The perfect pillow is subjective – one person’s supportive memory foam “wedge” pillow could be the source of another person’s chronic neck pain.
But, there are some basic rules based on how you sleep, health conditions and allergies.
In this guide we explain how to find the perfect pillow for your sleep position, whatever your budget, as well as the best fill for your pillow, both for you and for the planet.
This year there are plenty of vegan alternatives to traditional feather pillows, and a growing range of eco-friendly pillows that offer excellent support but are more biodegradable than memory foam.
Read on to figure out your ideal pillow fill, size and material, then check out our round-up of the best pillows to find one to match.
You can trust our independent reviews. We may earn commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections, which are formed from real-world testing and expert advice. This revenue helps to fund journalism across The Independent.
What are the different types of pillow?
Standard (L75cm x W50cm)
A rectangular pillow that will fit any size bed up to a king, a standard pillow is ideal for side and back sleepers. A pillow this size will fit a standard case or an Oxford case – which has the extra border to make the pillow look larger and fancier – although if the fill is very lofty, or you plan to use a pillow cover (see our care advice below) it’s worth sizing up your case so the pillow isn’t tightly packed.
Kingsize (L90cm x W50cm)
Also known as super king pillows at some retailers, these larger pillows – a style imported from the US – are better suited to very large beds, such as kingsize and up. Standard pillows can look comically small on these bigger mattresses, and aren’t big enough to fill the horizontal space.
Square (L65cm x W65cm)
Also known as “European” pillows, square pillows are more of a design statement than anything else: while they aren’t terribly comfortable for sleeping on, they make a stunning, hotel-style backdrop to your bed when paired with a standard pillow and a couple of cushions. They can be useful if you like to read in bed but don’t have a headboard, and can give a bit of extra structure if you like to sleep on a pillow pile.
Wedge-shaped pillows (which are triangular, like a block of cheese) are great if you need to elevate your head while you sleep – if you suffer from respiratory or sinus issues, snore or have sleep apnea, for example. They can take some getting used to, and are usually very firm.
These come in all shapes and sizes, but generally speaking are very firm and made with contours that provide support and relief to your neck, shoulders and upper back. These pillows are perfect if you suffer from stiff necks or headaches caused by upper body muscle tension.
Ideal for late pregnancy, when side sleeping is the only option left to you, these long, cylindrical pillows – which are sometimes malleable and sometimes c-shaped – give you support everywhere you need it. Hold on to them after you’ve given birth, because they can be a great support for feeding in bed.
What’s the most ethical and environmentally-friendly pillow fill?
Down and feather-filled pillows can be ethically problematic, as acquiring by live-plucking is undeniably cruel and stressful for birds. There are independent and voluntary standards – the Responsible Down Standard, for example, which prohibits live plucking and promotes good animal welfare and DownPass – but animal welfare charities warn that no standard can ever ensure that every feather and down cluster is fully traceable to an ethical supplier. Looking for these certifications will be your best bet in finding the most ethical options, though.
Microfibres and memory foam come with their own issues, and are not biodegradable. Luckily, a number of companies are experimenting with green alternatives to traditional fills. Greenfibres is our favourite: its wool and plant fibre pillows are a perfect alternative to down or feather, while the grain-filled pillows are extremely firm and supportive. We asked William Lana of Greenfibres for his top tips for an ethical – and unusual – pillow.
“What is really important is that people get the best eco-pillow for them,” William explains, “not to blindly follow the ‘most eco’ and then find they don’t like it and blame all ‘eco pillows’, leaving them to go back to some polyester-filled nastiness with a toxic drenched conventional cover from a supermarket. Noooo!”
Organic wool is the greenest of the green when it comes to fill. Made up of small balls that can be teased out to produce a customised level of fluff, wool-fill pillows are not resource intensive and are very long-lasting. Wool balls only start to clump after two to six years, and it’s possible to refresh them by taking them out of cover, teasing them apart, and leaving in the sun for a few hours.
Our reviewer, a side sleeper, often uses a wool pillow as an alternative to a memory foam pillow. It’s supportive but has plenty of give, although it won’t appeal to people who want a fuller, more luxurious sleeping experience in their pillow.
A great vegan alternative to wool, Tencel is made from raw natural fibres derived from eucalyptus grown in sustainable forestry. Even more eco-friendly than bamboo, it’s low energy and uses chemicals that are environmentally sensitive.
Supportive and with cloud-like cosiness, this is a firmer pillow with plenty of give. It’s also ideal for anyone who suffers from allergies.
Often the most expensive pillow fill, down are the light, fluffy and insulative clusters that sit under a bird’s tougher, protective feathers. Down clusters look a little like dandelion fluff, and loft – or puff back up after being squashed – very quickly, which is what makes these pillows feel so cloud-like. Goose clusters are larger than duck clusters, and the most sought after.
Down pillows tend not to offer a huge amount of support: a down/feather mix is a good compromise. It’s really important to check the ethical credentials of the company you’re buying from, because down collection can be very problematic. It’s worth paying extra to make sure you’re getting a cruelty-free fill.
Cheaper than down but still offering a luxurious squishiness, feather pillows are slightly more supportive, but lack the loft and the longevity. Over time, feathers in pillows tend to drift into alignment, which is what makes them go flat; or, worse, puncture the case with a quill.
Extremely supportive and malleable, foam-filled pillows fit to your neck and shoulders like a memory foam mattress. Pillows stuffed with big wedges of memory foam can retain heat, though – to combat this, look for a pillow case that is good at regulating heat. This Bamboo version (£44.95, Mypandalife.com) is a good, and sustainable, option.
The small cubes of closed-cell foam that fill Simba’s legendary pillow (£99, Simbasleep.com) are slightly different to memory foam. They regulate heat well and have a really satisfying ability to compress and loft, making this pillow a good alternative to a feather/down fill.
The synthetic alternative to a down fill is just as soft and luxurious, but better suited to people who don’t want to use animal products or who suffer from allergies.
What’s the best pillow for your sleep position?
The key to a comfortable night’s sleep is alignment: you want a pillow that helps keep your spine neutral, all the way up through your cervical spine, and that supports the natural curvature of your neck and back. How you do that depends on your sleep position.
In some senses the easiest position to pillow shop for, people who sleep on their back need very little support: as long as your mattress is good, your spine will already be resting in its natural shape. Back-sleepers need a soft pillow that supports the head just enough to avoid stressing the upper spine: a down, feather or microfibre fill is perfect.
Side sleepers need a lot of support from their pillow to lift and support the head so that the spine and neck stay in alignment. A firm, microfibre pillow is best, but not everyone will find that comfortable: a nice alternative is to layer a low-support pillow – like barely-there down – with a firmer pillow underneath, being very careful not to raise your head too much. A firm fill with a little give – like wool – can also work.
Sleeping on your front puts a lot of stress on your spine and neck, forcing your cervical spine into a mild twist. The right pillow can help compensate and eradicate any accompanying neck and back pain: look for something very thin that won’t lift your head and exacerbate any twist. A thin down or microfibre pillow is best.
What about allergies?
Allergy flare-ups aren’t generally caused by the fill itself but by the dust mites that make their home in – particularly natural fill – pillows.
Feather and down tend to be among the worst culprits: expensive pillows are often filled with treated, mite-repellent feathers, which can help, but if you have severe allergies it’s best to look out for an explicitly allergy-friendly product.
Usually that’s synthetic, although kapok – an ethical down alternative made from tree fibres – is said to be unpalatable to mites because it’s slightly bitter tasting.
A pillow protector that you wash regularly can help create an extra barrier between you and the mites, and regular washing (according to the manufacturer’s instructions) can prevent a buildup.
How to take care of your pillows
General advice is to replace your pillows once a year, but you can avoid this with a little regular maintenance. Fluff your pillows daily in the morning (unless they’re made from memory foam, in which case this isn’t necessary), and invest in a pillow protector, an extra case that sits between the pillow and the pillow case, which protects the pillow itself from spills and can be washed more easily and regularly.
Where suitable, wash the pillow itself every six months, but check manufacturer instructions very carefully first: some pillows, particularly synthetic ones, are spot clean only. You can wash and tumble dry some down and feather pillows, but only in a high capacity machine – if you do this, don’t panic if the wet pillow looks ruined. It will puff back up when completely dry, but may need a bit of extra fluffing to separate clumps that have formed.
If you have a very expensive down pillow, it’s best to have it professionally cleaned.
Our favourite: Greenfibres organic wool pillow with Swiss pine shavings: £95.20, Greenfibres.com
Filling: Organic cotton and wool balls and soft Swiss pine shavings
Firmness: Soft to medium
Cover: Organic cotton
Like sleeping in an Alpine spa. We’ve long been fans of wool pillows, which have a perfect balance of support and comfort for side and front-sleepers, and are incredibly eco-friendly. Adding pine shavings to the mix gives the pillow a beautiful, fresh fragrance that only seems to get better the more you sleep on it and fluff it up. Pine pillows are the stuff of five-star hotel pillow menus, and have a host of reported benefits, including stress relief. We can’t prove that, but our reviewer definitely found the pine scent to be a calming aid to sleep.
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