Pillows are equally as important as your mattress for sleep health and quality; however, many sleepers overlook a pillow’s value and simply opt for generic pillows. While standard, rectangular pillows are perfectly supportive, innovative pillow shapes—such as a cervical or body pillow—can ease chronic pain, sleep conditions, and help you sleep more comfortably overall. Also, your pillow’s fills impact the breathability, conformity, and durability of your pillows, along with their cost.
The best pillow for you should promote a healthy spine, relieve pressure, and support your head and neck so you sleep comfortably. The plethora of pillow options is daunting, but we clearly lay out your options so you can better choose a high-quality pillow and achieve a good night’s sleep.
Types of Pillows
Down is a luxurious and ultra-soft material from duck and goose underbellies. While the material is hypoallergenic, it’s not usable if you’re allergic to ducks and geese. Down pillows need regular fluffings, but they’re very durable and malleable.
Down is a warm and cozy pillow fill, especially on cold nights. Although lots of sleepers prefer down, down pillows aren’t supportive, unlike memory foam or latex. Companies mix down and regular feathers for more support, but blended pillows are less soft and warm.
When looking at down pillows, consider their fill power, or the amount of down within a pillow measured in cubic inches. A fill power of 600 or higher is ideal for a high-quality, long-lasting down pillow. The downside to pillows with high fill power is they are quite expensive,, with some costing $200 or more.
Feathers are the affordable pillow fill compared to down. Feathers are from the topcoats of duck and geese They are a durable, supportive material. Alone, feather pillows aren’t very soft, so brands sometimes mix feathers with down for a cozier, yet still affordable pillow. The feathers clump together, so feather pillows need regular fluffing to stay lofty and comfortable. Also, feathers can poke through fabric and sometimes even emit a strange smell.
3. Down Alternative
If you’re allergic to down, down alternative, or microfiber, is a hypoallergenic material made from synthetic fibers such as polyester or polyfill. It’s not as warm, plush, or durable as down, but it’s inexpensive, responsive, and easy to maintain.
4. Memory Foam
Memory foam pillows are pain-relieving and contour well to your head and neck. The material responds to your movement quickly and cradles your curves. Some memory foam pillows let off a chemical smell called “off-gassing,” but CertiPUR-US® certified foams minimize this.
There are two variations of memory foam pillows: shredded and block. Shredded memory foam is ripped up pieces of polyurethane and is occasionally blended with polyfill. Shredded foam pillows are moldable and soft, so you can adjust the pillows to suit any sleeping position, but they do need regular fluffing. Block memory foam is a firm, solid piece of polyurethane. It doesn’t clump like other pillows and is highly supportive.
Latex foam is a soft, breathable, and supportive fill. It provides excellent pressure-point relief and is resistant to dust mites, mold and mildew so your sleep environment is clean. Latex is available in shredded and block forms with similar characteristics to shredded and block memory foam. However, if you have a latex allergy, this fill isn’t an option and you might prefer memory foam instead.
Among the many benefits of latex, one worth mentioning is how natural latex is biodegradable and eco-friendly. However, be sure your pillow is made from 100-percent natural latex because it’s more durable, comfortable, and safe for the environment than blended or synthetic latex.
Cotton fill is a super common material in all sorts of bedding and fabrics since it’s affordable and easily maintained. Cotton is breathable and soft but doesn’t contour to the head and neck well. The material loses its firmness over time and goes flat, but regular fluffing can prolong your pillow’s life. As cotton gets older, it’s prone to sweat absorption and mildew build-up.
Innerspring pillows contain a steel spring inner layer and memory foam or polyester outer layer. They’re made for extra head and neck support and, similar to innerspring mattresses, innerspring pillows have good airflow so you stay cool. Due to their complex construction, innerspring pillows are expensive.
Gel itself isn’t a standalone material, but rather is layered or infused with another material, most commonly memory foam. The cool sensation of gel also reduces pressure and can relieve neck pain. Gel-infused pillows typically have a consistent firmness, don’t need to be fluffed, and are hypoallergenic.
Wool is a highly breathable, fluffy, and soft fill. It’s available in 100-percent wool or blended with other fills, though 100-percent wool is the fluffiest. Vegan individuals might not be interested in buying wool products since wool comes from sheep. Wool pillows aren’t as popular as other types, mostly because they’re more expensive and can only be dry-cleaned.
Microbeads, also known as unexpanded polystyrene beads (EPS) are a squishy, contouring pillow fill. Lots of horseshoe neck pillows contain microbeads since they provide excellent support when sleeping upright.
Microbeads are cooling and breathable, but there’s the risk of your pillow ripping and the beads spilling everywhere. Also, microbeads aren’t an eco-friendly fill choice because researchers estimate it takes roughly 500 years for polystyrene to biodegrade.
Buckwheat hulls are a plant-based fill and popular in Asian countries. Buckwheat pillows are similar to microbeads in feel and texture, but they biodegrade quicker and are more durable. Buckwheat is soft and conforming to your head, but the pillow is noisy since the hulls rub and crunch against each other.
Kapok is the seedpod fluff from the Ceiba tree, native to the rainforest. Kapok pillows feel similar to down and are lofty, soft, and lightweight. Since Kapok is made from trees, the fill is eco-friendly and naturally biodegradable. It’s also hypoallergenic, so allergy sufferers can rest peacefully. However, kapok pillows are unpopular because they’re expensive to produce and flammable.
Water pillows, while uncommon, are an adjustable pillow type depending on the amount of water added to the pillow. Water pillows feel very consistent and aren’t vulnerable to sagging or lumping, as you can just add more water as needed.
Water pillows are a bit firm and don’t contour to the shape of your head and neck. Since they’re only water, water pillows are hypoallergenic and require no fluffing, however, there’s the added risk of leaks soaking and ruining your mattress.
The most common pillow size is a standard pillow, but this pillow is too small for larger beds and causes unwanted gapping between pillows. Larger pillows, such as king and queen size, are a better choice for larger mattress sizes.
A standard pillow measures 20 inches wide and 26 inches long and fits with both standard and queen-sized pillowcases. One standard pillow fits on a twin bed, two pillows fit on full and queen beds and three pillows fit on king beds.
A slightly larger variation of a standard pillow is the super standard pillow. The super standard pillow is 2 inches longer than a standard pillow, measuring 20 by 28 inches, and is helpful if you have a tendency to roll off your pillow at night. You can fit one super standard pillow on a twin bed, two super standard pillows on queen and full beds, and three super standard pillows tightly on a king bed.
Queen pillows are 20 by 30 inches and fit well on queen and king beds. You can also use a singular queen pillow on a twin bed or squeeze two pillows onto a full bed. Queen pillows work with both standard and queen size pillowcases, but loftier queen pillows might be tight in standard pillowcases and cause them to feel firm.
King pillows are one of the largest rectangular pillows, measuring 20 inches wide and 36 inches long. Two king pillows fit the width of king beds, but also work as a small body pillow, and one pillow fits a king-size pillowcase or tightly in a queen-size pillowcase.
European pillows are square, 26 by 26-inch pillows. They’re primarily a decorative pillow, but you can place them under your back when sitting upright or under your knees when sleeping for extra lumbar support.
Travel pillows are small rectangular pillows, measuring 12 by 16 inches. They’re small and easy to carry around when you’re traveling by plane or car, but they’re also a good everyday pillow for toddlers and young children.
Beyond rectangular pillows, many curved and circular pillow shapes exist for various purposes, such as when traveling or for full-body support.
Most body pillows are rectangular and measure 20 by 54 inches, but there are other body pillows shapes as well, including U, L, J, and C-shaped, for various types of support and comfort. Circular body pillows such as the U or C shape provide both back and front support and hold you in place, a useful characteristic if you shift in bed frequently.
You can use a body pillow as a long head pillow, or sleep against them lengthwise with the pillow between your knees for extra spine support.
Body pillows are very large, especially U and C-shaped body pillows, and best fit at least a queen or king bed. But, if you share a bed, you may be separated from your partner when sleeping with a body pillow. Due to a body pillow’s size, they can be difficult to wash and find a matching cover.
Horseshoe-shaped pillows are the name of neck pillows used when traveling by car, plane, or train. They’re small and wrap around your neck to prevent your head from curving to the side when you’re sleeping upright.
Pillows for Sleeping Conditions
The right pillow can soothe the symptoms of health conditions such as lower back pain, sleep apnea, and acid reflux, getting you to sleep sooner.
Wedge pillows are an orthopedic pillow for back sleepers. They’re available in many size variations, but all have the same angled, triangle shape. Sleeping at an incline supports your back, improves blood flow, and reduces pressure on your lumbar spine.
While wedge pillows are primarily for elevating your upper body, you can also place the pillows under your legs to prevent blood from pooling in your legs.
A wedge pillow can ease symptoms of acid reflux, GERD, and obstructive sleep apnea. Pregnant women can also tuck a wedge pillow under their pregnant belly to elevate it and reduce discomfort during their second and third trimesters.
Also known as rounded pillows, cervical pillows are specifically for neck and shoulder pain. Cervical pillows have a divot around the neck area and hold your neck and head in place while you sleep to prevent your head from turning over. By holding your head still, cervical pillows minimize stiffness or strained neck and shoulder muscles.
Contour pillows have a wavy shape, with one arch under the neck area and another above the head. Chiropractors recommend contour pillows for back and side sleepers since contour pillows provide excellent neck support, promote a neutral spine, and reduce neck and shoulder stiffness.
Bolster, or rolled, pillows are occasionally used for decoration, but also offer excellent neck and leg support depending on where it’s placed. You can use it between or under your knees or under your neck, but both aid in healthy spinal alignment and relieve pain and pressure from your neck and lumbar spine.
If you suffer from obstructive sleep apnea and use a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine, sleep apnea pillows have cut-outs to accommodate the CPAP machine’s tubes and cords. The pillows are also a high loft so you don’t sleep with your head flat—sleeping flat obstructs your airways and further aggravates sleep apnea symptoms.
Pillows and Sleeping Positions
Your sleeping position determines the pillow firmness and loft (height) you need to sleep comfortably and maintain healthy spinal alignment. Your pillow shouldn’t be so tall it makes your neck curl inward, nor so thin your head and neck curve backward.
Back sleepers need a medium loft pillow (4 to 5 inches) and between a medium to medium-firm firmness to keep their head and neck in line with their spine.
Side sleepers’ heads are far from their beds, so they need a high loft (5 to 7 inches) pillow to fill the gap between their head and their mattress. Medium firmness is best for side sleeper pillows so their heads are properly cushioned but still kept in line with their spines.
Firm and thin loft (3 inches or less) pillows are best for stomach sleepers since stomach sleepers don’t need much height. Stomach sleepers can also use medium loft pillows and only rest their forehead against the pillow so sleepers can lay face-down and prevent neck stains.
Since combination sleepers sleep in two or more positions, it’s difficult to determine an exact loft and firmness suited for them. Instead, combo sleepers should try an adjustable pillow, such as shredded memory foam or latex pillow, because their firmness and loft are moldable.
When do you need to replace your pillow?
Generally, you should replace your pillows every one to two years. Even with regular washing and fluffing, pillows grow unsupportive and dirty with frequent use.
You can tell if your pillow is ready to be replaced if it:
- Folds in half and holds its shape easily
- Has lumps
- Has yellow stains or discoloration
Is it bad to sleep with an arm under your pillow?
Sleeping with your arm under your pillows pinches your shoulder and results in shoulder and neck pain. Sleeping with an arm under your pillow also compresses your arm and limits blood circulation as well, causing a dead arm in the morning.
Sleeping with an arm under your pillow doesn’t cause any major, chronic issues, but try sleeping with your arms at your side or hugging a pillow for minimal pain and healthier spine alignment.
Is it better to sleep with your head flat or elevated?
For healthy sleepers, laying with your head flat and aligned with your spine is perfectly fine. However, if you suffer from respiratory issues, acid reflux, or lumbar spine pain such as obstructive sleep apnea and snoring, lying flat worsens symptoms as your airways collapse. Use a wedge pillow or an adjustable bed base to elevate your upper body and relieve symptoms.
Why does my ear hurt when I sleep on my side?
When laying on your side, your ear cartilage gets compressed or folded, resulting in intense pain and soreness. Switch your sleeping position so you aren’t sleeping on your ears or switch to a softer pillow to prevent compressing your ear cartilage.
How much do pillows cost?
Lots of high-quality pillows cost between $25 to $100, depending on the materials used. Super cheap pillows ($10 or less) are less likely to provide adequate comfort or support and likely won’t last long.
Taking the time to choose a quality pillow shape, size, and fill can help you sleep more comfortably and prevent soreness and stiffness in the morning. While mattresses are important for spine health and comfort in bed, your pillow type has just as much of an impact and should be chosen wisely. Your pillow choice might come down to preference, but your pillow should also prevent headaches and migraines, achy neck and shoulder muscles, and foster quality sleep.
About the author
Mitchell Tollsen is a graduate student and a freelance writer who’s contributed to the Early Bird blog for three years. Mitchell’s always been fascinated by the science of sleep and the restorative processes our bodies undergo when at rest. The self-titled “Sleep Expert” is always looking for ways to improve his shut-eye, and throughout the years has implemented numerous lifestyle changes and tried dozens of sleep-promoting gadgets to determine the best ways to truly get better rest.View all posts