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In the year since the pandemic started, sleep schedules shifted for many — strange nightmares, sleeplessness and stress on our bodies isn’t helping matters much. It seems this lack of sleep is leading to more interest in sleep-related products, including a surge in sales of mattresses late last year and melatonin more recently. Down duvets and pajama pants have also been popular with Shopping readers in the past couple of weeks. And getting a good night’s sleep can rest on things like a room’s temperature or scrolling through your phone before bed. But you also might want to look at what’s underneath your head while you sleep: Your pillow.
SKIP AHEAD Best pillows of 2021
A pillow “can make a big difference in our ability to sleep well,” noted board-certified psychiatrist Alex Dimitriu, MD, a sleep medicine specialist. Like your posture during the day, your posture throughout night is just as important. Generally, the wrong pillow will fall short for two reasons: It’s too high or it’s too low for your head and neck. The right pillow will help ensure you “maintain a relatively straight or neutral head and neck position — neither too high, nor too low,” Dimitriu explained. You can imagine your neck “as a straight or kinked garden hose” — whereas a straight hose represents how you should be sleeping, “the latter is more likely to obstruct” both your breathing and sleep quality, he added.
Since a pillow can change how soundly you sleep, finding the right one matters — we consulted experts about what to consider before buying a pillow and compiled the best pillows of 2021 for every type of sleeper.
How to pick the right pillow for you: Sleep positions
Experts we consulted all agreed you should consider what type of sleeper you are before buying a pillow. There are three types of sleepers: back, side and stomach sleepers. Depending on the type of sleeper you are, different pillows might work better than others.
Regardless of your preferred sleeping position, your pillow should maintain the aforementioned alignment: Your head and neck shouldn’t be arched while sleeping.
“A lot of pillows are marketed towards your sleeping position and those can often be the most comfortable for a person who is very dedicated to one position,” said Bo Babenko, a physical therapist and founder of FitCare Physiotherapy & Wellness. “But if you’re someone who doesn’t consistently sleep one way or another, just find the one that makes you the most comfortable and keeps you neck aligned with your chest and lower back.”
A back sleeper should pick a pillow that carefully cradles their head, advised Gil Kentof, DC, a chiropractor based in Franklin, Tennessee. Think of how your head leans when lying down — it just might bend back into your bed. “For back sleepers, you want your pillow to press into the back of your neck,” Kentof said. So, these sleepers need a pillow that provides more support to the back of their neck, balancing comfortable cushioning with supporting stiffness.
Generally, a firmer pillow, like one filled with polyester, works well, according to Kentof. Avoid pillows that are too plush and push your head too far up or forward. At the end of the day, back sleepers need a pillow that helps keep the body’s natural cervical curve, Kentof said. The cervical curve refers to the back of your neck.
Unlike back sleepers, side sleepers content with a particular pressure on the neck and shoulders — that requires a pillow that doesn’t add pressure on the top of their bodies.
“To help keep your spine and neck aligned to avoid strain, side sleepers should look for a high loft or fluffier pillow to help support their upper back and shoulder blades,” said Amanda Kruel, the vice president of soft goods at Mattress Firm.
When it comes to pillows, loft refers to their height. And the fluffier a pillow, the higher the loft. Side sleepers need this softer support. A softer pillow helps keep the top of their bodies lined up with their spine, allowing them to sink into a straight position, according to Kentof.
A rule of thumb that Kentof recommends: You might need a pillow that’s thicker if you find yourself using your arm to make the pillow level for your head and shoulders. An adjustable pillow might be best for side sleepers, according to Kentof, since they can take the stuffing out to meet an ideal height.
Out of the three types of sleepers, stomach sleeping is the worst way to keep your head and neck in line with your spine and one easily fixed posture mistakes, an expert previously told NBC BETTER. Instead, it’s more ideal to sleep on your back or side.
But if you can’t break out of your stomach sleeping habit, a thinner pillow is better than a thicker one (ideal for side sleepers) or one that’s more in the middle (ideal for back sleepers), recommended Babenko. Like side and back sleepers, stomach sleepers should still aim to align their heads with their backbones — a pillow with a lower loft offers just enough support for their neck, said Kruel.
Best pillow filling: Down, down alternative and foam
While your sleep position should be first and foremost in choosing the best pillow for yourself, the filling of your pillow is a close second — and affects how a pillow feels beneath your head. A pillow’s filling “determines how it will support your head and neck and what kind of comfort it will bring,” Kruel said. Like there are three types of sleepers, there are three fillings you’ll usually see when shopping for pillows: Down, down alternative and memory foam.
- A down pillow is full of feathers, usually from ducks or geese.
- A down alternative pillow uses a synthetic stuffing resembling the feel of a down pillow.
- A memory foam pillow “molds precisely to your body, helping to relieve pressure and give full support,” Kruel explained.
Kruel recommended foam for side sleepers since the “spongy material easily adapts to support you just right.” Kentof said back sleepers should avoid foam since it doesn’t have the support a neck needs. Down and down alternative pillows can be squashed into your favored thickness, he added. Since down and down alternative fillings are similar in feel, the one for you could come down to price — down alternative is sometimes more affordable than down.
As for hot sleepers, a pillow that’s specifically designed to be cooling could help them get through the night. Cooling pillows tend to come in memory foam or branded as hybrid — with one side that’s usually made from foam, according to Kruel. Like with cooling bedding, look out for a cooling pillow that’s meant to be moisture-wicking and breathable.
Best pillows of 2021
Following guidance from experts, we selected the best pillows of 2021 from bedding brands like Allswell, Brooklinen, Casper and more.
Best pillow overall: Buffy
Buffy’s popular Cloud Pillow is our top pick for its affordability, breathability and sustainability. Slightly more budget-friendly than the others we’ve seen from other direct-to-consumer companies and described as “cool-to-the-touch,” the pillow could be beneficial for sweaty sleepers. The pillow is designed to be what Buffy calls “earth-friendly” — the filling is made from recycled fibers and the shell is made from Oeko-Tex certified eucalyptus. The brand also claims each pillow recycles anywhere from 24 to 30 plastic bottles. The pillow features three firmness levels — Soft, Medium and Firm — for every type of sleeper, and has earned an average 4.8-star rating over more than 2,000 reviews.
Best pillow set: Beckham Hotel Collection
The No. 1 bestseller in Amazon’s home and kitchen category, this pillow has an average 4.5-star rating over more than 95,000 reviews. This pillow is made with what the company calls no-shift construction, meant to help the cushion keep its shape without crumpling. The pillow is designed to be cooling thanks to a gel fiber filling and breathable cover. While the brand says this pillow can work for back, side and stomach sleepers, the higher loft and firmness of it might not be best for stomach sleepers based on what experts told us.
Best affordable pillow: Allswell
Don’t let the price tag fool you, this pillow is still on par with pricier options. The pillow features an antimicrobial polyester fill on the inside and a cotton sateen cover on the outside. Allswell says this pillow is made with medium support in mind, so it might be a better option for back sleepers. The pillow has a 4.4-star rating over more than 200 reviews.
Best high-end pillow: Avocado
Avocado’s latex pillow starts at $99 for a standard size. While it does have a higher price tag, this pillow is made with materials that are more eco-friendly, which Avocado is known for (the mattress brand is Climate Neutral Certified). The pillow is made from a charcoal-infused latex core, which is supposed to help manage both temperature and moisture while you’re sleeping. This core is also what makes this pillow firmer, so it’s ideal for back and side sleepers more so than stomach sleepers. The cover is made from organic cotton that’s certified under the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), which looks at the supply chain of a product. The pillow has earned an average 4.4-star rating over more than 500 reviews.
Best pillow for back sleepers: Casper
Although Casper says this pillow was made to “accommodate all sleep positions,” it might actually be best for back sleepers. This pillow features a 2-inch gusset, which the brand describes as an extra piece of fabric that gives a pillow more structure. According to the brand, this helps “allow for better neck alignment.” The gusset is also designed to evenly distribute the down alternative filling — it’s recommended that the pillow is fluffed daily to maintain its feel. Casper used a breathable percale weave for the cover of the pillow.
Best pillow for side sleepers: Brooklyn Bedding
With the above advice that side sleepers should pick a soft and supportive pillow, Brooklyn Bedding’s Premium Shredded Foam Pillow stood out since it’s made to be moldable. Filled with a blend of deconstructed latex and memory foam, this pillow is designed to contour to your head and neck. The memory foam also features a cooling gel to move heat away from your head. Along with this cooling gel, the pillow’s cover is meant to be moisture-wicking. This pillow boasts an average 4.6-star rating with close to 2,000 reviews.
Best pillow for stomach sleepers: Brooklinen
As mentioned above, stomach sleeping can affect your posture, so the position isn’t recommended. Still, if you find yourself unable to switch to your back or side, Brooklinen’s down pillow could be an option to consider. This down pillow features three constructions to choose from — Plush, Mid-Plush and Firm. Out of the three, the Plush version is the flattest and the brand suggests it for stomach sleepers. Unlike the Mid-Plush and Firm, the Plush pillow is filled completely from down clusters, which are designed to be softer to lay on. This pillow has an average 4.5-star rating over more than 2,000 reviews.
Best pillow for hot sleepers: Tuft & Needle
Tuft & Needle’s Original Foam Pillow stood out since it’s made from open-cell foam, graphite and cooling gel. The foam filling is custom cut, which the brand says helps it be both breathable and supportive. This foam is supposed to be responsive — springing back into shape without the need to fluff it. The graphite and cooling gel are designed to pull heat away from the body. Tuft & Needle claims that all three of these features work together to make sure “you’re always on the ‘cool side’ of the pillow.” This pillow has an average 4.4-star rating over more than 3,800 reviews.