Ever woken up stiff and tired? With a sore neck or a headache? Or maybe you've wondered why you have such a restful night's sleep in a five-star hotel? The answer might be your pillow. The wrong-sized pillow for your body size, or one that's worn out or in poor condition, can have an enormous impact on the quality of your sleep, and your back and neck health. We spend big on comfy mattresses, beautiful bedlinen and decorating details, but often fail to consider the quality of the surfaces on which we lay our heads. Most people would be surprised to learn that the most commonly purchased pillow, the standard synthetic pillow, should be replaced every six to 24 months. Beyond that, they tend to go lumpy and flat and carry a build-up of dust and allergens. But if you're buying new, how do you work out what's right for you? High, low or contoured? Feather, down, polyester, latex or wool?
Your first decision needs to be what type of pillow material to go for. There's a vast range; from natural products like comfy feather and luxurious down to high-tech resilient foams. The quality also varies largely within each material type, so personal preference for a particular feel plays a big part.
Feather & down:
The appeal of a feather or a down pillow is the natural softness and squish. Usually taken from duck or geese, feather and down offer good support. Feather is usually heavier and cheaper, while down offers superior softness and is more expensive.
Cost: Feather pillows can cost as little as $10, very high down content pillows up to $150; a feather and down blend averages at about $70.
Wool pillows offer great resilience and softness, plus they absorb moisture effectively.
Cost: around $30 to $70.
The biggest-selling pillows are polyester, made from a variety of man-made synthetic fillings. "They're a popular choice because they usually can be washed and are relatively inexpensive," says Adam Heathcote, general manager of the Tontine Group. Not all polyesters are the same though, and the density of fill in each pillow affects the feel and firmness. "There are blends that provide a firm bounce-back sensation, and others that can be scrunched up and moulded more like a feather pillow," says Adam.
Cost: Polyester pillows can cost anywhere from $7 up to $60.
Foam pillows offer resilience and are a great option for those looking for extra support. The most popular kind of foam pillow is memory foam, a visco-elastic polyurethane material with a gel-like feel. Sensitive to temperature, memory foam adjusts and forms to a head's shape and pressure to distribute weight evenly.
Cost: Foam pillows are priced between around $50 to $140.
Latex pillows are 100 per cent natural and sustainable, offering long-lasting firmness and resilience.
Cost: Latex pillows range from about $30 to $150 and more.
Tempur is a high-tech visco-elastic material which moulds to your body shape to provide maximum comfort.
Cost: Tempur pillows typically range from about $180 to $230.
What's most important in a pillow is that it's the right size for your body, to protect your back and neck.
"What suits one person won't suit the next," says physiotherapist Heather Mariner from Sutherland Shire Physiotherapy Centre.
"Look for a pillow that keeps the spine level. It should cushion the head while supporting the neck." The pillow should fit in the curve between your neck and shoulders, without lifting or lowering your head, keeping your spine straight.
"A small person doesn't want a fairly high pillow as it will strain their neck," says Heath. Likewise, a tall person with broad shoulders might find smaller pillows don't provide enough support. The wrong-sized or textured pillow can also result in discomfort and bad sleep. Your pillow shouldn't be too high or too hard.
"If your pillow's too hard, your jaw and ear might be sore," says Heather.
"Morning headaches can be another indication of an ill-sized pillow."
Wear + care
How to tell if your pillow's past its prime? Place your pillow on a flat surface and bend it in half. If the pillow springs back, it's still fine, but if the pillow stays folded, you should probably update it. Cheaper, synthetic pillows can need replacing as often as every six months to two years. Some materials, like latex and memory foam, can last longer, but they will usually cost more in the first place.
"Good down pillows can last 15 to 20 years, and you can re-fill the pillow if it gets flat," says Heath.
You can also help your pillow last longer by looking after it. Some pillows can be machine or hand-washed. Plump your pillows and give them a regular airing.
If you suffer from asthma or allergies, look for pillows with non-allergenic properties.
"Latex is naturally anti-bacterial, while polyester, wool and foam can be treated," says Adam Heathcote of Tontine.
Both Tontine's Breathe Easy pillows and MiniJumbuk pillows feature The National Asthma Council's 'Sensitive Choice' blue butterfly logo, indicating these pillows are particularly suitable for asthma and allergy sufferers.
Most pillows, even those made with natural fibres, contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs) by way of anti-bacterial or fire-retardant treatments. VOCs have been linked to cancer, but dissipate over time, so always air your new pillow outside for at least 24 hours before you use it.