The Disingenuous and Sneaky Bamboo Pillow

bamboo pillow

Don’t be fooled, hippy! This thing’s got zero green cred.

The fantastic bamboo pillow is everywhere. They’ve recently exploded in popularity. According to Google Trends, they’re even more popular than traditional down pillows!

Despite their prevalence, I only noticed them recently while poking around on Amazon. It caught my attention for one reason: it sounded like a “green” product. I try to shop responsibly, purchasing products that are ecologically responsible when possible. A pillow made from the bamboo plant, a plentiful renewable resource, seemed like an environmentally friendly and safe product for a tree-hugger like myself.

So what is a bamboo pillow?

The name clearly implies that a primary component is bamboo. In fact, the majority are filled with shredded memory foam, a petroleum-based product. The fabric outer shell or case, is most commonly a 40% rayon / 60% polyester blend.

So where’s the bamboo? The truth is in the fine print: apparently rayon is derived from bamboo. Bamboo pillows are essentially just a memory foam pillow with a rayon pillow case. Let’s take a closer look at their claims.

According to the product descriptions, these magical bamboo pillows are:

  • environmentally friendly
  • hypoallergenic
  • antimicrobial
  • biodegradable
  • cooler than traditional pillows
  • adjustable
  • supportive and moldable
bamboo pillows aren't biodegradable

Future generations will call this idyllic place, “Shredded Memory Foam Falls”

Are bamboo pillows environmentally friendly? 

Bamboo sounds like an environmentally responsible, safe component to use in a pillow. Marketers love to use the term bamboo, because it appeals to eco-conscious consumers like me. Unfortunately the bamboo fabric, i.e. rayon, cannot be considered harmless to the environment.

The most common way to produce rayon involves the “viscose” process. Cellulose material like bamboo is dissolved in a strong chemical bath. Then it is treated with toxic chemicals like carbon disulphide, caustic soda, ammonia, acetone and sulphuric acid until it solidifies into useable fibers. Production results in the emission of hazardous air pollutants. In addition 50% of the solvents used are released as wastewater.

Rayon isn’t the only pollutant in a bamboo pillow. The production of memory foam and polyester both result in the release of carcinogenic materials into our air and water causing significant environmental damage. It’s also unclear if there are adverse health issues associated with long-term exposure to the chemicals contained in memory foam.

Verdict: You won’t find a bamboo pillow on mother nature’s bed.
It’s misleading to suggest that viscose rayon, polyester and memory foam are environmentally-friendly materials, particularly when compared to traditional fabrics and fill types.

Are bamboo pillows hypoallergenic?

Hypoallergenic claims resonate with consumers and help to sell products. What exactly is implied? Unfortunately it is very vague because there is no regulation in the United States that defines or governs the use of the term. Blakiston’s Medical Dictionary, however, defines it:

“Hypoallergenic” – Adjective
A term applied to a preparation in which every possible care has been taken in formulation and production to ensure minimum instance of allergic reactions.

Are the makers of these pillows taking “every possible care” in the creation of their supposed hypoallergenic products? I doubt it…

First, let’s consider the bamboo pillow’s primary component, memory foam. A quick search of “memory foam allergy” reveals substantial and credible user complaints. Headaches, rashes and similar allergic-type reactions are all documented issues. There is no credible evidence that suggests that memory foam is less likely to cause allergic reactions than other pillow fill types.

As it happens, dust mites are the true allergy menace and no pillow type is immune to them.

Dust mites are tiny organisms that live in the dust in your house and are one of the top five most common allergens. If you’re experiencing an allergic reaction to a pillow that you’ve been using for awhile, chances are you’re allergic to dust mites, not the pillow itself. Dust mite allergies are very similar to a pollen allergy except that the symptoms occur year round  instead of just seasonally. All bedding is susceptible to dust mite infestations, including the so-called bamboo pillow.

Verdict: To call bamboo pillows hypoallergenic is misleading.
A lack of regulation and oversight makes the term rather hollow. To call them hypoallergenic is, at best, an overstatement.

Are bamboo pillows antimicrobial?

Bamboo is unique in that it contains a substance called bamboo-kun. This antimicrobial agent gives bamboo a natural resistance to pest and fungi infestation. Unfortunately, the chemical processes used to produce rayon destroys any of bamboo’s antimicrobial properties. There is no trace of the original bamboo plant in the finished rayon product.

Verdict: A bamboo pillow is not antimicrobial.

Are bamboo pillows biodegradable?

Biodegradable materials are capable of being broken down into natural materials without causing harm to the environment. Memory foam and polyester are NOT biodegradable. Depending on the specific types used, these materials will sit around for hundreds of years in the landfill. Rayon, is 90% biodegradable, but it is a very small portion of the pillow’s total mass.

Verdict: A bamboo pillow is not biodegradable.
In most bamboo pillows, only a small percentage of the fabric pillow case is biodegradable.

no flipping to the cool side of the pillow required

A breathable pillow is a cool pillow.

Are bamboo pillows cool? 

If air is able to circulate through a pillow’s fill, it’ll stay cool while you sleep. Unfortunately memory foam is not known for it’s breathability. It restricts airflow, causing the pillow to build up and retain body heat. I’ve tried several different types of memory foam pillows over the years and none could be described as being “cool.”

Most bamboo pillows, however, contain “shredded” memory foam. This shredded fill is simply memory foam that’s been torn into little pieces. These individual pieces would theoretically allow for better air circulation though the pillow. For some reason they’re often enclosed in a non-breathable foam enclosure or case (this is in addition to the rayon/poly outer fabric case). This negates any cooling ability gained from using shredded vs. traditional memory foam.

Well, maybe the rayon/polyester blend, err “bamboo” fabric is extra breathable?  It’s not more breathable than traditional bedding fabrics like linen or cotton that are well-known for their breathability.

Verdict: They aren’t any cooler than traditional pillows. 
A bamboo pillow is no better at keeping you cool than a traditional pillow filled with down or similar fill. Memory foam’s reputation for retaining heat certainly doesn’t suggest that it’s superior.

The U.S. Government has taken action against some sellers of bamboo pillows.

There have been attempts by the government to deal with the issue of deceptive marketing of bamboo products. Several large retailers were warned in 2009 by the FTC about the blatantly misleading bamboo claims. It didn’t end with warnings…

“Sears Holdings agreed to pay $475,000 and remove false advertising from its line of “100% pure bamboo” products, which were anything but. Sears was the first of several large companies, including Amazon.com and Macy’s, that agreed to pay fines totaling nearly $1.3 million for violating for violating the Textile Products Identification Act…” –Time Magazine

The settlements set a precedence and larger retailers are mostly adhering to the FTC’s guidance. However, the deceptive marketing practices remain prevalent amongst smaller retailers. At the time of writing, I see several Amazon sellers making “100% bamboo” claims.

Because of these actions, most reputable sellers today no longer allege that these pillows are 100% bamboo. Even excluding that falsity, most of the benefits of bamboo pillows are grossly overstated.

The benefits are exaggerated, but they’re not all bad…

Memory foam is actually pretty neat! If you’ve ever felt it, you know what I mean. It has a magical sort of texture that uniquely conforms to pressure. Memory foam has the viscous properties of water, but the elastic feel of traditional poly foams. These unique characteristics make memory foam pillows very popular. If you rest your head on one, the memory foam will compresses and conform perfectly to the shape of your body. When the pressure on the pillow is released, the memory foam slowly resets itself and changes back to its original shape.

This makes memory foam effective at:

  • providing even, comfortable support and
  • distributing your body’s weight, eliminating pressure points.

Memory foam is quite good at providing support for your head and neck. It evenly distributes the weight of your head eliminating any pain-causing pressure points, allowing your muscles to completely relax.

The shredded variety isn’t a solid loaf like most memory foam pillows. It’s moldable. You can fluff, squish and squeeze it until it’s just the right shape for your head.

The fact that many are adjustable is also a big plus. Being able to add or remove fill allows you to fine tune the loft (thickness) exactly to your preference.

I’ve actually tried a shredded memory foam pillow (without a rayon, err bamboo… pillow case) and I was actually rather impressed. Despite the comfort, the off-gassing odor was a constant reminder of the potential health issues associated with memory foam. I think there are more comfortable pillow alternatives that are safe, both for us and the environment. For that reason, my shredded memory foam pillow didn’t win a permanent place on my bed.

Read More: Is a Shredded Memory Foam Pillow Better?
Read More: “That Memory Foam Smell”

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