11 Types of Pillows You Should Know

Lots of us tend to overlook the importance of pillows. All you need is a comfortable mattress and you’ll get the best sleep ever, right? Not necessarily.

Using the right type of pillow plays just as crucial of a role as using the right type of mattress. The wrong pillow can leave you feeling uncomfortable or waking up stiff or sore.

There are a wide variety of options when it comes to choosing a pillow, so it might get confusing knowing what pillow is best for you. Not all pillows are equal, and to help you narrow down your options, we discuss some of the most popular pillow choices and break down everything you should know before buying a pillow.

1. Feather Pillows

Feathers come straight from geese and ducks and make for fluffy, lofty, and durable pillows. Feathers stay cool, so you won’t have to worry about overheating throughout the night.

A feather pillow is reasonably affordable but isn’t as soft as other types of pillows. The quills in feather pillows might also poke through the pillow’s case and scratch you. Not only that, feather pillows can sometimes have a strange odor.

2. Down Pillows

Down is the feathers from the underside of ducks and geese. Duck and goose down are fluffy, durable, and soft materials known for being lofty and luxurious.

Unlike traditional feathers, down doesn’t have quills, so it won’t poke through the casing and scratch you. Down pillows are quite expensive, but they aren’t that supportive, so it may not be worth it for some people to purchase a down pillow.

3. Down Alternative Pillows

Since down pillows can get so expensive, down alternative pillows are a more affordable option. They’re made from synthetic materials such as polyester or polyfill.

Although down alternative pillows aren’t as durable or cool as down pillows are, they’re hypoallergenic and readily available. They’re also easy to care for, being both washing machine and dryer safe.

4. Memory Foam Pillows

Memory foam pillows are one of the most supportive types of pillows. They conform under the curves of your head and neck to relieve pressure. Memory foam is a great option for anyone suffering from chronic pain or sleepers who simply want premium comfort.

However, a common problem with memory foam pillows is they tend to trap body heat, making them uncomfortable for some users.

If you’re interested in memory foam but don’t want to overheat, look for memory foam pillows containing gel, copper, or phase-changing materials, which prevent the memory foam from getting too hot without affecting its pressure-relieving capabilities.

5. Latex Pillows

Latex is a natural foam produced from the sap of rubber trees. It’s a long-lasting foam built to be buoyant, pressure-relieving, and cooler than other foams. A latex foam pillow is one of the most environmentally-friendly types of pillows because it’s biodegradable, carbon-negative, renewable, and doesn’t feature animal products.

Natural latex is hypoallergenic, meaning the material is resistant to allergens such as mold or dust mites and is a good option for people with allergies.

Nonetheless, these excellent features don’t come cheap. Most latex pillows cost over $100 each, which is unreasonable for many shoppers. There’s a give and take with latex pillows—you pay a higher price, but they last much longer than the typical pillow.

You may come across latex pillows for cheap, but be sure they aren’t labeled as synthetic or blended latex. Synthetic and blended latex contain chemicals in the place of natural materials, and although they’re cheaper, they’re not as high-quality as true latex.

6. Microbead Pillows

Microbeads are the word for unexpanded polystyrene beads (EPS) built to contour beneath your head and neck. Microbeads are often found inside of neck pillows as they are sturdy and supportive to keep you comfortable when sleeping upright.

Microbeads are popular since they are cool and air can circulate between each of the tiny pieces. The issue with microbeads is that the beads will spill everywhere if your pillow somehow rips. You might end up finding microbeads in random places for weeks.

Another issue with microbeads is they are terrible for the environment. Research suggests it takes approximately 500 years for microbeads to naturally disintegrate.

7. Gel Pillows

Gel isn’t a type of pillow itself, but rather a material incorporated into other types of pillows. It’s often blended with memory foam or poly-foam since both materials frequently get hot. Manufacturers of gel memory foam either infuse the gel directly into other pillow materials or add a layer of gel over the other material.

8. Wool Pillows

Wool is a fluffy and breathable fill derived from sheep. Wool pillows may only contain wool, though other wool pillows contain a blend of both wool and other fills, such as down alternatives or feathers.

Wool is a natural flame retardant, unlike some other types of pillows. Most mattresses and pillows contain some sort of flame retardant, but natural variations are safest to sleep on long-term.

Since wool comes from sheep, most vegans or plant-based shoppers will likely avoid purchasing wool pillows. Even if you’re interested in wool pillows, they’re quite expensive and must be dry-cleaned.

9. Buckwheat Pillows

Originating in Asia, buckwheat hulls are a natural fill with a similar feel to microbeads. Unlike microbeads, buckwheat hulls are more durable, but also biodegrade faster.

Buckwheat pillows are supportive, breathable, and hypoallergenic. However, the hulls can crunch together and be noisier than other types of pillows. Another issue is buckwheat doesn’t feel as soft or cushiony as other types of pillows, so they may not be worth getting.

10. Kapok Pillows

Kapok fibers are the fluffy seed pods from the Ceiba tree, a tree found in rainforests. They have a similar feel to down, being fluffy, lofty, and light. But unlike down, kapok fibers are plant-based.

Kapok is hypoallergenic and naturally biodegradable, making it better for the environment. However, kapok pillows are pricey since they have a labor-intensive harvest process. Not only that, but kapok is flammable, which may turn some shoppers away from this type of pillow.

11. Water Pillows

While water pillows may be uncommon, they’re a great option for pain sufferers. They provide excellent support for your head and neck and don’t need to be fluffed, unlike other types of pillows.

Since water pillows are made entirely of water, they’re hypoallergenic. Also, you can alter the firmness level and loft of your water pillow depending on the amount of water you add to it.

With water pillows, there’s the risk of the pillows leaking and ruining your mattress. Not only that, but water pillows are on the heavier side. Although your water pillow will stay in place, it’ll be annoying to move it in the middle of the night.

Pillow Shapes

Not only are there numerous pillow fills to consider, but also pillow shapes. While you can always go for the standard rectangular pillow, unique pillow shapes may suit you and your personal preferences better.

Contour

Contour pillows are shaped like a wave, with two arches and an indentation where your head would rest. There’s a smaller arch under your neck and a larger arch at the top of the pillow.

Contour pillows are one of the best pillows for neck pain and shoulder stiffness and keep your spine aligned.

Cervical

Cervical pillows are another type of contour pillow, only they feature an indentation in the center of the pillow rather than being wavy. They’re specifically designed to relieve neck and shoulder pain. The indent in cervical pillows keep your head in place to prevent your neck from curving unnaturally and leading to pain or stiffness.

Neck

Neck pillows—also called horseshoe pillows—are small, C-shaped pillows that go around your neck. They’re most commonly used when traveling to prevent your head and neck from curving unnaturally and leading to pain.

Wedge

Wedge pillows are triangle-shaped pillows designed for back and side sleepers. The shape of the pillow keeps you inclined and provides similar benefits to adjustable beds.

The benefits of using a wedge pillow include providing back support, improving circulation, and relieving pressure around the lumbar spine. For sleepers who snore or struggle with sleep apnea, wedge pillows help keep your airways open.

Another way to use wedge pillows is under your legs to increase circulation around your feet and ankles, potentially reducing edema.

Bolster

Bolster pillows are small, cylindrical pillows. While they’re popular decorative pieces, you can also find bolster pillows specifically designed to sleep on.

Based on where you place a bolster pillow, you receive different types of support. When the pillow is under your neck, the pillow provides neck and shoulder support. Placing a bolster pillow between your knees when side sleeping to promote a neutral spine and relieve back pain.

Another option is to place the bolster pillow beneath your knees and alleviate pressure build-up in the lower back .

Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea pillows are unique pillows designed to accommodate the tubes of continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines. The tubes are often invasive and annoying to deal with at night, but sleep apnea pillows keep the tubes in place so you don’t have to worry about them interrupting your sleep.

Pillow Sizes

Not all pillows are the standard 20 by 26 inches. Although standard size pillows work well, you may find bigger or smaller pillows may work better for your particular needs. Below, we outline the most common pillow sizes.

Travel

Travel pillows are 12 inches by 16 inches. They’re small enough for easy transport, but still large enough to rest your head upon comfortably when in a plane or car. Also, travel pillows are a good bed pillow for toddlers and children.

Standard

Standard pillows measure 20 inches wide by 26 inches long and are, unsurprisingly, the most common pillow size sold today. They fit in both standard and queen size pillowcases and fit on all types of mattresses.

Super Standard

Super standard pillows are just a bit longer than standard pillows at 20 inches wide by 28 inches long. They’re a good pillow option for sleepers who tend to roll around at night or who want to ensure there are no gaps between their pillows.

Queen

Queen pillows measure 20 inches wide and 30 inches long and are suitable for queen mattresses. Queen pillowcases aren’t as common as standard cases, but you can fit queen pillows into standard pillowcases snugly. Still, putting a queen pillow into a standard case makes  the pillow feel more lofty and firm.

King

King size pillows are 20 inches wide by 36 inches long and, as you might assume, they fill the width of a king bed so there are no gaps between the pillows. A king pillow doubles as a small body pillow, which can help with spinal alignment and relieving muscle and joint pain.

Body

The dimensions of a standard body pillow are 20 by 54 inches and they are typically rectangular, though body pillows can come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes to suit different needs.

Body pillow shapes include:

  • Cylindrical
  • L-shaped
  • J-shaped
  • C-shaped
  • U-shaped

Body pillows are also called pregnancy pillows because of how beneficial they are for pregnant women. Sleeping on a body pillow relieves pressure, supports the back and growing belly, reduces acid reflux and heartburn, and improves circulation.

FAQs

What types of pillows do hotels use?

Most hotels use down, feather, or down alternative pillows since they’re fluffy and luxurious. However, keep in mind that hotels have very scrupulous maintenance and cleaning routines to keep their rooms and pillows in their best condition. This includes regularly sanitizing the pillows, fluffing the pillows, and ironing the pillowcases.

Should my shoulders be on a pillow when sleeping?

You shouldn’t place your shoulders on it when sleeping. Resting your shoulders on your pillow essentially defeats its purpose, since it’s there to support a sleeper’s head and neck, not the shoulders.

If you put your shoulders on your pillow, your head and neck won’t be properly supported and you may end up feeling sore and achy in the morning.

Why is my pillow lumpy?

All pillows get lumpy with age. This is because they collect debris and moisture, causing the pillow fills to clump together.

You can minimize lumpiness by frequently fluffing your pillow and washing it two to three times a year.

Is it better to sleep on a hard or soft pillow?

Hard and soft pillows provide unique benefits to different sleepers and it’s difficult to decide which is objectively better. Instead, choosing the right pillow firmness primarily depends on your sleeping position:

Pillows for side sleepers should be firm to keep their head properly supported and prevent the pillow from flattening
Stomach sleepers need softer pillows so their heads stay in line with their spines
Back sleepers generally prefer medium or medium-firm pillows to provide enough pressure and cushioning for their head and necks

Are expensive pillows worth it?

Luxury pillows can cost upwards of $100 to $200, if not more. Deciding whether or not you want to pay hundreds for a pillow depends on the type of pillow you need and what features the expensive pillows offer.

Some expensive pillows simply have luxury materials but don’t offer anything extraordinary in terms of support and comfort. On the other hand, some pricier pillows can offer superb support, cushioning, and durability.

Deciding if you want a pricey pillow is simply a matter of comparing brands and reading the details of what different pillows have to offer.

Conclusion

The best pillow will vary from person to person, but some types of pillows are better than others. We recommend going for foam pillows over fibrous pillows since latex and memory foam are more supportive and pressure-relieving compared to feathers or down.

Regardless of what type of pillow you choose, be sure to pick the right shape and size to fit your needs.

This article is for informational purposes and should not replace advice from your doctor or other medical professional.

James Nguyen, Sleep Expert James Nguyen

James Nguyen is Zoma's resident sleep expert and staff writer. James enjoys learning about the newest technologies in the mattress industry and doing deep dives into the science of sleep. He's tried nearly every gadget and gizmo in an effort to determine which sleep-promoting accessories can truly enhance your shut-eye. Outside of work, James takes his dedication to get healthy sleep seriously, and has even declared himself an "expert napper." James' research has been featured on Thrive Global and other media.

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