The Best Natural Pillows For Better Sleep

by Apr 3, 2020

Did you know that we spend about 2500 hours every year in bed? That’s about a third of our lives lying horizontal inhaling the sweet nothings from our fluffy pillows. Yet most of us don’t think twice about picking up a cheap plastic or down-filled pillow made using not only nasty toxicants but feathers plucked from live animals.

That simple, rash purchasing decision is most likely detrimental to your sleep, health, the environment, and animal welfare too. If you truly want to make a simple upgrade in the bedroom that will change all that then keep reading to find the best natural pillows for better sleep.

 

What are pillows made from?

Most of us don’t give much thought to how our pillows are produced, let alone the materials that they are made from.

Whilst we may give some consideration to the outer pillow casing (Egyptian cotton 400 thread or pure silk to reduce those wrinkles) we rarely think much about the pillow filling itself. I’ve listed the most common below:

  • Polyester (synthetic polyfill or fibre fill)
  • Memory Foam or Polyurethane Foam
  • Down (duck, chicken, goose)
  • Wool (sheep)
  • Latex (pure natural rubber or synthetic latex)
  • Cotton (conventional or organic)
  • Combination of above

It’s safe to say that many of these can lead to health as well as environmental issues, including:

  • allergic reactions – house dust mites are possibly the most common year-round allergen.
  • asthma – about 11% of Australians have asthma and almost half of the hospitalisations are children under the age of 14.
  • exposure to chemicals including the known carcinogen formaldehyde and other nasties that can accumulate in our body, adversely affecting our general health and overall wellbeing.

So how do you know what to look for in a natural pillow? 

First, let’s take a look at what NOT to buy

 Pillows are generally made from low-cost toxic synthetic materials that also turn out to be quite costly to the environment.

Petroleum derived polyester and polyurethane-based memory foams dominate the field, which can outgas Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). These can cause a range of long-term health concerns if continually inhaled or absorbed through the skin.

If you spend a third of your life breathing into your pillow at night, do you really want to be breathing in such harmful substances?

The hidden poisons in polyester

Polyester is essentially plastic made from a non-renewable resource: petroleum.

In other words, if you care about reducing single-use plastics, reducing your reliance on petrol and are an advocate for reusable energy, well you should also care about what your pillows and bedding are made from.

The polyester that filling and fabric is made from is usually PET (that is, polyethylene – the same plastic used in disposable plastic water bottles).

The chemical reactions used in the manufacturing process can include horrifying sounding compounds such as terephthalic acid, dimethyl terephthalate, monoethylene glycol and the toxic heavy metal antimony.

Suffice to say, you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to grasp that these chemicals belong in the lab, not in your bed. Of course, the presence of a chemical does not necessarily mean the product is harmful. Let’s have a closer look at antimony.

Antimony is a toxic metal and a known carcinogen. It can adversely affect the heart, lungs, liver, and skin. But there is some debate as to whether or not on a hot sweaty night, the antimony can migrate out of your pillow stuffing (or polyester clothing) into your body via your skin or respiratory tract.

It’s been said that the amount of antimony that can leach from polyester is minute and the health risks are therefore minimal. But are they?

There are quite a few studies now showing that clothes can contain high levels of antimony. The source may be dyes, ink, metals, or the processing of the yarn itself. The exact source is not known but it is definitely there.

Whether or not this transfers to pillows is not certain but why take the risk especially with young children with underdeveloped detoxification systems?

Always check the label if you do buy a polyester pillow to avoid flame retardants, anti-microbials/anti-bacterial agents and so-called allergen protectors. Again, these are nasty toxicants which neither you nor your children want to breathe in at night.

A big problem with using synthetic materials is that just like petrol or gas they can go up in smoke pretty easily.

Out of the frying pan and into the fire, we douse what’s likely already a toxic material with toxic fire or flame retardants. Polyester products often use antimony trioxide in combination with other chemicals to attempt to quell the flames.

Perfluorochemicals (PFCs) can also be added to reduce staining and moisture. Think Scotchgard or slippery non-stick cookware – the same family of chemicals.

These PFCs persist in the environment and have been found in the blood of many mammals, including humans, worldwide.

Unfortunately, these chemicals have dire health consequences as they build up in the body over time. 

Memory Foam is not all it’s cracked up to be

Many people are paying a premium for this super popular, super comfortable body-hugging foam in both their pillows and mattresses.

Sadly, memory foam often referred to as polyurethane foam, is not what it is cracked up to be when it comes to health and environmental impacts.

Anything made using a list of chemicals such as those commonly found in petrol (well because that’s effectively what it is made from) should surely be given a wide berth? Chlorofluorocarbons, formaldehyde, benzene, methylene chloride, toluene, trichloroethane, naphthalene, perfluorocarbons, polyvinyl chloride and antimony trioxide. Some of these are known carcinogens and you may be inhaling them for about eight hours every night!

In a nutshell, polyurethane is a petroleum-based substance that emits toxic VOCs, which can potentially result in respiratory and skin issues. Because it is a petroleum-based foam toxic flame retardants also have to be added. These toxicants don’t just stay in your bed they outgas into your home, settling in your dust. They won’t go away unless you are using a vacuum with a HEPA filter or a really good air purifier.

Maybe it’s just me but I find it weird that a concoction of chemicals not too dissimilar to what is used to drive cars also finds its way into your bed!

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How about feathers or down, are they natural?

Down pillows sound natural, however, the process by which they are mass-produced is sadly cruel.

Unethical practices which involve plucking feathers from living or recently slaughtered birds is a very real scenario around the world.

Unfortunately, there are no ethical standards for the use of feathers or down in pillows or other fabric. Some brands follow voluntary regulations that attempt to reduce the continuation of live-plucking.

Thankfully, IKEA does not use down from live birds and uses by-products of the poultry industry instead. Hopefully, others will get the message and follow suit.

If that doesn’t already turn your stomach, feathers can also be soaked in a concoction of toxic chemicals such as the known carcinogen formaldehyde and bleach. Certain concentrations of formaldehyde are indeed legal in textiles amongst other products in Australia.

A NICNAS (Australian regulatory body) assessment found that “the most likely health effects arising from the release of formaldehyde from domestic products such as blankets and clothing textiles are irritation of the eyes and nose and allergic reactions on the skin in contact with the clothes.

Breathing formaldehyde vapour can result in irritation of nerves in the eyes and nose, which may cause burning, stinging or itching sensations, a sore throat, teary eyes, blocked sinuses, runny nose, and sneezing.

Skin contact with formaldehyde can cause skin rashes and allergic skin reactions.”

So if you find yourself with an unwanted case of itching in the middle of the night, it might be the down or the chemicals your bedding is doused in.

The bottom line: if you are an allergy or asthma sufferer, sensitive to chemicals or just want to avoid contact with carcinogens such as formaldehyde, skip the feathers and down. Personally I find down really prickly and uncomfortable. 

The best natural pillows out there

The next time you are due a pillow change, consider certified organic cotton or wool, or even a natural rubber/latex instead. Why? With these natural pillows, you can avoid all the toxic chemicals listed above and instead breathe in the natural clean air around you.

My preferred organic cotton and wool pillow is the KillaPilla pillow.

This will make an incredible difference to your health for many reasons. It’s made from certified organic GOTS cotton and minimally processed pure Australian natural wool. As a bonus, it has also been designed to help your posture whilst sleeping.

The KillaPilla pillow was developed by a Queensland based Chiropractor and his wife. They joined forces to create a pillow that combined the latest in design technology features whilst consisting of only the purest and most natural materials.

Chiropractors also tell me the KillaPilla is the ideal pillow if you have had spinal surgery. It comes with a couple of different inserts to make both side sleeping and back sleeping super comfortable. It’s not recommended if you are a tummy sleeper though.

Not only can you buy an adult pillow for yourself and your loved ones, but also a Tween pillow, recommended for those aged between 8-12 or who are under 40cm across the shoulders.

What is the KillaPilla made from?

The KillaPilla pillow is made from the highest grade GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) certified organic cotton fabric, which even receives an exemption from the Australian Government for the mandatory fumigation that all imported goods are subject to before entering the country.

The GOTS certification limits the use of bleaches, dyes and other chemicals during the production phase of textiles.

For a product to be GOTS-certified, you can be assured that every stage of the process from farming to manufacturing is verified, as this is the most difficult of internationally recognised standards to obtain.

Australian wool fills the KillaPilla pillow, which is sustainable, biodegradable, Oeko-Tex Standard 100 certified non-toxic and baby safe and is a natural fire retardant. This wool is grown in South Australia and processed in Adelaide so no unnecessary exportation is required.

By using local machinists in a family-owned manufacturer in Queensland Dr Todd and Carolina are able to work closely with the professionals who handcraft every one of these pillows. They are able to say NO to plastics and support even more local businesses by using a family-owned box company to package all of their stock.

Thoughts about pure wool 

Whilst some people can be allergic to wool, provided you aren’t, KillaPilla is one of the best natural pillow options on the market.

The wool will keep you cool at night by repelling moisture. It is one of those fantastical materials that can regulate our body temperatures. Wool is a natural flame retardant, so no nasty flame retardants are needed.

The only complaint I sometimes hear is that pure wool can smell, well, of sheep, due to the lanolin present in the wool. KillaPilla uses natural methods to scour away the lanolin, so you can be sure that KillaPilla doesn’t smell at all (I know, I sleep on one).

Pure wool is also house dust mite and mould-resistant, meaning that you can enjoy a healthier space to rest your head.

What is the deal with latex pillows?

Assuming you are not allergic to latex itself, this clean and pure option is great if you have allergies or asthma, or simply if you react to wool or other natural fibres.

If you are unsure whether you are allergic to latex or not, get a Kinesiologist (many chiropractors can do this too) to test you, preferably with a sample of the pillow material that you are considering using.

Latex can be processed via Dunlop or Talalay methods. Both are fine, although it’s the purity of latex that is the key factor to determine when you are choosing an appropriate pillow.

What’s the difference between synthetic and natural latex or rubber?

To understand the difference between synthetic and natural latex, we need to understand where they are sourced from. Natural rubber latex is sourced from rubber trees. After the latex is tapped from trees, it is manufactured using either the Dunlop or Talalay process.

Synthetic latex, on the other hand, can have varying amounts of fillers added during processing, such as polyurethane and other chemicals, to bulk out the final product thereby reducing costs.

Polyurethane is a nasty chemical that you do not want to breathe at night.

Synthetic latex is not healthy or sustainable and is best avoided.

Be aware of clever marketing tricks too!

Companies are able to call latex, ‘natural latex’ whenever they have a certain amount of natural latex within their synthetic blend. This could be as low as 50%.

Fully natural latex may be more expensive, but the price is worth the additional durability, the health factors and the elimination of synthetic products that can have devastating impacts on the environment.

What kind of latex pillow should I choose?

Latex with a GOLS (Global Organic Latex Standard) certification is the purest you will find. To find a product that is GOLS-certified, it must consist of 95% certified organic raw materials. There is also a limit on polymer (chemical compounds) and filler percentages and a traceable supply chain must be produced from plantation to final retailer to ensure authenticity. Whilst GOLS certified latex can be hard to find and expensive as a minimum you want to find a pillow made from pure latex not synthetic latex.    

Fern Earth is my go-to for latex pillows.

This non-toxic, all-natural and affordable brand offers pillows and mattresses of the highest quality with ethical considerations forefront in mind.

The pillow is chemical-free, healthy and allergen-free; brilliant for those people who have reactions to wool and are sensitive to chemicals.

It is made with natural Dunlop latex rubber that has been sustainably sourced, eco-INSTITUT certified and is 100% natural. Providing great support for your neck whilst being airy and light, you can rest easy knowing that you are breathing in no harmful chemicals but rather cradled to sleep in nature’s loving arms.

The cover is GOTS-certified organic cotton, again ensuring purity, breathability and comfort.

If you are looking for a comfortable, supportive pillow that adheres to strict sustainability and chemical-free guidelines, whilst being allergen-free, then Fern Earth’s pillow is the choice for you.

A good night’s rest for your whole body is critical should you want to truly rest and recharge.

Taking steps to reduce your toxicant load and being proactive about choosing ethical, sustainable brands is a great way to support your own health and that of the environment. It is so easy you can even do it in your sleep!

Tips for finding the best natural pillows for better sleep

Experts say you should change your pillow about every 18-24 months, or maybe more if you sweat a lot, are prone to allergies or have water damage (mould) in your home.

Here are some tips to make this a more sustainable purchasing decision and a healthier choice for you and the environment.

  • To prolong a pillow’s life air your pillow outside in the sun and wash the covers weekly (this also reduces those pesky house dust mites).
  • Choose a natural pillow to reduce the environmental impacts all the way from cradle to grave.
  • Avoid flame retardants – both pure wool and pure latex are naturally flame resistant so no toxic chemicals are added.
  • Buy pillows that are not conducive to house dust mite or moisture (mould), for example, natural latex or pure wool.
  • Don’t buy pillows made from synthetic rubber or latex – always ask if it is 100% natural rubber (from a tree!).
  • Only buy pure wool made with minimal chemical processing.
  • Steer away from feathers and down for animal cruelty reasons or if you are prone to skin allergies or asthma.
  • Avoid pillows made from conventionally grown cotton. Cotton is one of the most heavily sprayed crops in the world, laced with pesticides and chemicals and its water consumption is high. Certified organic cotton is a much healthier option.

If you have recently invested in a pillow that is making you sneeze and splutter, get yourself a natural dust mite protection cover until you can upgrade.

In summary, avoid synthetic pillows including memory foam, polyurethane, polyester and feather/down. Steer clear of fabrics that claim to be stain or wrinkle resistant, and anti-microbial.  A better choice of pillow  is one made with 100% natural fibre including cotton, wool, latex, buckwheat or kapok. Extra brownie points if you choose certified organic cotton and wool, or pure natural latex/rubber.

As an added bonus choose a pillow that is not just healthy and sustainable but also brilliant for your back and neck.

To start creating a healthier sleep environment, buy Fern Earth natural latex pillows. Or, buy KillaPilla pure wool and certified organic cotton pillows and use the code Econscious10 for a nice little discount too!

 

Hi, I’m Una. Eco-Lifestyle Coach & Scientist

Una Phelan environmental scientist and eco-lifestyle coach

I create healthy homes and lifestyles that change lives for the better.

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