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How To Pick The Best Pillow

Our pillow may be our closest bedding buddy. Most of us spend eight hours each day face-to-face, as it were, with our fluffy friend. We share our dreams, whispering our deepest secrets … Ok, that’s getting a bit creepy, but Americans do love their pillows. In fact, 91 percent of us think our pillow affects the quality of our sleep.

But the humble pillow has had a mixed history. The Greeks, for example, enjoyed owning lavishly embroidered pillows for resting their heads. The Egyptians spared no expense shuttling their dead to the afterlife with the finest of head supports. Though not every culture haS taken to virtues of soft head slumber. The ancient Chinese believed soft pillows stole a person’s physical vitality, opting instead to rest their noggins on “pillows” made of wood, leather, and ceramic.

Still, most of us honor our pillows. They make the difference between a restless night and one of pure slumber. But with all of the different pillow styles, fillings, and coverings available, thinking about the perfect pillow can keep you up all night. Here’s a roadmap to finding the best pillow for you.

What Is Pillow Loft?

A pillow’s thickness or height (as measured from the bed) is known as its “loft”. Any pillow with low loft will be thin, while a pillow with a high loft is thick.

The Best Pillow for Your Sleep Position

Are you a side sleeper? Maybe you prefer back or stomach sleeping positions. Your dominant sleeping position will help determine the best pillow for you. Here’s why:

Neck Support

Your pillow and mattress work together to support your spine, from stern to stem. Your pillow’s job is to support the upper part of your spine or, in more technical terms, your neck. Over time, inadequate neck support can lead to headaches and loss of sleep.

Without good support, your neck muscles, ligaments, and tendons become fatigued throughout the night. When these structures relax during sleep, our necks fall into curves and unnatural positions, if they aren’t being supported. What we wake up to is a real pain in the neck. No, not your snoring sleep partner — a literal pain in the neck. Our sleep positions determine our neck support needs.

Back and Stomach Sleeper Pillows

In a back sleeping position, your pillow needs to support the gap created by the arch of your neck, keeping it in a naturally curved position. Too much stuffing strains your neck, too little leaves no support. As a result, the muscles and vertebrae become strained. Stomach sleepers have the same problem, but in the opposite direction.

Both sleeper positions need a pillow that is easily adjustable or one made from materials that automatically conform to neck and head pressure.

Best Pillow for Side Sleepers

Side sleepers need a pillow to fill the space between their head and the mattress. The natural arched curve of a side sleeper’s neck doesn’t need support. Instead, they need spine and neck alignment with proper side support.

High loft pillows will crank the neck sideways, pushing the ear to the shoulder. Low loft pillows strain the neck, which has to work to support the weight of the head.

Side sleepers also have problems with shoulder pain caused by too much pressure to the rotator cuff. For good shoulder posture, your forearm should be below your head but above your waist. If you tuck your forearm under your body, you’re straining your shoulder. You cause the same problem if you tuck your forearm under your pillow — which is also a sign that your pillow is too thin.

Picking the Best Pillow Stuffing

Pillows are like people — it’s what’s on the inside that counts. Pillow stuffing (or “batting”) has big implications for your overall comfort level and sleep quality.

the parts of a standard pillow include the pillow case, the casing, and the batting

Support vs. Comfort

For maximum support, you need a material that gives way to pressure and stays put for support. Pillow material for back sleepers, for example, should surrender to the back of the head, but rise to support neck arch.

Pillows with batting made from memory foam or hyper-elastic polymer materials aren’t “stuffed” with anything. They’re molded from space-aged materials into a solid structure. As such, they resist shifting within the pillow, like feathers, beads or other loose materials.

Washability

Every type of pillow material can be cleaned in some way. The methods for washing a pillow are quite different depending on the material. Some you can throw in the washer and dryer (down or feather) while others have to be hand-washed (memory foam).

Buy a pillow that’s easy to wash. Cleaning your pillow removes allergens like dust mites, bacteria, mold, and fungi, as well as the good old gross stuff that accumulate — head oil, sweat, and drool! Removing these yucky substances can help decrease your allergy symptoms. For most of us, washing a couple of times a year is good enough.

Solid pillow materials generally harbor less of these irritants than those made from loose materials. The reason is simple. Loose materials like feathers, beads, and husks offer much more surface area for microbes and bacterial to inhabit. It’s tough for a dust mite to burrow its way to the center of a solid memory foam, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t throwing a dust mite party on the surface of your pillow.

Airflow

Much of our body heat escapes from our heads, and if our pillows can’t dissipate that heat away while we’re in la-la land, we’ll wake up a hot mess. Some pillow materials are better at dissipating heat than others. The trade off is usually in adjustability and support.

For example, memory foam pillows are good at support, but bad at providing air flow to keep your head cool. Feather pillow stuffing can shift and sink, so they’re bad for supporting the neck. But they don’t get you too sweaty at night.

In an effort to find the perfect balance of comfort and support, today’s pillows are stuffed with everything from polystyrene beads to millet seed husks. Few pillow brands achieve the perfect balance, but some do. So, if you find yourself regularly working your pillow into shapes that would impress Picasso, then you probably need a pillow stuffing upgrade.

Here are a few of the most common pillow materials.

Memory Foam

Memory foam was first developed in 1966 by NASA to improve the safety of their aircraft cushions. The foam is made by feeding gas into a polymer matrix creating a solid structure that can “remember” and return to its original shape.

white memory foam pillows

Memory foam pillows are good for people with neck pain because they conform to the pressure of the head, while springing back to support the neck. Ever since NASA released the patent to the public domain in the 1980’s, memory foam has become a popular pillow choice.

Pros

  • Stable
  • Supportive
  • Durable
  • Quiet

Cons

  • Traps heat
  • Heavy and dense
  • Pricey
  • Can have an off-putting odor

To get around some of the downsides of a traditional memory foam pillows, pillow scientists have developed the shredded memory foam pillow. The stuffing is exactly what it sounds like — chunks of memory foam.

Shredded memory foam pillows give you better air circulation than traditional ones. However, they’re less supportive and don’t conform to your head and neck as well. While solid memory foam has a single thickness, shredded comes in a variety of lofts.

Feather Pillows

Both down and feather pillows are stuffed with the feathers of ducks or geese, specifically from the birds’ chest, back and wings.

white feather pillow

Softness is the crucial difference between down and feathers. Feathers are the waterproof covering of a duck or goose. Down lies underneath — typically around the belly — and is much softer and lighter.

Unsurprisingly, everyone loves down, but it’s expensive. That’s why most down pillows are a mixture of feathers and down. As a general rule, the more down a pillow contains, the more expensive it is. So cost can come into play, unless you can afford to pay over a $1,000 for the most luxurious down pillow in the world. That’s a heck of a “down” payment on comfort.

Anyone who’s ever received a nighttime poke to the eye via a rogue feather, they know the limitations of this fowlish stuffing. Still, down is still a popular pillow stuffing.

Pros

  • Adjustable
  • Lightweight
  • Affordable
  • Easy to wash
  • Good airflow

Cons

  • Softness can lead to less support
  • Feathers to the eye!
  • Loses shape quickly — needs to be fluffed
  • Can be noisy
  • Collects allergens
  • Not vegan friendly or cruelty free

Polyester Pillows

Polyester is more than just a man-made magical substance that transforms your fashion style. It makes a pretty good head rest too. Polyester fiberfill pillows have been around for a while, and are popular for their practical qualities, like washability and cost.

You can buy polyester pillows in varying degrees of loft, firmness, and fluffiness. Suffice it to say, there’s a polyester pillow for everyone. But not everyone cottons to polyester. Here are the ups and downs of this simple synthetic substance.

Pros

  • Many levels of firmness available
  • Affordable
  • Easy to wash
  • Lightweight
  • Low odor

Cons

  • Low airflow
  • Not so durable
  • Support degrades
  • Dust mites love polyester
  • Not environmentally friendly

Specialty Pillows

When it comes to design and stuffing, some pillows push the boundaries of what’s possible. Here are some specialty pillows with unorthodox stuffings that, for some, make the best pillow.

Buckwheat Pillows

You’re probably thinking The Little Rascals, but, no, a buckwheat pillow is actually filled with the grain (fagopyrum esculentum). To be more specific, it’s filled with thousands of buckwheat hulls — the small, hard husks that protect the buckwheat kernel. Before you jump to the tempting conclusion that buckwheat pillows are only a hipster trend for “organic sleeping,” check out the legit benefits they offer.

Pros

  • Adjustable
  • Durable
  • Promotes good airflow
  • Inexpensive. Buckwheat hulls are cheap!

Cons

  • Can be too firm
  • Noisy. You’re sleeping on hulls!
  • Hard to clean
  • Difficult to adjust firmness (add/remove hulls)
  • Some people have buckwheat allergies
  • Can be fairly pricey

Water Pillows

Water pillows are basically small waterbeds for your head. They are usually one layer of polyester fiberfill sitting on top of an adjustable water sack. All of this is encased in a pillow cover. Waterbeds and polyester — you’re basically laying your head on the 1970’s. Here’s the good, the bad, and the bubbly of water pillows.

Pros

  • Supportive. Comparable to memory foam.
  • Adjustable loft (add/subtract water)
  • Stays cool
  • Odorless
  • Stays in place

Cons

  • Heavy
  • Expensive
  • Polyester not so durable
  • Hard to adjust
  • Can make sloshing noise

The Final Questions For Your Pillow Search

When choosing the best pillow for you, don’t just think about your sleep position and stuffing preference. Make sure your pillow matches your lifestyle and sleep environment. Ask yourself questions like these:

  • What temperature do you keep your bedroom? Maybe your head gets too cold instead of too hot.
  • Do you like to travel with your pillow? Then avoid a heavy one.
  • Are you a light sleeper? Get a quiet pillow.
  • Are your bedroom aesthetics important? Maybe the smooth lines of a memory foam are for you.
  • Do you and your pillow have a long-term relationship or do you switch to a new one every year?

After considering all of these factors, you can rest easy knowing you’ve picked the best pillow for you — one that will never reveal your deepest secrets whispered in the night.

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