The Quest for the Perfect Pillow

Comfort is a vital part of good sleep hygiene, which means having the right lighting, the right temperature, the right mattress1—and the right pillow. There are so many pillows to choose from, with dozens of different material2 and style3 combinations available. Here’s a quick guide to finding one that’s right for you.

If you’re a snorer

Snoring is caused by a partial obstruction of the airway, causing a vibration in your throat as air passes through. Pillows are not a treatment for snoring or more serious sleep disorders, but they can help by improving your sleep position. A wedge pillow, for example, may reduce snoring by raising your head to keep the tongue from relaxing toward the back of the throat. Another option is an orthopedic pillow that helps precisely align the head, neck and spine. You can find a few examples of anti-snoring pillows here.4

If you have allergies

Allergies and other sinus problems can make it hard to sleep, and the problem is compounded when your pillow collects dust or other allergens. You can buy pillow covers5 that completely encase the pillow, providing a barrier against allergens. (Make sure the label specifies that the casing works as a barrier against dust mites, which are microscopic.) Another option is a hypoallergenic pillow,6 made of allergen-resistant materials or with a built-in cover that protects it from allergens. Also, consider washing your pillow7 every four to six months if it’s made of washable materials.

If you have neck or back pain

If you sometimes wake up with a sore neck or back, the problem might be your pillow. The primary job of a pillow is to keep the head and neck in alignment with the spine8 all night. If you know which position you spend most of your time in, buy a pillow designed for that position. If you change positions frequently through the night, a shredded latex pillow9 that you can scrunch and mold to different comfortable heights might be a good choice. 

If you’re a side-sleeper

Sleeping on your side has many benefits,10 including reduced snoring and better gut health. For some people, though, it can cause shoulder and neck pain. This is easy to alleviate with a pillow that holds your head up high enough to align with your spine—which might be higher than you think. Here are several good choices11 for side sleepers.

If you’re a back-sleeper

Back-sleeping is often recommended for dealing with pain because it’s easy to keep your spine aligned. It also has some downsides12: it might cause you to snore more, or aggravate acid reflux. A wedge pillow can help with both of those conditions. Otherwise, the best pillow for a back-sleeper is simply the one that keeps your neck in line with your spine.

If you’re a stomach-sleeper

Sleeping on your stomach can be rough on your neck and back,13 and many doctors don’t recommend it. If you prefer sleeping in that position, though, a very thin pillow, or no pillow at all, will keep your spine in better alignment. Another option is to place a pillow under your pelvis instead of your head to take some pressure off your spine.

If your pillow is old

The lifespan14 of a pillow is a lot shorter than most people think: only about a year or two, maybe longer if it’s washed regularly. If your pillow has started to feel flat or lumpy, seems dirty or smelly, or no longer holds its shape, it’s time to throw it away and get a new one. 

As you navigate all the options, think about your specific needs, try as many options as you can and make your final decision based on comfort. That’s the best way to help ensure a good night’s sleep.

Notes:

  1. “Clean Sleep Starts with a Strong Foundation: Your Mattress,” SoClean blog, June 2020. https://www.soclean.com/sleep-talk/2020/06/22/clean-sleep-starts-with-a-strong-foundation-your-mattress
  2. “Ultimate Guide to Pillow Materials,” Pillow Picker. https://pillowpicker.com/tips/ultimate-guide-to-pillow-materials/
  3. “Do Specialty Pillows Really Work?” by Nicole Sforza, Consumer Reports, August 2018. https://www.consumerreports.org/pillows/do-specialty-pillows-really-work/
  4. “Anti Snoring Pillows,” American Sleep Association. https://www.sleepassociation.org/sleep-products/anti-snoring-pillows/
  5. “The 6 Best Pillowcases and Protectors for People With Allergies,” by Susan Brickell, Health, April 2018. https://www.health.com/condition/allergy/best-pillowcases-allergies
  6. 8 Top-Rated Hypoallergenic Pillows That Will Give You a Better Night’s Sleep This Spring,” by Madison Alcedo, Health, January 2020. https://www.health.com/allergy/hypoallergenic-pillows
  7. “How to Wash a Pillow to Keep It Smelling Fresh,” Consumer Reports, November 2019. https://www.consumerreports.org/pillows/how-to-wash-a-pillow/
  8. “7 of the best pillows for neck pain,” Medical News Today. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/best-pilllows-for-neck-pain#pillows-for-neck-pain
  9. “Best Latex Pillow,” by Logan Block, Sleepopolis, April 2020. https://sleepopolis.com/best-pillows/best-latex-pillow/
  10. “How to Sleep on Your Side Without Waking Up with a Sore Back or Neck,” Healthline, September 2019. https://www.healthline.com/health/side-sleeper
  11. “The 7 Best Pillows For Side Sleepers,” Forbes, April 2020. https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbes-personal-shopper/2020/04/22/the-best-pillows-for-side-sleepers/#7bbffec8735f
  12. “How Does Supine Position Affect Health?” Healthline, April 2019. https://www.healthline.com/health/supine-position
  13. “Is It Bad to Sleep on Your Stomach?” Healthline, September 2018. https://www.healthline.com/health/is-it-bad-to-sleep-on-your-stomach
  14. “When Should You Replace Your Pillow?” National Sleep Foundation. https://www.sleep.org/articles/replace-pillow/