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    Pillow Buying Guide

    Pillow Buying Guide

    Fluffy, white, rectangular, soft. Many pillows look the same, but they differ widely in the level of support they offer. A great pillow for someone who sleeps on their back may be a terrible choice for someone who sleeps on their side. And if your pillow fails to give your head and neck the proper support, it can cause restlessness and strain, making for a poor night’s sleep.

    Consumer Reports regularly adds models to our pillow ratings. Our latest batch includes pillows from Casper, Leesa, Martha Stewart, and Tempur-Pedic, among other brands. In our assessment, we look at how well pillows from the same manufacturer compare and test an adjustable pillow to see how different customizations help with support. For the first time, we’ve also tested a contoured pillow. To read more about our top-rated pillows, see our reviews of the best pillows from our tests.

    So how can you tell which pillow is right for you? And should replacing your pillow be on your to-do list? Read on to learn the factors to consider, the differences in pillow fillings, and some helpful tips to assist you on your buying journey.

    Deciding What You Need

    Your answers to these questions will help you home in on the best pillow for you.

    What position do you sleep in? To give your neck and head the support they need, you want a pillow that won’t tilt your head up or down too much. If you’re a back sleeper, you may need a flatter pillow than what a side sleeper needs. Stomach sleepers should look for a thin pillow so that it doesn’t push the neck up too high. You want your spine and neck to stay in as neutral an angle as possible, thereby relieving stress to both, says Joel Press, MD, the physiatrist-in-chief at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. If you tend to cycle between sleeping on your back and lying on your side throughout the night, choose a pillow’s firmness based on the position in which you fall asleep.

    What type of mattress do you have? You might not think to ask this question, but it’s important. If you have a firmer mattress, you want a fuller pillow. If you have a softer mattress, you want a thinner pillow. That applies whether you sleep on your side or your back. The reasoning is that a softer mattress typically allows the body to sink into it, therefore there’s less of a gap between your head and the mattress, says Chris Regan, who oversees pillow testing at CR. Firmer mattresses keep you from sinking in as much, leaving a larger gap between the mattress and your neck to fill. 

    Are you allergic to certain materials? Some people may be allergic to latex or buckwheat—both fillings you’ll find in pillows on the market. Some people may have an allergy to dust mites, which tend to inhabit synthetic pillow fills like polyester fiber more than down, according to a study in the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. The use of down and feathers in pillows is regulated, and both are cleaned to ensure that they are free of bird allergens, such as feather dust and mites, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.

    Check the label carefully for the pillow’s fill to be sure there’s nothing you might be allergic to. Even if you see claims of hypoallergenic materials on a pillow’s packaging or label, be wary: There are no federal standards for the term “hypoallergenic.” One material that doesn’t typically cause allergic reactions is synthetic latex. However, it may release volatile organic compounds or chemicals such as formaldehyde, and may harbor dust mites, according to the AAFA.

    If you’re allergic to dust mites and not the pillow material, you may want to consider buying a pillow protector

    Do you sleep hot or cool? If you tend to get sweaty while you sleep, you’ll want a pillow that breathes and dissipates heat. In our tests, pillows made with shredded foam or polyester tend to stay cool better than ones made of solid foam. And don’t fall for pillows with a “cool” gel layer: “Though they might initially give you a feeling of coolness, of the pillows we test, we find that this feature can trap heat and moisture,” Regan says.

    Do you need an adjustable pillow? A relatively new concept, adjustable pillows allow you to make changes to the filling and customize it for your comfort—making it less likely you’ll be dissatisfied with a pillow soon after buying it. They tend to perform better than other pillows in our tests because they can be aligned to your needs. The manufacturer typically includes a guide with instructions for each sleep style. See our guide to learn how to customize an adjustable pillow to your liking.

    Do you want a machine-washable pillow? Most pillows in our ratings are machine-washable, typically using the cold setting. But be sure to check the manufacturer’s cleaning specifications on your pillow before washing. Some materials, such as foam slabs, should not be washed by machine. Unless your pillow is made of a single piece of foam, fluffing it every day will help it maintain its shape. Read our complete guide on how to wash a pillow by material type.

    Pillow testing

    Photo: Consumer Reports Photo: Consumer Reports

    The Main Types of Pillows in Our Ratings

    Consumer Reports currently tests polyester and memory foam pillows, as well as pillows made of latex and kapok. 

    Polyester Pillows

    Polyester Pillows

    Often described as polyester fiber or fill, this is the most common type of pillow you’ll see on the market, and it’s usually the least expensive. Polyester pillows typically have a filling that looks like cotton. In our tests, they don’t hold their shape well—so you might end up replacing this type of pillow more often than other types.

    Pillows Ratings
    Memory Foam Pillows

    Memory Foam Pillows

    This is the same material (polyurethane) that many mattresses are made of. Memory foam pillows may consist of one solid layer of this foam or cut-up chunks of it. Pillows with memory foam fill are usually more dense than polyester pillows, and they tend to conform to the shape of your head. In our tests, we find that memory foam pillows might not be as breathable as other pillows, meaning they might make your head a little hot at night.

    Pillows Ratings

    Other Common Pillow Fillings

    Natural latex is made from tree sap. There is also synthetic latex. Pillows made of either can contain a single layer of latex or chunks of it. Based on CR’s tests of both natural and synthetic latex foam in mattresses, latex responds differently to the body than memory foam—it has more spring to the touch and returns to its shape faster after being compressed.

    Down or Feathers
    Down pillows are typically made from goose or duck down. Down is rated by “fill power,” 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. Feather pillows are usually firmer and might not trap as much heat, though the feathers can poke through. So you’ll want to test how well the pillow holds its shape before you buy it.

    Buckwheat is a plant-based pillow fill made of small, dry seeds. Some people like how a buckwheat pillow conforms to the head and neck, but others might find these pillows too noisy (the seeds rustle when you move) or too stiff.

    These pillows typically have a removable bag that you can fill with water to the level of firmness you prefer. The outer cover is often made from cotton or polyester. Some sleepers like that the pillows conform to the head. However, some users have reported leaking from the pillow’s water chamber.

    This organic fiber, made from the tropical kapok tree, is a silky material that’s a softer, lighter, and vegan alternative to down. Its natural wax coating inhibits moisture absorption, making it ideal for people who sweat in their sleep. It also appeals to eco-conscious shoppers because kapok filling is harvested from seed pods that fall on the ground—meaning no trees are chopped down to gather the fiber.

    Pillow Shopping Tips

    Whether you go to a store or order online, once you have the pillow in your hands, do the following.

    Perform the squeeze test. Just because a pillow’s label says it’s “firm” or that it’s for side or back sleepers doesn’t mean it’s the right support for you. Go a step further and do your own firmness test. If you’re in a store, place the pillow on a flat surface and compress it with your palm to about half of its original thickness. The more pressure you have to apply, the firmer the pillow. At home, do the same test, and try out the pillow on your bed.

    Fluff it. Pillows with pieces of filling inside instead of, say, a single piece of foam can lose their shape and make for uncomfortable sleep. So after you test a pillow’s firmness, fluff it to see whether it returns to its original shape and thickness. Make sure the fill is even throughout the pillow.

    Consider how breathable it is. Most pillows allow air to flow through, though the denser the pillow, the less breathable it is. If you tend to sleep warm, look for a pillow with pieces of filling that allow air to circulate through, such as polyester fill, feathers, or foam chunks.

    Check the cover. A well-made cover helps a pillow last longer. Look for neat stitches, straight seams, and piping, which reduces wear on the edges. Some pillows have a zipper, which makes it easier to adjust the filling and clean the cover. A tightly woven cover protects the fill.

    Look for return policies and trial periods. Not every pillow manufacturer or retailer offers returns or trial periods, though some do. Coop Sleep Goods, for instance, offers a 100-night sleep trial from the day you receive your Coop pillow. MyPillow gives you 60 days. See what the policy is on a pillow before you buy it.

    How We Test Pillows

    Consumer Reports uses 13 tests to evaluate pillows, including some that involve human subjects. (See our full pillow ratings here.) “We mix scientific data with human input to capture the more subjective aspects of a pillow,” says CR’s Regan.

    Ratings from both sets of data make up a pillow’s Overall Score. Our tests assess a pillow’s support, how breathable its material is, and its resilience, or ability to hold its shape. For our support tests, we use human subjects and graph the angle at which the head is positioned on the pillow to see how well the pillow supports the head and neck of people of different sizes—petite, average-sized, and large or tall—whether they sleep on their side or back.

    We have our subjects lie down on a pressure mat that we place on top of a pillow on a medium-firm queen mattress so that we can analyze roughly 1,600 pressure points; we note areas where the pillow might be too soft or too firm, and where it fails to support the head.

    In our resilience tests, we place an evenly distributed, 225-pound load on the pillow in a room with a temperature set to 98.6° F to mimic body heat, and leave it for 96 hours. These parameters allow us to accelerate use so that we can see whether a pillow holds up over time. We measure how well each pillow returns to its original shape and firmness.

    In our use and preference tests, we ask a panel of subjects to rate the pillows based on a number of criteria, such as whether the pillow conforms well to the head and whether the cover is comfortable. In our permeability test, we use a humidity sensor to gauge how breathable a pillow is—some pillows trap moisture between you and the pillow, possibly making for an uncomfortable night’s sleep.