For some, the best part of the day is when your head hits the pillow at night. You might not have given much thought to your pillow in the past – except for looking forward to when you get to use it – but that comfy spot where you rest your head can be incredibly important to the quality of sleep you enjoy.
A good pillow can mean the difference between waking up well-rested, refreshed and full of energy for the day ahead, and waking up groggy, stiff and still feeling tired. So, what makes a good pillow? Let us engage you in a little pillow talk and answer that question, while directing you towards the best pillows for your personal circumstances.
What are the different types of pillows?
While there are all kinds of extra features such as scented pillows and bamboo casings, we cover the key features of different pillow types and explain what makes them unique.
Also known as ‘hollowfibre’, ‘microfibre’ or polyester pillows, these are the most common types. They are generally made of a cotton casing filled with a synthetic filling. They’re the most versatile type of pillow and can meet the needs of a variety of sleeping positions.
- Good for allergies
- Easy care
- Easy bend and scrunch to get the right height
- Don’t last long (6 months to 2 years)
- Flatten and clump easily
These pillows have a ‘feather-proof’ outer cover to protect you from getting poked with feather quills. However, depending on age and quality, even the toughest covers can end up being perforated by spiky quills. The filling usually contains some down mixed in with the feathers to soften the pillow a little. Feather pillows used to be popular, but now aren’t particularly recommended unless you’re a back sleeper and like the idea of feathers.
- Generally inexpensive
- Easy to shape
- Durable and long-lived
- Great for pillow fight pictures!
- Feather quills can end up poking through covers
- Not much height or support – generally not good for side sleepers
- Need regular fluffing and shaking to keep in shape
- Not good for allergies
Down refers to the soft under-feathers of some birds, which helps to insulate them. In pillows, duck or goose feathers are used. Using down instead of other feathers generally results in a softer pillow. To be classified as a down pillow, the filling must be at minimum 75% down. When other cheaper material is used for the rest, it’s often put inside an inner core, which is then surrounded by down to keep it soft.
- Generally the softest pillows
- Smooth, no lumps to poke you
- Cool, airy
- Easy to shape
- Long lasting
- Feathers can poke through, but generally aren’t sharp
- Not much support or height – not good for side sleepers
- Generally expensive
- Usually not good for allergies
Memory foam pillows
This NASA-created material is also known as visco elastic foam. At high densities, memory foam reacts to body heat to slowly conform and mould to the body’s shape. At low densities, it’s pressure-sensitive and reacts quickly to fit the body. Memory foam pillows are either shaped like a regular pillow, or in a more contoured form to better fit the head and neck. While they’re marketed as pressure-relieving pillows, they’re not for everyone.
- Good support, pain relief
- Soft, smooth (no lumps)
- Contours well
- Durable and easy-care
- Height fixed, due to density
- Warm – doesn’t allow for much air flow
- Not adaptive to those who move around between sleeping positions
- Generally expensive
This type of filling is made from foamed latex, either from natural latex from plants or synthetically produced. It’s very reactive to pressure, and has instant bounce-back as opposed to memory foam’s slower response time. Latex is a great choice for allergy sufferers, as it’s dust mite resistant.
- Long-lasting and durable
- Cool and airy (dissipates moisture and heat well)
- Shapes to head and neck
- Fixed shape and height
- Generally expensive
Bean-bag style pillows aren’t common, but are beginning to catch on. The soft stretchy synthetic outer casing is filled with tiny polystyrene beads. Microbead pillows are very soft and provide a different kind of feel, which you may love or hate. They’re often cylinder shaped for neck support.
- Can be effective for neck and shoulder pain relief
- Good support
- Highly moldable and conforming
- Light and airy
- Can be too firm
- Shape may feel odd, and won’t fit your standard pillowcases
While not common, water pillows have unique properties which may suit your needs. There are two types – cooling pillows and water pouch pillows. Cooling pillows contain a foam layer soaked with water, which helps dissipate heat and keep you cool whether you suffer from hot flushes, night sweats, or overheating in your sleep. The water pouch type involves a removable pouch, which you fill with water to your desired height and firmness. This pouch then supports the microfibre layer on top.
- Customisable height and firmness
- Good pain relief, especially for the neck and back
- Cooling properties
- Durability varies
- Adjustment can be a bit fidgety
You might have already come across one of these if you’ve travelled in Japan. They may seem uncomfortable and odd for a pillow, but can actually be very comfortable and supportive. Much like microbeads, buckwheat pillows are very supportive, moldable and conforming to the body. As the buckwheat husks do not compress, they provide firm reliable support.
- Supportive, moldable, contour to the body
- Height adjustable (just take out or add husks)
- Can be expensive
- May be too firm
How much do pillows cost?
Pillows can range from very cheap to very expensive. It’s important to consider the balance between how much you’re willing to spend and what kind of support you need when you sleep. You may be tempted to go for the cheapest option, but investing in a pillow of better quality could make a world of difference to your sleep, much like picking the best mattress.
Below is an approximate indication of the price range of each type of pillow.
How do I choose the best pillows?
The first thing to factor in when choosing what type of pillow to buy is how you sleep.
- Side sleepers – Firm pillows keep your head supported at the right height to keep your spine straight.
- Front (on your belly) – Soft and flat types are best, so that your neck isn’t curved back too much.
- Flat on your back – Medium to firm foam types are best for supporting your head and neck properly.
Best pillows for neck pain
We spend as much as a third of our lives in bed, so it’s important to keep your back and neck supported as best you can. If you already have neck issues, or are prone to pain, it’s particularly important to choose your pillow carefully. You want to keep your spine straight and your head slightly elevated, but not too much.
If you wake up with a stiff neck or pain when you first move your head around, there’s probably a problem with your pillow. It also may be how you use your pillow – both your head and neck should be on the pillow. Many just rest their head on the pillow, which leaves your neck unsupported and exposed to the air. Aches can be caused by a cold neck or by lack of adequate support.
There’s no universal ‘correct’ pillow for neck pain, as it depends entirely on what is the most comfortable for you. Generally, the best pillows for neck pain are memory foam and water pouch pillows, as they are highly moldable and conform to your body. They take the pressure away from particular points and redistribute it across the pillow surface.
Best pillows for allergies
If you have a dust mite allergy, what you’re actually allergic to is dust mite feces. Not the nicest of thoughts before bed! It’s important to minimise opportunities for this to build up, so the best thing you can do is to purchase bedding made of dust mite resistant (or hypoallergenic) material.
Latex pillows are the best kind for dust allergies, as latex is not a hospitable environment for dust mites. You can also buy dust mite resistant casing. It can be worth investing in a high-quality one though, as some are just glorified plastic bags which can be noisy and sweaty.
Pillows and pillow cases (but not dust mite resistant casing) should be washed regularly, so choose materials which are machine-washable in hot water. Lastly, pillows need to be replaced regularly, as even with the best of care you probably can’t keep all of the dust mites out.
Best pillows for snoring problems & sleep apnea
Snoring is a major symptom of sleep apnea, which is a condition where the airways are obstructed during sleep. There are a variety of causes, from obesity to alcohol consumption to nasal congestion. Snoring doesn’t only affect the sleep of those stuck listening to you, but it can also make it harder for you to sleep soundly and wake up well-rested. If you’ve ever woken yourself up by snoring, you’ll know what we mean!
One way to prevent snoring is to ensure you sleep in a position where you’re less likely to snore. Many people only snore when they’re sleeping on their back, where the tongue and throat muscles relax and slump backwards to partially block the airway. Anti-snoring pillows claim to prevent you from sleeping on your back, or hold the head in a particular position to prevent snoring. As they’re based on making you sleep in a particular position, they may not be as effective as claimed, particularly if you’re a restless sleeper.
If you’re having persistent issues with snoring, you should consult your doctor to address the cause. In the meantime, changing the way you sleep may help mitigate snoring.
How often should I replace my pillow?
The lifespan of a pillow depends on what it’s made out of, quality, usage and how well you’ve cared for it. Some pillows come with a date stamp on them as a guide for when they need to be replaced.
Signs that your pillow needs to be replaced include:
- When your pillow has flattened and can no longer be fluffed up to give you adequate support
- When it’s old, stained and hasn’t been washed and shaken out very much, it’s probably riddled with dust mites
- When the filling is compressed and lumpy to the point where it’s uncomfortable
How do I care for my pillow?
Cleaning pillows is something a lot of us probably don’t think about, but it’s vital to making your pillows last longer and keep fresh and comfortable. It’s a gross truth that we all sweat, shed skin cells and produce oil from our skin which makes our bedding dirty.
Using a good quality pillow case and dust mite resistant cover can help keep dirt and grime away from the pillow itself. Grime and dust can still get through into the pillow itself, so pillow cleaning can’t be ignored. Here are some tips:
- Try to shake out your pillows ideally every day
- Read the label to check how your pillow can be washed
- If your pillows are machine washable, don’t jam them in – they need space around them to properly flush out dirt
- Don’t hang them out to dry – lay them flat or use a dryer if the care label permits it
- If your pillow can’t go in the washing machine, you can spot clean or hand wash depending on the material
What are the best pillows to buy?
The best pillow is ultimately the one that best suits your sleep needs. Questions to ask yourself when decided which kind of pillow you need include:
- What position do I usually sleep in?
- What’s my budget?
- Do I have allergies to consider?
- Do I need to manage neck and/or back pain?
- Do I get too hot while sleeping?
- Do I want a light or heavy pillow?
- Would a noisy pillow bother me?
If your current pillow isn’t working well for you, you shouldn’t just put up with it. A good night’s rest is incredibly important for your health and happiness, so take the time and effort to make sure you’re sleeping on the best pillow for you.