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How to choose the right pillow

If you’re still waking up with some aches and pains or a foggy head after upgrading your mattress, there’s one area you might have missed — your pillow. Choosing the right pillow is just as important as your mattress, and a few of the same tips for selecting a mattress apply to your pillow, as well.

We’ve got everything you need to discover the best pillow for you. Let’s go over everything from materials and thickness to choosing a pillow that’s specific to an issue you may have. Here’s what you need to know.

Why does your pillow matter?

A good pillow can work with your mattress to keep your spine aligned and your posture correct, say WebMD. It also provides enough air circulation that you’re less likely to toss and turn, increasing your chances of wrenching a muscle during the night.
Pillows don’t last nearly as long as mattresses do, so if you’ve had your pillow for more than three years, it’s time to let it go, says NBCNews. If you’ve had a cheap pillow for more than 18 months or so, you’re way past due for a new one.

Type of fill

Memory foam pillows might be all the rage, but they aren’t the only option out there — far from it. Here are some of the most-common materials to consider.

Memory foam

Let’s get right to this one, since it’s having a bit of a heyday. Memory foam is designed to conform to your head and neck, providing easy positioning. Memory foam is naturally hypoallergenic — resisting mold and mildew growth as well as other types of pests — but it can have a smell at first.

The type of material can cause something called ‘off-gassing,’ –Molekule Science explains ‘off-gassing’– in which the pillow releases chemicals that might cause allergic reactions. If you’re worried about this, look for pillows that are CertiPur-US certified.

Memory foam is known for holding in body heat, so choose one that has good air circulation. Options like gel-infused memory foams can also help pull heat and moisture away from your head. They’re also heavier and aren’t designed to tuck into your shoulder.


Natural latex doesn’t have the same problems with off-gassing that memory foam does, but they are going to be a bit more expensive. They’re typically cooler, however, and offer the same antimicrobial properties as memory foam.

Natural latex is made through a complex process, adding to the cost, but it does provide users with an ultra-conforming material, explains MadeHow. Latex is still a heavyweight pillow and isn’t designed to be tucked into your shoulder. Instead, it lays flat and molds to your shape as you move around.


Polyester fills are on the more affordable side and provide a lightweight, ultra-fluffy pillow for general use. They’re what you see in most big box stores and can provide general-purpose support for those of you on a tighter budget.

They don’t last nearly as long as memory foam or latex fills, however, so you might find yourself replacing your pillow a lot more often. Polyfill is pretty cooling and often provides good air circulation. Plus, it’s perfect for those of you who like to tuck a pillow underneath your neck and head.


Down pillows used to be the end-all of pillow comfort, but they’re mostly known for allergies and feathers sticking out of the material. Down pillows do provide good air circulation and are the most moldable of all pillows as long as you get one with multiple layers to secure those feathers.

Down alternatives behave a lot like down but don’t produce the same types of allergies that real down does. Both types are on the expensive side but could be a good idea for those who don’t need a full fill.

Other materials

Cotton is another type of material that behaves a lot like polyester fill, but these pillows do tend to be a little flatter than most pillows. However, they’re suitable for chemical sensitivities if you can find organic cotton fill.

Wool is another less-familiar material, but if you suffer for temperature variations during the night, it’s a good option. It quickly wicks away heat and sweat from your head, much like your favorite hiking socks. These pillows are quite firm.

Sleep position

Your sleep position also affects your pillow type.

  • Stomach sleepers – Look for a low fill pillow that conforms to your neck and head without elevation, says Good Housekeeping. A down (or down alternative) pillow is good for this, as is a thin memory foam pillow. Wool may be too firm.
  • Side Sleepers – Look for a thick fill pillow such as memory foam or latex. These materials prevent your head from collapsing into your shoulder and provide space in the neck area to keep your spine aligned. They also hold their shape throughout the night.
  • Back sleepers – Medium fill and firm pillows work well here. If you have back issues or you snore, you need a pillow that prevents airway blockage. Polyfill or memory foam/latex is usually appropriate, as is the firmness of wool.
  • Combination sleepers– Medium fill is also good here, and a moldable pillow works well for position changes. Memory foam can also conform comfortably to your body no matter what position.

Mattress type

Often, a rule of thumb is to go opposite with your pillow to your mattress type. If you use a firm mattress, you may need a softer pillow to allow for more conformity with your body position and type. If you have a softer mattress, a firm pillow can prevent your head from sinking into the mattress too far. You always want to keep your spine aligned.

Choosing a new pillow

The biggest question is your sleep position. Use your typical position to narrow down your pillow materials and thicknesses, and you’re well on your way to having the perfect pillow. Once you’ve got the right positioning, you may experience some relief from minor aches and pains and could be on your way to the best night of sleep of your life.

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Deb Goncalves
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Deb's work has appeared on Moms, Babygaga, and WorldAtlas. When she's not working (that's hard to say about a Capricorn), she…
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