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Buying Guides

Firm vs Soft Pillow: Which One Should You Choose?

    Last Updated
    May 16, 2023
    min read

    There is a lot of confusion around what pillow firmness is ideal for a good night's sleep. Here at Purple, we decided to put the confusion to bed. Should you get a soft or firm pillow?

    The short answer: one size does not fit all. The correct pillow for you comes down to  personal preference –  although it's important to know how to choose a pillow with the right support for your specific sleep position. 

    Purple’s collection of pillows showcases a variety of firm and soft options that perfectly balance softness with support for all body types and sleeping positions. Before you rest easy, this article provides every detail to ensure you select the  pillow firmness ideal for you.

    Firm vs Soft Pillow Differences

    The main difference between a firm and a soft pillow is the feel. 

    Compared to a soft pillow, a firm pillow offers less give when weight is applied – in other words, your head and neck won’t sink as deeply into the material of a firm pillow. This type of pillow retains its shape well and provides a stable base, elevating your head. Firm pillows with a medium to tall loft are often considered to be the best pillows for side sleepers because they may help maintain neutral spine alignment.

    Soft pillows, on the other hand, are plush, creating a conforming contour around the head and neck. They’re moldable and provide plenty of cloud-like give with the application of weight. Stomach sleepers typically opt for  more soft, thin pillows to prevent the spine from arching back.

    Pillow Firmness Scale

    Pillow firmness doesn’t have a universal scale for measurement, but we recommend determining firmness by levels of “give” . The more give a pillow has when weight is applied , the softer it is. If a pillow doesn’t have a lot of give and doesn’t sink easily with weight application, it is on the firmer end of the spectrum .

    Generally, manufacturers label their pillows with the following firmness levels:

    • Firm
    • Medium firm
    • Medium
    • Medium soft
    • Soft

    Another important factor to measure in order to achieve  optimal comfort is mattress size. Read our guides on how to measure a mattress to find out if your frame and mattress are the right sizes for your sleeping needs.

    Why Is Pillow Firmness Important?

    Pillow firmness is important because it determines a pillow’s softness, flexibility, and ability to support  pressure points during sleep. Sleeping on the wrong pillow firmness for your preferences and sleep position may cause discomfort, lowering sleep quality and reducing hours of sleep.

    Pillow Firmness And Material

    The internal material of your pillow will affect its overall firmness. Here are some of the most common pillow filling materials and their respective firmness levels:

    • GelFlex® Grid: Purple’s proprietary GelFlex® Grid is a Hyper-Elastic Polymer that’s designed to be soft and flexible yet supportive.  Pillows made with this honeycomb grid are typically medium-firm in firmness.
    • Shredded foam: Shredded foam pillows are usually made from shreds of polyurethane, resulting in a combination of foam cells in irregular sizes. These pillows range from soft to medium in firmness and are more breathable and conforming than traditional memory foam.
    • Latex: Latex pillows can either be natural, synthetic, or a mixture of both, all of which are highly contouring since they soften in response to body heat. Both natural and synthetic latex pillows usually come in a range of options from medium to firm firmness. 
    • Down: Down is compressible and typically made from the feathers of birds such as  ducks. Down pillows are typically soft to medium in firmness.
    • Down alternatives: For those who are concerned about using animal products, there are alternatives made with polyester fibers that feel as soft and compressible as natural down. These pillows are typically soft to medium-firm in firmness.
    • Foams and memory foam: Some pillows are made entirely from memory foam, which can range from soft to firm in firmness. They’re supportive but also contouring.
    • Buckwheat: Buckwheat pillows are some of the firmest on the market. They’re heavy and made from buckwheat husks, and they’re usually firm to extra firm.

    Keep your pillow material in tip-top shape by cleaning it regularly. Check out our guide to washing pillows for more information on proper care and regular cleaning.

    What Is The Right Pillow Firmness For You?

    The right pillow firmness for you ultimately depends on your personal preferences. For example, different sleep positions may consider different firmness levels more supportive and cozy. 

    If you’re uncertain of  your sleeping position, read our guide to sleeping positions to find out and get tips for snoozing comfortably:

    • Side sleepers: Side sleepers need a pillow that is thick enough  to support spinal alignment. Medium-height to high pillows will give added height for your neck. Those who want to rest on a firm pillow should choose one that preserves their spine’s natural curve.
    • Stomach sleepers: Stomach sleepers may want to try a thinner, softer pillow that won’t put their head at an overly high angle compared to their spines. Read our tips for stomach sleepers for more recommendations to improve your bedtime comfort.
    • Back sleepers: Back sleepers often need just enough head and neck support to sleep comfortably. Lower-height to medium-height pillows will provide support for the neck while not over-cranking the neck forward.
    • Combination sleepers: Combination sleepers  change positions throughout the night making pillow selection a bit tricky. Our recommendation is to try a versatile, medium-firm pillow that is flexible and quickly adapts to your range of sleep positions.

    Breathability and temperature control will have a strong impact on your nightly comfort. If you tend to sweat a lot at night, a cooling pillow will help you maintain an optimal temperature that keeps you asleep. Cold sleepers might consider getting something that retains heat to help them stay warm while sleeping.

    Additional Factors To Consider

    Your sleeping position, pillow size, and personal preferences will dictate whether a firm or soft pillow will  be best for you. Below are the pros and cons of both firm and soft pillows with a guide on which types of sleepers are recommended for each pillow type.

    Advantages Of A Firm Pillow

    Firm pillows provide a resilient, fixed base for your head, which  may keep your neck from moving too much while you sleep. 

    Disadvantages Of A Firm Pillow

    If a pillow is too firm for your preferences and sleep position, it will most likely be too uncomfortable to sleep on. It may also feel too hard to provide adequate pressure relief, which could potentially lead to neck pain or back pain in the long run.

    Mattress Firmness

    Considering the  firmness of your current mattress will be telling prior to  settling on a firm, medium, or soft pillow. 

    If you have a firmer mattress, a softer pillow may fill the gap between your mattress and head, potentially resulting in better support and greater comfort while you sleep.

    On the other hand, if you have a softer mattress, a firmer pillow may keep your head from sinking too deeply into your mattress and misaligning your spine. 

    Ultimately, the best pillow and mattress firmness combination will depend on your sleeping position and personal preferences. Try different pillows at varying firmness levels to find the most comfortable pairing for you.

    Who Should Use A Firm Pillow?

    Side sleepers may want to consider trying a firm pillow for a good night’s sleep. Firm pillows may help side sleepers keep their head, neck and spine in neutral alignment at night, which  prevents stress from accumulating in your body’s pressure points and causing discomfort.

    Another common option for side sleepers is a pillow with  medium loft. Because a  pillow that’s too high or low may disrupt a side sleeper’s natural spinal alignment, a medium loft pillow may help preserve good sleep posture.

    Purple pillows provide the adequate support necessary for comfortable sleep while offering optimum comfort. Made with 100% GelFlex® Grid, Purple Pillows are cooling, supportive, and responsive for a night of relaxation. Best of all, you can customize their loft levels by mixing and matching the included Pillow Boosters until you get the custom loft level for you.

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    Advantages Of A Soft Pillow

    Soft pillows are very moldable and squishy providing extra comfort for the head and neck. This offers gentle, consistent pressure relief while you sleep. Additionally, soft pillows quickly adapt to your body’s curves, offering a plush surface no matter what your sleeping position.

    Disadvantages Of A Soft Pillow

    Soft pillows that have a down alternative fill are more prone to becoming lumpy and uneven. Soft foam and latex pillows do not encounter the same challenges and do not become lumpy. All foam  and latex pillows , soft and firm, can compress slightly over time.

    Who Should Be Using A Soft Pillow?

    Stomach and back sleepers might want to try using a soft pillow made with compressible, breathable materials like feathers or synthetic down. Also, consider using foam or latex pillows at a low height. 

    Upgrade Your Sleep With Purple

    Having the right pillow can be the difference between a good and bad night's sleep. Here at Purple we specifically design pillows to fit everybody. 

    Firm vs Soft Pillow FAQs

    Do side sleepers need firm or soft pillows?

    Side sleepers having a pillow that is too soft can cause the neck to arch down far past proper alignment . A medium-soft to firm pillow may help, as it can keep a side sleeper’s head from sinking too deeply and becoming misaligned with their neck and spine.

    Is a soft or firm pillow best for sleeping?

      Your body type, typical  sleeping position, and unique sleeping preferences will determine whether a soft or firm pillow is best for you. 


    About the authors

    Cecilia Gillen

    Cecilia brings over five years of writing experience primarily centered around lifestyle and health topics. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Media and Journalism from the University of South Dakota. She’s both an advocate for sleep and a night owl at heart.

    Judith Palmer

    Judith Palmer specializes in product management, leading efforts to understand customer needs and create Purple products across pillow, bedding and cushion categories. Judith has spent over 3 years understanding the pillow and bedding category to provide people with products for better sleep.