What Is the Best Pillow? Plus 5 Dangers of Conventional Pillows - Dr. Axe

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What Is the Best Pillow? (Plus the 5 Dangers of Conventional Pillows)


Best pillow - Dr. Axe

When you hear the word pollution, what do you think of? My guess is that images of factories full of smoke come to mind, or rivers and oceans filled with debris, oil and sludge. No one ever really thinks of indoor air quality or associates pollution with their comfy pillow, mattresses and bed sheets.

I’m here to tell you that it may be time to reassess your idea of pollution and where it can come from. Sadly, that pillow you’re putting your head on every single night could be described as “dangerous” or “health hazardous,” and I’m about to tell you why. And of course, I’m about to answer this very important question: What are the best and healthiest pillows?

5 Major Dangers of Pillows

These are just some of the potential dangers lurking in many pillows and why I strongly suggest switching to a healthier, more natural option.

1. Flame-Retardants

A popular pillow choice is one filled with foam. In fact, foam is one of the most common synthetic fillings of pillows today. The attraction of these pillows is that they are able to mold to each individual body shape. The problem is that this foam often mainly consists of something called polyurethane. Is a polyurethane pillow safe? Is polyurethane foam toxic?

Polyurethane is a flame retardant found in foam that is used to make pillows as well as mattresses, couches, all kinds of upholstered furniture, carpet padding and even electronics. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), the concern with polyurethane is that it emits polybrominated-diphenyl-ethers (PBDEs). These PBDEs are known for being hormone disruptors which can accumulate in the placenta and even contaminate a mother’s breast milk. (1)


Another danger connected to these compounds is the fact that they aren’t biodegradable. Over a decade ago, researchers pointed out that the concentrations of PBDEs in some human and marine mammal populations were increasing and the health concerns linked to PBDEs included thyroid hormone disruption, neuro-developmental deficits and even cancer. (2)

According to their own website, the EPA is “is concerned that certain PBDE congeners are persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic to both humans and the environment.” The research to date has been so alarming that the EPA phased out the the manufacture and import of certain PBDEs (specifically penta- and octaBDE) in 2004. Years later, the EPA was able to get principal manufacturers and importers of another PBDE (c-decaBDE) to agree to reducing the manufacture, import and sales of c-decaBDE starting in 2010, with all sales to cease by December 31, 2013. (3)

This is why the EWG recommends completely avoiding any foam products manufactured prior to 2005 and if you are going to buy household products that contain foam then opt for ones made after 2014. (4)

2. Fungi

We’ve known about the possibility of fungal contamination of our bedding since the 1930s. More recently in 2005, researchers in England reported that the average pillow contains millions of fungal spores. At the university of Manchester, various samples from feather and synthetic pillows were studied. Each pillow had been used about 18 months, and some for as long as 20 years.

Scientists found that the pillows contained a disturbing fungus, Aspergillus fumigatus, which is especially known for causing infection for people with asthma, leukaemia and bone marrow transplant patients. This fungus may also be responsible for increasing the symptoms of asthma and allergic sinusitis. Overall, the researchers found that the feather pillows had fewer species than the synthetic pillow. (5)

Fungi in pillows and other locations in the home continue to make headlines as people with compromised immune systems or asthma need to be especially careful. Drug-resistance is also an ongoing concern with infections caused by Aspergillus since the fungus can be so difficult to eradicate completely. (6)

As the CDC points out, “Most people breathe in Aspergillus spores every day without getting sick. However, people with weakened immune systems or lung diseases are at a higher risk of developing health problems due to Aspergillus. The types of health problems caused by Aspergillus include allergic reactions, lung infections, and infections in other organs.” (7)

3. Formaldehyde

Formaldehyde may be better known for being found in furniture and other wood products, but it can also be found in some pillows! (8) In view of its widespread use, toxicity and volatility, exposure to formaldehyde is a significant consideration for health.

It’s known that formaldehyde can cause concerning symptoms including watery eyes, coughing, wheezing, nausea, skin irritation and burning sensations of the eyes, nose or throat. (9) In June 10, 2011, the U.S. National Toxicology Program even described formaldehyde as “known to be a human carcinogen.” (10)

4. Perfumes and Deodorizers

Some manufacturers of foam pillows use industrial strength perfumes and deodorizers to mask the chemical odors coming from the foam. Yuck! These masking fragrances are designed to be pleasant, but are likely to be composed of dangerous synthetic scents adding another level of hazard to an already toxic pillow.

5. Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)

Another reason to opt for a chemical-free pillow is to avoid dangerous volatile organic compounds (VOCs).  If you search the internet, it’s not hard to find concerns about foam pillows and mattresses containing VOCs that can be released into the air as these foam products experience a process called off-gassing. The word “volatile” is in VOCs for reason — it’s because these substances are unstable. VOCs are known for breaking up and forming toxic gases.

Immediate effects of exposure to VOCs can include irritation to your eyes and nose. VOCs maybe also set off asthma attacks. When it comes to long-term effects, VOCs are linked to possible damage to the liver, kidneys and central nervous system as well as cancer. (11)

So what should you buy? Are feather pillows any good? It’s time to take a look at healthier pillow options on the market today. Hopefully, you’re about to find the pillow that will be perfect for you in every way!

Guide to best pillows - Dr. Axe

What Is the Best Pillow?

What is the best kind of pillow? Or you may be thinking, what is the best pillow for me? That depends on several variables including your favorite sleep positions and body needs. Of course, only a chemical-free pillow should make it into the category of best pillows.

I recommend replacing any hypoallergenic pillow stuffed with synthetic fiber and buying pillows that are made out of natural materials like the ones listed below. So are feather pillows any good? They can be better than a lot of the synthetic options, but I have some more unique ideas that you may enjoy even more.


1. Organic Wool

As long as you’re not allergic to wool then a pillow made from this organic fiber can be a good option. Organic wool pillows are breathable and can regulate temperature well, making them a good choice year-round. Wool is also naturally flame and dust mite resistant. You can find wool pillows with an organic cotton case if you’re not into the idea of wool against your face.

Sleep position note: Similar to cotton pillows, wool pillows can be found in light, medium and firm filling weights so you can choose according to your preference and favorite sleep position. For example, a very lightly filled organic wool pillow may be your best pillow option if you’re a stomach sleeper (more on why you ideally don’t want to be a stomach sleeper later in this section).

2. Kapok

What is a kapok pillow? It’s a pillow made from kapok, which is a soft material similar to cotton that comes from the seed pods of the kapok (Ceiba pentandra) tree. Kapok is actually the fluffy fiber that surrounds the seeds. It’s a natural material often described as light and airy.

Kapok is also used as stuffing for toys and cushions. What is kapok stuffing? It’s the same tree-derived material that’s used for kapok pillows. Kapok is said to be hypoallergenic, mold resistant, water resistant and quick drying. Kapok has actually been around for a longtime and some sources say it was commonly used for pillows before goose down became popular.

What is organic kapok? As with all organic claims, if you want a truly organic kapok pillow then look for one that is 100 percent USDA-certified organic kapok. However, this can be hard to find because kapok is known to be a pest-free tree, so in general no pesticides need to be used on it. (12) You can easily find kapok pillows with an organic cotton case.

Sleep position note: You can find kapok pillows in regular fill or extra thick fill. Both are usually recommended for side and back sleepers.

3. Natural Latex

If allergies to natural substances like wool or feathers are a concern, your best pillow option may be one made out of latex. Just make sure it’s a 100 percent natural latex. To ensure you’re getting truly natural latex, you may have to question the manufacturer as sometimes website claims can be misleading. If you’re looking for a cervical pillow, you can find a natural latex version in stores or online. Like wool pillows, you can find natural latex pillows with an organic cotton outer covering.

Sleep position note: What is the best pillow for back pain? Some say a latex pillow can be a great choice if you struggle with back pain. (13) Even though natural latex pillows have a bit of a bounce to them, they tend to be very firm, making them a better choice for side and back sleepers.

4. Buckwheat Hulls

Buckwheat isn’t just a nutrient-rich, wheat and gluten-free ancient grain, it’s also a filling used for pillows. Buckwheat pillows are filled with buckwheat hulls and are touted as a hypo-allergic, eco-friendly and therapeutic pillow option. What are buckwheat hulls exactly? They’re the hard outer shells that contain the buckwheat seeds (buckwheat is actually an edible seed that is used as a cereal grain).

One of the perks of buckwheat pillows is that they can easily adjust to your desired shape and firmness. Just don’t be surprised to hear your buckwheat pillow making some crinkling and crunching sounds as it contours around your head and neck.

Sleep position note: The best pillow for side sleepers as well as back sleepers may be a buckwheat pillow. Buckwheat hull pillows are sometimes suggested for people with osteoarthritis, moderate to severe disc degeneration and spinal stenosis. (14) Is this the best organic pillow for neck pain? Opinions really seem to vary. Some people say it’s a great neck support pillow while others say this is not the best pillow for neck pain.

5. Millet

I’ve previously shared some healthy and delicious millet recipes, but did you know that millet is also used as a natural, hypoallergenic pillow filling? It’s true! Like buckwheat, millet is a gluten-free ancient grain, but putting millet inside of a pillow makes for a different sleeping experience. Millet pillows are typically fluffier and less firm than buckwheat pillows.

Sleep position note: This can be a healthy pillow for neck and shoulder tension. Millet pillows are recommended as one of the best pillows for neck pain since like buckwheat pillows, they can contour to your head and neck.

6. Organic Cotton

Another great chemical free pillow option is one made from organic cotton. Organic cotton pillows are one of the best organic pillows that aren’t hard to find. Of course, look for 100 percent USDA-certified organic cotton pillows to guarantee your pillow’s quality. All of the pillows just mentioned are available with an organic cotton cover, but 100 percent organic cotton pillows are organic cotton both inside and out.

Sleep position note: If you’re looking for a side sleeper pillow, you may want to opt for a certified organic cotton pillow with a support level of firm to extra firm. If you’re a side sleeper who wants the best pillow for neck pain, make sure you choose an organic cotton pillow that is firm enough to support your head while also high enough to keep it in a neutral position.

Related Notes

What is the best pillow for a stomach sleeper? Ideally, you should try not to sleep on your stomach since stomach sleeping is known for having such negative affects on the back and entire spine. (15) If you can’t help but sleep on your stomach, your best pillow is one of these natural options in the lowest, flattest pillow height.

If you want to detox your entire bedroom in addition to your pillow, you can also change your bedding and mattress. Is a memory foam mattress toxic? It appears that some of the memory foam mattresses contain toxic chemicals such as benzene and formaldehyde so consider choosing an organic mattress and opt for bedding that is made out of organic and unbleached hemp, cotton or linen. These healthier options may cost more, but rest assured they’re safer and will last longer too.

Final Thoughts

In addition to choosing the right sleep products, make it a habit to clean and vacuum your bedroom regularly. Change your bed linens every week and a half. Another way to detox your bedroom is to simply air your mattress. The simple act of opening your windows wide open to allow fresh air inside can do wonders for your health.

Unfortunately, toxic chemicals are everywhere around us today. I try to minimize my exposure to these harmful chemicals as best I can. Changing your pillow is one great way to reduce exposure to toxins. To buy healthy pillows (and healthy home products in general), it’s so important to thoroughly read labels, conduct some thorough research and don’t hesitate to ask manufactures very specific questions about what’s in their products.

Your best pillow option depends largely on your personal preference and favorite sleep position. But no matter if you sleep on your back, side or stomach, I hope you will soon be resting your head on a chemical-free pillow if you’re not doing so already. Changing your pillow is an easy, seemingly small way to majorly improve your daily life so make a smart investment in your health and the health of your family by choosing healthier pillows today!

Read Next: Can’t Sleep? 20 Strategies to Fall Asleep Fast!

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