Pillow Filling Types Explained: What’s Best for Me?

Your pillow’s filling defines its character. Depending on the type of fill and the quantity used, your pillow can be totally unique and appropriate to your preferences: soft, firm, supportive, low or high loft—it’s your choice.

No single pillow filling works for everyone. Each type has its own advantages and disadvantages and appeals to a unique audience of sleepy heads. What might work great for some could very well result in neck pain for others. Ultimately, it’s best to try different pillow filling types for yourself, but that’s a difficult proposition with the plentiful options available today.

Following is summary that will help you understand the most popular pillow filling types and the advantages/disadvantages of each.

Down Pillow Filling

Down Pillow Filling

Down pillow filling is the undercoating of a bird’s feathers. More specifically, it’s the bottom, fluffy part of a bird’s feather. Down holds its loft up to 3 times longer than synthetic alternatives and is very soft.

Hungarian goose down (otherwise known as European white goose down) is considered to be the best quality. These down clusters are pure white and larger than most other types. A real down pillow contains down only — no feathers. Frequently “down” is sold as a combination of down and feather fill. Feathers are an economical way to add volume, but often the feathers’ quills will stick through the pillow poking your pretty face (ouch!) while you sleep.

Our friend Martha Stewart is fond of this type of pillow and suggests that you purchase only high-quality down fill due to its longevity.

“I have pillows on my beds that are 10 to 15 years old,” Martha says. In the long run, good-quality down is the least-expensive way to go since it holds up better than synthetic stuffings, which generally wear out in three to four years.

15 years old? I think Martha must take really good care of her pillows!

If you’re concerned about the well-being of animals, down comes at a considerable price. Down feathers are collected using one of three techniques: 1) post-mortem, after being killed for their meat, 2) live plucking or 3) gathering from live birds. None are humane.

Read More: What You Don’t Know About Feather and Down Pillows

Advantages of Down Pillow Filling:

  • moldable/malleable – a down pillow tends to hold its shape well, offering good support for your head and neck
  • light and cuddly – down pillows are very light (heavy feathers don’t work very well for flying after all!) and soft
  • durable

Disadvantages of Down Pillow Filling:

  • absorbs and retains body heat which can make your pillow feel warm and uncomfortable
  • consistent refluffing is required to prevent them from flattening out
  • difficult to clean
  • can be too soft for some, resulting in inconsistent support that elevates your head too high or low
  • expensive

 

Feather Pillow Filling

Feather Pillow Filling

Feather Pillow Filling

Feather pillow filling is down’s cheap little brother. We recommend you avoid feathers and spend the extra money on real down.

Unlike down, feathers’ quills naturally begin to align with each other or lay flat. Over time this makes the pillow become flat and uncomfortable. To prevent this, manufacturers often add down clusters to the feathers which slows degeneration.

Read More: What You Don’t Know About Feather and Down Pillows

Advantages of Feather Pillows:

  • cheaper than down
  • light and cuddly
  • moldable/malleable

Disadvantages of Feather Pillows:

 

Polyester Fiberfill Pillow Filling

Polyester Fiberfill Pillow Filling

Polyester Fiberfill Pillow Filling

Thanks to its very low price, polyester fiberfill is a popular option. It’s lightweight, easy to clean and did I mention cheap? Polyester fiberfill isn’t very breathable, so it can make your pillow fill warm; it absorbs and retains body heat. The fibers tend to clump which can quickly make your pillow feel flat and lumpy. Avoid polyester pillow filling unless you’re specifically looking for the most cost-effective option.

Polyester Pillow Filling Advantages:

  • dirt cheap
  • easy to clean
  • lightweight

Polyester Pillow Filling Disadvantages:

  • clumps easily requiring frequent readjustment and a lumpy pillow
  • short life span due to the clumping issue
  • potentially hazardous to your health and the environment — the production of polyester fibers involves the use of nasty chemical ingredients like formaldehyde, benzene, toluene and other toxins
  • not moldable/malleable
  • not breathable — can feel warm

 

Shredded Memory Foam Pillow Filling

Shredded Memory Foam Pillow Filling

Shredded Memory Foam Pillow Filling

Memory foam is manufactured using polyurethane and several other chemicals, and it unfortunately often emits a strong chemical odor. This “off gassing” of volatile organic compounds is a common and well-documented issue. There are various reports and studies which indicate that memory foam may be somewhat toxic.

Toxicity aside, memory foam pillow filling is pretty neat! If you’ve ever felt it, you know what I mean: It’s sort of magical the way it retains its shape. I suspect that it’s this “magic” that makes them so popular; people are immediately impressed with the way memory foam feels.

Most mass-produced memory foam pillows consist of solid box-shaped loaf of memory foam. Some consumers swear by them. Personally I’ve never cared for them due to the off-gassing issue, but also because they’re not moldable… no matter how you squish or sculpt it, the memory foam moves back to its original rectangular shape. Because of this limitation, I prefer “shredded” memory foam. As the name implies, it’s memory foam that’s been torn into tiny pieces. The individual pieces of foam move independently, allowing your pillow to be moldable.

Read More: That Memory Foam Smell

Advantages of Shredded Memory Foam Pillow Fill:

  • doesn’t clump
  • moldable/malleable
  • offers good support

Disadvantages of Shredded Memory Foam Pillow Fill:

  • chemical odor
  • potentially dangerous “off-gassing”
  • can be too soft for some, resulting in inconsistent support that elevates your head too high or low

 

Buckwheat Hull Pillow Filling

Buckwheat Hull Pillow Filling

Buckwheat Hull Pillow Filling

Buckwheat hulls are firm yet highly malleable and breathable, which makes them ideal pillow fill.

Full disclosure: we sell buckwheat pillows. We love these things! We’ve tried a lot of different types of pillow filling, and we think nothing beats all-natural, old-fashioned buckwheat hulls. We started manufacturing buckwheat pillows because we thought they were simply the best.

Read More: What Are the Benefits of a Buckwheat Pillow?

Advantages of Buckwheat Hull Pillow Filling:

  • superior support to all other pillow filling — buckwheat hulls will conform perfectly to the shape of your head and neck
  • breathable/promotes air flow keeping you cool
  • long life-span
  • moldable/malleable – it holds its shape and offers terrific support
  • eco-friendly

Disadvantages of Buckwheat Hull Pillow Filling:

 

Microbead Pillow Filling

Microbead Pillow Filling

Microbead Pillow Pillow Filling

Microbeads are also called “uniform polymer particles.” Microbeads are the synthetic alternative to buckwheat hulls. They share a lot of the same characteristics: they promote air flow and they’re malleable as well. Microbeads loose their volume and flatten out more quickly than other pillow filling types.

Read More: The Microbead Pillow Will (Comfortably) Ruin Us All

Advantages of Microbead Pillow Filling:

  • breathable — keeps cool at night
  • moldable/malleable — it holds its shape and offers good support for your head, neck and shoulders

Disadvantages of Microbead Pillow Filling:

  • chemical odor and potentially dangerous “off-gassing”
  • no variety of firmness or loft (they’re mostly medium firm, medium loft)
  • short life span — microbeads quickly degenerate and flatten out with use

 

Shredded Latex Pillow Filling

Shredded Latex Pillow Filling

Shredded Latex Pillow Filling

Latex pillows are becoming quite popular. They offer good support for your head and neck while retaining a soft feel. Like most memory foam pillows, the most popular latex pillows sold are solid box shaped pieces of latex that aren’t moldable. However, shredded latex pillow filling is moldable and malleable.

Manufacturers can call their pillow filling, “natural latex” as long as there is a percentage of natural material in the synthetic blend. I recommend you look for shredded latex pillow filling that is labeled “100% natural latex.”

Read More: Shredded Latex Pillow Review

 Advantages of Shredded Latex Pillow Filling:

  • moldable/malleable
  • breathable — keeps cool at night, although it doesn’t compare to the breathability offered by buckwheat hulls or microbeads
  • eco-friendly

Disadvantages of Shredded Latex Pillow Filling:

  • “rubbery” odor
  • can be too soft for some, resulting in inconsistent support that elevates your head too high or low
  • expensive

 

Kapok Pillow Filling

Kapok Pillow Filling

Kapok Pillow Filling

Kapok, or ceiba pentandra, is a tropical tree native to Mexico that flowers, producing a fluffy, cotton-like material containing hundreds of seeds. This light brown, soft fibre is sometimes called silk cotton. It’s soft quality makes it a good alternative to down or polyester pillow fill.

Kapok’s qualities have made it very popular for filling pillows, upholstery, and even life preservers. Kapok’s use dramatically declined upon the introduction of polyester/polyurethane foams, but it is currently experiencing a small revival thanks to its all-natural characteristics.

Read More: Kapok Pillow Review — A Comfortable and Safe Alternative?

Advantages of Kapok Pillow Filling:

  • free of the potentially toxic materials in many foam pillows
  • eco-friendly
  • soft texture is a good alternative to those accustomed to foam or down pillows

Disadvantages of Kapok Pillow Filling:

  • extremely flammable
  • quickly develop lumps, much like polyester foam pillows do
  • not moldable, does not hold its shape

 

Don’t box yourself in! Make your pillow adjustable!

Adding more or less pillow filling will dramatically change the character of your pillow. Generally, adding more filling will increase the loft of your pillow and make it feel more firm. Conversely, a reduction of pillow filling will result in a softer, thinner pillow. Determining the amount of filling to stuff in your pillow is almost as critical as picking the filling itself.

After the filling has been chosen and stuffed into a fabric case, most bed pillows are immediately sewn shut. And once it’s been sewn shut, there’s no further opportunity for adjustment. Most commercially produced pillow don’t include a zippered opening; it is considered an unnecessary and expensive feature. If you’re making your own pillows, I highly recommend you include a zipper along one of the short edges. This will allow you to add or remove filling, making it easy to adjust the loft and relative firmness/softness to your personal preferences.

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