A good, healthy sleep equals a comfortable sleep. While we may keep track of the life of our mattress, our pillow deserves some attention, too. The wrong one could be why you’re waking up cranky, or worse, achy. Get to know your pillow, and discover when it’s time for a new one, with these tips.
1. They need covers, too. Gone are the days when a nice pillowcase did the job. In addition, zip a protective cover over your pillow first. A good cover can block out dust mites, bedbugs and other allergens, plus protect your pillow from oil and dirt on your skin. Wash the cover at least once a month.
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2. They don't last forever. Waking up with a sore or stiff neck? It might be time to go pillow shopping. “If the pillow is lumpy or sagging, if a down pillow has lost its loft or a foam pillow is crumbling, then it's best to toss it,” says Carolyn Forte, director of the Home Appliances, Cleaning Products and Textiles at the Good Housekeeping Institute. Her tip: Try folding a fiberfill pillow in half and place a heavy book on it. If it springs back into shape when you remove the book, it's still good; if not, let it go.
3. Pillows are not one size fits all. If you’re a side sleeper, “a pillow that keeps the head and neck generally in line with the torso is a good option,” advises Raj Rao, M.D., professor of orthopedic surgery and neurosurgery at George Washington University School of Medicine. Back sleepers, take caution. Degenerative changes in the neck disks can cause some pinching of the nerves, especially as we age, Rao says. “Keeping the neck slightly flexed forward is more comfortable in some individuals. Find a pillow that isn't so thin that it keeps the neck too extended, but not so fat that it causes too much flexion of the neck, which can aggravate muscle pain the next day.”
4. They need to be cleaned. Seems obvious, but when is the last time you threw your pillow into the washing machine? Get into the habit of an occasional wash to get rid of dirt, dust, or particles from your hair or skin. Check the tag for specific instructions. But in general, it’s safe to wash a foam-filled or synthetic pillow on a gentle cycle, according to Consumer Reports. Hand- wash down- or feather-filled pillows, then use your washer’s slowest spin cycle to draw the water out. Dry pillows for an hour using moderate heat. For a quick and thorough drying process, add a couple of dry towels and, believe it or not, a couple of tennis balls. The balls keep the filling from clumping.
5. You have choices. Synthetic is least expensive, great for allergy sufferers and easy to care for. But this type of pillow doesn’t last as long — typically, six months to two years. Cotton is natural, hypoallergenic and soft, but clumps over time. The feather variety is soft and easy to shape but isn’t supportive or good for those with allergies. Down pillows are more expensive, super soft, lightweight and long-lasting. But if you need support, down isn’t for you. Memory foam offers the top-of-the-line neck and back support. It’s not cheap, but it contours to your body and is perfect for side and back sleepers.
“The most important thing is to get a good night's sleep with a pillow that you’re most comfortable with,” Rao says. “Buying a different pillow merely because it was recommended, but results in poor sleep, is never a good option.”