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 the Goldilocks approach, looking for a pillow that feels just right in the store. But a squeeze only tells you so much. It takes about 10 to 15 minutes for your neck to relax onto the pillow, according to Susan Gordon, associate professor of physiotherapy at James Cook University in Australia. “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: The pillow that I have is too soft/hard/flat so I’ll get a firmer/softer/fuller one next time. 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.
Instead, start your search for the best pillow by matching the pillow to your dominant sleep position: side, back, stomach, or combination. That’s the position you settle into and is likely to be your favorite, according to Rebecca Robbins, Ph.D., a fellow at the New York University School of Medicine and co-author of “Sleep for Success!” (AuthorHouse, 2010). Many pillows are now labeled this way, though again the terms vary from brand to brand. So use our advice to fine-tune your shopping. Finally, check pillow return policies so you don’t get stuck with a closet full of rejects.
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What's Your Sleep Position?
It’s the most common position. A firm or extra firm pillow is the best pillow to maintain the proper alignment or curve of the neck and head at what a study in a 2015 issue of Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics found was the most comfortable height—10 centimeters, about four inches off the mattress. A traditional or contoured memory foam or latex pillow can support the head at the proper angle and might not flatten as quickly over time when compared to a polyester or down pillow.
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, according to Thomas Roth, PhD, founder of the Sleep Disorders Center at the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit.
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). Buckwheat hulls and pillows made of multiple materials fit this bill.
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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. The exception: Eiderdown, which is rare, expensive, and grayish-brown.
Feather pillows are usually firmer and may not trap as much heat, though the feathers can poke through. People gave feather pillows bad marks for comfort and sleep quality in a 2011 study in Physiotherapy Canada.
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,” says Michael Bonnet, PhD, professor of Neurology at Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine in Dayton, Ohio. Some contain gel inserts, marketed as having a cooling effect. But when we tested memory foam mattresses with cooling gel inserts, we found that they didn’t make a big difference.
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.
These hypoallergenic fibers come in a range of heights and densities, but tend toward the soft, and they often flatten or develop hollow spots, though they can be fluffed up again.
Supportive and firm, buckwheat hulls tend to be heavy and shift when moved, though they retain their loft well. Some users complain that they are noisy; others have voiced allergy concerns.
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, according to Andrew Dent, vice president of Library & Materials Research at Material ConneXion, a materials database and consulting firm.
Unless your pillow is marked “dry clean only” you should wash most pillows about twice a year following care label instructions, according to Pat Slaven, test engineer and textiles expert at Consumer Reports. “Laundering a pillow isn’t difficult, but while it takes a bit of time to get it dry, the pillow will smell nice and be fluffier after laundering,” she says.
Down or feather
Wash with a small amount of mild powder detergent or a product designed to launder down, on warm and delicate. A liquid detergent that is not completely rinsed out will leave sticky residue and this causes clumping. So massage the pillow in the detergent solution if you can, to ensure that the down is wetted out. It’s also crucial to get the pillow completely dry—otherwise you risk mildew. Unless you like the smell of singed feathers, use the no-heat air-dry setting (it will take a while) and dryer/tennis balls to break up clumps.
Memory foam, latex
Neither can be washed, unfortunately, nor should they really be steamed, which is generally a good alternative for items that can't be laundered. The best bet is to spot treat any stains, preferably as they happen, and to use a pillow cover to extend its life.
Wash with warm water on the gentle cycle, preferably a few at a time to balance the load. Be sparing with the detergent. Use about one tablespoon of liquid soap. Machine-dry on low-heat setting with dryer balls or clean tennis balls to fluff them back up.
Empty the buckwheat filling onto a large cookie sheet or wide, shallow bowl. Set the buckwheat out in the sun, which will eliminate odors, and wash the shell case using cold water and a mild detergent.
Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the February 2016 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.
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