How to choose a pillow

choosing the right pillow

​Choosing the right pillow is just as important as choosing the right mattress. The right pillow will give you a great night sleep. The wrong pillow will cause you to wake up every few hours, give you neck and backpains and an overall poor quality of sleep. In worse case scenarios, you can wake up the next morning with a pounding migraine and a sore neck that will last for days on end. Your current pillow could also be causing (or exacerbating) health problems. Old pillows can contain one or more of the following: dust mites, mold, dead skin cells, mildew or fungus.

You read that correctly! ½ of the weight of the older pillow that you’re currently using is made up of dust mites, dead skin cells, mold, mildew and fungus.

Isn’t it time to start researching what pillow is the best for you? The experts state that the lifespan of the average pillow is anywhere from 12-18 months. If you are still using the same pillow after two years, it’s definitely time to start shopping for a new one.

Most people don’t correctly choose the right pillow. They think they reason they are having a bad nights sleep is due to their mattress. What they don’t realize is that if they had just spent some time researching what pillow is right for them, they could have saved hundreds if not thousands of dollars by not having to buy a brand new mattress.


Step 1: Identify your preferred sleeping position

Side Sleeper

side sleeper

Stomach Sleeper

stomach sleeper

I Don't Know

sleeping habits

The first step to figuring out what kind of pillow is right for you is to identify what position you prefer to sleep in. Different pillows will support different types of sleeping positions. If you are a back sleeper and choose a pillow that’s designed for side sleepers, you’re going to have a bad nights sleep.

Physical therapists state that the primary goal of a pillow should be to keep your head and neck in what’s referred to as ‘neutral alignment’. This means that your head is not bending too far back or too far forward from where your shoulders are. If you sleep any degree out of ‘neutral alignment’ then the propensity for sore neck and back muscles increases exponentially. As you sleep, your body sometimes twists and turns. If your head and neck are not aligned properly with the pillow, you can wake up with sore muscles.

In order to determine what your preferred sleeping position is, think about which way you normally lie down in bed. Right after crawling into bed and laying your head down on the pillow, what position is your body in? Are you on your back? Lying on your side? This is the sleeping position that is most comfortable to you. As the night progresses, your body will sometimes toss and turn, but over the course of those 6-8 hours of sleep, you will find that one sleeping position that dominates the other.


Step 2: Pick your fill type

pillow stuffing

The “fill” is the material that goes inside the pillow. There are many different types of fill and each type serves a specific purpose. Back in the old days they used to fill each pillow with actual feathers from a goose. As time went on, some people discovered that they were allergic to goose feathers. Other materials such as memory foam and synthetic fills were invented, which were hypo-allergenic and a lot easier to sleep on than old fashioned goose feathers.

One of the first things you should consider when you’re picking the fill type of your pillow is whether or not you have any medical conditions.

  • Neck pain
  • Allergies
  • Asthma
  • Snoring

All of the above are medical issues that can be agitated by choosing the wrong type of pillow fill. Some experts would even recommend that you have a ‘wardrobe of pillows’ to choose from. You could be in the mood for one particular type of pillow fill one day, and the complete opposite the next day. If you don’t have any medical conditions, you really can’t go wrong by choosing a fill. However, each fill does come with pros and cons:

Foam

Foam is one of those materials that has been around since its invention in the 1950’s. Experts recommend that you should pay attention to the density of your foam pillow. The higher the density, the less it will break down. This also prevents it from going too soft, while at the same time giving you more support.

Memory Foam

Memory foam is sometimes touted as “space age material” and at one point it probably was. However, as the years went by, memory foam products have gotten older, and consequentially, less expensive. This is good news for the consumer. Memory foam contours to your body shape and then “reforms” back to its original shape after you remove pressure from it. The drawbacks are that it sometimes gets a bit “hot” for certain people (the material doesn’t breathe too well, thereby allowing heat to escape) and some brands can emit a chemical smelling type of odor. Usually it’s the brands you find at the dollar stores.

Down Pillows

Down pillows are the ultimate in luxury and comfort when it comes to pillows. They are made out of the soft material under the feathers of a goose. This material traps air and as such makes for a great insulator. Your down pillow won’t get too hot or too cold. However, with that luxury comes the price tag. Down pillows can cost a lot more money than your standard foam pillow. Some manufacturers guarantee that their down is hypo-allergenic. A downside to down is that there could be an ethical issue for some people who don’t want to purchase a product made from animal parts.

Feather/Down Pillows

A feather/down mix pillow tends to perform slightly less better than pure down pillows, but they make up for it with a reasonable price. Feathers tend to provide better support while down provides more loft. The combination of both is preferable to some people over a pure down pillow.

Hypoallergenic Pillows

These pillows come with a manufacturers guarantee that the materials used as the fill will not aggravate or cause allergies. The problem with hypoallergenic pillows is that over time, they tend to collect dead skin, dust and sometimes even mites. This could lead your hypoallergenic pillow to cause your allergies to grow worse. Experts recommend that you put your pillow in the dryer for 15 minutes per week to kill off any organic material and knock off the allergens. Of course, be sure to check the manufacturers recommendation on your pillow instruction manual before you put it into the dryer.

Gel Pillows

Gel pillows are the same as water pillows. They both are manufactured with a liquid center such as water or gel. Both are hypoallergenic (unless you’re allergic to water) and both tend to provide very good neck and head support. They can be a bit pricier than your standard foam pillow, and while these pillows are built to last, you should probably keep sharp objects away from them for the same reason you wouldn’t want to be sharpening your kitchen knives on your water bed.


Step 3: Choose A Size

pillow sizes

By now you have identified your sleeping position and picked a fill type suitable to your needs. Now you need to figure out what size pillow you require.

Standard

The standard pillow size is roughly 26” x 20”. They utilize a normal standard pillow case. Ideally for a twin sized bed you will want to put one standard pillow on it. For a Full or Queen sized bed, you will want two pillows. For a King sized bed, 3 is usually the number of standard pillows that are put on it.

Queen

Are the next size up from a standard. They measure 20” x 30” and work well when you place 2 of them on a Full or Queen sized bed. Queen pillows are a bit bigger than standard, but they still use a standard size pillow case.

King

King pillows usually measure in around 36” x 20”. They are almost 16” longer than a standard size pillow, which makes them a great fit for a King sized bed. Generally speaking, you will put 2 King pillows on a King sized bed. A normal standard pillow case will not fit, so you will have to utilize a King sized pillow case.

Euro

Euro pillows measure 26” x 26” square. They are more of a decorative pillow or used to prop up other pillows. Euros will work for any sized bed, but they are most commonly seen on Queen and King sized beds. You will need a specific 26” x 26” Euro pillow sham to use as a pillow case.


Taking Care of Your Pillow

side sleeping guide

So you’ve gone through the decision making steps and have chosen and purchased the right pillow.

Now what?

Well, the first thing you need to do is to start enjoying a good nights sleep for once!

The next thing you will eventually need to do is minor maintenance of your pillow. Left to its own devices and without any proper maintenance, most standard pillows will last anywhere from 8-12 months. If you have greasy hair or otherwise utilize the pillow in any way that it is not really intended for, it could significantly shorten its lifespan.

Some pillows require less maintenance than others. For example a standard foam pillow will only require a gentle fluffing every few weeks and a washing every year. Most pillows that are made out of synthetic materials are able to be washed. However, prior to washing, be sure to check what the manufacturer recommends. There are some pillows out there that should be dry cleaned instead of washed.

You can also air out your down pillows once a month by removing the pillow case and hanging them next to or near an open window for a few hours. Be sure to do this on a day where there is little to no humidity in the air as it could exponentially increase the time needed to air out your pillows. Be sure to avoid prolonged exposure to sunlight as it can cause UV damage to the natural fibers of your pillow.

Deep Cleaning Pillows

It is suggested that you deep clean your pillows once a year. In order to remember to do this, it is recommended you pick a date 1 year in advance and then make a notation in the calendar on your phone or computer. Have a reminder set and this way you won’t forget.

In order to deep clean most pillows remove the pillow case and physically examine the pillow. Are there any tears that could release down or other materials? If so then it’s time to start thinking about buying a new pillow.

Washing Your Pillows

If the manufacturer of your pillow allows it, hand wash the pillow in warm, soapy water with a mild detergent. Or use a front loading washing machine. Top loading machines can be too rough and may actually cause permanent damage to your pillow.

When drying your pillow, a great tip is to tumble dry on low, but include several bathroom towels (that are dry themselves). They will help absorb excess moisture. You can even add a tennis ball that is put inside a dry sock. This will help speed up the drying process. In order to avoid any potential fire hazards, check the dryer every 30 minutes to ensure the pillows are not over heating.

Pillow Protectors

If you intend on keeping your pillow for an extended period of time, it is highly recommended that you purchase a pillow case/protector. It can increase the lifespan of your pillow by keeping dust, allergens, mold, skin cells and other organic matter off of the pillow. Of course you will need to wash the pillow case every so often (it is generally recommended that you wash your pillow case and sheets 1x per week or more) in order to keep it smelling and looking fresh.

Pillow protectors come in all shapes and sizes and some even have special features. Hypoallergenic and waterproof are two very popular pillow protectors that you can buy. Just one spill of a liquid in the bed can ruin a pillow forever. The protectors are relatively inexpensive and will protect the money you spent on your pillow.

Replacing Your Pillow

All good things must eventually come to an end, and your favorite pillow is no exception. As the months go by, your pillow can and will collect dust, mites, allergens and even dead skin cells. Also, like anything that has pressure or weight applied to it, the filling inside a pillow can lose its density over time due to the repeated (and natural) stress it receives every time you lie down on it.

A good way to tell when it’s time to replace your pillow is when it starts sagging in certain areas. Even if you plump it daily, it still won’t look evenly filled. This is a good indicator that the lifespan of your pillow is quickly coming to an end. Are you starting to experience neck and back pains? Asthma starting to get a bit worse? These are all signs that your current pillow needs to be replaced.


Final Thoughts

As you can see, choosing the right pillow is one of the most important things you can do for yourself. The costs are relatively inexpensive and the benefits are tremendous. Instead of running out and purchasing a $1,000 mattress, try buying a new pillow first. Chances are you will immediately feel the difference the first night you sleep on it. See our handy guide as to which pillow is right for you.

About SleepHealthier.com


With over 40 combined years in the sleep and health professions our well qualified team has put together thoroughly researched, science backed information on sleep, restfulness and your health. 

Primary factors in pillow selection:


  1. Sleeping Position
    • Back sleeper
    • Side Sleeper
    • Stomach Sleeper
  2. Pillow fill type
    • Foam
    • Memory Foam
    • Down
    • Feather/Down
    • Hypoallergenic
    • Gel
  3. Pillow Size
    • Standard
    • Queen
    • King
    • Euro
  4. Maintenance & Cleaning
    • Deep cleaning
    • Wash & dry
    • Protectors
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