider: Firmness
That’s where the material that fills the pillow comes into play. A high-loft cotton pillow, for example, looks lush on a bed, but it tends to flatten out a bit when weight is applied to it, so it might look ideal for side sleepers…then (literally) fall flat on them.
That said, let’s dig into the top types of pillows:
Don’t call it a fad: Bamboo is popular for a host of reasons, including that it’s (1) durable yet soft to the touch, (2) hypoallergenic, (3) antimicrobial and (4) cooling, according to the Sleep Foundation. Plus, bamboo tends to be more sustainable than cotton and other materials, making it an eco-friendlier pick.
Many bamboo pillows tend to be filled with memory foam (either shredded or entire slabs), boosting their cooling properties. (Though that’s not always the case—Cozy Earth makes one luxe pillow stuffed with Mulberry silk.) If you go the memory foam route, it’s worth paying attention to the loft, since taller pillows might not be too comfortable for side or stomach sleepers. If you’re interested in going the bamboo route, consider Cariloha’s silky-soft styles.
It’s light, it’s fluffy, it’s breathable—but it can also get lumpy and needs to be cleaned regularly (as in, two to four times a year) for dust mites. Still, its softness makes it pretty versatile, so back, side and stomach sleepers can likely find a cotton pillow that fits their needs, provided they can find the right loft and firmness.
Long considered the epitome of luxury, down pillows are made from the fluff found on a goose’s chest. Clustered into a pillow, it makes for a super plush yet springy pillow. And they can retain warmth, making them less than ideal for hot sleepers. Sleep Advisor recommends looking for pillows that are Responsible Down Standard certified, which ensures that the down is more humanely cultivated.
4. Down Alternative
No harm, no fowl—at least, neither is involved in the making of these pillows, which use a synthetic material (typically polyester) to achieve the plush-yet-moldable feel of down. Bonus: They’re easier to clean and tend to be more affordable than down too.
If you want the feel of a down pillow without quite as high a price tag, look to feather pillows. They’re supportive without being too heavy or dense. Fair warning, though: The quills can occasionally poke through, jabbing you as you sleep, and some people are allergic to them. They also have to be taken to the dry cleaner, rather than tossed in your washing machine. So yeah, they’re higher maintenance, but for some, the rest they get with ‘em makes it all worth it.
Hot sleepers, your search ends here. Gel pillows are designed to draw heat away from your body, helping you stay cool. The material is often combined with memory foam—sometimes with holes throughout it to boost its breathability—making for a firmer pillow overall. When it comes to gel pillows, we prefer Allswell’s $40 model.
Like memory foam, you can find latex pillows sold as one slab of the material or shredded, and they can be combined with gel. The material is known for being durable and breathable, and it’s great for people who could use a little extra neck support.
8. Memory Foam
Famously invented by NASA to absorb shock, memory foam is known for molding to whatever is placed upon it. This can relieve pressure points and provide a feeling of being cradled—but for some, it can be so dense that you feel like a Barbie doll wired into her plastic-molded cardboard box at night. Softer pillows do exist, like the combination of memory foam with a plush exterior that’s made Pluto an internet sensation.
If you don’t want to spend a fortune on pillows, look for anything labeled polyester or poly-fill. The material is lightweight and hypoallergenic, though it’s not as breathable as cotton. Oh, and you may have to replace them more frequently, since they wear out quicker than other materials. All that said, it can be nice if you truly don’t know what firmness you like; poly-fill pillows run the gamut, so you can buy a few options and see what works for you (and save the others for the guest room).
10. Shredded Memory Foam
Like a standard slab of memory foam, the shredded variety molds to your head and neck, only some prefer this option because you can adjust the amount of foam in the pillow to suit your tastes. And like memory foam, it tends to be preferred among side and back sleepers; it’s a little firm for most stomach sleepers.
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