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  • Writer's pictureMarni Jameson

When Picking a Pillow, Use Your Head

You snuggle with them. You sleep with them. You hold them close. Some of you won’t leave home without them. I’m not talking about your pet. I’m talking about your pillow -- that under-sung household hero that most of us spend more face time with than any other object, save for, perhaps, our mobile phones, which is sad.

That said, and we can keep this between us, when was the last time you replaced yours? Or washed it? I see the color in your cheeks. If your pillow is a nasty, musty, drool-stained, dust-filled lump that is half the size it was when you bought it back when Truman was president, it’s okay. That’s what I’m here for.

Last month, I wrote several columns on mattresses, which matter because our bodies literally depend on them for a third of our lives. However, just as important is the prop on which we plop our tired heads. What good is a dreamy new mattress, if your pillow is as old as Grandma Moses, and just as dead?

Because picking the perfect pillow may be all that stands between you and a much better, more hygienic, night’s sleep, I talked to several experts about how – and when -- to go about this.

“When we find that favorite pillow, we act as if it should last for decades,” said Mary Helen Rogers, spokeswoman for the Better Sleep Council. “But the materials in pillows, like any soft product, wear over time.”

Her council’s research and other experts suggest that if you use a pillow nightly, its lifespan is about three years. Besides age, other clues that your pillows need replacing are if you wake up with neck or back discomfort, or when pillows look lumpy and uneven, said Missy Tannen, founder of Boll & Branch, a luxury sheet company, based in New Jersey, that launched a yummy line of pillows last year.

If you wake up with allergy symptoms like itchy, watery eyes, a stuffy nose or fits of sneezing, your old pillow could the problem, added Karin Sun, founder of Crane & Canopy, a luxury bedding brand based in San Francisco. Over time, pillows collect dust mites and other allergens. You could also be allergic to the down-feather fill.

Like mattresses, pillows are personal. What I love you may not. But we can agree that sleeping on the wrong pillow can be a pain in the neck. So here are some pillow pointers to sleep on:

  • Run pillow check. To find out if you’re pillows are ripe for replacement, look at them. If they’re stained or discolored, get rid of them. Smell them. If a pillow smells musty, dusty and old, it is. Fold it in half. If it stays folded when you let go, it’s dead. Pillows should look clean, smell fresh and rebound.

  • Factor in sleep position. Stomach and back sleepers tend toward softer pillow, Tannen said, while side sleepers lean toward medium or firm pillows. But in reality, most people change positions all night, so try out different several pillow types to find your match. You need to lie down on this job.

  • Find your fill. For comfort, softness, air circulation and durability, down-feather is your fill. “Good quality down and feather will outlast just about any pillow fill material in the market,” said Tannen. Down, the fluffy stuff under feathers, adds loft and softness, while feathers add structure and support. If you want a soft pillow you can mush to your liking (yes!), this is your pillow. If you can’t tolerate down, opt for a good down alternative. Less expensive and also popular are polyester-fill pillows, which feel firmer than down. Latex offers even more firmness, though it’s not for those who like to fluff their pillow at night. Foam also provides a firmer feel. However, foam pillows can sleep hot and break down faster. Memory foam pillows adjust to your shape as you move, and newer versions offer temperature control.

  • Understand fill power. Kind of like thread count in sheets, fill power in pillows offers a way to rate quality in synthetic or natural down pillow. The higher the number the better the pillow. Aim for fill-power of 600 or higher.

  • Nip snoring. Memory foam is the basis of the Motion Pillow II, a high-tech pillow designed to stop snoring the second it starts, said company spokesman John Mateo. (Think of the marriages this could have saved.) The patented pillow system has four airbags inside with sensors. When the snoring starts, airbags inflate and deflate causing the snoring sleeper to turn his head and stop snoring. Those who sleep with CPAP machines can also find sleep-apnea pillows designed to accommodate the machine’s tubes and cords, said Rogers.

  • Keep them covered: Between the pillow and the pillowcase, you want one more layer. Zippered pillow protectors keep dust, moisture and stains away and lengthen pillow life. Make sure they’re 100% cotton, not synthetic, so they breathe. Wash pillow covers weekly or every other week, with your sheets.

  • Keep them clean. Wash your pillows twice a year, Tannen said. Check your pillow’s care instructions; most can be machine washed and dried. Use a tiny amount of detergent, and add a second rinse cycle to get all the soap out. You may also need to run bed pillows through the dryer twice to get the middle dry. Adding a tennis ball to the cycle can help pillows fluff back up.

Then you can go to sleep with a clean, or at least cleaner, conscience.

CAPTION: Hold on Sleepy Head: Once you find the perfect pillow, you never want to let go. But experts say every few years, you should. Photo courtesy of

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