When you think that we spend a third of our life sleeping, furnishing our bed shouldn’t be an afterthought. It should actually be a place where we invest in quality. Unfortunately most pillows and mattresses are covered in serious amounts of toxic flame retardant (filled with hormone disruptors) and formaldehyde. And as if that isn’t bad enough, no matter how much chemical they slather onto our pillows, that doesn’t prevent them from immediately starting to accumulate fungi, dead skin cells, dust mites, their carcasses and their faeces. In fact, over time (as little as 18 months), up to 1/2 of the weight of your pillow can be attributed to this delightful cocktail. So yeah…I wash my pillows pretty frequently.
Over the years I’ve slept on pretty much every kind of pillow going and before I go into why I have settled on my pillow of choice, let me run through the pros and cons of the other pillows I have used (and a couple which I haven’t).
In my first apartment I had the artificial polyester hollow fibre pillows. They can be inexpensive, but they don’t last particularly well, as they go flat quickly and when you throw them into the washing machine to clean them, they separate and clump up. Even a trip through the tumble dryer doesn’t quite put them back to rights, and these misshapen, unsupportive pillows can cause neck pain. They generally have a life span of about 6 months but should never be kept longer than 2 years. So you can start to see how investing in a good pillow can make a difference. I’ve also tried memory foam pillows which I personally found to be awful. They sound fancy, but they’re just made from polyurethane with other added chemicals. They gave both of us aching necks (when they were supposed to ease them!) and the smell of them gave us headaches. They also don’t ventilate well and they can make you sweat quite a lot. They quickly made it on to the guest bed of unwanted pillows. Not money well spent.
I’m not a fan of feather pillows. Like the synthetic pillows they can go clumpy (even more so) and I find that the sharp bases of the feather soon start to poke through the pillow, making the pillow a bit spiky and cactus-like. I also have allergies so I find these pillows exacerbate this problem. And then there is the issue of the ethics of these pillows. The feathers often come from birds kept in terrible living conditions which are then plucked alive. I know John Lewis department store has expectations of animal welfare for the birds which are plucked to fill the feather and down bedding they sell. In other words, these feathers are by-products of the food industry. Either way, its not pretty. Personally I have not found an ethically satisfactory source for feather pillows so I would not recommend them from a comfort, care or ethical standpoint. However, my husband came with a set of these nasty pillows included…so if you are ever staying in our guest room, all I can say is sorry.
Now while down feather pillows may face the exact same ethical issues as feather pillows do, they are made from the soft, under-feathers of some types of birds – usually ducks and geese – and they are extremely, deliciously comfortable. They’re also quite expensive, so you’ve got to watch out for companies selling pillows which are a blend of down and feather. They’re a long lasting pillow and you can wash them in the washing machine, so long as you don’t try to air dry them. They WILL MILDEW inside the pillow if you try to air dry them, so be sure to tumble dry them until they are beyond bone dry. They will once again become fluffy and plump after this process. My husband uses down pillows on his side of the bed, and I find them easy to care for. I have not found an entirely ethically satisfactory source for down pillows or duvets, so I make sure I look after the ones we already have very well with regular washing, airing and maintenance. (See Kapok Pillows below for a great vegan-friendly alternative).
Okay, I love wool pillows. Its incredibly easy to source organic wool pillows and duvets which are locally and ethically made here in the UK as well as in Canada and the US, and they are so comfortable and soft. I know vegans aren’t too happy about wool, but the fact is that modern sheep breeds need to be sheared, so as long as its a nice organic farm where they love their sheep, I’m okay with that. Wool pillows don’t go clumpy or lumpy and they don’t go flat. They’re naturally hypoallergenic, they deter dust mites and wool is a very breathable material. They’re also super easy to throw in the washing machine on a regular basis too.
Buckwheat, Millet & Spelt Pillows
I have to admit I haven’t tried these, but they may be worth investigating if you like a really firm pillow. I’m assuming that anyone with coeliac disease or a severe gluten intolerance should probably avoid the spelt pillow and opt for the millet or buckwheat instead, as they are gluten-free fillings. The millet is smaller and more sand-like, whereas the spelt husks are bigger and have a more massage-like effect on the body. They also have a high silica content and are considered to help prevent muscle aches and pains. The buckwheat pillows are robust and supportive while still being light and airy. They are a great option for anyone who tends to sweat up a storm at night, as they allow moisture and heat to evaporate quickly.
Natural Latex Pillows
I have also not tried natural latex filled pillows, but they offer a firm support and are a bit bouncy. They’re also good for people who suffer from dust allergies because they cannot support the growth of bacteria, germs and moulds. They’re not for people with chemical sensitivities though (lots of people have latex allergies), and some people can detect a slight smell of latex the first few times they use the pillows.
I’m just gonna say it. I don’t see myself sleeping on a pillow filled with Black Beauty’s tail. I don’t care how ethical the sourcing is. But the advantages to a horsehair pillow are that they provide a medium firm support and are another great one for anyone who gets the night sweats, as they regulate moisture well. They are warm and dry and the horsehair is said to have anti-rheumatic qualities.
So I’ve saved my absolute favourite for last. These pillows are incredibly luxurious. If you didn’t know you were sleeping on Kapok you’d swear you were sleeping on the softest down pillow ever. And its vegan friendly, so if you don’t use animal based fibres in your home, then kapok means that you don’t need to resort to using synthetic fibres. So what the heck is kapok? Well its a sort of silky fluff which comes from a tree which grows wild in tropical forests. So while they’re not ‘grown organically’ there’s never any pesticides on them. These trees are an important part of local economies and therefore are always very well looked after. The kapok fibre itself contains naturally bitter compounds and that makes it really unattractive to dust mites and other creepy crawlies in general (that was a win for me!) and the fibres are also covered in a sort of wax which cannot absorb or retain moisture, so your kapok pillow or duvet will always be dry, no matter how damp the weather outside. Kapok pillows can be washed and tumble dried, but what I love about the one I have is that the organic cotton quilted cover and inner cover can be unzipped, and the soft, downy kapok filling removed while the fabric is being washed. So if you only want to fluff and ‘air out’ your kapok filling from time to time, its much easier to do so.
So whatever pillow you opt for, try to find one which provides the right level of support for you, one that is easy to clean on a regular basis (remember the mite faeces & carcasses I mentioned earlier?) and which comes from ethical and environmentally sustainable materials. Remember that you and your partner don’t necessary need to have the same pillow – one of you might benefit from a firm buckwheat pillow, while the other luxuriates on the softness of kapok. Personally I love supporting small, local producers and manufacturers. My organic wool and kapok pillows are simply the best pillows I have ever had. I can’t remember where my wool pillows from Canada were bought now (somewhere in Canada, obviously!), but the kapok pillows came from Greenfibres, a shop based down in Devon which also produces organic wool, buckwheat, spelt, natural latex and horsehair pillows in the same nifty design where you can remove the filling for airing, cleaning and to adjust the height and density of the pillow. I’m just going to big up this shop a bit because they were incredibly helpful in talking me through the process of finding a new pillow – in fact I’d have never known about kapok pillows if it weren’t for them – and they’re on Etsy as well, so if you can’t find a local supplier in your own country, you can order them internationally as well.
And because I care about you guys and I really hate the thought of you sleeping on dust mite poop, I’d also like to share with you this great, short video from Clean My Space which I discovered during the ‘nesting phase’ of my pregnancy and its where I learned how to clean and maintain my pillows and duvets: