How to Purchase the Perfect Pillow
Expert-approved tips for buying the best one for you.
Updated Sep 29, 2021 7:57 AM
We may earn revenue from the products available on this page and participate in affiliate programs.
As with all things sleep and bed-related, any decision is a major one—this is where you spend a third of your entire existence, after all. And your pillow is worth the investment. We tapped experts Kalle Simpson, co-founder of The Night Pillow, and Tomorrow Sleep’s Bryan Murphy for their tips on the fundamentals of all things feather and foam, in order to achieve your sleep goals.
First of all, do you need a new pillow?
“Sleeping with the wrong pillow can aggravate neck pain and headaches, create shoulder and arm pain, and impact the quality of your sleep,” Murphy says. Also, how long have you been hitting that particular pillow? “An old pillow can contain skin cells, mold, fungus, and dust mites, which can add up to half of an old pillow’s weight,” he adds. Gross, no?
Experts say you should replace your pillow every 12 to 18 months, and certainly within 24 months, so do your research. “There are numerous third-party pillow review sites that you can visit to get the skinny on the pillows you’re considering, and many offer discount codes as well,” Murphy adds.
Consider the filling.
Simpson recommends both down pillows and memory foam pillows. “Down pillows are great for comfort, and as long as you purchase fill power based on your anatomy, they can offer the necessary support,” she explains. Memory foam pillows can adjust to your sleep position and anatomy because they mold to the exact pressure applied.
Simpson also adds that some advanced engineered memory foams out there sleep super cool and soft. But ultimately, the best way to figure it out is to try it out. “Look for pillows that offer a sleep trial period, and be sure to give the trial adequate time. Your body often needs time to adjust to a new sleep experience,” she says.
Consider your size versus your sleep position.
A perfect pillow supports an optimal balance between comfort (like softness) and support (which means it doesn’t go flat, but rather gives a slight angle to your neck/head). “This optimal balance can vary based on anatomy (ie, how big or small you are) and sleep position,” explains Simpson. She says that the challenge with sleep position is that research shows the average person changes one’s position three to 36 times per night. “So, you should find a pillow that accommodates any way you choose to sleep,” she says.
She adds that regarding anatomy, it’s pretty simple:
- above average size/height = higher profile height/firmer support
- average height/size = medium profile/medium support
- petite = low profile height/soft support
Consider your holistic needs.
Do you have allergies? Simpson notes that pillows can be a breeding ground for bacteria, and allergies can wreak havoc on your sleep quality. “If you’re an allergy sufferer, you may want to stay away from filled pillows,” she advises. “And opt for foam pillows, which are hypoallergenic by nature—or at the very least, purchase a hypoallergenic case to protect it.” If you tend to sleep hot, Simpson says to stay away from certain types of foam, or those made with synthetic covers. “Instead, opt for natural materials like silk and down fibers, or foams that have been engineered for airflow,” she explains.
Understand the filling materials.
In the bedding industry, there are two main types of pillows. The most common are filled pillows, which are shells filled with material for comfort. “The filling can be synthetic materials like polyester and down alternative, or natural materials like down and feather,” says Simpson. Synthetic filled pillows are often less expensive and lack the comfort offered by down and feather ones because of the low loft of the materials. “Whereas down and feather filled pillows can be very expensive and offer what most believe to be superior comfort because of the high loftiness and weightlessness of the material,” Simpson notes. “The biggest complaint associated with these types of pillows is that they ‘go flat’ or lose their support.” There are also concerns with hygiene, because these types of pillows are food sources for dust mites, allergens, and pollutants.
Then, there are foam pillows, which include latex foam or memory foam. “Latex offers a firmer, more ‘bouncy’ feel than memory foam,” Simpson says. Memory foam is more popular, thanks to its slow recovery and the way it self-adjusts alleviating pressure points. “The biggest hesitation to use foam pillows is that some may lack the initial softness of filled pillows, but foam has benefits beyond the first touch. Foam is naturally hypoallergenic, and because it recovers to its original shape, it doesn’t go flat as easily or quickly,” Simpson adds. Murphy says that if you like a cool feel, look for a foam that has cooling technology, such as gel or “phase-change material.” (PCM—as it’s known—is a space-age technology that actually pulls heat away from the body by changing phases.)
Murphy notes that another popular choice is Memorelle, which is memory foam fiber that has great loft and support properties, and is designed to sleep cool. “Memorelle adapts to your body with a ‘plusher’ feel, and is adjustable like traditional down pillows,” he says. Memory foam also boasts the added benefit of being hypoallergenic and vegan. If you opt for a memory foam pillow like the Night Pillow, the brand offers new compression carrying cases ($75) in order to make it easy to tote your own anywhere.
There are also foam-cluster pillows, a popular new type of pillow that has popped up. These are a marriage of the two main types: They are filled pillows using “foam clusters,” Simpson explains. But beware: She says foam clusters are a euphemism for foam scraps. “It’s literally the scrap material produced while making foam products.”
Read the fine print when making your decision.
“Make sure you understand the fine print of the trial, return, and warranty associated with whichever pillow you choose,” says Murphy. Look out for restocking fees and partial warranties. “Look for a brand that has been around for a number of years, or is part of a larger company,” he advises. “Today, there are hundreds of companies selling pillows, so you want to make sure there will be someone to back up your warranty, should you ever need it.”
Should you buy in-store or online?
The advantage of in-store mattress shopping is that you get to see and test out a number of pillows. However, most online options offer significant in-home trials and zero-hassle returns. “It stands to reason that sleeping on a pillow at home is a much better indicator of performance as compared to hugging it in the store for a minute,” says Murphy. “Convenience and value are the two other big advantages of online shopping—many companies offer quick delivery, and if you’re buying directly from the manufacturer, you’re likely to get a great value.”