Looking for the best bed pillow, ever? You should be! It’s estimated that approximately one third of our entire life is spent sleeping. Where else can you spend so little money on an item that you will spend so much time with, one that can seriously improve or hamper your ability to sleep soundly and function properly in the morning?
Here are some great pillow options for various sleeping preferences:
Bead Pillow Types
The pillow types highlighted in this section consist of small filler beads that range in composition from synthetic to organic materials.
Buckwheat Hull Pillow
Topping our list for the best pillow is the buckwheat hull pillow. Buckwheat is not actually a grain but is cultivated for its grain-like seeds. Buckwheat is a healthy dietary alternative to rice, wheat, and corn and its hulls are now being used as pillow filling.
This unconventional choice for pillow filler is gaining popularity, thanks in part to television advertisements for the Japanese Sobakawa pillow. Buckwheat hulls are small and springy to provide firm, contoured support to the head and neck. In fact, this type of pillow may be too firm for some. However, do note that the pillows are typically sold overstuffed; this type of pillow will lose a small amount of its volume over the first year.
A particular advantage of the buckwheat pillow is its airflow, providing for an extremely cool sleeping experience. On the downside, these hulls are known to make a slight crunching noise, so if you’re a light sleeper, you might want to consider earplugs or another pillow type.
Buckwheat pillows are incredibly affordable when you consider that their lifespan is typically 10+ years. Over 200 customers have reviewed this 4-star buckwheat pillow, with over 150 customers giving it 5 out of 5 stars on Amazon.com.
Millet Hull Pillow
What is millet? Unlike buckwheat, millet is actually a grain, best known as bird seed, although it’s a grain that is edible for humans, too. Like buckwheat, millet seeds grow inside little hulls. These hulls are small and silky smooth, and they make up the material that goes inside a millet hull pillow.
Millet hulls differ from buckwheat hulls as pillow filling in a few ways. You probably won’t hear a crunching noise when moving your head on this pillow since the hulls are smoother. Millet pillows may have a “wheaty” odor for a few weeks, but this is a natural scent, unlike the chemical odor released by other pillows, particularly those made of foam.
Also, millet hulls are softer than buckwheat hulls, providing a less firm pillow, but they still contour to the shape of your neck and head. For a firmer pillow surface, consider a buckwheat or memory foam pillow (described below).
If you seem to change pillows year after year due to decreasing volume, high-quality millet pillows only lose a minimal amount of their elasticity, and hence volume, much like buckwheat hulls.
Microbead pillows are similar in feel to buckwheat and millet, but these pillows do not contain hull fillings. Instead, they are filled with polystyrene beads (better known by its trade name: Styrofoam). Ever relaxed on an airplane with a travel neck pillow or sat in a beanbag before? Then you have used a microbead pillow already.
Like their bead pillow cousins, microbead pillows are supportive and offer contoured comfort. Due to their filling, they also provide good airflow to reduce heat retention. Microbead pillows can be too firm for some sleepers and can also contain a slight chemical odor upon first uses.
As we know from household familiarity, polystyrene packing peanuts are highly protective and for the most part durable, but stick one of them under a heavy book for some time and it will surely lose its shape for good. Therefore, the longevity of microbead pillows can vary.
Like the idea of a microbead pillow? This pillow features an innovative design to support the head and neck. You can even use it as back support. Perhaps you like the idea of a bead pillow, but aren’t too keen on hulls or polystyrene. Try this popular foam pillow infused with gel beads instead.
Fluffy Pillow Types
Fluffy pillows are just as they sound: they consist of full, soft filler to provide that “head on a cloud” feeling.
Feather pillows were at one point the most common pillow type used. Feather pillows can be incredibly soft and supportive, as they contain pliable filler that can be manually adjusted to fit the shape of your head and neck.
There are, however, several disadvantages to feather pillows that have led to its gradual market decline. First, people who are allergic to feathers must be careful to use a hypoallergenic version or synthetic feather pillow in order to prevent a reaction. Further, feather pillows provide a haven for dust mites, so hypoallergenic pillow cases might need to be used, which can stiffen the pillow’s natural fluffiness some. Finally, feather pillows can be quite expensive due to the nature of the filling and may lose their shape after years of use, flattening into an uncomfortable head pad.
Note that with a feather pillow, you are literally sleeping on duck and geese feathers, which often have pointy quills at one end. Don’t be surprised if you feel a prick or two as you maneuver your pillow into a comfortable shape. And because these feathers naturally repel water, the pillows are non washable.
A down pillow is a good alternative to a feather pillow. Down is the layer underneath the feathers of ducks and geese that resembles more of a cotton ball than a feather (think of a furry yellow chick: this is down and will eventually be the foundation to the feathers that grow as the chick ages). For this reason, down pillows are generally fluffier than feather pillows and are washable.
Down pillows are measured by fill power (fluffiness) and weight (how many ounces of down are contained within the pillow). The higher the fill power and weight, the higher quality the pillow. They come in different densities to offer varying support. Softer density pillows are ideal for stomach sleepers, medium density pillows are optimal for back sleepers, and firm density pillows are great for side sleepers.
Note that down traps heat close to the bodies of ducks and geese and will do the same in your pillow. If you run hot while sleeping, consider looking into a gel-based or beaded pillow to provide a cooler sleeping experience.
If you are allergic to feathers or down, synthetic down pillows are available that offer the same consistency of down without the animal by-product. This 100% cotton alternative down pillow is a customer favorite. If you are not allergic to either but cannot decide which to purchase, about 70 customers agree that this down and feather mix pillow might be a good place to start.
There are several types and styles of latex pillows available. I only recommend natural latex—the kind that comes from rubber trees—not synthetic latex. You’ll notice some pillows made of “Talalay latex,” which is basically a method of manufacturing that produces pillows of varying degrees of denseness. Dunlop is the other major manufacturing method, which produces a denser, more durable pillow.
Latex is inhospitable to dust mites, so it is a great pillow choice for allergy sufferers.
Like memory foam pillows, some latex pillows are actually made in a mold so that they pop out into a specific shape and hold that shape. This extremely well reviewed and popular Talalay latex pillow on Amazon is an example of such a pillow.
You can also get shredded latex pillows that are stuffed with pieces of natural latex rubber. The advantage of a pillow like this is that you can move the latex pieces around inside the pillow and get exactly the shape and thickness that you like. It’s very similar to the way that you use a millet hull or buckwheat pillow.
Foam Pillow Types
Foam pillows are designed to encompass the shape of your head and retain that shape for all-night support. These types of pillows are frequently used by sleepers with neck, shoulder, or back injuries/ailments due to their resilient and firm filling.
Memory Foam Pillow
Memory foam pillows provide a molded sleeping surface and are perfect for sleepers that need maximum head support. Once you take your head off the pillow, memory foam will slowly spring back into its original shape. Serta gets high marks for this contoured memory foam pillow.
Memory foam is typically firm and does not provide the fluffiness some sleepers seek in a pillow. If you like the feel of memory foam but prefer a softer pillow, check out this less firm memory foam pillow that comes with a removable velour cover.
Foam pillows can give off a faint (or sometimes strong) chemical odor that will usually disappear after a few days of use. For this reason, sleepers with allergies or other sensitivities might want to let the pillow air out for a day or two prior to use in order to avoid irritation. Some users have even complained that the initial scent resulted in headaches or dizziness, but these symptoms can usually be prevented by allowing the pillow to air out, as mentioned.
Due to their density, memory foam pillows can be too hot for some sleepers. Some pillows such as this one consist of ventilated foam to better circulate air, resulting in a cooler pillow surface. Users cannot agree whether the pillow is “too firm,” “too soft,” or “just right,” but the pillow’s better-than-average coolness seems uncontested.
Finally, you can’t mention memory foam pillows without linking to the biggest name in memory foam, TempurPedic.
Cooling Gel Pillow
One of the latest innovations in pillows answers the pleas of sweaty sleepers. These pillows consist of a layer of gel that feels cool to the touch. The longevity of the chill varies by pillow and “activates” when you put your head down. The cooling feature then “resets” once you remove your head for a period of time.
For some sleepers, a cool sleeping surface is enough to lull them to sleep; others may need long-term pillow coolness and may want to seek more ventilated options such as beaded pillows.
Cooling gel is often found in hybrid pillow types: you can buy a cooling gel memory foam pillow or cooling gel neck contour pillow, for example. This particular type consists of memory foam filler with an outer gel layer.
Unsure if you’ll like a gel pillow? Try out a cooling gel pad that attaches to your existing pillow. This pad can give off a “crinkling” sound when you move your head, but the cooling effect can last for about 5-6 hours if refrigerated, according to consumers. But note: it’s fairly heavy, so if you use a fluffier pillow, your pillow might experience a good deal of flattening. I use mine with a cervical memory foam pillow so there is no noticeable decrease in volume.
Specialty and Orthopedic Pillow Types
There are also pillows engineered for a variety of conditions, ailments, and special needs. Here’s a roundup of common specialty pillows.
Sleep Apnea Pillow
CPAP breathing machines can force sleepers into an uncomfortable sleeping position because standard pillow types don’t have any clearance room for the mask and tubing. Neck, back, and shoulder pain are frequent sleeping complaints of CPAP users.
There are several types of pillows aimed at individuals with sleep apnea. Some are specifically designed to accommodate CPAP breathing machines, such as this one. This pillow has a cutout on the top side of the pillow to accommodate the mask and keep it securely in place. The downside to using this type of pillow is that your sleeping position must remain the same in order to take advantage of the pillow’s unique shape.
Another type of sleep apnea pillow helps reduce snoring by keeping the airway and spine extended. These pillows aren’t designed for CPAP machines, but rather those with mild cases of snoring. They come in different sizes and their intricate “arm cradle” design encourages side sleeping, which is more conducive to a snore-free sleep.
Finally, wedge pillows are often used by sleep apnea patients; these pillows are described in detail later.
Proper neck support is a goal for many sleepers. The ideal firmness and pillow curvature will differ for each person, but there are several types of neck pillows available. Just like spines, neck pillows take on a variety of shapes.
For traveling, the ever-popular U-shaped neck pillow provides neck support while in rigid, often uncomfortable travel positions. These soft pillows can be filled with microbeads, foam, or cotton and remain a lightweight travel solution. Not intended to be a permanent fix, this pillow helps prevent neck slumping while dozing off or resting. For neck support while driving, purchase a neck pillow with a strap that secures to your car’s headrest.
For sleep and lounging, several options present. A neck roll pillow supports the neckline, aligning the cervical spine to the top of the skull. This cylinder-shaped pillow reduces pressure on cervical vertebrae and helps prevent stiff necks upon waking. However, these are not ideal for sleeping as they do not provide any head support.
Alternatively, a rectangular cervical pillow includes a middle curvature that aligns the cervical spine. On its side, the pillow looks like a wave; often the curvature is higher at one end of the pillow than the other, allowing customers to choose the most comfortable elevation for their neck. These pillow types are made of soft to rigid foam to provide support to more serious cases of cervical spine misalignment.
The special needs of pregnant sleepers are being addressed by pillow manufacturers, too. A maternity pillow is a large, curved pillow that is intended to be cradled by the pregnant sleeper. The pillow provides support in multiple areas to allow the pregnant body to settle into a comfortable sleeping position.
One of the most popular maternity pillows is shaped somewhat like a fishhook and is intended for side sleeping, often the most comfortable sleeping position for pregnant women. The top of the pillow cradles the head while the bottom portion of the pillow tucks between the legs, reducing lower body strain with its cushioned support. The “hook” portion of the pillow curves back around to support the underside of the belly.
Because the fishhook design is so thin, the pillow can be folded into various cushion shapes for the back, feet, and head as well. This pillow can also be used post-pregnancy for nursing.
Non-pregnant sleepers can also take advantage of full-body pillows. Straight and cylinder-shaped or curved like a “U,” these pillows function in the same manner as maternity pillows by supporting legs, arms, and heads. They also provide a great “cuddle” surface.
Because maternity and body pillows are hugged by the body, they are usually filled with cotton or wool so expect them to “give” a little. You will need to manually adjust the filler in this pillow from time to time. If you prefer a firmer body pillow, there are also foam varieties such as this one, which has 108 5-star ratings on Amazon.com.
Straight body pillows look like extra long pillows and therefore can be used as a single pillow by multiple sleepers, if needed.
These specially designed curved pillows provide proper spinal alignment to reduce strain and back fatigue for those who find themselves sitting for long periods of time. Lumbar pillows are often made of firm memory foam to firmly hug the back’s curves and provide ample support. This model is particularly well reviewed, but this pillow comes with a gel pad that can be cooled or heated to provide pain relief.
Lumbar pillows are popular add-ons to office chairs or vehicle seats. If using a lumbar pillow for a chair, choose one with straps for a secure fit.
For back support while lounging, consider a cushioned bedrest pillow.
The purpose of a wedge pillow, like other specialty pillows, is to force bodily alignment: in this case, the goal is to position a sleeper in an incline. The wedge pillow is a popular design for sleepers with sleep apnea, spinal injuries, digestive issues (especially GERD), or sinus issues.
Wedge pillows are often made from memory foam and are therefore firm so as to support the upper body. This standard wedge pillow is foldable, permitting the customer to increase the angle of incline. For that “fluffy” feeling, place a feather pillow on top of the wedge.
Wedge pillows are also used to elevate the legs during massages or extended resting periods. Remember that foam pillows can give off an odor, so be sure to allow it to air out for a few days prior to using.
Did we miss a popular pillow type or model? Tell us about your favorite pillow in the comments!