The perfect pillow can seriously improve your sleep. A poorly suited pillow, however, can leave you with a crick in your neck, a sweaty face, and a grumpy outlook every morning. As part of our Guide to Non-Toxic Bedding, here are the key factors to consider when choosing a pillow, so you get a better night’s sleep.
Table of Contents
- The best natural materials for pillows
- Chemicals of concern in pillows
- Pillow firmness, height, size, and shape – why it matters
- Pillow certifications
- Allergies and sensitivities
- Pillow adjustability
- Pillow durability, care, and maintenance
- End-of-life and pillow recycling
- Final thoughts on factors to consider when choosing pillows
Unless you’re a sleep-deprived parent like me, you’ll likely spend 7-9 hours cuddling up to your pillow every night. If your pillow has seen better days or just doesn’t meet your needs, don’t delay upgrading. Take it from me that sleep is too precious to waste time fussing with an ill-suited pillow.
How can you find the perfect pillow partner though? Here are some of the most important things to consider when choosing a new pillow:
- Material (for the fill and the cover)
- Use of chemicals during manufacture (is it non-toxic?)
- Loft (height)
- Size and shape
Beyond the pillow itself, you’ll also want to think about
- How you sleep (side, back, front, or a combination)
- If you have any allergies or sensitivities
- Your budget
- If you can adjust the pillow fill
- The ease of pillow care and maintenance
- End-of-life disposal and recycling.
Whew. All those factors are enough to make you want to nap. Let’s buzz through them, so you can make an informed choice for your next pillow.
The best natural materials for pillows
Most pillows are made with polyester and a conventional cotton cover. Do yourself a favor and choose more natural materials that are better for your health and the planet.
The best natural materials for pillows are:
- Rubber (natural latex)
- Organic wool
- Organic cotton
Some pillows contain a blend of these or are dual-sided, so you can flip your pillow for a different feel.
How do you know which pillow material to choose? That mostly depends on your:
- Sleep style
Some silk pillows are also available, but these tend to be very expensive and are not very eco-friendly, silkworm-friendly, or safe, given how silk is sourced and processed. Read more about silk here.
As for the pillow cover, most sustainable and safe pillows have an organic cotton cover to hold in the fill. Some pillows will have a hemp or silk cover though, and some have semi-synthetic bamboo covers. The latter isn’t generally non-toxic or sustainable, with a handful of exceptions. Read more about bamboo here.
What about down pillows?
Down pillows can be a somewhat safe and sustainable choice, but these involve cruelty to animals and are typically more expensive and contain problematic chemicals.
For instance, down and feather pillow makers often use deodorizers to get rid of the naturally gamey (bird) smell. Formaldehyde is also common in down pillows because it is used to sterilize the down and feathers.
Pillows made with recycled down pillows are increasingly available, however, which helps address issues of animal cruelty and some of the environmental impact but can still present problems over the use of harsh chemical sterilizers and cleansers.
This is why it’s essential to look for something like OEKO-Tex, eco-INSTITUT, or MadeSafe certifications when buying down and feather products. These seals offer some assurance that the pillow won’t leach harsh chemicals or off-gas hazardous volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
Read more about the best natural materials for pillows here.
Chemicals of concern in pillows
As with duvets and other types of bedding, most pillows contains at least some chemicals of concern. These chemicals can harm your health, your family’s health, and the environment.
For me, a safe and sustainable pillow is a top priority. After all, this is the bedding item closest to my face. If a pillow is off-gassing VOCs, that could be 7-9 hours of exposure every night.
Common chemicals found in pillows include:
- Chlorine bleach
- Flame retardants
- Ethylene glycol
- Heavy metals.
Most of these chemicals are present in polyester and polyurethane foam pillows, as well as ‘latex’ pillows that are actually made of synthetic rubber. You may also find them, though, in pillows made with natural materials.
For instance, pillows made with conventional cotton can carry traces of pesticides and herbicides as well as heavy metals. Pillows made with down and feathers, whether recycled or not, can contain formaldehyde and deodorizing agents.
Recycled polyester pillows may seem like an eco-friendly solution but these have been found to contain at least 18 toxic substances, including BPA, UV stabilizers, and flame retardants (including those now banned in the U.S.).
To avoid chemicals of concern in pillows, choose natural fiber fills that are certified and guaranteed free of toxic chemicals. Make sure that the pillow maker isn’t greenwashing by using terms like natural and organic without certification to back up the claims.
Pillow firmness, height, size, and shape – why it matters
Once you’ve chosen your pillow materials and know how to avoid hazardous chemicals, it’s onto the finer details such as pillow firmness, height, size, and shape.
The biggest factor to consider when choosing pillow firmness is how you sleep. Most people (around 70 percent of adults) sleep on their side and will do best with a firmer and taller pillow with a soap shape.
I’m a stomach-sleeper and do best with a much flatter pillow that’s soft and flexible. If you’re like me, avoid lofty pillows and molded pillows where you can’t adjust the height.
Back-sleepers tend to do best with a medium-firm pillow of a medium-height. Good choices are shredded latex and kapok, or buckwheat.
Find out more about the best pillows for different sleep positions here.
Pillows come in standard sizes to fit standard mattress sizes. The best pillow for you may not be the one that matches your mattress size, though. Why? Because how you sleep, and the fill and design of your pillow affects how you use it. If your pillow is too big or too small, you might not be able to use it quite as you’d like.
In addition, some companies measure their pillows differently, especially if they have a gusset. This can be confusing, so check out our in-depth description of pillow sizes here if you’ve never heard of a pillow gusset.
Find out when it’s best to size up or down for pillows and the ins and outs of gussets and other pillow terminology here.
Certifications are extra important for pillows because there’s so much potential for a pillow to contain synthetic materials, harsh chemicals, and to be greenwashed.
If a pillow is being sold as ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ but doesn’t have any credible certification, move onto another company. These terms are often used to make a synthetic product sound better than it is and to command a higher price.
Find out more about the most important green certifications for pillows here.
Allergies and sensitivities
Natural and organic pillows are typically a great choice for anyone with allergies to dust mites because the natural materials usually offer unfavorable conditions for these critters.
Unlike polyester pillows, kapok, wool, cotton, hemp, and latex are all breathable and support thermoregulation. This means they can absorb and disperse heat and moisture, which prevents the kind of humidity and retained heat dust mites thrive on.
If you have a specific allergy to latex, wool, down or feathers, it’s definitely best to just avoid these materials for pillows. That said, because these types of stuffing are so useful and comfortable, you’ll want to be sure the material itself is the cause of the allergy symptoms. Often, symptoms arise because of toxic chemicals, such as formaldehyde, used to manufacture pillows and other bedding, not because of an actual allergy to, say, wool.
If you’re looking for a down or feather pillow, check for the NOMITE seal or at least a tight weave and high thread count case. Or, if you already have a down or feather pillow, consider getting a dust mite proof pillow protector, not because down or feathers harbor mites at higher rates but because these covers prevent down and feathers from poking out of the pillow.
One additional factor you’ll want to consider when choosing a pillow is its capacity for adjustment. Some pillows have a zipper closure that lets you remove or add fill to adjust the height and firmness of the pillow.
Adjustable pillows usually have fill such as:
- Shredded latex
- Buckwheat or millet
You may find some pillows with a blend of different fills, such as kapok and shredded latex. I’m a huge fan of this kind of pillow, as well as buckwheat pillows.
My buckwheat pillow is easy to unzip, which means I can rinse off and then air-dry the buckwheat groats. At least once a year I air out the buckwheat on a tray in the sun for a few hours while I wash and dry the pillow cover. I haven’t yet had to rinse the groats but will do so if they seem especially dusty.
As for my kapok and latex pillow, I took out about a third of the fill when it first arrived and stored the excess safely in the bag that came with the pillow. This is because, as a stomach-sleeper, I much prefer a lower profile and squishier pillow instead of a firm, high pillow.
If you’re a side-sleeper, you’ll probably want to keep the pillow stuffing as is. You may even consider adding stuffing by purchasing an extra bag alongside your pillow (if the company offers this option and doesn’t include extra stuffing as standard).
Restoring and refreshing pillow stuffing
Another great thing about adjustable pillows is that you can refresh the stuffing if necessary. This could be because you’ve had the pillow for many years and the fill has lost some of its loft or just seems stale.
You might also accidentally spill something on your pillow and find that some of the stuffing got wet. If you quickly remove that stuffing, you may be able to clean it and dry it well enough for reuse. If not, you should be able to purchase additional stuffing to restore the height and firmness (or add some back from your stash if you removed some earlier).
Pillow durability, care, and maintenance
The durability of a pillow depends on the quality of the fill and cover materials, the design, and the craftsmanship, as well as how you use it and care for it.
Choosing quality materials and a pillow made by a company with a good reputation will get your most of the way there. After that, you’ll want to be sure to treat your pillow well. Depending on the type of pillow materials and its design, this means avowing doing the following to your pillow:
- Cramming it into a pillowcase that’s too small
- Folding it up for travel
- Exposing it to too much heat, direct sun, or wet conditions
- Washing it when it shouldn’t be washed.
Most pillows made with natural materials aren’t machine washable. There are some exceptions, but your best approach is to assume you can’t wash your pillow and instead protect it from spills and stains in the first place. This can mean using a tightly woven pillow protector or even a waterproof or water-resistant wool pillow cover underneath your pillowcase.
Again, I strongly recommend pillows that you can open up to air out, clean, and refresh the fill.
If you do try to wash your pillow, do your best to ensure the fill is fully dry when you put it back in the case. Otherwise, the damp fill will be a breeding ground for dust mites and can quickly get musty, moldy, or mildewy, smell bad and be unpleasant for sleep.
End-of-life and pillow recycling
Pillows can last for decades with proper care, and some can be endlessly refreshed with new stuffing. That said, pillows can and do reach the end of their useful life as bed pillows.
Here are some creative ways to repurpose old pillows and more eco-friendly ways to dispose of pillows once you’re really really really done with them.
Final thoughts on factors to consider when choosing pillows
My least favorite kind of pillow is a thick memory foam monstrosity that traps heat, makes me sweat, and makes it hard to move around, all while off-gassing nasty chemicals and putting a crick in my neck.
Thankfully, I have little cause to ever sleep with such a pillow.
My favorite kind of pillow is one made with shredded latex and kapok, followed closely by my buckwheat pillow. Both are fantastic for helping me regulate my temperature and both let me scrunch the pillow and adjust my position throughout the night.
While I love to sleep on my stomach, co-sleeping with a toddler often means I have to switch to side-sleeping. For proper support of my neck and head, I need to be able to squash or compress my pillow to give it more height. This kind of adjustment isn’t possible with a molded latex pillow (or memory foam) pillow, nor with many hemp pillows which tend to be quite stiff.
What I’m trying to get across, then, is that your best choice of pillow is going to be one that meets your specific sleep needs. Everyone sleeps a little bit differently, and how you sleep can change throughout your life.
Before buying a new pillow, think about all the factors above and how you sleep currently and have slept best in the past. That way, you can make a much better choice for your next pillow, which will hopefully last for years to come.