What the best pillow has

  • Comfort. This is by far the most important consideration for any pillow. Regardless of whether you're a back sleeper, side sleeper or stomach sleeper, the right pillow has to be right for you. It may take more than one try to find the perfect pillow, but if you toss and turn a lot at night, or wake up with neck or shoulder pain or headaches, it may be time to try a different level of firmness.
  • Breathability. While there are those who love to be cozy and warm at all times, one of the biggest barriers to a good night's sleep is being too warm. The best pillows will have good air flow regardless of their firmness level, so you don't have to keep waking up to turn to the cool side of the pillow. Look for a pillow with a breathable cover for better air flow. Memory foam pillows with smaller shreds of foam also tend to be cooler, reviewers say.
  • Easy care instructions. Most pillows are not machine washable; down, for example, is usually dry clean only. Other pillows can't be cleaned at all and the manufacturer just recommends occasional fluffing to keep their shape. If you're a person who likes to wash your pillows weekly, or if you have allergies that require regular bedding washings, be sure that the pillow you choose is not only machine washable, but gets good reviews for holding up well to multiple washings.
  • A removable, washable cover. Having a cover you can remove and run through the washing machine is a nice feature if you have allergy issues or if the pillow's user is a small child who tends to be messy.
  • A money back guarantee. Quite a few pillow manufacturers offer a no-hassle, no-questions-asked, money back guarantee after 30 or even 90 days. This is a great way to take a chance on a more expensive pillow that you may otherwise balk at trying. Too keep their customers happy, many department stores will also take pillows on return even after they've been used for a few nights.

Know before you go

What size do you need? In the U.S., bed pillows typically come in three sizes: standard (20 by 26 inches), queen (20 by 30 inches), and king (20 by 36 inches). While most down and down-alternative pillows come in all three sizes, some are not available in one size or another. Other types of pillows, such as memory foam, may come in nonstandard sizes or shapes, such as wedges or oval travel pillows. What size you choose might depend a lot of on your mattress size -- for example, a king-sized bed can easily accommodate a couple of king pillows, but they may be too large for a smaller bed. Also, if your new pillow is a different size from your old one, check to see whether you need a new pillowcase for it, as well. Some oddly-shaped pillows have optional pillow cases available, but they add to the overall initial cost of the pillow.

Do you have allergies? Feather pillows can cause allergy problems for some people. One solution is to choose pillows with a feather or down fill that has been thoroughly cleaned and sanitized to remove dander and other allergens. Feather pillows that have been treated in this way will usually say so on the label. These specially treated pillows tend to be more expensive, so a cheaper approach is to choose a pillow with a polyester filling -- either plain or gel-infused for coolness. However, these can still trigger dust allergies as their fiber filling makes just as good a haven for dust mites as feathers do. To deal with dust allergies, consider either a special pillowcase designed to keep out dust mites or a pillow made from a material that's unappetizing to dust mites, such as memory foam, latex foam or wool.