Down vs. down alternative pillows: What’s the difference?

    A little nighttime reading

    DOWN VS. DOWN ALTERNATIVE PILLOWS: WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE?

    Interested in a traditionally soft and fluffy pillow, but looking to upgrade to a more luxurious feel? Pillows with down, down-feather or down alternative fills would likely be a good fit.

    These pillows have a plushness and squish that feels cozy and comfy. They can be scrunched and maneuvered for personalized support as you move during the night. Contrast this with memory foam pillows that are firmer and set rigidly in their shape.

    The name “down alternative” suggests a pillow that closely mimics down, but this can be a bit misleading. There are key differences between down and down alternative pillows important to consider when making that next pillow purchase.

    But first, what exactly is in down, feather and down alternative fills?

    Down vs feather vs. down alternative

    Both down and feathers are natural fills that come from waterfowl (geese and ducks). Down comes from the under plumage of the bird, found beneath its protective insulation layer of feathers. Down clusters are soft and wispy with filaments that grow in all directions.

    Conversely, feathers are found on the wings or tail of the bird and have quills (the center shaft) running through them. Feathers tend to be less flexible and not as soft as down.

    Down alternative fill is synthetic and man-made from polyester microfibers. Do not confuse this with the more common polyester-fill (ie polyfill) that is used in cheaper “throwaway” pillows. Most of the cheap polyfill pillows are usually priced at $30 or below.

    The higher-quality down alternative options often run anywhere between $60-$100 per pillow. That’s because the microfibers used in down alternative pillows are produced to exacting standards of thickness and feel attributes. You’ll experience these as more supple, soft and luxurious. The fibers stick together to make this fill more mesh-like.

    The following is a quick summary of how down, down-feather and down alternative pillows stack up. For more detailed information, keep reading.

    Down pillows vs. down alternative pillows

    Down vs. down alternative pillows: FEEL
    Although all are soft and fluffy, each of these fill materials feel quite distinct.

    • Down Pillows: Feels lightweight and airy-- with no quills poking through. Usually retains more plushness, resiliency and loft
    • Down-Feather Pillows: Feels like it has more heft and substance (vs. all-down pillows). Usually has a “crisper” scrunchable feel. As feathers settle, they tend to lay flatter on top of each other, which often causes feather pillows to compress down and compact as the night goes on
    • Down Alternative Pillows: Feels squishable and supple (with the puffs of fill slightly “sliding” within the shell like silk), but has more substantive denseness. Fill will not compress or shift as much as a down or feather pillow will. The luxuriousness of a down alternative pillow can really vary, depending on the manufacturer. Some down alternative pillows feel more “down-like” while others are closer to the cheaper polyfill options.

    A down pillow is like sleeping on cotton candy.

    A down-feather pillow is like sleeping on a field of flowers.

    A down alternative pillow is like sleeping on cotton balls.

    Any of these pillow types come in soft, medium or firmer support levels. Soft pillows contain less fill, while firm pillows contain more. These differences give the pillows varying heights, and alters the amount of give and squish that you feel.

    For instance, a firm down pillow will still have an airy-light softness, but the fill will be more dense so it lifts your head up higher and is less scrunchable. Contrast this with a soft down pillow, which will be more malleable and squish more easily.

    The origin and quality of the fill can impact how the pillow feels over time. Some down types, for example, spring back and retain loft longer, which gives more of a head-cradling feel. (Read more here if you’re curious about the differences in down quality and how it affects the pillow feel)

     

    Down vs. down alternative pillows: HYPOALLERGENIC
    Sleepers with respiratory allergies often avoid down or feather pillows, believing that this natural fill will exacerbate allergies from the natural dander and oils present. This can be true with unwashed down or feather fill. However, in high-quality down-feather pillows, like from Slumbr, the down and feather fills are cleaned thoroughly - usually to hypoallergenic standards and even beyond.

    More often than not, allergy sufferers are reacting to the dust mites, dirt and other allergens that accumulate in the pillow over time rather than the fill itself. Down and feather pillows get a bad rap because they’re more likely to be kept for many years. And if not cleaned on occasion, the accumulations will build up to cause sneezing and wheezing.

    If you have respiratory allergies, you can use a down alternative pillow without any issue. Down alternative pillows are considered hypoallergenic without question. But if you prefer the feel of a high-quality down or down-feather pillow, you should be able to use it if it’s cleaned to hypoallergenic standards.

    Regardless of which type of pillow you use, we recommend using a pillow protector and cleaning the pillow as directed to head off the sniffles.

     

    Down vs. down alternative pillows: DURABILITY
    Typically, down and feather pillows will retain their comfort and support for longer than down alternative pillows. Natural materials in pillows generally last longer than synthetic materials.

    With proper care (ie occasional cleaning and using a pillow protector), down and feather pillows can last years -- some claim even as long as a decade. However, expect that the down or down/feathers will gently settle over time.

    Higher-quality down alternative pillows will last 1-2 years without significantly degrading or losing support if cared for properly. They can also be washed occasionally, unlike cheaper polyfill pillows (which usually lose integrity after washing).

    For tips on cleaning and caring for your pillows, go here.

     

    Down vs. down alternative pillows: COST AND VALUE
    In general, high quality down and down-feather pillows will cost more than a down alternative pillow, as it is more difficult to source down and feather. Because these natural materials will last longer, however, they can often present a better value over the long-run.

    For example, Slumbr’s Cassiopeia Luxe Down Pillow with European goose down is $225, and Slumbr’s Orion Down Alternative Pillow is $60. Although this price difference is significant, consider the value you get with each pillow given how long each pillow type can last. If the Cassiopeia lasts you 6 years, it would cost $37.50/year; if the Orion lasts you 2 years, it would cost $30/year. The difference of $7.50/year extra might be worth it if you find the down pillow is a better fit for your sleep style.

    Keep in mind, some manufacturers use “branded” down alternative materials  to charge a premium for their pillows. In our experience, these branded down alternative materials feel nice, but do not provide enough of a difference to be worth the added expense.

     

    Down vs. down alternative pillows: ECO-FRIENDLINESS
    Using a high quality pillow that will last you longer is a more eco-friendly and less wasteful option, vs. throwing cheaper pillows away every year. Both down alternative and down/down-feather options will be better in this regard.

    When it comes to the eco-friendliness of down, down-feather vs. down alternative pillows, it really depends on how you look at it.

    Down or Down-feather: This fill material is all natural and compostable, in addition to the cotton shells in which it’s usually placed. High quality pillows (like the ones from Slumbr) will use down and feather from sustainable and humanely-raised birds, and the down/feathers will be cleaned using more ecologically-friendly detergents. Down is typically a byproduct of the food industry, and this material would otherwise be wasted if it was not used in products like pillows, comforters, sleeping bags and apparel.

    Down alternative: This fill material is comprised of fibers that are petrol-derived, like all polyester-based materials. However, the fill does not come from animals that have been bred and raised. Down alternative pillows are appropriate for those who live a vegan lifestyle.

    If you’re interested in ways to recycle or reuse your old pillows, here are a few ideas.

     

    Down vs. down alternative pillows: BREATHABILITY
    Down is prized for its insulating properties in outdoor product. For this reason, it is likely to retain more heat than down alternative pillows. However, both types of pillows are more breathable and sleep cooler than most memory foam pillows. For the average sleeper who does not typically need a cool pillow, you should be able to use down, down-feather or down alternative pillows with no problem. However, if you are sensitive to this and tend to sleep hot, go with the down alternative option.

    Note: If you’re really keen to find a pillow that sleeps cooler, both Slumbr’s Ara Buckwheat Pillow and Lyra Latex Pillow are the most breathable within Slumbr's Pillow Menu.  

     

    Find your comfiest, most supportive pillow

    What about guest pillows? Down alternative pillows are a good pick.
    Down alternative pillows are great for outfitting guest rooms. Because not everyone can tolerate down or feathers from an allergy standpoint, hypoallergenic down alternative options are the safer bet to ensure guest comfort. They’re also economical, while proving comfier and longer-lasting than cheap polyfill pillows. Choose medium-support options, like Slumbr’s Orion Down Alternative Pillow, as these will be most versatile for guests with various sleep styles.

    But whatever you do, think twice about relegating old pillows from your bedroom to the guest room! Chances are, these old pillows are filled with dust mites, dirt, oils, drool and other icky things from all your nights on them. And who wants to welcome guests with that kind of bed?

     

    Ready to get comfy with a new pillow?
    If you’re ready to find your perfect pillow, check out the options from Slumbr’s Pillow Menu. Slumbr evaluated over 250+ pillow options and tested the best with real sleepers to offer something for every sleep style.

    The following pillows are the down / down alternative options in the Pillow Menu.

    Cassiopeia Luxe Down ($225)
    Filled with the loftiest, plushest European goose down, this pillow is our most luxuriously plump and soft. Stays high and thick to support side sleepers.

    Virgo Slim + Soft Down ($125)
    Super-soft and cuddly. Filled with just enough down support in a thinner, lower profile perfect for stomach sleepers. Also makes a great secondary pillow for additional back support.

    Vela Down + Feather ($80)
    A classic hotel-style pillow with the scrunchable support of feathers surrounded by soft, fluffy down. Great for side sleepers that switch to their stomach sometimes.

    Orion Down Alternative ($60)
    A longer-lasting, hypoallergenic pillow that’s a great balance of supple softness and plump firmness. Works for all sleep positions.

    • All of Slumbr’s down, feather and down alternative pillow shells are made with Oeko-Tex certified material for safety and purity -- with no flame retardants or wrinkle resisters
    • All our down and feather fills are bluesign® approved and come from animals raised humanely and responsibly
    • All our down and feather fills are cleaned to hypoallergenic standards