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7 Types of Pillow for Sleeping

7 Types of Pillow for Sleeping

Written By
Bedding Guides
Read Time: 8 minutes

When it comes to pillows, you have a lot of options. You could go for down, latex, polyfill, and more. But are all these options equal? Does your sleep style have anything to do with your pillow needs? And why are some pillows really long or short and oddly shaped?

Below, we’ll answer these questions and more. We’ll also talk about a few different pillow fills, their advantages and drawbacks, and how to find the right pillow for you.

1. Cotton Pillows

Cotton is a great cooling fill material for pillows. It’s more breathable than most other fill types, and if you combine it with a cotton fabric cover, it can make for one cool night’s sleep. Cotton is also nice and firm for those who don’t like a pillow that compresses too much. If you want a natural-fiber pillow that isn’t latex foam or feathers, cotton is a good alternative.

However, cotton-filled pillows aren’t as easy to find as other pillow types. Advancements in the manufacturing of more cost-effective synthetic fills have somewhat replaced cotton as a fill material. Don’t let that stop you though, there are still plenty of quality cotton pillows out there.

2. Down Pillows

Down is the layer of soft feathers that keeps ducks and geese warm. It also makes a great pillow. Down pillows are soft, fluffy, and highly compressive. If you love the feel of a pillow that squishes when you squeeze it, down is for you.

On the flip side, down is not supportive, and it naturally retains heat, so if you’re a hot sleeper, you might not like this fill material. Some people also don’t like how down is produced, but cruelty-free down is expensive and tough to find.

3. Feather Pillows

Like down pillows, feather pillows are made with goose and/or duck feathers, but the difference is that feather pillows are made with the soft feathers from the birds’ backs and wings, so the terms “feather” and “down” pillow are not interchangeable.

Feather pillows are more supportive and springy than down pillows, and they’re also a bit cooler. However, down pillows don’t contain quills, and feather pillows do. Occasionally, a quill might poke through the pillowcase and stick you as you sleep. If this bothers you, down might be a better alternative.

4. Latex Foam Pillows

Natural latex—made from rubber tree sap—is a great option if you want a supportive, cooling, bouncy foam pillow. Latex is also very durable, meaning it outlasts most other pillow types.

Natural latex (especially organic natural latex) is also one of the most non-toxic and low-ingredient pillow fills you can get. Organic latex pillows are low-ingredient because they’re pretty much just organic latex with minimal processing chemicals and additives.

On the other hand, one of the biggest issues with latex is its weight. If you like to move or flip your pillow a lot while you lie in bed, heavy latex might annoy you. Latex is also not as conforming as memory foam, so if you like a pillow that contours to your shape, you might prefer memory foam over latex.

5. Memory Foam Pillows

Memory foam makes for a great pillow as well as a great mattress. If you want a pillow that can conform to your shape, nothing beats the comfort of memory foam. Memory foam is supportive, making it great for sleepers who have a harder time keeping their necks aligned (like side sleepers and combo sleepers).

Hot sleepers are one demographic that might not like memory foam. Even with advancements in sleep technology like gel additives, open-cell structure, and more, memory foam still retains more heat than latex foam. Memory foam is also a form of polyurethane foam, meaning it’s not an option for those who want something all-natural.

6. Microbead Pillows

If you’ve ever sat on a bean bag, you’ve sat on a larger version of a microbead pillow. These pillows are composed of tiny beads of polystyrene. They’re supportive for those who like a firm pillow (this is why you see so many microbead travel pillows). They’re also adjustable because you can shift the beads around inside.

However, microbead pillows tend to retain heat, so hot sleepers probably won’t appreciate them. One of the biggest dangers of these pillows is rips and tears. If your microbead pillow breaks, you’ll wind up with thousands of tiny beads all over your bedroom or even your washing machine (leading to plumbing clogs and potentially hundreds of dollars in repairs).

7. Microfiber Pillows

Pillows made of synthetic fibers can go by a number of names: polyfill, microfiber, and down alternative pillows. The thing they have in common is they’re made of fibers spun out of synthetic materials like polyester and made to imitate the feel of down, cotton, and other non-foam fill materials.

These pillows are lightweight, budget-friendly, and adjustable, but they’re not as supportive or contouring as latex or memory foam, and they’re not very durable. Their life expectancy can be as short as 6 months before they flatten out or lose their shape.

Pillow Shape

In addition to the standard rectangular sleeping pillow, there are a few different types of pillows that might help you get a better night’s sleep.

Body Pillows

Types-of-Pillows

Body pillows are meant to support the entire body throughout the night. They come in all kinds of fun shapes like U-shape, C-shape, J-shape, L-shape, as well as rectangular. These pillows are great for side sleepers wanting support for their shoulders and legs.

Knee Pillows

Knee pillows are firm with a dip in the center made to go between side sleepers’ knees, encouraging hip and spine alignment.

Some pillows made for knee use might also come in a cylinder shape and go under back sleepers’ knees to keep their lumbar region from curving too much. This type of pillow is called a bolster pillow.

Neck Pillows

While a lot of people use the term “neck pillow” when they mean travel pillow, neck pillows are actually designed to keep back sleepers’ necks aligned by curving upwards to fill in the gap underneath the neck and downwards to accommodate the bulge at the back of the skull.

Sleep Position and Pillow Thickness

Your sleep position dictates how thick your pillow needs to be and the firmness level you need, so you should keep your sleep style in mind while you shop for a new pillow.

Back Sleepers

The best pillows for back sleepers support the natural curve of the cervical spine (the back of the neck) and collapse underneath the head to make room for the outward curve of the skull.

Medium firmness memory foam is a great material for back sleepers because of its ability to contour and support. It will sink underneath your head to make room for your skull while rising to meet the inward curve of your neck, supporting your spine.

Combo Sleepers

Combo sleepers switch positions throughout the night, so they need a pillow that’s supportive and versatile enough to support them in multiple positions. Medium firmness latex foam might be a good pillow for combo sleepers because it offers some contouring and a lot of support, and it bounces back fast when you switch positions.

Side Sleepers

The best pillows for side sleepers are thick and slightly firmer to prevent their heads from falling down and keep the spine in one straight horizontal line.

Side sleepers have a lot of options when it comes to material, but they probably want to stay away from feather and down pillows, which don’t have the necessary firmness to keep the head lifted and neck straight.

Stomach Sleepers

Stomach sleeping is the most stressful sleep style for the neck and spine, so you’ll need pillows that help reduce that stress.

The best pillow for stomach sleepers is a flat, thin one because it will help keep your head in alignment with your body (thicker pillows will lift the head higher than the body). Soft, compressible materials like down are better than more supportive materials like memory foam.

However, because stomach sleeping can twist the head to the side, causing neck pain, and pull the lumbar region out of alignment when the pelvis sinks into the bed, causing discomfort in the lower back, it’s better to train yourself to side sleep instead.

Try using a thick, firm body pillow. Tilting your body onto the pillow can help give you the feeling of sleeping on your stomach when you’re actually sleeping on your side.

FAQs

How often do I need to replace my pillows?

Fill material is going to dictate the lifespan of your pillow more than just about anything else. Microfiber pillows last the least amount of time (anywhere between 6 months to 2 years). Meanwhile, latex is the most durable, and a well-maintained latex pillow lasts anywhere from 5 to 10 years.

As a general rule, when your pillow starts to lose its shape, bounce, and/or support, it’s time for a new one. With any material, taking care of it according to the instructions on the label should help it last longer.

Should I wash my pillow?

The best way to wash your pillow will depend on the material of both the fill and the cover.

For instance, never, ever wash down pillows. The feathers will clump and lose their fluff and loft (height), leaving your pillow flat and lumpy. You can fix a lumpy pillow, but you don’t want to make it easier for lumps to develop.

You’ll need to dry clean your down pillow and check the care label for care instructions for the cover. A lot of down pillows come with machine washable covers.

Most pillows come with a label or tag with care instructions for both the cover and the pillow itself. And using a pillowcase can help reduce the frequency with which you have to wash both the cover and the pillow.

How do I know if my pillow is hypoallergenic?

A good hypoallergenic pillow will repel common allergens like dust, dust mites, pollen, mold, and more. Fills like latex, memory foam, down, cotton, and certain synthetic materials can all work to repel allergens. Lots of pillows specifically designed to be hypoallergenic have that term right on their labels.

One thing to note is that it’s possible to be allergic to the pillow fill itself. Latex is the most common pillow fill that can cause an allergic reaction. If you don’t have a latex allergy, latex is very hypoallergenic, but if you do have a latex allergy, your latex foam pillow can cause a reaction even if you have it in a case/cover.

Are king pillows the same as body pillows?

In a word: no.  Standard pillows are 26 inches long. King pillows add 10 inches to that length for a total of 36 inches. Body pillows, meanwhile, are normally at least 54 inches long to accommodate the length of the average human body from neck to knees.

Some body pillows are even longer. U-shaped and C-shaped pillows, for example, can be well over 100 inches in total length because they’re meant to curve around your body and support you on all sides. U and C-shaped options make the best body pillows for pregnancy.

How much should I pay for a pillow?

Pillow prices can range widely. A cheap pillow at the local grocery store can be as little as 5 dollars. These pillows are decent, affordable options for things like stuffing decorative shams, but they shouldn’t be slept on because they’re likely to be low-quality and unsupportive.

On the other hand, luxury pillows can run above a hundred dollars, and retailers or manufacturers might use things like high thread count or trending buzzwords to jack up the price. It’s not a bad thing to pay a lot for a pillow, but you want to make sure you aren’t getting ripped off, and standard pillows that run over $200 are likely too expensive.

Bottom Line

There are tons of great pillow materials out there, from supportive memory foam to squishy goose down to affordable microfiber. Just remember, your sleep position should be a factor when selecting the best pillow for you.

Side sleepers need a thick, firm pillow to keep their heads up. Back sleepers need a contouring pillow that fits into the curve of the neck. And stomach sleepers need a softer pillow that won’t push their heads higher than their bodies.

Dorothy Chambers is our in-house sleep expert and a firm believer in the benefits of a daytime nap. With a background in psychology, Dorothy is fully aware of the impact sleep has on our brain, mood, and overall well being. In an effort to help readers lead happier, more productive, and healthier lives, Dorothy spends her time researching the best sleep habits to help you fall asleep, stay asleep, and wake up feeling rested.

Dorothy Chambers spent years studying clinical psychology before joining us to promote a deeper understanding of sleep, along with some cursory research into biology and physiology. She’s particularly interested in the effects that different sleep positions have on the body.

Dorothy wakes up at 7 a.m. every day after a full night’s rest to better tackle a full day of work. After a session of morning exercise, she catches up on the latest sleep news and research before writing. Dorothy Chambers has written dozens of articles in her tenure with Sleep Junkie.

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