There are plenty of good options available for natural, eco-friendly pillows. Natural fibers and fabrics don’t off-gas, have a lower carbon footprint (typically) than synthetic pillows, and are more easily recycled, upcycled, or able to break down naturally.
Some of the most popular materials used for eco-friendly pillows include:
- Buckwheat (and millet)
- Rubber (natural latex)
- Organic wool
- Organic cotton
In recent years, kapok pillows have become increasingly popular, and for good reason. And, while buckwheat pillows were once seen as something only the most committed of eco-warriors would own, these pillows are now beloved by a wide spectrum of people. Let’s look at these materials in turn.
See also: The best organic & non-toxic mattresses
Pros and Cons of Kapok Pillows
If you haven’t yet heard of kapok, you’re in for a treat. This silky fiber is harvested from the seed pods of tropical trees called Ceiba pentandra. Also known as Java cotton, Kava kapok, silk-cotton, Samauma, or ceiba, kapok It is significantly lighter than cotton, feels very similar to down, and is wonderfully sustainable.
In the right conditions, the kapok tree can grow up to 13 feet in a year, and some trees reach over 160 feet high, forming the canopy of a rainforest. Kapok fibers are harvested from seed pods after they fall once the rainy season is finished. This means that the trees do not need to be chopped down or harmed in any way to get the fibers.
Kapok cultivation does not require pesticides and may help maintain important eco systems while providing good jobs for workers in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, northern South America, and tropical west Africa.
Kapok pillows are excellent for back sleepers as they offer minimal resistance and are very soft, fluffy, and luxurious. This makes kapok a natural alternative to down. Kapok is also hypoallergenic, and resistant to mold, and dries quickly.
To care for a kapok pillow, machine wash on a gentle cycle. Kapok pillows can also be dried on a cool cycle in the dryer. Add a tennis ball or two to help fluff the pillow.
Kapok pillows average around $50 and will last you for decades if well cared for. I would highly recommend the Avocado Natural Green Pillow (View Price on Avocado) and Rawganique’s Kapok Pillow (View Price on Rawganique).
Pros and Cons of Buckwheat Pillows
Buckwheat pillows are filled with buckwheat hulls, which feel very different to standard pillow stuffing. The benefits of buckwheat pillows will quickly help you overcome any initial reservations if you’re used to fluffy synthetic pillows, however. Buckwheat pillows offer excellent air circulation, help to keep your head cool (which is better for sleep), and offer flexibility in terms of pillow thickness (just add or remove fill as desired!). They’re proving a big hit with folks with neck and back problems as they provide molded support.
Buckwheat hulls are a by-product of milling and the hulls are naturally pesticide-free, hypoallergenic, and sustainable. These hulls do not flatten or hide dust mites, meaning that these pillows can last a decade or more and are excellent for allergy sufferers.
Because these pillows are filled with hulls, there can be a little ‘crunchiness’ to them. If you think you’ll find this distracting, consider buying a pillow with an organic wool or cotton outer layer to muffle the sound. Some pillows feature a buckwheat side and a millet side to combine stability and support with dense softness and less ‘crunch’.
Buckwheat pillows range in price from around $50 for a small travel pillow to around $100 for a luxury padded pillow. Buckwheat pillows are easy to care for as you simply empty the hulls out onto a large tray and set the tray in the sun to air out the hulls while you machine-wash the pillow case. Some folks like to rinse the hulls in cold water and lay them out to dry, but this isn’t necessary unless something was spilled onto the pillow.
Pros and Cons of Millet Pillows
Millet pillows are similar to buckwheat, only the hulls are smaller and circular. This means that millet pillows tend to be a little smoother, softer, and less noisy than buckwheat pillows. Some pillows use a combination of the two hulls, with one side buckwheat and one millet.
Millet pillows are an excellent option for side and stomach sleepers and average $70 in price.
As with buckwheat, to care for a millet pillow, empty the hulls onto a cookie sheet or tray to air out while you wash the pillow case.
Pros and Cons of Latex (Natural Rubber) Pillows
Latex (natural rubber) is a renewable and biodegradable resource now use to make pillows. Rubber trees can provide rubber serum for up to 30 years and the resulting latex is firm, bouncy, and will eventually biodegrade without releasing toxins into the environment.
Latex pillows are a great option for side and stomach sleepers. Shredded or molded latex is like chemical-free foam, but firmer, and can help keep the neck and spine in alignment. Many chiropractors and other physicians recommend latex pillows for patients with back pain and related symptoms. Indeed, in one trial, latex pillows performed better than memory foam, contour memory foam, polyester, and feather pillows (feather pillows performed the worst) in relation to headache and shoulder or arm pain (R).
Latex is particularly good if you’re a warm sleeper, as the material is porous and disperses heat. Latex is naturally antimicrobial, resists mildew, and doesn’t harbor dust mites, so it’s good for people with asthma or non-latex allergies. It is also easy to care for. Simply hand wash the latex in warm soapy water, dab dry with a towel and then let it air dry. Pillow cases can be washed alongside other laundry as needed.
Prices for latex pillows range from around $60-$100, making them a bit more expensive than some other natural pillows. The cost usually depends on certifications, however, such as the GOLS – the Global Organic Latex Standard, and FairRubber, which indicate that the product is made using certified organic rubber sourced in a sustainable way by workers who are well treated and properly paid.
Latex pillows may have a rubbery smell at first, so it’s best to air them out for a few days before sleeping on them.
It’s also worth noting that there are two main types of rubber available: Dunlop and Talalay.
Talalay is so-called because of Joseph Talalay, who invented the Talalay production process. The latex mixture is filled with air, injected in a mold and expanded through a vacuum before being flash frozen at -30°C (-(22°F). This process enables the round, open cells to retain their shape and creates a smoother, more consistent rubber than Dunlop, which tends to be denser at the bottom than the top. Talalay latex pillows are baked or “vulcanized” at 115°C (235°F) before being washed, dried and tested for quality control.
Pros and Cons of Organic Wool Pillows
Wool naturally wicks moisture away from your skin, so wool pillows are excellent for maintaining a constant temperature. A fluffy, breathable, organic wool pillow will help you stay cool on summer nights while keeping you warm and cozy in winter.
Wool is also naturally resistant to mold and mildew, has natural flame-retardant and antimicrobial qualities, and is resistant to dust mites, making it a great option for allergy sufferers.
Wool is a little firmer than kapok and some other materials used to make pillows, so it’s best suited to side sleepers. It can also feel quite flat and dense and doesn’t conform to your head or body as other pillows might. This means you might need to move around quite a bit to get comfortable. Some wool pillows have a zipper that allows you to remove or add filling as needed. You might also want to consider a pillow made with natural latex covered with wool; the combination provides better cushioning alongside the benefits of wool. The resilience, softness, and ability of wool to maintain loft depends a lot on how the wool is processed, including techniques called carding and garneting. Companies like Rawganique use these traditional techniques to create higher quality wool pillows that stand the test of time, making their products much more eco-friendly and cost effective in the long-run (View Price on Rawganique).
Most wool is from sheep, but some is from goats, alpacas, or other animals. To care for an organic wool pillow, spot clean with a dilute vinegar solution and then air the pillow outside in the sun or on a sunny window ledge indoors. These pillows can be fluffed in the dryer with tennis balls.
The average price for an organic wool pillow is around $70. If you see a cheaper wool pillow, check to see if it is organic by looking for the USDA Certified Organic label or, ideally, GOTS certification. To really up your eco game, look for organic wool pillows that carry the European kfB certificate awarded to products made with wool sourced with minimal animal exploitation. In the US, wool pillows marked with the PureGrow™ label use wool from Californian farms that practice sustainable sheep ranching.
Also, look for wool that is processed without the use of any dyes or bleaches. Bleached wool contains toxic compounds including dioxins. Conventional processes used to treat wool include: Carbonizing, a process which uses carbonic acid to dissolve chaff; Shrink proofing; Chemical scale removal; and moth proofing, all of which can involve harsh chemicals that result in contamination and off-gassing.
Pros and Cons of Hemp Pillows
Hemp is a wonderfully sustainable, renewable resource with myriad applications across multiple industries. Hemp pillows may be 100 percent hemp, inside and out, or might have a hemp filling and cotton cover or a hemp cover and other type of filling. A pillow filled with hemp will be less fluffy and low-loft and will also flatten over time. As such, pillows made with a mixture of hemp and other stuffing may be preferable.
Top Tip – “Nonallergenic pillows are not a substitute for covering them with allergy-proof encasements. Foam pillows are not less prone to dust mite allergens than are feather pillows.” (R)
Pros and Cons of Organic Cotton Pillows
Conventionally grown cotton is resource-hungry and involves the use of pesticides and other chemicals that damage the environment and are bad for human health. Organic cotton is grown and processed without pesticides, formaldehyde, or other harmful chemicals and is very soft and breathable, meaning it can help you stay cool while you sleep.
Many other eco-friendly pillows have organic cotton covers, but some pillows are entirely made with organic cotton. These pillows tend to be heavier and firmer and can become flat over time. The cotton batting in cotton pillow doesn’t cradle your head and conform to your shape as with buckwheat or kapok. Instead, it provides a soft, but firm, sleep surface, making it an excellent option for stomach sleepers looking for a flatter pillow.
Because cotton shrinks when washed in warm or hot water, it is best to wash on a cold gentle cycle and air dry, or simply spot clean with dilute vinegar solution. The average price for an organic cotton pillow is around $45. If you think a cotton pillow might be for you, I recommend the Organic Cotton Bed Pillow from Rawganique (View Price on Rawganique).
And, if you don’t know which type of pillow or pillow height would be best for your particular sleeping habits, take a minute and learn how to find the perfect pillow for however you sleep.