R5 Pillow Talk

No longer a basic commodity, the pillow today is practically a precision instrument. Blame it on the Baby Boomers, whose bodies are aching from stress and wear, and who have shown —the current economy notwithstanding—that they want to feel good and will pay a pretty penny for sophisticated solutions.

So how do you pick the right pillow? Sleep position is a big factor, since good neck support is key to comfort. Stomach sleepers need a soft pillow, while side sleepers should go firm. For back sleepers, as well as those who frequently change positions, medium is best.

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The next decision is material—with down, polyester, and foam the major choices. What sets them apart? When it comes to cozy softness, nothing beats down. The best down pillows are gently supportive, so your head feels cushioned and cradled. Look for those made of Hungarian, Siberian, or Canadian white goose down.

If you crave down but want a pillow with “pushback,” consider a down-feather mix. The feathers make the pillow harder—and cheaper, too. You also can find down pillows that are “gusseted,” or constructed like a rectangular box, which provides a firmer feel that even side sleepers can enjoy.

But down has drawbacks—such as a tendency to grow mildew when damp and some are dry clean only. People also associate down with allergies, so if these concerns are a deal-breaker, opt for a polyester-filled pillow. Polyester doesn’t have the all-natural aura of down, but it is washable, indisputably non-allergenic, and cheaper. Look for a pillow that’s marketed as “down-like,” which means the polyester is constructed in clusters that mimic down’s feel.

As for foam pillows, the most expensive is latex, which has a bit of a bounce and can benefit fans of firmness. Then there’s memory foam—the stuff that shows your handprint when you push on it—which are wildly different from traditional pillows. Lying on one feels a little like sinking into quicksand, but many users can’t believe they ever slept on anything else.

Some memory-foam pillows are marketed as “anti-snore,” because they’re shaped to support the head and neck in such a position that airways stay open. Do they work? Hard to say, since bodies vary and snoring has many potential causes. You may want to talk to your doctor before putting your faith into this solution.

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The bottom line? Pillow shopping isn’t simple—but with the right choice, getting a good night’s sleep may be no more complicated than simply closing your eyes.

pillow primer

Here’s a rundown of choices and features to help you find the pillow of your dreams.
Down Foam Polyester Specialty
What it is The soft, fluffy substance that grows on the underbelly of ducks and geese. Down forms clusters that trap air. A synthetic or natural substance with a feel ranging from gently resilient to downright springy. An inexpensive, synthetic material that can be engineered into pillow “fiberfill,” or stuffing. A category of innovative pillow fillings derived from natural substances, such as buckwheat hulls, millet hulls, tree fibers, silk, or wool.
Why it puts you to sleep It’s an all-natural material that’s soft, lightweight, lofty, and pliable. It can be squished down to the shape you want, and then fluffed up, again and again. Foam provides support; some foam pillows come in specialty shapes designed to ease neck pain or reduce snoring. Foam pillows are easy to care for—many are sold with a washable cover. It’s reasonably soft and comfortable, relatively inexpensive, non-allergenic, and easy to wash. These fillings are soft and conforming. They also have an appealing “natural” handle and are rare enough to carry a certain panache.
How it can keep you up Down products are associated with allergies; they are also more complicated to care for than down alternatives. Foam pillows are relatively firm; they may take some getting used to. It’s typically not as soft as down, and doesn’t nestle and cradle you in quite the same way; its origins are chemical, not natural. Depending on the construction, washing your pillow can be a little complicated; specialty pillows can also be hard to find and pricey.
Cost An all-down pillow is pricey, starting at around $40 and going up to $200 or more. Down-feather blends are less expensive, but don’t have the same fabulous feel. Quality foam pillows are moderately priced, starting at around $25; top-quality foam pillows will usually still be less than $100. The clear value choice, polyester pillows can run less than $10. Pillows with proprietary polyester fibers that feel more like down can cost in the $30-to-$50 range. Upwards of $60.
Before your head hits it Down quality is measured in fill power—a higher number means more volume and a better (but more expensive) pillow. A fill power of 550 is good; 800 is top-notch. Latex foam, which is derived from the rubber-tree plant, has a nice, springy feel. It’s the most expensive foam choice. Visco-elastic foam (also known as memory foam) has a more moderate price range. With a gentle sinking sensation followed by firm support, it feels very different from traditional pillows—but devotées swear by it. If you like the feel of down but prefer a synthetic product, look for polyester pillows marketed with words like “down-like” or “down alternative.” These pillows have polyester clusters that behave like down. Particularly as you move into the higher price range, you may be dealing with small manufacturers or boutique-type retailers or websites–so make sure you’re confident that they’ll back up the product should you have a problem.


Barbara Solomon Josselsohn is a freelance writer in Scarsdale specializing in home-furnishings and family topics. She spent 15 years as an editor with HFN, a home furnishings trade publication, where she covered pillows, mattresses, and other bedding products.

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