You can splurge on the softest bed sheets or the most-hyped sleeping products, but if you skimp on the best bed pillows, you’ll feel it in the morning. A full night’s sleep goes hand in hand with proper sleeping posture, and the secret to that lies in your pillow. Like most things out there, there’s no such thing as a “universal best pillow,” so we talked to the experts about how to find the right pillow for all types of sleepers.
Square one is understanding how your mattress affects the kind of pillow you choose. “You can have a comfortable mattress, but if your pillow isn’t a good fit for you, then your sleep quality will be compromised,” says Terry Cralle, R.N., and certified clinical sleep educator. “A mattress that is plusher on top may affect the height of the pillow that is the most comfortable for you,” she says. Meaning a soft pillow may be better for a firm mattress while a medium-to-hard one could be better for a soft mattress to keep your head and neck in perfect alignment.
Does it matter how you sleep?
Yes—and here comes the big but—remember that we toss and turn throughout the night, so you want to choose a pillow that works for you in all of your sleeping positions. Michael Breus, Ph.D., a Los Angeles clinical psychologist and sleep specialist, tells us side sleepers may need a firmer, thicker pillow than stomach sleepers, who can get away with a soft pillow—or not using one at all.” As far as thickness goes, he recommends choosing one that’s the same distance between your ear and outside shoulder, which allows your nose to be in line with the middle of your chest. Back sleepers, on the other hand, need a flatter pillow to keep their head and neck in alignment. A soft pillow works, “but if you have neck pain and sleep on your back, look for a pillow that provides additional support, while maintaining the softness that’s comfortable for you,” he says.
How long does a bed pillow last?
“If you’re sleeping on a worn-out pillow, scrunching and folding it up every night to get comfortable, that’s a red flag that it’s time to get a new pillow,” says Breus. Usually, this means replacing it every 18 months. “If you’re using [a] pillow that’s five or six years old, you’re not getting the support you need—and you’re not sleeping as comfortably as you could,” he says. Can’t tell whether your pillow needs a refresh? Check for yellow sweat stains, rips, and funky smells, which are all signs that your pillow (and pillowcase) have reached the end.
What fill should you pick?
If you like the slow, sinking feeling of a Four Seasons hotel pillow, a down pillow may be for you. Some people have allergic reactions to the goose or duck fibers, so if that’s the case, you can opt for a down alternative pillow or one made from wool or cotton, which are both naturally hypoallergenic materials (that also resist dust mites). Like puffer coats, real down pillows are more expensive than their synthetic and polyester counterparts. “[Synthetic and polyester fill pillows] will flatten with time, and typically need replacing more frequently than other types of pillows,” Breus says.
Two other materials you may be familiar with are latex and memory foam. Latex pillows are firmer than down, and they tend to hold their shape better over time. (A solid choice if you need extra head and neck support.) Memory foam is pretty popular too since it’s all about conforming to your individual shape. However, it retains heat (and can be the reason you keep waking up with crazy, sweaty bed head).
Now that you know a Goldilocks pillow doesn’t exist, you can begin your journey to the perfect night’s sleep. If you’re looking for a place to start shopping, here are the 17 best bed pillows of 2021.