The purpose of a pillow is pretty simple: Keep your head and neck aligned while you sleep. If only shopping for pillows were as straightforward. Store shelves and catalogs are stuffed with options: Down, memory foam, latex, polyester, buckwheat hulls. Adding to the confusion is the fact that terms used to describe pillows, like soft, medium, and firm, differ from brand to brand. And price isn’t necessarily an indicator of performance.
So many people default to looking for a pillow that feels just right in the store. But feeling a pillow only tells you so much. It takes about 10 to 15 minutes for your neck to relax onto the pillow. You will need a week sleeping on a pillow to work out if it really is the right pillow for you. Others opt for trial and error. Many give up and sleep with multiple pillows, though that can keep your head too high and throw off the natural curve of your neck. Look for a pillow that supports or cradles the head without losing the natural curve of your neck. Start with medium-loft, medium-firm models filled with down alternative, memory foam, or latex foam. Loft is a pillow’s height as it lies flat on the bed.
Sleeping on your back is often associated with snoring or the more serious sleep apnea, in which a person stops breathing momentarily. Because gravity can cause the tongue to block the airway and create the disruptive buzzing, one solution is to prop up the sleeper using two to three firm pillows or a wedge pillow to elevate the top half of the body. If you roll over to sleep, your face is very close to the mattress. A thin or soft and scrunchable pillow filled with down or feathers, a down alternative, polyester, or thin foam can keep your neck’s natural curve. But a firm, high-loft pillow could leave you with a sore neck.
If you’re a multi-position sleeper, the best pillow for you might have softer and firmer sections, or one that’s lower in the center (for back sleeping) and higher on the sides (for side sleeping). Down is rated by “fillpower,” which measures the amount of space that an ounce of down takes up. The higher the number, the longer it will stay firm, though down generally makes for a soft pillow that flattens easily. Down color, which ranges from white to dark gray, depends on when it’s harvested and the age of the bird, and generally doesn’t affect quality.
Feather pillows are usually firmer and may not trap as much heat, though the feathers can poke through. These soft and pliable pillows are filled with polyester microfibers, giving down’s softness without the allergy concerns. Firmness and loft, the pillow’s height as it lies flat on the bed, vary by brand. Memory foam is mostly polyurethane foam that is moldable to the shape of your head and slow to bounce back. It’s supportive and tends to be on the flatter side, though it maintains its height well.
To determine firmness, check the weight; firmer pillows are usually heavier. But, since you tend to sink into a memory foam pillow rather than lay on top, it’s not the best pillow for hot sleepers who can get uncomfortable. There’s no way to wick off moisture or have it evaporate, and that gives more of a sensation of heat because there’s no real circulation. Some contain gel inserts, marketed as having a cooling effect. Memory foam pillows come in contoured or traditional shapes. The foam can be solid or chopped up in pieces.
Soft yet supportive, this natural rubber product is most like memory foam, but without the heat complaints. It’s also anti-microbial and mildew proof. Latex can have a rubbery odor at first and be on the heavy side, although firmness and loft vary. This is not the best pillow for people who are allergic to latex.
A recent bedding trend is the use of multiple fill components. Think a single pillow containing memory foam or latex, plus shredded foam and a gel insert. Some pillows even have a compartment that can be filled with hot or cold water and is surrounded by polyester fibers. The best pillows for quick re-fluffing are foam or fiber and foam combinations.