Sleep Resources

Down vs. Down Alternative Pillows

Find out what makes down pillows and down alternative pillows different, what they have in common, and which one is right for you.

By Megan Griffith

Down pillows and down alternative pillows both have benefits and drawbacks, depending on what you’re looking for in a pillow. Both can help you get an amazing night’s sleep, but they are definitely different. In this article, we want to outline what those differences are, the strengths and weaknesses of each, and which factors you should consider before choosing the correct pillow for you. 

Check out our Best Pillow Guide for everything you need to know before purchasing a new pillow.

Down vs. Down Alternative Pillows: Key Similarities and Differences

The biggest similarity between down pillows and down alternative pillows is their softness. Both types of pillows are well-known for their soft, plush feel that is squeezable and shapeable, allowing for easy pillow fluffing. However, both types of pillows also come in a variety of firmness levels. The fill found in each pillow is incredibly soft, but both can be made into a firmer pillow by adding more fill. So if you like a nice, firm pillow, don’t rule out down or down alternative pillows just yet. 

The biggest difference between down pillows and down alternative pillows is obviously their fill. Down pillows are filled with down taken from waterfowl, like geese and ducks. While some might think that down is just another name for feathers, down is the soft, wispy stuff found underneath a bird’s plumage. This material makes for a great natural pillow fill. Down alternative fills, on the other hand, are made from synthetic materials rather than natural waterfowl down. Typically, the alternative fill is made from polyester microfiber, which is much higher quality than regular “polyfill” often found in very cheap pillows. To learn more about what’s inside your pillow, check out Types of Pillow Stuffing.

Another important difference between these two types of pillows is durability. Down pillows tend to last between five and 10 years, while down alternative pillows typically last for no more than three years. If you like to try out new pillows every few years, then the short lifespan of the down alternative pillow is probably a good thing. But if you want to find the right pillow and stick with it, then a true down pillow may be a better fit.

If budget is an important factor for you, you should also consider the difference in price for each type of pillow. Down pillows are more expensive than down alternative pillows because down is taken from birds that need to be raised and housed, which is expensive. Down alternative pillows, however, can be made in a factory. Generally, you can expect a down pillow to cost anywhere from $100 to $300 while a down alternative pillow typically costs between $50 and $80. 

Pros and Cons of a Down Pillow 

Pros

  • Compared to other types of pillow stuffing, down is a reliable, safe choice because it’s always soft, no matter which brand you buy.
  • Down pillows are very durable and typically last anywhere from five to 10 years.
  • The down fill used in these types of pillows is natural and biodegradable, so it doesn’t have to end up in a landfill for 50 years after you throw away the pillow.

Cons

  • Down pillows have a significantly higher cost than down alternative pillows.
  • Unfortunately for hot sleepers, down pillows tend to retain more heat than down alternative pillows.
  • The filling used in down pillows has to be taken from birds bred and raised for that purpose, which some people may find inhumane.

Pros and Cons of a Down Alternative Pillow 

Pros

  • Great for those on a stricter budget, down alternative pillows give you the softness of down for a much more budget-friendly price tag.
  • Down alternative pillows are great for hot sleepers because they retain less heat than down pillows.
  • Those who have allergies or prefer not to use animal products in their daily life will appreciate that down alternative pillows are naturally hypoallergenic and vegan-friendly.

Cons

  • The down alternative filling used in these types of pillows is typically not biodegradable, or it may take a long time to break down, making it a less eco-friendly option.
  • Down alternative pillows typically only last one or two years.
  • Depending on the quality of the pillow, some down alternative pillows are not nearly as soft as actual down.

Shopping Considerations for Down and Down Alternative Pillows

Comfort Level 

One of the most important things to consider when buying a new pillow is comfort. Everyone has their own comfort preferences for their mattresses, pillows and sheets. When it comes to pillows, there are a few comfort properties to consider.

First is firmness. If you prefer a pillow that your head sinks into—a pillow you can squish and fluff into whatever shape you like—then you probably want a soft pillow. If you don’t want your head to sink into the pillow very much, then a firm pillow is probably a better fit. If you just want your pillow to be a neutral support for your head and neck, then medium should be a good option.

Perhaps the most important factor when shopping for a pillow is discovering the correct loft, or pillow height. This preference usually depends on sleeping position, but each individual has their own tastes. If you are a stomach sleeper, you will likely sleep best with a low-loft pillow because it is likely to keep your head and neck in line with your spine. Using a high-loft pillow as a stomach sleeper might bring your neck out of alignment with your spine, causing neck pain and back pain. Side sleepers typically appreciate a high-loft pillow because it provides better neck support. If you’re a back sleeper, most pillow lofts will be relatively comfortable for you, but we’d suggest staying on the lower-loft side of the scale, especially if you’re a petite or lightweight back sleeper. For more information, check out our Pillow Size Guide.

Price

It’s always a good idea to invest in your sleep health, because sleep is linked to everything else in our lives. Luckily, that investment widely differs in price, and lower-cost options can still provide you with a great night’s sleep.

If you are on a tight budget, then a down alternative pillow is most likely the best pillow option for you. The right down alternative pillow will feel nearly as soft as real down and offer the same amount of comfort and support at a fraction of the cost. If you have a bit more money at your disposal, a down pillow may be a better investment. Down pillows cost more, but they also last longer.

Environmental Impact

There are a few ways of looking at the environmental impact of down pillows and down alternative pillows. On one hand, down alternative pillows may be a better option for the environment because animals are not bred to live in captivity in the process of producing them. For vegans, vegetarians and animal-lovers, a down alternative pillow may be the more environmentally friendly or ethical option. However, down alternative pillows present issues as well. Real down pillows last longer, which means fewer of them end up in landfills, and when they are eventually thrown away, the down biodegrades much quicker than down alternatives. If you are looking to reduce waste, a down pillow is more eco-friendly.

Breathability 

Both down and down alternative pillows are relatively breathable, so if you don’t get hot at night, then either one should serve you nicely. However, if you’re a hot sleeper, you may want to avoid down pillows. Down is commonly used in outerwear, comforters and duvets to help keep people warm because down retains heat—not a good thing for hot sleepers. Down alternative pillows retain less heat, so they may be the better option.

It’s also important to consider the outer material when it comes to breathability. Down alternative fill is more breathable than down, but if it’s covered in a fabric that sleeps hot, like 100 percent polyester, sleepers could lose these cooling effects. With the wrong cover, it won’t matter how breathable the fill is because the heat won’t be able to escape anyway.

Our Favorite Down Pillows

  1. Parachute Down Pillow
    Parachute makes one of our favorite down pillows because we can recommend it to everyone, regardless of firmness preference. That’s because Parachute makes their down pillow in three different firmness levels: soft, medium and firm. You get the same great quality regardless of firmness, and it comes at an affordable price, starting at $89. Read our full Parachute Down Pillow Review to learn more. 
  2. East Coast Bedding White Goose Down Pillow
    If you’re looking for a truly luxurious down pillow, then you may want to try the East Coast Bedding White Goose Down Pillow. The price starts at $129 for the standard size pillow, but customers get pure, white goose down and a cover made from 100 percent cotton in a soft sateen weave for optimal softness and fluffiness.
  3. Slumbr Virgo Slim Down Pillow
    This is one of our favorite down pillows for stomach sleepers because it’s soft and has a low loft, perfect for keeping the neck in proper alignment while sleeping on the stomach. At $125, it is relatively affordable, and it’s also great for hot sleepers because it’s lightweight with a breathable cotton cover.

Our Favorite Down Alternative Pillows

  1. Tuft & Needle Down Alternative Pillow Set
    Tuft & Needle is a great mattress company, but did you know they make pillows, too? We highly recommend their Down Alternative Pillow Set, which comes with not one, but two down alternative pillows starting at just $79. That’s an incredible price, especially when you consider the high-quality polyester fill and 100 percent cotton cover. For another option, check out our Tuft & Needle Original Pillow Review.
  2. Downlite Hotel Down Alternative Pillow
    If you love spending the night at a hotel because of how fluffy the pillows are, then you might want to buy yourself a Downlight Hotel Down Alternative Pillow. Its fill is certified by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA), which means it’s ideal for allergy sufferers who need a fully hypoallergenic pillow. Plus, it is incredibly affordable, starting at just $35.
  3. Coop Home Goods Eden Pillow
    This down alternative pillow is unique because it comes with a bag of extra fill, so you can adjust the pillow to just the right loft for your personal preferences. The fill is made from shredded gel-infused foam that adjusts to your head without too much of the “hugging” sensation of memory foam. What’s more, you can get a set of two Coop Home Goods pillows for just $150. For another option, check out our Coop Home Goods Original Pillow Review.

Down Alternative and Down Pillow FAQs

Are down pillows hypoallergenic?

One of the most commonly cited issues with down pillows is that they aren’t hypoallergenic, which is technically true but isn’t as big of a problem as it sounds. The vast majority of down pillows use down that has been sanitized and is effectively hypoallergenic. If you’ve noticed that down pillows have irritated your allergies in the past, it might actually be because down pillows last much longer than other pillows and dust mites may have settled into the fill. This can happen with any type of pillow fill, but it happens most to down pillows simply because they tend to spend more time in your home. But there’s a relatively easy fix. Simply toss your pillow in the washing machine on a hot setting to take care of the dust mites and keep your allergies in check. Even if you have allergies, you should be completely fine to sleep on a down pillow.

Are there other pillow types to consider?

Down pillows and down alternative pillows are both great options, but there are plenty of pillows to choose from on the market. Down-feather pillows combine down and actual feathers for a firmer feel, while memory foam pillows offer a softer, albeit warmer, feel. Buckwheat pillows are a great option for eco-friendly shoppers because buckwheat is biodegradable like down, but it’s renewable and doesn’t involve animal captivity. If you’re a particularly hot sleeper and want to make sure you stay cool all night, there are latex pillows which are more breathable than both down and down alternative pillows.

Is my pillow machine-washable?

Probably! Most pillows are machine-washable. Down, down alternative and latex pillows can and should be washed every now and again to reduce the buildup of dust mites. However, washing will ruin memory foam and buckwheat pillows. If you need to wash a memory foam or buckwheat pillow, try using water and a mild soap to spot clean it.


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