5 signs it's time to get rid of your pillow—stat
It's hard to say a final goodnight, but your back, neck, and sleep will thank you.
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Most people know mattresses eventually must be replaced, typically after about a decade of use. But other bedding has a shelf life, too. Sometimes it’s obvious—you can usually tell when your sheets are at the end of their tether as they may be thin, stained, or even ripped after years of love.
Then there are bed pillows, which can be trickier to determine when it’s time to kick to the curb. Here are five signs you should retire your current pillow and move on to loftier places.
1. You’ve had your pillow for more than two years
Pillows have a recommended lifespan—there’s no embellishing it. Experts suggest getting rid of your pillow every year and a half to two years, max. It may seem short, but when you spend six-plus hours a day lounging on something, it’s going to get flattened, misshapen, and dirty. (If you've slept on your pillow for seven hours a night for a year and a half, you've spent nearly 4,000 hours with it.) I know the temptation to cling to your favorite pillow firsthand—I’m still struggling to get rid of my pillow that’s practically geriatric at this point.
The recommendation is twofold. First, there’s the inevitable compression of a pillow's fill, a real concern with down and down-alternative fibers, which lose their loft and supportiveness overtime. But also there’s the build up of dust and allergens that accumulate inside the pillow (yuck). As we sleep, our pillows take on oil from our skin and moisture from our breathing (and drool—it happens!), creating a damp environment that dust mites love. Encasing pillows in zippered allergen proof covers as well as washing or dry-cleaning them regularly can help prolong their life, but it’s still best to give them the boot after two years.
2. Your head and neck feel unsupported
If you’ve started to notice your head is lolling this way or that overnight, your spine may be misaligned as you try to catch your shut-eye. Spinal alignment refers to keeping your head and neck in a neutral position. In essence, you want your head to be in a similar position to when you’re standing (centered over your shoulders) when you lie down in bed. Your pillow should keep your head “just level with the mattress, and be firm enough so that it stays there,” says Robert Hayden, a chiropractor who focuses on musculoskeletal conditions. With the amount of time we spend in bed on a day-to-day basis, keeping the spine properly aligned is essential.
Another sign your pillow isn’t up to the job? You’re a side sleeper or back sleeper and you routinely wake up with your head sunken through the pillow and basically resting directly on the mattress. You aren’t getting sufficient support and should upgrade ASAP. You’re likely straining your neck all night, and you may feel stiff or sore throughout the day as a result.
3. You wake up sneezing or congested every day
As just discussed, bedding, unfortunately, is a hotspot for dust mites, dust, and other allergens. And while it’s true that regular washing can help, it may also take a toll on the fill material. There’s no winning situation.
If you’re waking up congested and sniffling every morning, your pillow might be to blame. There’s a myth that natural down fill is more prone to allergen build-up, when in reality, down and foam pillows are about the same when it comes to allergen accumulation. (Though, of course, if you're allergic to actual feathers, you should steer clear.) In research, down-alternative fills were found more likely than down to accumulate allergens. The exterior fabrics on down-filled pillows tend to be more tightly woven to hold the feathers in, which presents a barrier to allergens entering; down-alternative pillows may be made with looser-weave fabrics that let in those tiny buggers. So when you buy a new pillow, also purchase a zippered dust mite- and allergen-blocking protector, like this highly rated allergy-proof cover made by National Allergy that’s certified by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.
4. Your pillow is losing its loft or shape or is lumpy
It should go without saying that if your pillow isn’t looking its plump and happy best, it probably isn’t performing its best, either (excluding some stomach sleepers’ pillows, which may just be flat to begin with). Down pillows are often noticeably worse for wear after about a year of use because the fill will start to permanently compress as the feathers lose their ability to re-fluff. For side and back sleepers, this spells bad support and, as a result, poor sleep. If you’re constantly fluffing your pillow or trying to smooth away lumps, it’s a good indicator your pillow’s fill is past its prime.
5. It doesn’t spring back from pressure
If your pillow no longer quickly bounces back to its original shape, it’s time to move on. One easy way to check this is by pressing your hands into the material for a moment and watching how the pillow reacts once you remove them. If it is slow—or unable—to spring back, it isn’t offering enough resistance to support your neck, head, and shoulders overnight, either.
We tested pillows for each sleep position and one of the factors we considered was their ability to return to their original shape after being weighed down overnight with a 25-pound weight. Most of the pillows we tested bounced back almost instantly. We saw issues with a few pillows, like the Target Room Essentials Plush Pillow and My Pillow, both of which took a while to plump back up.
What to do with old pillows
So you need a new pillow. What should you do with the old one? If you’re sustainability conscious and hate the thought of throwing it in the trash, fear not. There are plenty of ways to repurpose your old pillow. For one, consider running it through the wash and using it as pet bedding, and if you don’t have a pet, try donating to a local animal shelter. If your pillow is filled with down feathers or another natural material, like buckwheat, you can compost the fill, and cut the encasement up to use as cleaning rags. Getting a new pillow and giving your favorite old one a new lease on life will give your head and neck a real rest.