Marcus is an orthopedic spine surgeon who knows for sure how to ease ache in your back, neck, and shoulders, and prevent meeting him in person.
Last updated: July 02, 2021
Talk About Sleep is reader-supported. We may earn a commission through products purchased using links on this page. Learn more about our process here
Despite their prevalence in modern bedrooms, pillows are just as likely to harm your health as they are to make your sleep more comfortable.
Notably, the features make up the difference in whether a pillow is beneficial or harmful to you. They include the interior makeup of the pillow, firmness rating, cover, and more. These will affect how your body reacts to the pillow, the positioning of your neck, how much support you get, and other factors that determine your comfort. That said, from firm pillows offering additional support to softer alternatives that let you sink in, we’ve picked the top pillows for the year and listed them below.
As the name suggests, the Luxome LAYR Customizable Pillow is a customizable option meant to fulfill the needs of different types of sleepers. The customizability comes in inserts that you can remove or add, depending on your needs. It ships with the most common configuration, which features both an ultra-soft and medium-firm insert in the bamboo cover. However, you can remove one and switch it out with the firm insert whenever you want. Additionally, it’s available in two sizes, i.e., Standard/Queen or the King size option.
This pillow is for all types of sleepers as you can change the orientation and customize it to fit your needs. This is both in terms of the loft and the firmness of the pillow.
Why are we impressed?
We liked that this pillow can be used by different people with varying needs. For instance, if you prefer a pillow that allows your head to sink in, you just need to turn it to the right side. The same is the case if you prefer medium-firm. However, if you prefer firmer support, you need to remove one of the other inserts and replace it with the firm one provided. As for the height, you customize it by adding or removing the inserts that you don’t need. Also, the pillow allows you to sleep cool because it has a thermo-regulating bamboo cover, in addition to gel-infused memory foam and breathable cotton covers for the inserts.
What negatives must you be aware of?
The customizability and high-quality construction don’t come cheap. As such, be prepared to spend a hefty amount to get the pillow. Of course, for people with limited budgets, this will put the pillow out of reach. Also, depending on the configuration you choose, we noticed the pillow could be quite heavy. Additionally, the pillow won’t work for some people, no matter the configuration they choose. For instance, some individuals may prefer firmer pillows than what is available in this offering.
As for our premium pick, the Brooklyn Bedding Luxury Cooling Memory Foam Pillow, you can find it in Queen and King sizes. It features a latex foam interior and a cotton cover. As such, it’s sourced from natural materials which are both gentle on the skin and hypoallergenic. Additionally, you can pick between high and low loft, depending on your regular sleeping position.
This pillow works great for people with allergies. Additionally, it’s a great option if you’re environmentally conscious. After all, it’s made from natural materials such as latex and cotton.
What makes it stand out?
We liked that the construction materials in the pillow are sustainably sourced from the environment. This includes the Talalay latex, which makes up the bulk of the pillow, and the organic cotton cover. Notably, latex has natural holes which allow for breathability in the pillow. Additionally, it’s hyper-responsive and will conform to your head and neck as soon as you lie down. Another thing we liked is how gentle it is on the skin. Add that to the hypoallergenic nature of the materials, and it makes for an excellent option for people with allergies.
Which disadvantages must you keep in mind?
One significant problem we noticed is the lack of firmness varieties. Consequently, if you pick this option, you should be sure that you prefer medium-firm options. Also, you only get high and low loft options which will likely not work for everyone. Furthermore, you have to select the loft option before purchase, so you won’t get a chance to test both options. Another problem you might experience when the pillow is new is the rubber-like smell. However, this is only temporary and should be gone within a week or two.
Next, we have the CertiPUR-US certified Plush Beds Shoulder Zoned Lavender Pillow. The construction features a memory foam interior in addition to a breathable Tencel cover. As such, it can conform and contour to your head and neck as you sleep. Additionally, it’s infused with natural lavender oil to give it a refreshing scent. Since this smell is bound to dissipate over time, buyers are provided with a 2ml spritzer they can use to refresh the pillow. Also, just like the first two pillow options, it’s available in King and Queen sizes.
The pillow is for side sleepers, as shown by the shoulder recess. Additionally, it can help people who struggle with finding sleep, thanks to the infused lavender scent.
Why are we impressed?
In our opinion, the lavender scent helps soothe and relax sleepers which helps them fall asleep much faster. Additionally, you can refresh the smell a few times by using the provided spritzer. The shoulder recess also keeps side sleepers from tossing and turning in addition to providing extra comfort. As for the memory foam in the pillow, it conforms to your head and neck to give you a more comfortable sleep. Another thing we liked is the breathable Tencel cover that helps a bit with temperature regulation. Lastly, the pillow ships with a 5-year warranty and is CertiPUR-US certified.
What negatives must you be aware of?
We didn’t like that the only firmness option for this pillow is medium-firm which leaves out people who prefer softer or firmer alternatives. Another weakness is that there is only one loft option. Of course, this ties back to the fact that it’s only designed for side sleepers. Additionally, there doesn’t seem to be much thought put into temperature regulation in the pillow. As such, we noticed that the foam tends to trap heat which can lead to uncomfortable sleep.
Another pillow you can look into potentially getting is The Belly Sleeper Pillow. It’s a thin option with a 2.5-inch loft that features a bamboo + polyester cover, and that makes it one of the best pillows for stomach sleepers. Inside this cover is gel-cooled memory foam. The pillow is meant to support your neck and head, and this keeps you from snoring while you sleep. Additionally, the cover is removable so that you can wash it regularly.
As implied by the name, this pillow is for those who sleep on their stomachs.
What makes it stand out?
Given that it’s meant for stomach sleepers, we noticed the loft is just right to support your head and neck while you sleep. It’s also low enough that it won’t strain your spine. Additionally, the materials are hypoallergenic and antibacterial therefore reducing the chances of your allergies acting up as you sleep. The cover is even removable to facilitate a wash now and then. Another notable advantage is the memory foam interior of the pillow, which is filled with cooling gel to ensure temperatures stay cool throughout the night.
Which disadvantages must you keep in mind?
The first con is that the pillow is not suited to other sleeping orientations, such as sleeping on your back or side. We also noticed that it comes in only one size. As such, if it proves too thin, too thick, or too wide for you and your bed, you’ll have no recourse or way to modify the pillow to fit your needs. Another disadvantage is that those who prefer firmer support or softer options that sink easily are not catered to in this design.
The Zoma Body Pillow is another option that side sleepers can turn to(pun intended). Notably, it’s one of the best body pillows in the market and thus will be longer than most other options listed. The outside of the pillow is an airy cover consisting of AirCloth, polyester, and spandex. On the inside, you find a down-alternative fill in addition to shredded gel memory foam.
Besides being for side sleepers, this pillow is also considered one of the best pregnancy pillows available. It can even help reduce pelvic and lower back pain associated with pregnancy.
Why did it make our list?
In our opinion, this pillow adapts quite well to the body type of the sleeper. This has been attributed to moldable micro-cushions in the pillow. Another beneficial part of the pillow is the filling. As we mentioned, it consists of shredded gel memory foam and down-alternative, which are hypoallergenic and have temperature regulation properties. Also, the pillow comes with a breathable cover that therefore allows users to sleep cool. Lastly, any time the cover gets dirty, you can remove it for machine washing before returning it to the pillow.
What is not ideal about it?
One of the more glaring disadvantages that we noticed is the pillow won’t work for stomach and back sleepers. Additionally, since it only comes in one size, it won’t cater well to people of different heights. Another con is the singular firmness option. As such, if the pillow turns out to be too soft or firm, there’s no way to correct that. Lastly, the pillow is relatively heavy, which can be problematic, especially for pregnant women.
Next, we have the Helix Wedge Pillow, a gel memory foam option with a rayon and polyester cover. This option is designed with a gradual slope, and the highest point is 10” high. While it can provide support for your back, it can also elevate your legs, therefore, reducing pressure on your lower back.
This pillow is for those who want to read a book or watch TV while in bed. The elevation in the slope puts them in the perfect position for that. Additionally, the elevation can also help with acid reflux and heartburn by keeping stomach acid from your esophagus.
Why are we impressed?
First, we liked that this pillow is excellent for reading books and watching TV, which is not something that many other pillow designs cater to. Additionally, the elevation of the pillow positions your upper body higher than the stomach. This keeps stomach acid in the stomach and away from the esophagus. As such, it helps prevent acid reflux and heartburn. Additionally, the pillow is like a mattress in that it comes with a 100-night sleep trial. Consequently, you have enough time to try out and make up your mind on whether the purchase is good enough for you or not.
What negatives must you be aware of?
One downside is that the wedge design doesn’t cater to all types of sleepers. For instance, the pillow would arch the backs of stomach sleepers and potentially injure their spines. We noticed it also doesn’t work well for side sleepers since it puts their spines in an awkward position. Additionally, since it’s not shaped like regular pillows, it might take some getting used to. Lastly, while it does offer some pressure relief, it won’t work for individuals who prefer having extra support or a softer pillow under their heads.
Another organic option is the Latex for Less Latex Pillow. This pillow comes in two variations. One features a shredded natural latex interior, while the other consists of solid natural latex. Additionally, you can find it in Standard, Queen, and King sizes. Lastly, it comes with a cotton cover.
This pillow is for the environmentally conscious since it’s made of organic materials. It should also work well for all three sleeping positions.
Why are we impressed?
We liked that the two options available cater to different markets. The one with solid latex construction is better for users who prefer the extra responsiveness and support for their heads and necks. As for the shredded option, it is softer and highly moldable. These two options will cater well to the side, stomach, and back sleepers. Also, the construction is purely organic, with latex on the inside and a cotton cover on the outside. Lastly, there are three size options for the different bed sizes.
What negatives must you be aware of?
The Latex for Less Latex Pillow is one of the most well-rounded latex pillows in the market, and as such, you won’t find many things to complain about. However, the pillow might have a rubber smell when new, which will take some time to dissipate. Additionally, we noticed the solid natural latex option is only available in one loft height. As such, users either have to deal with the loft given or opt for the shredded version, which doesn’t offer much support.
The next top-tier offering is the Amore Beds Double-Gel Cooling Pillow which has a somewhat unique design. This includes a liquid cooling gel layer and gel memory foam inside the cover, making it a top-tier cooling pillow. Also, buyers get a removable and washable bamboo rayon cover. The pillow comes with a 6” loft and offers the right amount of sinkage to give you pressure-point relief. Lastly, it’s available in multiple sizes and configurations, including shoulder cut and neck designs.
This pillow is for side and back sleepers, thanks to the 6” loft. However, there are travel and neck configurations as well, so you can be comfortable in the car or when you’re at your hotel.
What do we love it for?
We loved the different variations available. If you’re a side sleeper, you can order the option with a shoulder cut design. Those who travel often can order the neck and smaller travel options. The latter is easier to pack, and the former works well when you’re in a car or plane. Additionally, the cooling and temperature regulation technology in this pillow guarantees you cool sleep. Lastly, the bamboo rayon cover is soft and caters well to those with sensitive skin.
What were we disappointed with?
As for the downsides, we noticed that depending on the option you pick, the cost of owning one of these pillows could be high. Also, there is only one loft height to choose from, which is why this pillow doesn’t work for stomach sleepers. This is in addition to the pillow being only available with a medium-firm rating. Consequently, those who prefer soft or firm-rated pillows will have to look elsewhere for options that match their needs.
As for the Helix Luxury Feather & Down Pillow, it features a three-chamber design. The core is a mixture of feather and down, while the two outer layers consist only of down. This explains why the pillow is rated soft on the firmness scale. Also, the layers are enclosed in a cotton cover with reinforced double-stitched edges.
This option is for those who want plush comfort from their pillow. Depending on the user, it could also work while you’re sleeping on your back, stomach, or side.
Why is it special?
The Helix Luxury Feather & Down Pillow is malleable enough that you can use it in whichever sleeping position you want. Also, we noticed it’s made of high-quality materials from the feathers, down, and even the 100% Cotton Cambric Fabric which is very soft to the touch. Additionally, the Reinforced Double Stitched Edge is there to ensure the long life of the pillow while keeping the filling intact. Lastly, just like with the Helix Wedge Pillow, you get a 100-night sleep trial.
What are the flaws?
While we do like the down and feather filling, these components don’t come cheap, and this is reflected in the cost of the pillow. Additionally, there is only one firmness option for buyers of this pillow. Consequently, those who prefer medium-firm and firm support should opt for other alternatives. Lastly, we noticed that you’d need to fluff your pillow every time you go to bed so you can mold it to fit your neck and head.
Another option with adjustable firmness levels is the SpineAlign Pillow. It features shredded polyfoam on the inside, while outside, it has soft polyester fabric and mesh on the sides.
The SpineAlign option is for side and back sleepers who want an adjustable pillow.
What are our favorite features?
We noticed the pillow is designed with the end-user in mind due to the contouring that allows for optimal positioning of the user’s spine. Also, you can adjust the firmness level to match whether you want the pillow to cradle you, firmer support, or something in between. To do this, you just unzip one of the compartments in the pillow and move the fill accordingly. Additionally, the mesh on the sides allows for consistent airflow in the pillow throughout the night.
What could be better?
Despite its adjustability, we felt that this pillow is still not a good fit for stomach sleepers. Also, it might take a lot of adjustments before you finally nail the one you’re most comfortable with. As for cleaning, the pillow is not machine washable. However, you can spot clean it from time to time to clear out the stains that might show up. Lastly, this pillow is a contender for the most expensive pillows on this list.
Things to Consider
Notably, there are a few dos and don’ts of selecting a pillow for purchase. We look into them below, and hopefully, that should help guide you as you look through your options.But before we start, take a look at other compilations we’ve made depending on the pillow’s type and purpose:
One general rule of buying a pillow is to pay close attention to the features. Additionally, you should be well aware of your sleeping needs. For instance, you should know which is your most dominant sleeping position. That way, when you look at the features, you can tell whether the pillow is a good fit for you or not. These pillow features are listed and explained below, and all you have to do is use the information given to judge the potential purchases.
Your sleeping position
There are currently three dominant sleeping positions. They include sleeping on your back, your side, or your stomach. Consequently, pillows are made with these sleeping positions in mind, although back and side-sleeper pillows are more common than their stomach-sleeper counterpart. Also, there are a select few pillows for combination sleepers meaning they’ll work for all three sleeping positions mentioned.
One example of a pillow for combination sleepers is the Helix Luxury Feather & Down Pillow. This is because you can fluff it up to change the loft of the pillow at any time.
Another consideration is whether you have back, neck, or shoulder pain. Notably, these conditions are brought about by everyday stressors. For example, if you sit at your desk all day at the office, there is a high chance that you don’t use the right posture. As such, you overextend your spine and overwork your muscles, leading to the issues mentioned above. Additionally, back, neck, and shoulder pain could also be because of an injury caused by an accident.
Ideally, your pillow should offer some relief for the pain by positioning your head and neck in the optimal position for spinal alignment. That way, the muscles can relax and heal as you sleep.
Notably, this also ties back to your sleeping position. For instance, if you’re a side sleeper, your head and neck are raised higher than a back sleeper. As such, a pillow with a low loft such as the Belly Sleeper Pillow will do you more harm than good and exacerbate the pain.
The sleeping requirements for pregnant women are also different from other people. It’s fairly common for pregnancy to come with pain in different parts of your body. This includes pain in your pelvic area, your lower back, and more. Also, it’s generally recommended that you sleep on your left side to maximize blood flow for you and the baby.
You’re better off if you can find a pillow that caters to these needs and offers relief for the parts of your body that are in pain. This is why a full-body pillow like the Zoma Body Pillow is a good idea.
Whether you have allergies
Another thing to consider before you commit to buying a pillow is whether you have allergies. Some common allergens that are likely to find their way into your pillow or mattress include dust mites, mold, dust, pet dander, and chemicals. If you’re allergic, any contact with these materials will lead to symptoms such as an itchy or running nose, sinus pressure, a scratchy throat, a cough, and more.
In short, allergens can drastically reduce your sleep quality. As such, you’re better off buying a hypoallergenic pillow like the Brooklyn Bedding Luxury Cooling Memory Foam Pillow, which naturally repels these materials. However, if you don’t have allergies, then whether the pillow is hypoallergenic or not will likely not affect your sleeping experience.
Whether you sleep hot
Also, whether you’re a hot sleeper or not can help you determine your choice of pillow. If you’re a hot sleeper, this means that you sweat a lot at night and that, in addition to the high temperatures around you, can cause discomfort and wake you up. As such, the best thing to do is invest in temperature regulating beddings, mattresses, and pillows so you can sleep through the night without much fuss.
For pillows, there are specific markers that can tell you whether you will sleep cool or hot once you use them. One is breathability. Airflow is essential for temperature regulation as it gets rid of the hot air and replaces it with the cooler alternative. This is one reason why latex filling is punched full of holes before it’s put inside the pillow cover. Also, this can be enhanced by a breathable cover option such as cotton.
There are other pillow fill options that naturally retain heat, such as memory foam. As such, manufacturers add additional components such as gel that absorb the heat to ensure you don’t sleep hot. This is one reason why the Amore Beds Double-Gel Cooling Pillow comes highly recommended for users who sleep hot.
Besides the memory foam, latex, and gel we mentioned above, there are other types of pillow fills that you might come across. Examples include down, feathers, and even buckwheat hulls in some cases. Notably, all these fill options have different attributes which can affect your sleep experience. Memory foam, for instance, is known for conforming and contouring to the shape of your head.
As for latex foam, it tends to offer firmer support. Down and feather options, on the other hand, tend to be softer. Ultimately you’ll need to look at each pillow filling option in addition to its upsides and downsides before deciding whether it’s a good fit.
Also worth noting is that some pillows are offered in different sizes. This can help ensure the pillow matches the bed it is put on. For instance, a Queen size pillow will be a good match for a Queen size bed. However, it might be too small for a King size alternative. The most common sizes available are Standard, Queen size, and King size.
The cover is another essential component of the pillow and one that can affect your sleeping experience. Notably, pillow covers come in different varieties and with different benefits. For instance, cotton pillow covers are known to be breathable and thus should be an asset in temperature regulation.
As for bamboo rayon, it’s naturally hypoallergenic, soft, odor-resistant, bacteria-resistant, and even thermoregulating. Other possible alternatives include Tencel and polyester. Consequently, you should always check the cover in potential pillow purchases as well as the benefits and downsides.
Another way to judge a pillow is to look at its firmness. However, this is more a matter of preference than a show of the pillow’s quality. Like mattresses, pillows can be rated from soft and firm on the firmness scale. If a pillow is on the softer side of the scale, it means it doesn’t offer much support. As such, the head of the sleeper will likely sink deep into the pillow.
If it’s rated firm, the pillow offers more support and is likely to prop you up all through the night. There are also pillows rated as medium-firm, which sit between the first two options. Consequently, they both cradle your head while offering a bit of support.
As we mentioned above, pillow firmness is a matter of preference. However, your sleeping position alongside other factors could also dictate the right firmness option. For instance, if you’re a side sleeper, a firmer pillow may be more beneficial to you because it helps prop up your head. This, in turn, keeps your neck and spine straight, therefore, preventing injury and pain.
In contrast, if a side sleeper were to use a softer pillow, there is a high chance that their head will sink, and as a result, the neck will be awkwardly placed.
The last consideration is whether you get a sleep trial with your pillow purchase. Some options like the Helix Wedge Pillow come with a 100-night sleep trial, while others don’t have any. Notably, while the pillow may have all the features you’re looking for on paper, it might not satisfy your needs. That said, the only way to find out is to try it out yourself.
This is where the sleep trial comes in. You can sleep on the pillow and feel it out. If it turns out to be satisfactory, you keep it. If instead, you find it underwhelming, you can return it to the vendor at no extra cost before you set out to look for another alternative.
How do you know you need a new pillow?
A pillow isn’t meant to be a permanent installation in your bedroom and should be replaced from time to time. That said, the lifespan of the pillow varies depending on the interior construction. For instance, a latex pillow tends to last longer than feather and memory foam alternatives.
However, since the time-frames are not definite, you’ll have to use your judgment to determine when to replace a pillow. These signs of wear and tear are a clear indication that your old pillow needs to be replaced:
The surface of a pillow should be consistent, and if you feel lumps in the foam or filler material, it’s time to get a new one.
Since you’re using it, the pillow should stain from time to time. However, these stains are often easily removable during clean-up. That said, staining can also be a sign of old age, and if the stains prove impossible to remove, it might be time for a replacement.
Aches and pains
As we mentioned before, a pillow is meant to help you sleep better and can even offer pain relief. However, if you start waking up with pains and aches in your neck and shoulders, then the pillow isn’t doing its job right. If you try the different configurations and setups for your pillow and still wake up with an aching body, you should get a new one.
Notably, older pillows also tend to contain more allergens, especially if you cant wash them. As such, rather than wake up sneezing and sniffling every day, you’re better off getting a new pillow with hypoallergenic properties.
The pillow is uncomfortable
You might notice that the pillow is no longer comfortable when you lay your head on it. This could be due to the lumps or another foam of deterioration. For feather pillows, you might need to keep fluffing the pillow to stay comfortable. This simply means it has outlived its usefulness and needs to make way for a newer option.
Tips to prolong your pillow’s lifespan
For your pillow to last longer, you need to add a protector case. That way, you keep allergens and stains away from the pillow. Additionally, it’s much easier to remove and wash the pillowcase than to wash the whole thing.
Another tip is that you should wash it bi-annually. However, this should come after carefully reading the wash instructions because one wrong move and you could be searching for a new pillow sooner than expected. Be sure to read more tips on pillow maintenance and more:
One key requirement for comfortable sleep is spinal alignment. If you don’t sleep with your spine straight, you strain and pressure your muscles throughout the night. This tends to lead to long-term injuries and can be why you keep waking up with an aching lower back or pain in your neck and shoulders.
Knee pillows are generally used for spinal alignment in the hip area. This is especially true for side sleepers. You put them in between your legs, and by lifting one leg, the pillow will enable your hips and consequently the spine to remain straight throughout the night.
Memory foam tends to trap heat as you sleep, which is why most people report sleeping hot. However, one method manufacturers use to eliminate the heat is adding gel to the memory foam. Notably, gel is a semi-liquid material that is encapsulated in beads that line the pillow.
This is the semi-liquid material that absorbs all the heat in the mattress. However, given its encapsulation, this material doesn’t evaporate, which means it’s not able to absorb heat indefinitely. As such, some users report sleeping cool at the beginning of the night. However, by the end, they’re sleeping hot.
As we mentioned severally in the sections above, the loft has the potential to make or break your experience with the pillow. However, different people have varying loft needs, with the determining factors being the sleeping position, shoulder width, pillow placement, mattress firmness, Overall body size, and head size.
In terms of sleeping position, side sleepers tend to prefer medium to high loft. Back sleepers prefer medium, and stomach sleepers find that low to medium loft works best. Of course, if you’re a side sleeper with larger shoulders, the loft you pick should be high enough to accommodate that.
If you have a heavier-set body or you sleep on a soft mattress, the effect is that your head is going to be much closer to the mattress. As such, low loft works best to ensure your spine is neutral.
Lastly, a higher loft is better if you have a larger/heavier head since it offers the necessary extra support. That said, these requirements are not set in stone, and you only need to make sure your spine is neutral.
As you can see, all the pillows pillow listed above are exceptional in their own right. Take, for instance, the Luxome LAYR Customizable Pillow. It’s hard to find another option that would fit the needs of so many so well. Additionally, there is the Brooklyn Bedding Talalay Latex Pillow which is our premium pick. Despite being made from organic materials, it still manages to tick most of the other boxes, including being a good fit for all three sleeping positions.