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 addition to which is the most comfortable pillow and/or which one offers the best support, we also consider a wide variety of other factors in making our picks for the best bed pillows. Those include heat retention, durability, neck- and back-pain relief, washability, and odors or smells.
The most thorough expert pillow-review sources 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, Overstock, and other home-goods sellers.
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 someone's preferred sleep position 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 for extra height for those whose neck's natural curve demands that for best comfort. 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 the site of home-goods retailer 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 – a thin pillow is not always a good thing, but is ideal for stomach sleepers.
The Sweethome's pick for stomach sleepers is the pricier Xtreme Comforts SlimSleeper (starting at $36 for a standard size pillow; king size and queen bed pillows are also available ); testers there name it the best memory foam pillow based on its moldability and comfortable support. And while memory foam pillows generally aren't the best choice for stomach sleepers (most are too lofty to grant a good night's sleep) happy reviewers who posted on Amazon say that with its adjustable shredded memory foam filling and slimmer profile, the Xtreme Comforts pillow (available in 3 sizes: standard, queen, king ) is an exception because it's thin enough to keep their necks natural curve 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.
Neck- and back-pain sufferers often find a body pillow to be a welcome addition to their bedding. This type of extra-long, extra-wide pillow runs the full length of the body to provide extra support. Among our picks, the Downlite Old Fashion Granny pillow is available as a body pillow as well as a king size and queen bed pillow.
One notable pillow that gets decidedly mixed reviews for comfort despite a lot of hype is the MyPillow Classic (starting at $50 for standard size/queen size), 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.
Some people "sleep hot" and prioritize finding the best cooling pillow as they don't want one that will contribute to a sweaty, sleepless night. Even those who don't tend to be hot sleepers 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. Some makers offer a combination gel/memory foam pillow to reduce heat, either adding a layer of cooling gel or using a memory foam that's infused with gel throughout. However, we didn't spot a premium gel pillow that received better reviews or were better values than the memory foam pillows we name.
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.
While there's no magic bullet for those who suffer from neck pain, upper-back pain, or lower-back pain, a good pillow can certainly help minimize neck and back problems. 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 to maintain their neck's natural curve.
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 pain 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 neck pain sufferers to get a good night's sleep.
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 contour 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.
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 are machine washable and 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.
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 pillow review 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.