The Science of Sleeping on the Healthiest Pillow: It's Not All Fluff


We have very specific needs when it comes to our sleeping pillows. My husband, for example, isn’t a happy camper unless he can mash his pair into pot stickers for supporting his sizable noggin (they don’t call his people the clan of the big heads for nothing). I rest easiest on a medium-fill, standard-size, hypo-allergenic pillow, containing enough loft to support my little grape head but not so dense as to require a neck brace upon rising.

All of these preferences seem crucial in attaining a good night’s sleep, especially during these often fitful nights caused by the market crash (over-the-counter sleep aids are said to be up by 30 percent). Even so, many of us (especially yours truly) are lazy about finding the pillow that fits and then maintaining it to extend its life. Some argue pillow protectors with zipper enclosures should cover every cushion you value to insure sustainability.

Pillows are important investments. After all, we spend a third of our lives hugging our feather- or foam-filled friends. And when those friends cost $100, they should be excellent bedfellows.

I went to Rebecca Litwin, founder of Down Etc. for some hard facts on selecting a soft place to land at night.

Down Etc. is a premier vendor of pillows and bedding purchased by luxury and green hotels and retailers. It has just launched an organic line called DOE (Down on Earth) with natural feathers and 100% organic cotton ticking fabric encasing those feathers. It also sells its brand in its own showroom at 228 Townsend in San Francisco where visitors are basically given a crash course by Rebecca on how to buy a pillow 101.

PhotobucketEcoSalon: The term hypo-allergenic is commonly used to sell us on pillows that don’t cause reactions. Does it mean all allergens are removed from the feathers, and if so, how?

Rebecca: Hypo-allergenic means the way in which a product is washed to remove its residue, impurities and any type of bacteria that can be found in an animal-based product. Our cleaning process is called CentroClean ┞¢ and it removes the allergens from the feathers. We boil the water at an extremely high temperature to kill off any bacteria. The real issue is to look at is the cleanliness of the pillow: by smelling it, and then hitting it to check for dust.

PhotobucketCan synthetic be hypo-allergenic?

When you read that a synthetic product is hypo-allergenic I don’t know how that is done because it is made from plastic, from polyester, which is artificially created. Down, because it is natural, is not what you are allergic to; it’s the dust and the mold. There is an allergy to human and pet hair but it is very rare. It’s usually the chemical the product is washed in or the dust or mold in the air that causes an allergic reaction.

PhotobucketAre there things we can be doing to help extend the lives of our pillows?

You should replace your pillow at least once a year, unless you are taking good care of it. My favorite pillow I have had more than 20 years. But I throw my all white down goose pillows regularly in the dryer, so that the heat opens up the cluster and refluffs my pillow. It’s like brushing your hair where you need volume and loft. I add a tennis ball or tennis shoe so it gets beaten to open up the down cluster. The cluster comes from the inner belly of the goose; it’s a bulb with no feathers. To get a firmness we blend it with the feathers from the back of the bird. Most of our products are a mix of the down with the feathers.

PhotobucketHow important is it to use pillow protectors?

You drool at night when you sleep so you should use the protector and wash it once a month or on an as-need basis, but change your cases regularly. If you go home today, take the challenge. Take the case off your pillow and see if it is stained with circles. The circles are the residue coming out of your mouth. Everybody drools. If you have protectors the stains will be absorbed there. All my pillows look brand new because they have protectors. Also, you have residue coming out of your hair. We retail protectors for $8. They’re not expensive.

PhotobucketDoes a comfortable pillow make a difference in aiding a good night’s sleep during this stressful time with the economy?

Great brains come from a good night’s sleep. If you can put yourself in a deep, delta sleep, you eat better, you exercise, you are happy. It’s a transformation of your energy when you fully relax your body and wake up revived. It’s the key to growth and success. You think better. Have you hugged your pillow today and had a great pillow day? Finding a great pillow is a big challenge itself but if you find it – there is nothing more relaxing than that.

PhotobucketI hear you are preeminent pillow expert, and its seems you know your stuff – and your fluff! What do you hear from clients about pillows that helps you understand our needs?

Everyone has a pillow story they want to tell me. The issue in finding that “perfect pillow” is that time changes, so does the weather, so does your weight and your mood. Today a soft pillow might be great and tomorrow you might need a firmer pillow. We do a hug test. If you walk into our showroom you hug 7 or 8 pillows and have a conversation about each one. It’s like looking at a painting or plucking rose petals. You love one, you don’t love one, you love one, you don’t love one. We look at the juxtaposition of a person’s body, if they have neck pain and tilt their head to the right. A weight lifter, a bigger person, might need the support of a king. Someone might have a small head, sleep on their side, spoon. We ask people if they sleep naked, with flannel, use a duvet. Each filler and fabric is a fiber that breathes a different way. If you have poly-fiber and I change you to a cotton, you might have a completely different experience.

PhotobucketWhat efforts is the industry making to go organic?

We have a launched a certified organic collection, called DOE (Down on Earth) and our tag line is from seed to sleep. The price range is $100 to $200, a little bit higher than our regular down pillows, about 20 percent higher, but not overly expensive in today’s market. The most important thing is going down to the farm level to the seed. We are ensuring that the fabric goes from the ginner to the spinner to the weaver. We also are doing a buckwheat pillow with seeds.

We’ve been organic for quite some time, here in California. It’s just that awareness has gotten into the mainstream. There is non-chlorine whitening and formaldehyde-free sizing that is used in producing the down-proof fabric. Other products we use are certified organic wool for the filler on the inside of the organic pillows, or feather and down. You have a choice. We are offering the organic now, and have one hotel using it – Bardessono Inn in Yountville. They are a LEED-certified and organic hotel.

Down Etc. pillow terms to help you get your ducks in a row:

Feathers are the outer plumage of a waterfowl. Feathers have a quill and are flatter than a down cluster. They are thicker and do not entrap air to provide the warmth that a down cluster does.

Generally, when there is more down in a product – the pillow or comforter is fluffier and softer and when a product has a higher feather content it is more firm.

Luanne Bradley

Luanne Sanders Bradley is the West coast Editor at EcoSalon and currently resides in San Francisco, California.