Types of Pillows: The Definitive Guide
March 28, 2014 • By
Have you seen all the funky types of pillows out there?
There are so many products available that pillow shopping can be overwhelming. Memory foam, down, microbead, even water pillows are an option in today’s saturated market.
No single pillow works for everyone. Thankfully we have choices – lots and lots of choices.
The pillow types available today are most easily categorized by what they’re filled with. A quality fabric pillow case, or shell is an important component, but its general character is dictated by the fill. Your pillow’s fill makes it feel the way it does.
Each type of pillow fill has its own advantages and disadvantages and appeals to a unique audience of sleepy heads.
I’ve summarized the most popular pillow types and their features so that you can get a sense of what might be most appropriate for you and your preferred sleeping position.
To represent each of the different types of pillows I’ve chosen a product(s) that appears to be the best of what’s available online currently. Please note that these are not my personal recommendations and I haven’t tried every pillow type in this list. Each is manufactured by a reputable brand with favorable reviews. A signal exception: our own Hullo buckwheat pillow.
Thanks to its low price and overall high owner satisfaction rate, polyester is a very popular pillow fill. Manufactured using questionable chemicals, consumers should be wary of the potential health hazards that are associated with polyester.
Polyester Pillow Advantages:
- dirt cheap
- easy to clean
Polyester Pillow Disadvantages:
- polyester fill clumps easily requiring frequent readjustment
- short life span
- potentially hazardous to your health and the environment
Polyester pillows are best for back and side sleepers. Stomach sleepers might also appreciate a polyester-filled pillow if it isn’t too thick.
Polyester Pillow Example: Slumberfresh Polyester Bed Pillow, Standard ($27.49 free shipping)
Down is the undercoating of a bird’s feathers. More specifically, it’s the bottom, fluffy part of a bird’s feather. It holds its loft up to 3 times longer than synthetic alternatives and is very soft.
Hungarian goose down (otherwise known as European white goose down) is considered to be the best quality — these down clusters are pure white and larger than most other types. A real down pillow contains down only — no feathers. Frequently “down” is sold as a combination of down and feather fill. Feathers are an economical way to add volume, but often the feathers’ quills will stick through the pillow poking your pretty face (ouch!) while you sleep.
Our friend Martha Stewart is fond of this type of pillow and suggests that you purchase only high-quality down fill due to its longevity.
“I have pillows on my beds that are 10 to 15 years old,” Martha says. In the long run, good-quality down is the least-expensive way to go since it holds up better than synthetic stuffings, which generally wear out in three to four years.
15 years old? I think Martha must take really good care of her pillows!
Ready for the big down downer? If you’re concerned about the well-being of animals, down comes at a considerable price. Down feathers are collected using one of three techniques: 1) post-mortem, after being killed for their meat, 2) live plucking or 3) gathering from live birds. None are humane. Read More: Down and Feather Pillows
Advantages of Down Pillows:
- moldable/malleable – a down pillow tends to hold its shape well, offering good support for your head and neck
- light and cuddly – down pillows are very light (heavy feathers don’t work very well for flying after all!) and soft
Disadvantages of Down Pillows:
- requires consistent fluffing to maintain its loft
- difficult to clean
- lack of firm options
- some are allergic to them
- good ones are very pricey (see below)
Down pillows work well for all sleep positions.
Down Pillow Examples:
L.L. Bean 700-Fill-Power Sateen White Goose Down Pillow ($199.00 free shipping)
Cuddledown 700 Goose Medium Pillow, Standard ($199 free shipping)
Pacific Coast Classic Down Pillow ($132.34 + 4.99 shipping)
Down’s cheap little brother. We recommend you avoid these and spend the extra money on real down if you think this type of pillow is for you.
Unlike down, feathers’ quills naturally begin to align with each other or lay flat. Over time this makes the pillow become flat and uncomfortable. To prevent this, manufacturers often add down clusters to the feathers which slows degeneration. Read More: Down and Feather Pillows
Advantages of Feather Pillows:
- light and cuddly just like down
Disadvantages of Feather Pillows:
- “at least 15% of owners report a lingering and unpleasant odor.”
- requires consistent fluffing to maintain its loft due to the quills flattening
- difficult to clean
Feather pillows are best for back and side sleepers.
Feather Pillow Example: Puredown Natural Memory Foam Goose Feather Pillow ($39.99 free shipping)
Memory Foam Pillows
Memory foam is manufactured using polyurethane and several other chemicals, and it unfortunately often emits a strong chemical odor. This “off gassing” of volatile organic compounds is a common and well-documented property of memory foam pillows and mattresses. There are various reports and studies which indicate that memory foam may be somewhat toxic.
Toxicity aside, memory foam is pretty neat! If you’ve ever felt it, you know what I mean: It’s sort of magical the way it retains its shape. I suspect that it’s this “magic” that makes them so popular; people are immediately impressed with the way memory foam feels.
Recently some memory foam pillows have been rebranded “bamboo pillows.” There is no bamboo in memory foam. So what are those sneaky marketers talking about? The truth is in the fine print: apparently only their rayon fabric cover is derived from bamboo. Don’t be tricked into buying what might seem to be an eco-friendly product!
Advantages of Memory Foam Pillows:
- doesn’t clump
- doesn’t require fluffing
- offers good support
Disadvantages of Memory Foam Pillows:
- chemical odor
- potentially dangerous “off-gassing”
- isn’t malleable/moldable
- no loft adjustment
Memory Foam Pillows work best for back sleepers. Memory foam keeps its shape so there’s no way for side or stomach sleepers to adjust the pillow lower or higher.
Memory Foam Pillow Example: If you’re leaning memory foam, I’d suggest looking at the Essentia Classic Memory Foam Pillow ($219.00 free shipping). I’ve never tried it, but it’s marketed as an all natural alternative to the traditional types made with nasty chemicals. If off-gassing doesn’t concern you, the Beautyrest Free Spirit at Amazon is favorably reviewed.
First let me be perfectly transparent: we sell buckwheat pillows. We love these things! We’ve tried a lot of different types of pillows, and we think nothing beats an all-natural, old-fashioned buckwheat pillow. We started manufacturing these things because we thought they were the best.
Advantages of Buckwheat Pillows:
- superior support
- breathable/promotes air flow
- long life-span
- moldable/malleable – it holds its shape and offers terrific support for your head, neck and shoulders
- constructed of all-natural compostable materials
Disadvantages of Buckwheat Pillows:
- buckwheat hulls make a rustling noise when shifted
- a 20×26″ buckwheat pillow weighs around 8 pounds
Works best for back, side and stomach sleepers. Everybody can enjoy the benefits of a buckwheat pillow!
Buckwheat Pillow Example: Hullo Buckwheat Pillow-$99 free shipping
Microbead pillows are filled with what are called “uniform polymer particles,” which, as the name suggests, look like little white beads. They are the synthetic alternative to buckwheat hull pillows. They share a lot of the same characteristics: they promote air flow and they’re somewhat malleable as well. The most popular of these pillow types is the “Sobakawa Cloud Pillow.” This product uses a slightly confusing name. “Sobakawa” is another word for buckwheat and this pillow contains none at all. According to SleepLiketheDead.com microbead pillow owner satisfaction is poor. Users complain that the pillows are too firm and/or flatten after prolonged use.
Advantages of Microbead Pillows:
- breathable-keeps cool at night
- moldable/malleable -it holds its shape and offers good support for your head, neck and shoulders
Disadvantages of Microbead Pillows:
- chemical odor and potentially dangerous “off-gassing”
- no variety of firmness or loft (they’re mostly medium firm, medium loft)
- short life span
Microbead pillows work best for side sleepers. The lack of loft variety and adjustability makes them less suitable for other sleeping positions.
Microbead Pillow Example: Sobakawa Cloud Pillow ($24.95 plus shipping)
Latex pillows are becoming quite popular. They offer good support for your head and neck while retaining a soft feel. They’re also relatively breathable providing a cool surface for your tired head. According to SleepLikeTheDead.com, latex pillows have an owner satisfaction rating rivaling that of our favorite type, buckwheat pillows. For that reason, I bought one for myself to try out. I had high hopes, but I was less than impressed.
Advantages of Latex Pillows:
- great support
- semi-breathable (stays cool)
Disadvantages of Latex Pillows:
- slight “rubbery” odor
- not moldable — no matter what you try, these things will bounce back into their rubbery shape
- too dense and heavy to be considered “cuddly”
Latex pillows work best for side and back sleepers. Due to a higher than average loft, latex pillows are not recommended for stomach sleepers.
Latex Pillow Example: Sealy Embody Optimal Premium Talalay Latex Pillow ($139.99 plus shipping)
Water pillows contain, you guessed it, water. Most water filled pillows are simply a plastic reservoir wrapped with polyester foam or down alternative fiberfill. Water pillows are popular due to their ability provide unchanging, solid support. I suspected water pillows were nothing more than a gimmick, but I reviewed one myself and was surprised by its effectiveness.
Advantages of Water Pillows:
- supportive — I’d say it’s a water pillow’s best attribute. Provided you’ve taken the time to fill it properly, a water pillow will consistently keeps your head elevated at just the right level all night long.
- supposed pain relief — While I wasn’t able to determine if my water pillow was indeed capable of reducing pain, but the many positive reviews online and the Johns Hopkins study are evidence of a genuine benefit.
- adjustable — Not many pillow types are adjustable. This is a huge advantage, because it can be very difficult to find the pillow that’s just right for you-they’re always either too thick or thin!
Disadvantages of Water Pillows:
- not moldable — There are no options with a water pillow-it won’t change shape. That pesky water always bounces back.
- aome types may be wrapped in a fiberfill that’s too soft— My water pillow was covered in a super soft fill that pushed upward awkwardly into the side of my face.
- leaks (potentially) — I read several water pillow reviews online that mentioned leaks. A wet mattress and flat pillow aren’t conducive to good rest!
Water pillows are best for back sleepers. but side sleepers may appreciate them as well. Users can adjust the loft to their preference.
Water Pillow Example: Mediflow Original Waterbase Pillow ($41.99 plus shipping)
Kapok, or ceiba pentandra, is a tropical tree native to Mexico that flowers, producing a fluffy, cotton-like material containing hundreds of seeds. This light brown, soft fibre is sometimes called silk cotton.
Kapok’s qualities have made it very popular for filling pillows, upholstery, and even life preservers. Its use has dramatically declined since the introduction of polyester/polyurethane foams. Kapok is currently experiencing a small revival thanks to its all-natural characteristics. I’ve tried them myself.
Advantages of Kapok Pillows:
- free of the potentially toxic materials in many foam pillows
- cruelty-free — the practice of gathering feathers and down for use in pillows is far from humane and kapok, well… it’s not an animal!
- compostable and biodegradable
Disadvantages of Kapok Pillows:
- extremely flammable
- quickly develop lumps, much like polyester foam pillows do
- not moldable, does not hold its shape
Kapok Pillow Example: Bean Products Standard Size Organic Kapok Pillow ($54.95 free shipping)
Kapok pillows are for all sleeping positions.
Good Luck, Pillow Shopper
That’s a lot of information to wade through, but hopefully this enables you to make an informed choice for your next bed pillow. Good luck and please let us know if you have any pillow tips you’d like to add in the comments below.