A comparison of the many types of pillows
A good pillow, experts say, can be the key to a good night's sleep. The right pillow will support your head and neck, keeping your spine properly aligned as you sleep. The wrong one, by contrast, can worsen pre-existing conditions such as back or neck pain, allergies or headaches. But how do you determine which pillow is right for you? With such a vast array of options on the market -- from high-tech synthetics like memory foam to exotic natural fillings like buckwheat and kapok -- how are you supposed to choose?
There are several factors that affect a pillow's overall comfort. The first is firmness. Pillows range from extra-firm to extra-soft, with comfort relying largely on personal preference. However, experts do mention a few general guidelines. For instance, people who sleep on their sides are likely to need a firmer pillow, according to physical therapist Kammi Bernard (as quoted at WedMD.com). A fuller pillow will help fill in the area between the neck and the outside of the shoulder. However, Mercia Tapping, an editor at the site AllergyConsumerReview.com, says she prefers a soft pillow for side sleeping, as "my husband and I both like to sleep on our sides and scrunch up a soft pillow underneath our necks." She does note, however, that very firm contoured pillows can be "a boon" to people who suffer from neck problems. In general, medium-firmness pillows appear to suit the widest variety of sleepers, but we found good reviews for pillows ranging from super-soft to firm.
Another important point to consider is the thickness of the pillow. Side sleepers tend to need a thicker pillow to fill in the extra space under the ear, while stomach sleepers need a pillow that's nearly flat to avoid forcing their heads backward. Alternatively, some stomach sleepers may prefer to skip a pillow under the head completely and instead tuck a pillow under the chest or stomach. This can help prevent lower back pain, according to Bernard. Back sleepers need a pillow that's low to medium in thickness -- not so high that it forces the head forward, but not so low that it lets the head tilt backward. Extra thickness, or loft, in the bottom third of the pillow can help provide needed support under the neck.
A final consideration is the type of filling. While there are many different choices, most of the pillows on the market fall into a few basic types:
- Down and feather pillows. Down is the soft, fine feathers found on a baby bird or beneath the outer feathers of an adult bird. Pillows may be stuffed with just down, all regular feathers, or a combination of the two. Down and feather pillows are soft, cuddly and easy to mold to a desired shape. However, they compress easily and need to be regularly fluffed or shaken to restore their loft. These pillows are generally durable, and some are machine washable. Prices for down and feather pillows vary widely; feather options may cost as little as $25 each, while down models can cost upwards of $200 each. However, pricey feather and down pillows don't necessarily perform any better than their cheaper counterparts.
- Synthetic fiber pillows. These offer the soft, fluffy feel of feathers at a lower price. Polyester-filled pillows are the least expensive type, with prices as low as $8 per pillow. They are also easy to care for, as most can be machine washed. However, their contents tend to shift around over time, becoming lumpy and less supportive. A newer alternative to this type is pillows filled with polyester gel fibers. These are less lumpy than polyester and mold better to the shape of the head. However, like feather pillows, they require fluffing and may not be supportive enough. Gel pillows last an average of two to four years and cost between $10 and $50 each.
- Foam pillows. These may be made of polyurethane-based memory foam or natural latex foam. Both materials will mold themselves to the shape of your head, constantly adjusting their shape as you move. They provide a good balance of softness and support, and both experts and users say this type of pillow can help ease head and neck pain. They also won't shift or clump up like down and synthetic fibers can. One issue some owners have with memory-foam pillows is that they can trap body heat, making them uncomfortably warm. Latex foam doesn't have this problem, but it may feel too firm for some users. Also, both types of foam may give off an unpleasant odor when they're new. The biggest problem with these materials, however, is their cost. Memory-foam pillows cost about $40 on average, and they only last about 2.5 years. Latex pillows are even pricier -- about $55 each -- but they will last longer, typically between three and four years.
One special type of pillow is the full-body pillow. Rather than just supporting the head, these are designed to cradle and support the entire length of the sleeper's body. Some of these look just like regular pillows stretched out to full-body length, while others are specially shaped to support specific parts of the body. These are particularly helpful for pregnant women, but they can also be used to help with specific health problems such as back or hip pain.
To find the best pillows of each type, we focused on two main considerations: comfort and value. We considered how well reviewers rated the pillow for comfort, support and pain relief, and also noted whether it was more likely to be recommended for certain types of sleepers (side, back or stomach). We also considered factors such as noise and odor. To assess value, we looked not only at price but also at the quality of construction, how well the pillow maintains its support over time, what kind of care and maintenance it requires and whether it comes with a warranty. We found this information partly in professional comparison tests (which generally focus on feather and fiber pillows) and also in user reviews from retail sites such as Amazon.com and Walmart.com.