A quality pillow is key to any good sleep set-up. With so many options available, though, it’s hard to know which are the best natural materials for pillows. As part of our Guide to Non-Toxic Bedding, I break down the pros and cons of kapok pillows and pillows made with buckwheat, latex, cotton, and other natural fibers and fills.
Table of Contents
- The Best Natural Materials for Pillows
- Kapok Pillows – Pros and Cons
- Buckwheat and Millet Pillows – Pros and Cons
- Organic Latex Pillows – Pros and Cons
- Organic Wool Pillows – Pros and Cons
- Organic Cotton Pillows – Pros and Cons
- Hemp Pillows – Pros and Cons
- Final Thoughts on the Best Natural Materials for Pillows
The Best Natural Materials for Pillows
Most conventional pillows are made with polyester fill and a generic cotton cover. These are terrible for the environment and terrible for sleep. They also need replacing every 6-24 months!
Give yourself (and the planet) a break with a pillow made from one or more of the following:
- Rubber (natural latex)
- Organic wool
- Organic cotton
How do you know which pillow material to choose? That mostly depends on how you like to sleep, your budget, and your capacity for pillow care and maintenance (which we dig into in greater detail here for every material below!).
Kapok Pillows – Pros and Cons
We dig more into the benefits and disadvantages of kapok here. For now, though, here’s a quick overview of the pros and cons of kapok as a natural material for pillows:
|Lighter than cotton||Not grown in the U.S.|
|Similar softness to down||Can cost more than other pillows|
|Hypoallergenic||Harder to find|
|Resistant to mold||Too soft for most side-sleepers|
|Machine washable||Highly oxygen-absorbent, which may make it unsuitable for anyone with respiratory difficulties and for young children|
|Durable (can last 20 years or more!)||Needs regular fluffing to restore loft|
|Sustainably grown and harvested|
|Thermally insulating and water-repellent|
|Bouncy and responsive|
Buckwheat and Millet Pillows – Pros and Cons
Buckwheat and millet are less common pillow materials but worth exploring, especially if more conventional pillows aren’t working for you.
Here’s a quick overview of the pros and cons of buckwheat and millet pillows. Head here for an in-depth look at this pillow material, its pros, cons, affordability, and overall sustainability.
|Conform to your head and neck for molded support||Don’t feel fluffy|
|Excellent air circulation||Can be a little noisy and crunchy|
|Helps you stay cool||Can feel too firm for stomach-sleepers|
|Easy to care for||Can be expensive|
|Easy to adjust fill (and replace fill!)|
|Great for back- and side-sleepers|
|Hypoallergenic and don’t hide dust mites|
Organic Latex Pillows – Pros and Cons
Organic latex is increasingly popular as a pillow material. There are generally two types of latex pillows: molded and shredded. We break down the benefits and drawbacks of both kinds of latex pillows here.
And here’s a quick overview of the pros and cons of latex pillows, for easy comparison with other natural pillow materials:
|Renewable, biodegradable material||Thermoregulating|
|Porous, breathable, and disperses heat well||Moisture-wicking and moisture resistant|
|Doesn’t harbor dust mites||Naturally flame-resistant|
|Resists mildew and is naturally antimicrobial||Resistant to mold, mildew, and dust mites|
|Relatively easy to care for||Antimicrobial|
|Adjustable fill (shredded latex)||Durable|
|Springy and supportive|
|Great for back pain and neck pain!|
Organic Wool Pillows – Pros and Cons
Wool is a traditional pillow material but isn’t for everyone. Check out the pros and cons of wool pillows below, and head here for a more in-depth look at wool pillows.
|Thermoregulating||Too firm for some sleepers|
|Moisture-wicking and moisture resistant||Loses loft and flattens quickly|
|Naturally flame-resistant||Can be expensive, especially if well certified|
|Resistant to mold, mildew, and dust mites||Not vegan|
|Antimicrobial||May be made using toxic chemical processes|
Organic Cotton Pillows – Pros and Cons
We don’t recommend conventional cotton for pillows, but organic cotton is definitely worth considering, especially if you’re fond of a firmer style of pillow.
We take a closer look at the benefits and downsides of organic cotton pillows here. For now, though, here’s a quick overview of the pros and cons of organic cotton pillows.
|Soft but firm feel||Too firm and flat for most sleep styles|
|Can be less expensive than latex, buckwheat, wool, and other options||Hard to clean and dry|
|Moisture-wicking||Heavy and prone to flattening|
|Can be breathable depending on weave and fill||Hard to find|
|Grown and made in the U.S. (in some cases)||Organic cotton certification is riddled with fraud|
|Sustainable, biodegradable material|
Hemp Pillows – Pros and Cons
Chances are that you’ve never slept on a hemp pillow and never will. This material is a top choice for sheets (see our top picks for hemp sheets here), and is also great for other home textiles, but it’s rather firm as a pillow fill.
Here’s a quick summary of the pros and cons of hemp pillows. For a more in-depth look at hemp pillow benefits and drawbacks, price, and sustainability, head here.
|Sustainable, biodegradable material||Hard to find|
|Moisture-wicking||Very firm, not fluffy|
|Thermoregulating||Heavy and dense|
|Grown and made in the U.S.||Can have a natural hemp smell, especially if wet|
|Hemp farming doesn’t require pesticides, fertilizers, or much water||Harder to clean|
|Firm and supportive enough for side-sleepers|
Final Thoughts on the Best Natural Materials for Pillows
The perfect pillow for you will depend on a whole slew of factors. The softness of your mattress, how you sleep, and your budget and existing bedding can all influence your choice of pillow.
Note, too, that what has worked for you in the past might not work anymore, especially if you’ve changed your sleep position or mattress, or if you’ve developed back or neck problems.
If you’re looking to replace an old pillow, or are sick of sleeping on pillows that don’t suit your sleep style, it pays to spend a bit of time thinking about pillow materials. Still stuck? Check out our top choices for pillows to see if there’s one that sounds a good fit for your sleep needs.
Even if a pillow is made with natural materials that are resistant to water, bed bugs, dust mites, and other pests, it’s still a good idea to protect them with a tightly woven pillow encasement. This means you don’t have to worry about cleaning the entire pillow and can instead just wash the cover and pillowcase to reduce allergens.
Some polyfoam pillow makers boast that memory foam is less prone to dust mites than down or feathers. This isn’t true. The best way to minimize dust mite allergen exposure is to cover pillows and your mattress with allergy-proof encasements and to wash other bedding regularly (once a week). Regular vacuuming with a HEPA filter vacuum and the use of a HEPA air filter in the bedroom can also help, as can keeping household humidity levels low.
PLA is short for polylactic acid, which is a high-performance polyester made from starchy plants rather than petroleum. PLA is very versatile and is often used in fabrics and as stuffing for comforters, pillows, mattresses, and even children’s toys. You’ll also find PLA in food packaging and biomedical supplies.
PLA isn’t present in many pillows, but some companies have begun using it in place of polyester. PLA is soft and resilient, more so than conventional polyester, and resists body impressions, meaning it helps support proper spinal alignment when used in pillows.
So far, there’s no source of organic certified PLA. Instead, companies such as Naturepedic use PLA made from non-GMO sugarcane. This PLA doesn’t off-gas, the pillows are machine washable, and they’re also lighter and softer than cotton and more affordable than kapok.
The trouble with PLA is that while its manufacture doesn’t require any toxic chemicals, the resulting bioplastic is not biodegradable or easy to recycle. In fact, PLA that enters the recycling stream can compromise recycling of other plastics because it has a lower melting point.
Researchers have found that PLA breaks down into microplastics quite quickly (faster than other plastics), especially in water, but takes a lot longer than natural fibers to actually biodegrade. This can pose significant risks to aquatic life and birds.
All in all, we don’t recommend PLA pillows. If you do get a PLA pillow, use a microplastic filter if you wash it in the machine, try to repurpose the pillow filling if the pillow no longer suits you, and take care to dispose of it carefully at end of life.