How to Find the Perfect Pillow

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Pillows are critical to getting a good night's sleep -- and should be replaced regularly -- but pillow shopping can be confusing. Here's a guide to help you get just the right one.

Been pillow shopping lately? If not, get ready for a big array of shopping choices. You’ll find neck pillows, body pillows, memory foam pillows, anti-snore pillows, “cool” pillows, oxygen-promoting pillows, cervical pillows and blow-up pillows — to name a few. There are pillows made of foam, memory foam, down, cotton, latex, buckwheat hulls, wool and “down alternatives,” tiny pillows and huge ones, with prices that range from a few dollars to this Icelandic eiderdown pillow — on sale — for over $10,000.

How is a sleeper to choose? A wrong choice could mean you’re stuck with a pillow you don’t want, so be sure to check a store’s return policies before buying.

How old is your pillow?

The headache of pillow shopping is enough to keep you snuggled up with your old one for years and years. But don’t do that. A rule of thumb says pillows should be replaced every 12 to 18 months. (Polyester and down pillows can go in the washer and dryer in the meantime.) By two years, your pillow should be headed to the dump. Good Housekeeping advises:

 “If you have a traditional fiberfill pillow, fold it in half and place a book on top of it,” says Lexie Sachs, textiles analyst in the Good Housekeeping Institute. “If it springs back to shape, it’s still good. But if it stays folded in half, it’s time for a new one.” Memory foam pillows that are crumbly or no longer hold their shape also need to go.

The most important reason to dump an aged pillow is because of dust mites — the microscopic, creepy looking little bugs (see pictures) that take up residence in bedding and rapidly multiply in homes, especially when the humidity is high.

Dust mites don’t bite. The problem is the accumulation of their waste and carcasses. Many people are allergic to a substance in dust-mite waste that can cause rashes, asthma and sinusitis. If you’re allergic to dust mites, you can buy protective pillow covers made of tightly woven material (found in bedding stores and online) for your new pillows.

Unsure if you’re allergic? You can find out by getting tested by an allergist, a physician who treats people for allergies. (Learn more from the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.)

Need more reasons to trade your old pillows for new ones? Mold, mildew and fungus also build up in pillows. Not what you want to plant your face on night after night.

Shopping tips

While pillow shopping seems daunting, you can keep it simple by focusing on basics: You want a pillow that’s comfortable, supportive and keeps your head and neck properly aligned while you sleep. If possible, lie down and try out pillows in a store. But that’s not often feasible, so lean against a wall using the pillow as you would in bed. Sleep expert and author Michael Breus tells WebMD that it’s a good idea to ask someone to tell you if the pillow keeps your neck lined up straight with your body.

As for cost, don’t feel you must spend big bucks. “Price isn’t necessarily an indicator of performance,” according to Consumer Reports. Take your time shopping, trying out a variety of types, shapes and sizes of pillows in your price range.

Consumer Reports also suggests:

  • Compare pillows for firmness: Put each on a flat surface and press with your palm until the pillow is squeezed to about half its original thickness. The harder you have to press, the firmer the pillow will be for sleeping.
  • Examine the construction: Look for tidy stitches and straight seams. The fill should be spread evenly, and the zipper should be strong and work smoothly.
  • Give it the sniff test: Buying a memory foam pillow? Put your nose into it and smell it. Some have a chemical odor, although it may disappear after a bit of use.

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