Choosing a Pillow
There's no need to spend a fortune to get a good pillow. Reviews indicate that users are nearly as satisfied with a cheap polyester pillow as they are with pricier down or memory foam purchases. It's certainly possible to spend more than $100 on a pillow, but Cheapism.com found that there are many inexpensive options nestled in the $5-to-$35 range that provide the comfort sleepers crave.
Pillow Brands.There are a dizzying number of pillow brands, many of which settle into the budget zone. Unsurprisingly, these include store brands such as Walmart's Mainstays, Target's Threshold and Room Essentials, Macy's Charter Club, as well as brands sold more widely, such as Wamsutta. Still, at this price, shoppers are more likely to run across less familiar brands that sell online only.
Major mattress retailers including Simmons, Serta, and Sealy also manufacture pillows, some of which fall into the upper end of our price range. Even bed-in-a-box mattress retailers are getting in on the action with their own pillows, though price-wise, the well-known models are tagged beyond the Cheapism range, starting around $50. Examples include the Casper Pillow (starting at $55), and one from Tuft & Needle which goes for $75. Cheaper online mattress manufacturers that make less-expensive pillows include Sleep Innovations and Classic Brands.
But buying a pillow has less to do with who makes it, than it does with individual needs. The best way to choose a cheap pillow is to become familiar with the various types and determine which matches your sleeping preferences.
Cotton/Polyester.Cotton and polyester pillows are the most common and the least expensive -- some cost as little as a few dollars, and $20 is about tops. They're made of 100 percent cotton or polyester and are very similar in their features, including their biggest downfall: the tendency to flatten and get lumpy over time. On the plus side, both are lightweight and easy to care for because they usually can be tossed in the washer and dryer.
Our top pick in this category is the Wamsutta Extra-Firm Side Sleeper (starting at $15), a firmer-feeling, loftier pillow meant to keep side sleepers' heads higher off the mattress. We also like the Mainstays Standard Microfiber Pillow (starting at $7 for two), a Walmart exclusive and a reliable cheap choice that works especially well for guest rooms or filling out children's beds.
Down Alternative.Down pillows are filled with the soft undercoating plucked from the underside of ducks and geese. They are soft, durable, and very expensive -- typically $100 or more each. Down alternative pillows are similar to old-fashioned goose down pillows in their feel but are constructed differently. Instead of down and feathers, down alternative pillows are made of polyester gel/puff fibers that feel like real down. The downside of down alternative pillows is that they can get lumpy and generally don't stay fluffed, but they're a good choice for people with allergies who like to sleep with a soft pillow. Considerably less inexpensive than their down counterparts, they're typically tagged between $10 and $30.
Our research pointed to the Lauren Ralph Lauren Logo Down Alternative Pillow (starting at $20) as the best cheap offering in this subset, and it's available in three firmness levels to satisfy all kinds of sleepers. We also like the Sealy Posturepedic Moisture Wicking Pillow (starting at $28), which aims to help sweaty sleepers with a cotton cover meant to draw away moisture.
Memory Foam/Latex.Memory foam pillows are noted for their support, are usually allergy-friendly, and typically don't require constant fluffing, molding, or shifting. Memory foam responds to body heat, which causes the foam to mold itself to the contours of a sleeper's head, neck, and shoulders, reducing pressure points. But they're heavy, infamous for a chemical smell, and typically too firm for anyone who prefers a softer pillow. Memory foam pillows start around $15 and top out above $100.
Latex pillows, like memory foam pillows, are known for being comfortable and supportive. They don't get lumpy or need fluffing, are less likely to trigger allergies, and also are cooler than memory foam. On the downside, they're heavy and pricier -- expect to spend anywhere from $30 to $100 -- and have a springier feel that isn't for everyone.
In this category, we recommend the Classic Brands Conforma (starting at $31), a one-piece memory-foam pillow that provides strong support for sleepers who want a firm pillow that doesn't need to be fluffed or manipulated. Our favorite pillow is the Simmons Beautyrest Latex Pillow (starting at $34), which is similarly praised for its support and also earns high marks for durability.
Natural/Bamboo.Pillow manufacturers have responded to customers clamoring for something "greener" by slapping bamboo or bamboo-blend covers on pillows. In most cases, this is marketing hype; most are filled with memory foam, which isn't exactly natural, and the covers typically contain rayon (or viscose), which is derived from bamboo in a process that's not exactly eco-friendly. If none of this is of concern, a budget-priced pillow with a bamboo/polyester cover that we like is the Sleep Whale (starting at $35). It's got a shredded memory foam filling that's more breathable than its solid-foam counterparts.
For something truly green, go for buckwheat. Lauded for durability and moldability, these pillows are filled with buckwheat hulls that provide excellent support for head and neck by staying put once the head is at rest. Buckwheat pillows never get lumpy, although the hulls may shift to one side over time (easily fixed by pushing the hulls back where you want them). High-end buckwheat pillows can be opened and the hulls removed to adjust the height and firmness. Most buckwheat pillows are costly, starting around $40 and climbing into the triple digits, but one good cheap buckwheat pillow is the Sobakawa (starting at $27).
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Pillow Reviews: What We Considered
Given that every user has a different comfort preference, pillows can be just as hard to parse when it comes to making recommendations as mattresses. Because of that, in making our picks we also consider a wide variety of factors that reviewers touch on other than comfort or support, including heat retention, durability, pain relief, washability, and odors or smells.
The most thorough expert sources on pillows include Sleep Like the Dead, The Sweethome, Sleepopolis, and Good Housekeeping. But given that many expert-vetted pillows are beyond the Cheapism price range, we relied heavily on user reviews from retailer sites including Amazon, Bed Bath & Beyond, Macy's, Walmart, and Overstock.
Comfort/Support.According to reports, an overwhelming majority of sleepers tend to favor lying on their sides, while much smaller percentages snooze on their stomachs and backs. Why does it matter, aside from the relative health advantages and disadvantages of each position? Well, when it comes to pillows, there's a strong link between how someone sleeps and whether they will find a particular type of pillow comfortable.
In general, side sleepers need firmer, loftier pillows, according to Consumer Reports. Among the best choices are latex pillows like the Simmons Beautyrest Latex Pillow or memory foam pillows like the Classic Brands Conforma. For a more traditional feel, the polyester-fill Wamsutta Extra-Firm Side Sleeper offers a balance of firmness and softness with a 2-inch gusset that keeps users' heads up higher. It worked well for a reviewer who tested several pillows—including many that were much more expensive -- for New York Magazine. He landed on the Wamsutta as a favorite, and praised the pillow's spring, calling it "firm" and "satisfying." Users who posted at Bed Bath & Beyond are similarly pleased.
Back sleepers, on the other hand, need something in the middle -- not too firm, not too soft, not too lofty, and not too flat. Oftentimes, down alternative pillows fit the bill. That would include the Lauren Ralph Lauren Logo Down Alternative Pillow and the Sealy Moisture-Wicking Pillow. The more conforming feel of memory foam that suits back sleepers also comes with a shredded-foam model like the Sleep Whale, in which the filling can be shifted for greater or lesser support in specific areas, unlike solid foam pillows such as the Classic Brands Conforma.
Finally, stomach sleepers are best served by a flatter, thinner pillow that keeps them closer to the mattress. Our choice, the Mainstays Standard Microfiber pillow works well because it's soft and on the flatter side, say reviews on Walmart – not always a good thing, but ideal for stomach sleepers.
The Sweethome's pick for stomach sleepers is the pricier Xtreme Comforts SlimSleeper (starting at $36); testers there like its moldability and comfortable support. And while memory foam pillows generally aren't the best choice for stomach sleepers -- most are too lofty -- happy reviewers who posted on Amazon say that with its shredded memory foam filling and slimmer profile, the Xtreme Comforts pillow is an exception because it's thin enough to keep their necks at a proper angle. For stomach sleepers who are foam devotees and wiling to pay a little more, we'd agree this may be a model worth considering.
One notable pillow that gets decidedly mixed reviews for comfort despite a lot of hype is the MyPillow Classic (starting at $50), a late-night infomercial staple priced above the Cheapism ceiling. Filled with shredded foam, the pillow simply feels too lumpy and unsupportive to a large number of buyers. One reviewer on Amazon says his MyPillow seemed like the kind found in a crummy motel. In other words, if you're going to splurge on a pillow, think twice about this one.Heat Retention. Some people "sleep hot" and don't want their pillow contributing to a sweaty, sleepless night. Even those who don't tend to overheat at night may want a cooler pillow during warmer months. Experts say memory foam pillows are the most likely to have heat issues. Indeed, we read complaints about the heat-trapping qualities of the memory-foam Classic Brands Conforma but minimal grumbling about heat retention with the shredded memory foam Sleep Whale, likely because air circulates better through shredded foam than solid foam.
Anyone really concerned about heat might find solace in a buckwheat pillow like the Sobakawa. One review on Amazon says the pillow needs just a gentle shake to cool down after using a heating pad on top. Down alternative, feather, and latex pillows are also more likely to stay cool, according to experts. The Sealy Moisture Wicking Pillow is one down alternative we like precisely because reviews posted at Overstock.com confirm that the moisture-wicking cotton cover helps minimize heat buildup and sweat.
Pain Relief.While there's no magic bullet for those who suffer from neck or upper-back pain, a good pillow can certainly help minimize it. Although a bit beyond the Cheapism zone, the Mediflow Original Waterbase Pillow (starting at $50) earns particular praise in reviews at Amazon for its pain-relief qualities. One purchaser claims it has kept nerve pain and numbness at bay for years. Users can adjust the amount of water inside the pillow to suit their preferences, making it loftier or flatter as necessary.
If the idea of a water pillow or the price of the Mediflow is a turnoff but pain relief is a priority, buckwheat pillows like the Sobakawa and latex pillows like the Simmons Beautyrest do just as well -- and both cost less than $35. One post on Amazon says the Sobakawa helped alleviate neck and shoulder pain from an accident, and several others praise this pillow for ending their morning aches.
If neck pain is a real concern, it's best to avoid pillows with a softer fill. According to experts, that covers some of the most budget-friendly options out there, including down alternative, feather, and polyester fill. One pillow on our list to steer clear of is probably the Mainstays Standard Microfiber, which simply doesn't offer the support necessary for pain sufferers.
Odors/Smells.Stinky pillows cause a lot of consternation among users, who understandably don't want to breathe in an unpleasant odor all night. The worst offenders are memory foam pillows, which often have a chemical smell that's supposed to fade over time. Unfortunately, that may not always happen, especially for people with a sensitive schnoz. Latex pillows such as the Simmons Beautyrest may also have a slight rubber odor, although some reviewers insist it's potent; one user posting on Amazon says even touching it leaves a strong rubber-gloves smell.
Experts say down alternative and polyester pillows are among the best bets if smells are a big concern. Odor complaints were slim to none among our picks in those categories, including the Lauren Ralph Lauren Logo Down Alternative, Sealy Moisture Wicking, Wamsutta Extra-Firm Side Sleeper, and Mainstays Standard Microfiber pillows.
Washability.Anyone concerned about easy cleaning -- maybe the pillow is destined for a child's bed, or regularly freshening up a pillow is a routine chore -- should choose one that can be thrown in the washer and dryer in its entirety. All of our down alternative and polyester picks mentioned above fit the bill.
On the flip side, buckwheat pillows cannot be washed or dried. (That hasn't stopped a handful of users from trying, with decidedly mixed results, according to reviews; the safer bet is probably replacing them periodically.) It's also usually a bad idea to toss a latex or memory foam pillow in the washer. As Tree Hugger notes, drying foam completely is nearly impossible, which could lead to mold growth. Latex and foam can also degrade and break down from the agitation of the machine. While the Sleep Whale, Classic Brands Conforma, and Simmons Beautyrest Latex Pillow all come with removable covers that can be tossed in the washer, the pillows themselves should be spot-cleaned only.
Durability.Nothing is more frustrating than a pillow that develops holes in the seams after a trip through the washer, or one that starts out pleasingly plump only to completely flatten out after a couple of weeks. None of the pillows we researched were immune to such complaints, but they dog certain pillows more than others.
Based on thousands of consumer reviews, Sleep Like the Dead finds that, unsurprisingly, inexpensive polyester pillows are most prone to durability complaints mainly because they flatten out or get lumpy relatively quickly. We read a significant number of protests about these issues for the Mainstays Standard Microfiber pillow, the bare-bones polyester pick on our list. A few posts on Walmart report holes or rips, but loss of loft after a few weeks is the primary complaint.
One pillow that receives lots of positive feedback for long-term durability is the Simmons Beautyrest Latex Pillow. Several reviewers say it lasts for years without getting flat or otherwise breaking down. Latex pillows also garner the best overall reviews for durability at Sleep Like the Dead. For sleepers who prefer a more traditional feel, the site also recommends down or feather pillows for their durability. While most of these, particularly 100 percent down pillows, lie outside the Cheapism price range, one reasonably priced alternative we like is the Downlite Old Fashion Granny (starting at $34), which, with its 10/90 goose down and feather mix, is more scrunchable and moldable than latex.
It's also worth noting that the shredded foam pillows we mention here carry markedly long warranties. Our top pick "bamboo" pillow, the Sleep Whale, offers a lifetime "no questions asked" replacement guarantee; and, according to purchasers on Amazon, the company does honor the policy -- though return shipping charges will have to be paid. While warranties on the Xtreme Comforts SlimSleeper and the MyPillow Classic aren't quite as generous, they offer 6 and 10 years of coverage, respectively.