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Choosing the best type of pillow

By Aaron West

From feather and down to memory foam, we look at the pros and cons of different types of pillow, so you can find the best one for you.

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Not sure which pillow to choose? We look at the pros and cons of the main types of pillow to help you find the best.

There are three main types of pillow: feather and down, microfibre and memory foam. Prices vary widely depending on the type of filling and how much of it there is – some pillows can cost more than £100, while others are less than £10. Price isn’t everything – what's most important is finding something that you find gives you support and is comfortable.

Comfort is so subjective that you and your partner may find that the same pillows don’t suit both of you. Just like a mattress, it's best to try out pillows before you buy them where possible.

Read on to find out the pros and cons of each type of filling, as well as expert tips to help you decide which type of pillow to buy.

If you already know the type of pillow you want, then head over to our list of the best pillow brands.

Feather and down pillows: pros and cons

  • Pros: Remains supportive and comfortable longer than synthetic fillings, can be moulded to suit your neck
  • Cons: Can become flattened, will need to be reshaped to retain thickness, noisier than other types, need to be cleaned professionally, can be expensive

Almost a third of our members opt for feather/down pillows, and it’s clear why. While they are a little more expensive than synthetic fibre pillows, they have a longer lifespan, meaning they will stay supportive and retain their height for longer. They are mouldable and soft – ideal for snuggling into.

The ratio of feather to down can vary greatly, although as a rule if it is sold as a ‘feather’ pillow, it must be made of at least 30% of the exterior feathers of the bird. Down pillows must be at least 70% down. If you go for a feather pillow you should find that you don’t need to turn the pillow over to the cold side as often, as they are cooler than both down and microfibre. Down retains more heat, and it doesn't have hard quills to poke through and spike into you, like feather pillows.

Downsides to this natural option include that they can become flattened quickly and will need regular fluffing to retain their shape. You might find that they have a musky smell at first too, and you could find the crunching noises of feather pillows grating. As with most natural bedding, they require professional cleaning. Some premium types of feather and down, such as Hungarian goose, can be very expensive.

Microfibre pillows: pros and cons

  • Pros: Cheapest option, can be washed at home, available in hypoallergenic options
  • Cons: Not as breathable as others, short lifespan

About one in five of our members choose hypoallergenic, affordable and lightweight microfibre. These pillows are easy to take care of, and can be washed at home (on a 30 degree wash). They come in a variety of shapes and heights, so you can choose the best for your sleeping position.

However, they’re not as malleable or breathable as other options, and have the shortest lifespan of all pillows – it's recommended that you replace them every few years. That said, they are a great basic option if you’re shopping on a budget and want to be able to clean your pillows at home.

Memory foam pillows: pros and cons

  • Pros: Offers even support, easy to take care of, durable and long-lasting
  • Cons: Can be too hot in summer, some people simply don’t like the feel

This modern addition to the pillow market is good for those looking for strong support. Roughly 15% of our members choose to use a memory foam pillow. They are easy to take care of, like microfibre, but many find them to be too dense and firm, and too hot to sleep on in summer.

They are a great option for those looking for neck pain relief, as the memory foam contours to your body and offer even support.

Other fillings to consider

Latex pillows

  • Pros: Offers even support, breathable and won’t cause overheating, naturally hypoallergenic, durable and long-lasting
  • Cons: Most expensive option

Like their mattress counterparts, latex pillows are a less common choice, this is likely to be because they are often so expensive and can cost in excess of £100. However, there are still plenty of reasons to consider them.

They have a similar feel to memory foam pillows and will contour and spring back to support your neck. Unlike memory foam pillows, they don’t suffer from overheating – in fact, they’ll help you maintain a neutral temperature all night so you won't need to flip the pillow over to the cool side.

They’re durable and hold their shape well, longer than any other type of filling, and are naturally resistant to mould and dust mites, too.

Wool and cotton pillows

  • Pros: Naturally hypoallergenic, resistant to mites and mould, breathable and cool, firmness is ideal for side-sleepers
  • Cons: Flatten quickly, need regularly re-shaping, heavy

These are a more traditional equivalent to synthetic fibre fillings. Their natural resistance to dust mites and mould mean they can be a good choice for allergy sufferers. Their firmness can be good for side sleepers, who need greater support than people who sleep on their backs. Like latex, they can help you stay cool during the night as well.

They flatten quickly, so you’ll need to regularly fluff them back up for them to retain their shape. They also tend to be heavier and more expensive than synthetic fibres.

Hypoallergenic and anti-allergy pillows: what's the difference?

Hypoallergenic doesn't equal anti-allergy, so it's important to know the difference before buying.

Hypoallergenic means that the actual material and filling of the pillow isn't made of a known potential allergen, like feathers, wool or latex. But other allergens like dust mites can still develop on these types of pillow.

Anti-allergy means the filling and casing will have been treated to resist and combat the development of dustmites. You might find that this type of pillow is good for you if you have asthma, eczema or rhinitis, all of which could be exacerbated by allergens. 

But whichever bedding you buy, dustmites can be killed, and their allergens removed, by washing at temperatures of 60°C and above. If you're looking for bedding to help with allergies, it's therefore important to check that it can endure repeated washing at this temperature or higher – roughly once every one to two months.

To know if you should consider an anti-allergy pillow, you should check to see if you have the symptoms of dust mite allergy.

If you are sensitive or allergic to them, you may have:

  • Watery, red eyes when you wake up
  • Runny or itchy nose and sneezing in bed
  • Sore throat or hoarse voice in the morning
  • Coughing and other breathing problems
  • Skin rash and itching
  • Worsening of your asthma

What's the right pillow for your sleep style?

Make sure you buy the right pillow for your preferred sleep style:

Back sleeper: Choose a thin pillow, as it won’t throw your head too far forward, putting stress on your neck. Memory foam can also be a good choice, as it will mould to your neck's curve, giving consistent support.

Side sleeper: A firm, high pillow is best, as this will help keep your spine and neck aligned. You may also benefit from sleeping with a pillow between your knees, as this can help to prevent pain in the lower back.

Front sleeper: Whilst sleeping on your front isn’t recommended, some simply prefer it. For front sleepers, a thin, almost flat pillow is best. Consider tucking one under your stomach, too, to avoid lower back pain.

Mixed or combination sleeper: Unfortunately, if you toss and turn between positions in the night, no pillow will completely meet your needs. A medium height pillow is the safest bet, offering support for side sleeping but also the shallowness needed for back sleeping.

Other pillow sizes, styles and shapes to consider

Other sizes:

If you have a king-size bed, king-size pillows and pillow cases are available to really fill the space and keep your bed looking in proportion.

Pillowcase styles:

A standard 50cm x 75cm pillowcase is sometimes called a housewife pillowcase. The name is an artefact from the late 19th century, when the Housewives’ Co-Operative adapted pillowcases to include a lip which you could fold over the pillow inside, keeping it secure inside. This is taken as standard now, so standard and housewife pillowcases are the same.

Oxford pillowcases fit standard housewife pillows, but have a trim or border around the edges. 

Other shapes:

V-shaped pillows are intended to support those who suffer from shoulder and back pain, but can also help those who snore, front-sleepers, or those who need a bit more elevation while sleeping. U-shaped pillows, or pregnancy pillows, help support your body in a variety of different positions.

Contour pillows have a raised and rounded long edge which fits snugly to your neck with your head in the dell – this is great for those looking for extra neck support.

Speciality option pillows

Depending on your needs, you might want to consider various speciality pillows. These are designed to alleviate particular pains or annoyances that affect your sleep.

  • Water pillows: Favoured by some physical therapists and chiropractors, these pillows use water to create your own customized level of density and support.
  • Cool pillows: Touted as an antidote to hot flushes and night sweats, these include a filling of tiny beads that absorb and whisk away heat, leaving the part of the pillow that touches your face cool.
  • Anti-snore pillows: These pillows can come in a variety of designs. Some have a firm core, to retain height, and a soft outer area to better support your head. They are claimed to let you breathe better and therefore help prevent snoring, although there is very limited research showing that any particular pillow design affects snoring.

Buy a pillow from a trusted brand

Our April 2018 survey of 3,839 Which? members revealed that some brands produce a much more comfortable pillow than others. So if you're not sure which make to go for, we can help: read our guide to the best pillow brands,

To work out customer scores, we asked what brand of pillow members owned, whether they were satisfied with it, and whether they would recommend it to a friend. We also asked them to rate their pillow for comfort, value for money and how well it matched the description.

If you're a Which? member and would like to take part in our surveys to help shape our magazine and website, click to join our Which? Connect reader panel.

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