Just as the mattress industry has exploded in recent years, so has the pillow aisle. When you go to buy pillows for your bed, you’ll have a large selection to choose from. There are buckwheat pillows, memory foam pillows, “cooling” pillows, and more.
Of course, some of the most popular pillows remain the traditional options: down pillows and feather pillows. Both of these pillows get their fillers from birds, but the similarities end there. They offer different pros and cons—like feel, shape, and cost—which matter more or less to different sleepers.
Below we break down everything you need to know about down vs. feather pillows, so you can choose the best one for your sleep needs.
What is the difference between down vs. feather pillows?
Down and feather both describe fibers that come from a bird’s plumage. Mostly, these are geese and ducks.
Feathers come from the wing and back feathers of the bird.
They have a flatter structure than down, with a quill running down the middle. The heavier structure of feathers can provide a pillow with better support for longer. However, the quill may also literally stick out of the pillow shell and poke you, causing discomfort. And the more feathers you lose, the more support you lose—negatively impacting the longevity of your pillow over time.
Most feather pillows will have some small amount of down, just to give the pillow a bit of loft. The more down a pillow contains, the more expensive it will be.
Down describes the soft fibers that make up the bird’s undercoat, predominantly in the chest area closest to the bird’s skin.
The structure of down has a fluffier appearance, made up of centralized points (called plumules) from which soft fibers spread out. This cluster-like structure lends down its insulatory properties, as air can become trapped within the fibers. These clusters also give down pillows better loft and volume than feather pillows, which are more prone to flatten over time.
There are also down alternative pillows, which are made from natural or synthetic materials that mimic the feel of sleeping on a down pillow. These can be a good choice for people who like down pillows but suffer from allergies or asthma. They’re cheaper and cooler than real down, but they don’t last as long.
Fill power vs. fill weight
These are two terms you’ll see with down pillows. Fill power is a proxy for the size of the down clusters, based on the volume an ounce of down takes up. Higher fill power means larger clusters, better insulation, and higher loft. All in, that translates to a better-quality pillow.
Fill power ranges from 550 on the lower end to 850 on the higher end. For a quality down pillow, we recommend anywhere from 650 to 850 fill power. A down pillow with 850 fill power will have the fluffiest, most luxurious feel, thanks to larger clusters that come from bigger, more mature birds.
Typically, goose down tends to have the highest fill power, simply because geese are larger than ducks. As a result, goose down pillows tend to be the most expensive.
Fill weight describes how many down clusters are packed into your pillow, giving you an idea of how firm the pillow will feel to sleep on. A higher fill weight means a firmer pillow, while a lower fill weight means a softer pillow.
Are feather or down pillows better?
Ultimately, it depends on what matters most to you. Here’s a recap of how feather and down pillows stack up:
- Shape: If you like a loftier, more voluminous pillow, down is the way to go. The three-dimensional shape of down clusters provides a fluffier pillow that’s less likely to flatten like a feather pillow.
- Comfort and Feel: Down pillows are plusher, loftier, and there are no quills to surprise you with an unpleasant poke. Feather pillows are crisper and flatter.
- Temperature Neutrality: If you sleep hot, you may prefer a feather pillow. Feather pillows sleep cooler than down pillows, since the feathers don’t trap heat the same way down clusters do.
- Longevity: With the compression of your head against the pillow night after night, your pillow will eventually need to be replaced—but, a down pillow will last longer than a feather one. With a down pillow, the down clusters will aim to spring back to their original spherical shape once your head is removed, while the feathers will lie more flat.
- Price: Thanks to their plusher feel and longer lifespan, down pillows are 2 to 3 times more expensive than feather pillows. The average down pillow costs around $90 to $120, while a feather pillow costs $25 to $50. If you’re a budget shopper and don’t need the ultimate in comfort, a feather pillow may make you happier than down. If you want the best of the best and don’t care about price, go with goose down.
Taking care of down and feather pillows
Whichever pillow you buy, you can always extend its value by taking good care of it. To do that, follow these three tips:
- Avoid going to bed with wet, sweaty, or greasy hair. Water and oil are no friends to down or feather pillows. Even when clean, your hair—and your face—produce oils that can impact the durability of your pillow and cause stains.
- Follow the proper care instructions of your pillow. You should never wash feather pillows, and washing a down pillow can get dicey. Down pillows need to be completely dried to avoid moisture turning into mold and mildew. Regularly wash your pillowcases.
- Look for pillow shells with 250 thread counts or higher. The pillow shell, expressed in thread count, can also help extend your pillow’s lifespan—by preventing the fill from poking out and your oils from getting in.
Have an idea of which pillow you want? Read reviews of the best down and feather pillows at the links below: