You spend a third of your life with your head on a pillow. Learn something about that bag of fiber, foam or feathers that cradles your skull all night. Too firm? Too soft? Learn to choose the one that's just right.
Get down with this
Aric Dawson, district customer service manager for Bed Bath and Beyond in the Tampa Bay area, offers this tutorial in reading the label on a down/feather pillow:
• If the pillow is a mixture of down and feathers, you'll see a ratio, such as 95 percent down, 5 percent feathers.
• Look for the "fill power" number, which will range from a low of 250 to as high as 700. This describes the quality of the down.
Fill power is the amount of cubic inches that 1 ounce of down will fill. The higher the fill power, the larger and stronger the clusters of down, and the better the down will loft, trap air and insulate.
Large clusters provide superior insulation, breathe better and last much longer than smaller, fragile down clusters used in lower-quality items.
Fill power trumps the amount of down in ounces (see below): Better to have a smaller amount of high-fill-power down than a large amount of a low fill-power down.
• Amount of down in ounces. A standard pillow will hold 18 to 24 ounces; queens, 20 to 28 ounces; kings, 24 to 36 ounces.
• Check the thread count. The higher the number, the more durable the pillow, the less likely that feathers will poke through or impurities will be emitted.
Time for a new pillow?
• When your pillow starts to look flattened
• When it's dirty
• When the cover is worn or stained
• When it doesn't feel the way it did when it was new, or feels lumpy and bumpy, or holds a crease
• Down pillows last 10 years or more. Synthetics may start to show signs of wear in two or three years.
• This is a standard pillow test: Fold the pillow in half, press down, let go. If the pillow springs back into shape, it's okay. (But everything except the most exhausted pillow will spring back, even one that has outlived its usefulness.)
You have a wide choice of fillers. All prices are approximate, and will range widely, depending on firmness and quality of the materials.
• Polyester fiber
A popular fill, and among the most inexpensive pillows. Hard to clean effectively. They last a couple of years. Some are treated to resist bacteria and microbe growth. Derived from petroleum. From $5 or $6 on up.
• Down or feathers
Luxurious, and one of the most expensive fills. (You may see all down, all feathers, or a mix. Goose down is considered preferable to duck, and European to Asian. You may also see a lesser quality mix identified only as "waterfowl feathers.") Some high-quality pillows have an inner chamber filled with feathers, which provide firmness and resilience, surrounded by an outer wrap of down, which places the softest material closer to your face.
Down, from the breast, and feathers, from the wings, are gathered either while the ducks or geese are alive (during their molting phase), or after they have been killed for meat. Animal rights activists are concerned about the conditions in which some birds are raised.
Down is long-lasting, but may be hazardous to allergy sufferers. Some down pillows are now "supercleaned" or "hypercleaned," a process that removes impurities, mites and dander. (Some people who thought they were allergic to down were actually allergic to mites or dander.) Should be dry-cleaned. Start around $35, ranging up to the hundreds, depending on the quality of the fill and the mix of down and feathers.
A variation on all-down pillows. A combination of 80 percent goose down infused with 20 percent of a naturally hypoallergenic plant fiber that traps allergens. $100 and up.
Trade name for a synthetic, hypoallergenic, antimicrobial alternative to down, developed for the U.S. Army. Considered a luxury fill. You'll find Primaloft in pillows offered by national retailers and by catalog lines including Garnet Hill, Eddie Bauer and Lands' End. Pillows start around $40.
• Memory foam
These soft, flexible pillows, which sometimes come in a contoured shape, mold to the user's head and neck, so they're comfortable and supportive. They spring back into shape when not in use. They range from soft to firm, depending on the chemical makeup of the foam. They start around $50.
A synthetic alternative to down. It's a hypoallergenic, gel-coated polyester fill that recovers its shape for a consistent level of comfort and support. $20 and up.
Popular in Asia for centuries, these pillows are filled with dried buckwheat hulls. The crop is grown without pesticides, which appeals to allergy sufferers. You can add or remove filler to create your own custom pillow. May be a little crunchy to sleep on.
• Polyurethane foam
A firm, spongelike pillow. Often used in shaped pillows, such as back wedges or knee and leg supports, and cushions for furniture. Antimicrobial, hypoallergenic. Another petroleum product. $20 and up.
Resilient and springy; a natural product tapped from rubber trees. Antimicrobial and hypoallergenic, so good for allergy sufferers. Holes in the foam provide air circulation, so it stays cool; difficult to flatten. Machine washable. $40 and up.
• Manufacturers recommend zipping the pillow into a removable cover to protect the pillow and its fill from stains, spills and dirt. (Your pillow case goes over the cover.)
• Choices include a simple cotton cover that costs a few dollars, or a densely woven cover that keeps out dust mites ($6 to $10 or more, depending on thread count and fabric).
• Some covers have a urethane (plastic) backing that makes them waterproof. It also makes them hot and noisy.
Sleep on this
Which firmness to choose? Only you can say, but keep these guidelines in mind:
Soft: For stomach or back sleepers, or for those who like to double up a pillow.
Medium: Also a good choice for back sleepers. They keep the head and neck aligned.
Firm: Good for side sleepers who need to fill in the space between the mattress and their head and neck.
Standard: 20 by 26 inches Queen: 20 by 30 inches King: 20 by 36 inches
Sources: Better Sleep Council, Bed Bath & Beyond; Web sites including pacificcoastfeatherco.com, thegreenguide.com, homeinstitute.com, eBay.com, overstock.com, hgtv.com, and achooallergy.com.