4 common pillow myths sleep experts say we should always avoid

Avoid these common mistakes to make sure you get the best night’s sleep possible

Wayfair bedding on a bed against a blue wall with a window.
(Image credit: Wayfair)

Most of us tend to focus on picking the perfect mattress, but the pillow you sleep on is just as important. Sleeping on the wrong pillow can really disturb your sleep, which is why it’s so important to invest in one of the best pillows to suit your sleeping style.

But how many of us actually know all that much about pillows? Far from just being a soft surface to lie our heads on at night, pillows can make a huge difference to the amount of support we get when sleeping, helping to keep our spines aligned and preventing the build-up of pressure around our neck and shoulders. And, just as with mattresses, different types of pillows suit different types of sleeper. 

4 pillow myths to ignore, according to sleep experts

Neutral bedroom painted in Revere Pewter

(Image credit: Kathy Kuo Home)

When it comes to picking the perfect pillow you should be looking at factors such as the loft of the pillow (how high it is), the filling and the shape of the pillow itself. But you also need to take into consideration personal preferences. Everyone has certain needs and wants from a pillow. Despite this, there are still some common pillow myths that you might have taken to heart as gospel, so let our sleep experts help show you how to avoid them, along with what to look for instead.

1. Pillows are one size fits all

'Pillows aren’t one size fits all,' explains Dr Chester Wu, sleep expert, double board-certified physician and medical reviewer at Rise Science. 'For example, side sleepers should avoid pillows that don't provide sufficient support to maintain the head in a neutral position relative to the spine.'

'Improper pillow support can cause neck stiffness, physical fatigue and pain, which can challenge sleep (and potentially lead to a vicious cycle of sleep loss and pain). This means avoiding a pillow that’s too soft or low, which will not provide enough support for the neck or shoulders, as well as one that’s too firm, which may also cause neck pain. A flat pillow will also not provide enough support for the head and neck.'

Dr Mark Aloia is the Head of Sleep and Behavioural Sciences, SleepIQ Health at Sleep Number agrees, 'There is no ‘one size fits all’ when choosing the right pillow for you; the key is to determine which is best suited for you. Back and side sleepers should strive for a pillow that align their neck and spine properly. A pillow that’s too high or too low can cause neck discomfort. Stomach sleepers may do better without a pillow, thereby reducing the angle imposed on the neck. An often-underappreciated aspect of a proper sleeping environment is bedding. A proper pillow and mattress go a long way toward promoting sleep. If they are not ideal, they can fragment your sleep and allow thoughts of the day to intrude into the night.'

An image of a smiling Chinese doctor in a grey suit outside in the sunshine
Dr Wu

Dr Chester Wu is double board certified in Psychiatry and Sleep Medicine. In addition to his work as Rise Science’s Medical Reviewer, Dr. Wu provides sleep medicine services, medication management, and psychotherapy to adults at his private sleep medicine and psychiatry practice in Houston.

2. The more pillows you have, the better

What is the optimum number of pillows to sleep with? Should you sleep with more than one pillow? As you might expect, the answer differs depending on how you sleep and on what you personally find comfortable. Dr Wu explains further, 'Body pillows can be helpful for side sleepers who want extra support for their hips and knees. Crescent pillows can also be helpful for side sleepers who want extra support for their neck and shoulders.'

'Meanwhile, pregnancy pillows can provide crucial support for the changing body of an expectant mother, helping to manage common pregnancy discomforts that can interfere with sleep, such as back pain, leg swelling, and acid reflux. For some, it's also a matter of comfort. Hugging a body pillow or resting a leg on a pillow can be a comfortable position that can help them relax and fall asleep more easily. But some people find them to be too bulky or uncomfortable.'

An image of a bald man in a blue jacket and shirt against a blurred background. The man is a doctor.
Dr Mark Aloia

Dr. Mark Aloia is the Head of Sleep and Behavioural Sciences, SleepIQ Health at Sleep Number, where he oversees sleep science research, partnerships and collaborations with the world’s leading physicians, researchers and institutions, as well as the development of health-focused innovations. As a distinguished sleep specialist, Mark serves as a valuable resource for Sleep Number’s NFL partners, providing in-depth consultations to teams and individual players to help them gain insight into how their sleep can affect their on-field performance, recovery and overall health and wellbeing, as well as how to optimize their sleep when traveling across time zones for games.

3. Pillows can’t be washed or cleaned

Over time pillows will accumulate dirt, stains and allergens, which could disturb your sleep and even make you ill. So, keeping them clean is essential, as it knowing how often to wash your pillow. However, some people think that pillows can’t be washed or cleaned, which is generally completely untrue. Most pillows can be washed on a gentle cycle with mild detergent and the few that can’t should be protected by the use of a washable pillow protector.

'Maintaining a clean pillow shouldn't be a chore,' says Russell Jelinek, Vice President of Product Development at Casper. 'That's why any good pillow should be machine-washable or have machine-washable covers (like all of ours at Casper). Washing not only freshens up the fill materials but also prolongs the pillow's lifespan. While changing pillowcases weekly is advisable, a thorough pillow cleaning every 3-6 months removes stains and keeps them free of allergens and dust.'

An image of a smiling man with a beard
Russell Jelinek

Russell Jelinek, the Vice President of Product Development at Casper, leads the entire mattress engineering team and guides the creation of Casper’s award-winning product portfolio from concept to market success.

4. A pillow should be comfortable from day one

'Buying a pillow is actually a more difficult task than it may seem,' explains Dr Wu. 'What initially may seem more comfortable – generally a softer pillow – may in fact induce or worsen neck pain. Firmer pillows, on the other hand, which help to stabilize the spine, may initially seem less comfortable. Research shows our perception of comfort may change after a period of adaptation, so it’s helpful to know this is the case when you’re looking to buy a new pillow.'

In a similar vein to your mattress, a new pillow can take time to get used to. And, whilst there are general guidelines as explored above on what type of pillow suits what type of sleeper, the feel of a pillow can be highly subjective. 

'Similar to studies on mattresses, we know there’s a fair bit of subjectivity/individual preference when it comes to decisions around pillows,” says Dr Wu. “If you have pain or difficulty sleeping due to a medical issue, consult a doctor or chiropractor, but otherwise, the issues of individual preference plus a lack of scientific consensus mean that for most body types, the best type of pillow is whatever you find the most comfortable. Some experimentation might be required!'

Finding the best pillow for your sleeping style and preferences may take a little work or, of course, you may be lucky and find the right pillow straight off the bat. By avoiding classic pillow myths you can narrow down your choices and hopefully be guided towards the right sort of pillow to begin your hunt with. 

Jo Plumridge

Jo Plumridge is a freelance writer and photographer with over 20 years of experience writing for a variety of magazines, websites and books. She writes, perhaps unsurprisingly, about photography, but also on all things interior design and sleep-related, alongside reviews of home and tech products. Jo loves exploring the latest design trends, although she’s yet to find a carpet that doesn’t show up the cat hair from the cats she and her husband foster.