Pillows: The Good, Bad and Toxic

Little thought is usually given to pillows. It’s the last thing most people’s heads touch when going to bed. Is a pillow really necessary? What to look for in a pillow? Which pillow is best – especially for chronic neck pain sufferers?


We’ve got all the answers…




In an effort to determine the causes of chronic neck pain, fingers have been pointed in many directions – mostly the wrong ones. Pillows got the brunt of this for a while, and even though they are no longer the focus of blame, they still get a bum rap. Do they deserve this? Do pillows help or hurt musculoskeletal pain?

Ideally, 7 – 8 hours each night are spent recuperating in the state of rest. To get all the benefits of sleep without causing pain, the sleep position should not place demands on the musculoskeletal system. This means that the joints should not be bent, curved or extended much beyond the their mid range of motion so that the muscles stay in a relaxed state. How to achieve this? With a little help from our feathery friends.

Here Are 5 Natural Ways to Relieve Your Neck Pain Right Now...

(Especially If You Can’t Sleep At Night Or You’re Facing Dangerous Surgery)

Pillows do much more than just provide comfort and security. By filling in the gap between the surface of the mattress and the head, they create natural postural alignment. This neutral position eliminates the need for muscles to contract, which in turn alleviates any undue prolonged imposition on the joints. For example, to sleep on the side (the preferred way to sleep) – or sleeping on the back without a pillow… the head would tilt sideways and/or downward… or backward. Because tilting is not a natural position, it forces muscles to continually contract. After 8 hours of sustained contraction, the muscles will be stiff and painful upon awakening. This, in turn, threatens the health of the joints. In fact, it is appropriate to sleep without a pillow only for stomach sleepers – the worst way to sleep – because the pillow would force the head to tilt unnaturally upward. The bottom line is that pillows make it possible for sleep to be therapeutically restful.



When searching for the perfect pillow to prevent musculoskeletal pain, try this test: Stand up straight with the back against the wall. The heels should touch the wall. Try to maintain a relaxed and comfortable posture. There should be a gap between the wall and the head/neck. Place the pillow in that gap… if the pillow pushes the head too far forward, then it’s too thick. If the pillow doesn’t fill the gap, its too thin and allows the head to fall back toward the wall. The right pillow is the one that neither props the head up or lets it tilt down. By the way, it doesn’t matter if a pillow is hard or soft or made of down or foam. The most important factor is to maintain the head and neck in a neutral position with the spine.



These are just some of the potential dangers stuffed into many pillows, so searching for a healthier, more natural option is important…

Flame retardants: The most popular pillow is the foam filled variety. In fact, foam is one of the most common synthetic fillings of pillows today. The benefit of these pillows is that they are able to mold to an individual’s body shape. The problem is that the foam is usually made from a chemical called polyurethane.

Polyurethane is a flame retardant found in pillows as well as mattresses, couches, upholstered furniture, carpet padding and some electronics. The Environmental Working Group (EWG.org) states that it releases polybrominated-diphenyl-ethers (PBDEs). The PBDEs are known hormone disruptors that can can contaminate a mother’s breast milk and accumulate in the placenta.

Another problem with polyurethane is that it isn’t biodegradable. This means it accumulates in the environment and in our bodies. It has been linked to thyroid hormone disruption, nerve issues and even cancer.

According to the EPA website, it is concerned “that certain PBDE congeners are persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic to both humans and the environment”. The research is so alarming that the manufacturing and import of certain PBDEs (penta and octaBDE) was phase out in 2004. A few years later, the EPA was able to get the primary manufacturers of yet another PBDE to reduce the manufacture, import  and sales of c-decaBDE and stop all sales by the end of 2013.

The EPA recommends completely avoiding any foam products manufactured prior to 2005. It suggests to buy household products made from foam that were manufactured after 2014.


 Fungi: Since the 1930’s we’ve known about the possibility of fungal contamination    in our bedding. Researchers in England found that millions of fungal spores are lodged in the average pillow. The University of Manchester sampled various feather and synthetic pillows. Each pillow had been used for used for about 18 months – with some used for as long as 20 years!

Scientists found that the pillows contained a disturbing fungus (Aspergillus fumigatus) which is linked to asthma, leukemia and bone marrow damage. This fungus is also associated with chronic sinusitis. Interestingly, feather pillows were less contaminated than synthetic pillows.

People with compromised immune systems or asthma need to be especially careful. Fungus in pillows and other locations around the home continues to make headlines.

An serious issue with Aspergillus is drug-resistance – making it very difficult to eradicate completely.

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 higher risk of developing health problems due to Aspergillus. The types of problems caused by Aspergillus include allergic reactions, lung infections, and infections in other organs”.


Formaldehyde: this is better known for being found in furniture and other wood products, as well as embalming fluid. But, it can also be found in some pillows. Formaldehyde is in widespread use, is toxic and volatile. It can lead to many health issues, including asthma and cancer.

Exposure to low levels can cause symptoms including watery eyes, coughing, wheezing, nausea, skin irritation and burning of the eyes, nose or mouth. Recently, Lumber Liquidators had to recall flooring with excessive amounts of formaldehyde that made many people ill.


Deodorants and Perfumes: Grossly, some manufacturers use industrial strength perfumes and deodorizers to mask the chemical odors coming from the foam. While these fragrances are designed to be pleasant, they are comprised of dangerous synthetic chemicals adding another hazard to already toxic pillows.


Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs): A great reason to choose chemical free pillows is to avoid dangerous volatile organic compounds. These VOCs are released into the air in a process called “off-gassing”. Since these chemicals are volatile (hence the name), they are unstable and break down to form toxic gases.

Immediate effects of VOC exposure leads to irritation of the eyes and nose. Sometimes, asthma attacks happen. Long-term exposure to VOCs can cause liver damage, kidney damage, central nervous system issues and possibly cancer.



It is recommended to replace any hypoallergenic pillow stuffed with synthetic fiber and buy pillows made out of natural materials like the ones listed below. So… are feather pillows any good? Yes, they are much better than the synthetic options, but here are some unique ideas in better pillows:


Organic wool: as long as wool allergies are not an issue, a pillow made from wool can be a great option. Organic wool is breathable and regulates temperature well, making them a great choice for year round use. Wool is also naturally fire resistant and dust mite resistant. They can be used in an organic cotton pillow case if the feel of wool along the face is unpleasant.

Sleep position note: Wool pillows are similar to cotton pillows in that they can be found in light, medium and firm filling weights. Choose based on the favorite sleep position. For example, a very lightly filled organic wool pillow may be best for stomach sleepers (but we don’t recommend this sleeping position!)



Kapok: something new here? This is a soft material made from the seeds of the kapok (Ceiba pentandra) tree. It’s similar to cotton. Actually, it’s made from the fluffy fiber that surrounds the seeds and is light and airy.

It’s also used as stuffing for toys and cushions. It is hypoallergenic, mold resistant,          water resistant and dries quickly. Kapok has actually been around for ages and was commonly used before goose down became popular.

Organic kapok is available – look for the USDA certified seal on the label. However, it can be difficult to find because kapok is known as a pest-free tree, so in general no pesticides are needed to grow it.  It is easy to find kapok pillows with an organic cotton pillow case.

Sleep position note: kapok pillows are available in regular or extra thick fill. Either will work well for side or back sleepers.


Natural latex: if allergies to natural substances like wool or feathers is a problem, the best pillow option may be one made out of latex. Just be sure it’s 100% natural latex. To get truly natural latex, the manufacturer may have to consulted as website claims can be misleading. A cervical pillow made out of latex is available in stores and online. Like wool pillows, natural latex pillows are available with an organic cotton pillow case.

Sleep position note: What’s the best pillow for back pain? Some say natural latex is best. Even though natural latex pillows are a bit bouncy, they tend to be very firm… making them a better choice for side and back sleepers.


Buckwheat hulls: buckwheat isn’t just great to eat- the hulls are great for fill. These pillows are hypoallergenic, eco-friendly and therapeutic. What are buckwheat hulls exactly? They are the hard outer shells that contain the buckwheat seeds.

One of the benefits of buckwheat pillows is that they easily adjust to the desired shape and firmness. Don’t be surprised to hear some crunching and crackling sounds as it contours itself to the body.

Sleep position note: The best pillow for side sleepers and back sleepers may be the buckwheat pillow. These pillows are often recommended for people with osteoarthritis, moderate to severe disc degeneration and spinal stenosis. Some people with neck pain swear by the pillows while others choose different options.


Millet: this is a hypoallergenic pillow filling. Millet is a gluten free ancient grain and makes for a different kind of sleeping experience. Millet pillows are typically fluffier and softer than buckwheat pillows.

Sleep position note: Millet pillows can be a healthy alternative for neck and shoulder pain and tension. These pillows are especially recommended for neck pain since they contour to the head and neck better than other pillows.


Organic cotton: this is a great chemical-free option and they are not hard to find. Look for 100 percent USDA-certified organic cotton pillows to guarantee the quality. This pillow is available with an organic cotton pillow case… so the pillow is 100 percent organic from the inside to the outside.

Sleep position note: Side sleepers should consider this pillow – look for a firm to extra-firm pillow.  Also, those that suffer with neck pain and are side sleepers should look for a pillow firm enough to support the head while also high enough to keep it in the neutral position.



With so many different pillows on the market, the question is what kind of pillow is best to help with neck pain. Here is an overview of recommended pillows:


  • Coop Home Goods Premium Adjustable Loft: has a bamboo pillow case and memory foam fill. The amount of fill is customizable and encourages proper alignment of the head and neck.
  • Luxury Cluster Fiber Sleeping Bed Pillow for Neck and Back Pain Relief – for side and back sleepers. This is a soft pillow that does not get flat but is a little on the high side. It claims to be very durable.
  • Nature’s Guest Cervical Support Pillow – Helps reduce neck and back pain: this pillow has dual zippers to allow adjustment of the fill. It is made with 100 percent natural materials and has a cotton outer case.
  • Jiaao Memory Foam Pillow for Neck Pain – Orthopedic Support for Side and Back Sleepers: this is a hypoallergenic pillow with a washable scuba knitted fabric case. Some say the pillow is a little on the high side – but has two thicknesses so it should be possible to get a comfortable sleeping position.
  • Snuggle-Pedic Ultra Luxury Bamboo Shredded Memory Foam Pillow: recommended for neck and shoulder pain. The outer cover allows for easy adjustment of thickness and comfort. It is hypoallergenic and dust mite resistant and comes with a 20 year warranty!
  • USUNO Cervical Neck and Shoulder Relaxation PIllow – recommended for stiff necks and shoulder pain. It claims to gently pull the head away from the shoulders for a mild traction effect. SOme say the pillow is too small.
  • ESEOE Best Sleep Innovations Cervical Pillow – a contoured memory foam pillow that is designed for those suffering from cervical spondylosis. It is very firm and can be used for long periods of time without any deformation or collapse
  • Arc4life Cervical Neck Traction Pillow for Sleeping – for sleeping on the side or back. It comes in three sizes. Recommended for pinched nerves or disc issues. It supplies a gentle traction effect that many find soothing.



Sweet Dreams!!



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PPS: Visit the website www.stopneckpainnaturally.com for tips, tricks and pain hacks to get feeling better fast.

Here Are 5 Natural Ways to Relieve Your Neck Pain Right Now...

(Especially If You Can’t Sleep At Night Or You’re Facing Dangerous Surgery)

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