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Memory Foam vs. Down Pillow: Which is Best?

Memory Foam vs. Down Pillow: Which is Best?

Written By
Bedding Guides
Read Time: 7 minutes

Memory foam and natural down are very different materials:

  • One is synthetic, and the other is natural.
  • One is firm and contouring, and the other is squishy and fluffy.
  • One is foam and the other is feathers.

Ultimately, the best pillow for you is going to depend on your personal preferences, your sleep style, and other needs. Below, we’ll dive right into the differences between memory foam and down and talk about which could make the right pillow for you.

Memory Foam

Memory foam is a particular type of polyurethane foam designed for the human body. Memory foam actually makes for a great mattress and a great pillow all at once. It’s one of the most contouring bedding materials on the market. It can compress under your head, rise up under your neck, and take on your unique shape to offer customizable support.

Memory foam pillows offer firmer support than natural down. That means if you need a pillow with a bit more rigidity, you’ll probably be happier with memory foam. However, memory foam pillows are also great at changing their shape. That means you’ll get support exactly where you need it without the pillow going flat.

Side sleepers especially need more firmness and less plushness, and a thick memory foam pillow for side sleeping can keep the neck aligned with the rest of the spine. Back sleepers also might enjoy the contouring power of memory foam because it can follow the curve in the cervical spine, offering lift under the neck and compression under the head.

Natural Down

Down is the layer of fluffy feathers that insulates geese and ducks from the cold and the water. Down feathers are fuzzy and light, almost like little tufts of fur. Down comes in round clusters that trap air. That means down pillows have a high loft when you’re not using them, while they squish down when you are using them. Side note, down and feather pillows are not the same thing and have distinct feels.

Down pillows can contour too. But unlike memory foam, you may have to do some of the work yourself. However, if you like a pillow that you can fluff and compress the way you want, down is a lot more obedient than memory foam. It will generally stay in the shape you put it in.

Down is a great option for stomach sleepers because low-loft down pillows will compress almost flat. Down is also a good pillow for back sleepers who want to adjust their pillow’s filling themselves.

Memory Foam vs. Down: Advantages and Drawbacks

Memory foam and down are so different that you’re probably going to strongly prefer one over the other strongly. They have different feels, different temperatures, and different support levels. Let’s talk about how they stack up to make it easier to choose an excellent pillow.

Feel

Down is a squishy, light, and fluffy fill. If you want a huggable pillow, there aren’t many fills better than soft natural down. Memory foam, meanwhile, is firmer, heavier, and more supportive, but it has less luxuriousness. Both down and memory foam can contour to your shape, but memory foam will offer more firmness, while down offers more plushness.

A big feel difference between memory foam and down is its smoothness. Memory foam is smooth and consistent throughout the fill. Down comes in clusters, so down pillows don’t have the same consistency as memory foam. There may be areas of your down pillows that are flatter or thicker than others, and you may have to move the filling around.

If you’re seeking a contour pillow for head and neck support, your best bet is to look for a memory foam pillow.

Temperature

Down’s job in nature is insulation. Down keeps birds warm even at frigid high altitudes or in freezing cold water. That means down retains a lot of body heat. Despite this, down is surprisingly breathable and promotes an excellent cooling pillow. If you like cozy warmth that won’t retain moisture, a down fill may be for you.

Traditional memory foam is infamous for retaining heat and moisture. However, with developments like open-cell construction, gel infusions, and microbeads, memory foam is now quite cool and breathable. Those who sleep hot or sweat a lot should consider a memory foam pillow with cooling technologies.

Cost

Neither memory foam nor natural down pillows are cheap. Down is generally a little less affordable up-front than memory foam. A decent-quality memory foam pillow will run between $50 to $150. A down pillow of similar quality may be anywhere between $80 and $200.

On the other hand, down is way more durable than memory foam. You can fluff the pillow as needed to prevent flattening for quite a long time. Since you won’t have to replace your down pillows nearly as often, down is ultimately a more affordable option than memory foam.

Durability

As we said above, down is much more durable than memory foam. While the average lifespan of a memory foam pillow is only around two to three years, natural down will last up to a decade. That means you may have to buy as many as five sets of memory foam pillows in the span of time it takes to wear out one set of down pillows. Still, high-quality memory foam pillows

Maintenance

Memory-Foam-vs-Down-Pillow

Neither down nor memory foam is very low-maintenance. Many down pillows are “dry-clean only.” Down can sometimes be machine-washable. But you’ll have to soak-wash your down pillows in a machine with no agitator. You also can’t use regular detergent. It’s better to use specialized down soap. Down pillows cannot be heat-dried either. See our guide on cleaning feather pillows for an idea of a down pillow’s care routine.

Memory foam also can’t go in the washing machine. Memory foam soaks up water like a sponge, and it may not ever dry out completely. This can make it a hotbed for mold and mildew growth. Water can also damage memory foam’s structure, making it stiff and flat. You can only spot-clean stains off memory foam with a gentle cleanser.

Sustainability

Both down and memory foam have their problems when it comes to sustainability. Memory foam is a type of polyfoam, making it a petroleum product. That means it’s made using toxic processing chemicals, and the manufacturing process can create hazardous waste. Memory foam is also not biodegradable. So when you toss your pillows in the trash, it creates pollution.

Down is a little bit better than memory foam because it doesn’t create chemical waste and it is biodegradable. However, down also has its own issues. Geese and ducks have to be fed, and they poop. That means down has a decent-sized carbon footprint.

There’s also the cruelty aspect. Some down comes from slaughtered birds, and some down comes from cruelty-free farms that gather molted down. However, many geese and ducks are live-plucked. This can cause them pain and distress. If you want a pillow that’s guaranteed cruelty-free, memory foam is a better bet.

Allergy Relief

Those with allergies should consider memory foam. Memory foam is a synthetic material. As such, it’s a hostile environment for bacteria, mold, and dust mites. Memory foam can also resist other common allergens like pollen, dust, and dirt. As long as you use a pillow protector and wash your pillowcases often, you should be fine with memory foam.

Down is an animal product. That means it can cause allergy symptoms in people with sensitivities to animal dander. However, most of the time, people are allergic to the dust mites and other allergens in their down pillow rather than the down itself. Though down isn’t as hypoallergenic as memory foam, you can fend off allergy symptoms by keeping your pillow clean, as long as you don’t have a down allergy.

FAQs

Are down pillows the same as feather pillows?

No. Down and feather pillows come from different parts of the birds’ bodies. Down is the “under-feather” or the layer of feathers between the bird’s skin and its outer feathers. Feather pillows are made of these outer feathers. That means they’re tougher and stiffer than down.

Feather pillows tend to be heavier and offer firmer support than down pillows. Feather pillows also tend to go flat, while down bounces back to its original loft after you move. Feather pillows also have quills, which can poke through the pillowcase and prick you.

If you want a more substantial pillow, feathers are probably for you. If you want a light, squishy pillow, down will likely be your preferred option.

Which is better if I have allergies, memory foam or down?

If you want to purchase a truly hypoallergenic pillow, memory foam is the way to go. Memory foam can fight allergens like dust mites and pollen. It’s also resistant to mold and bacterial growth as long as you keep it dry. What’s more, memory foam is not an animal product, so it won’t trigger those with animal allergies.

The only time memory foam might be more irritating to your allergies is when you have sensitivities to chemicals. Memory foam is synthetic, so it may increase your allergy symptoms if you’re bothered by chemical smells or artificial ingredients.

What is down alternative?

Down alternative is a synthetic fill made to imitate the feel of natural down. Down alternative is made of polyester microfiber, so it doesn’t feel exactly like down, but it’s closer than any foam. Down alternative is a little heavier than down, and it doesn’t have the same loft.

But down alternative can still be adjusted into a variety of shapes, same as down. It also offers a lot of support, which may make it a good option for people who like the feel of down but want firm pillows.

Which is the best pillow for my sleep position?

Stomach sleepers need the least support of all sleep positions. They may want to consider a low-loft down pillow, which will compress under their heads. This will offer just enough support to maintain spinal alignment without overextending the neck.

When you sleep on your side, you need a higher loft pillow to prevent your head from lolling to the side. That means side sleepers may enjoy a firmer memory foam pillow that can offer adequate support to keep their spines aligned.

Back sleepers need contouring. They need more support under their necks and more compression under the backs of their heads. Either memory foam or down can offer this. If you want a pillow you can shape yourself, get down. If you’re interested in a pillow that will mold itself to you, choose memory foam.

Are latex and memory foam pillows the same thing?

No. Memory foam and latex pillows are not the same. While memory foam is made of polyurethane, latex comes from the sap of the rubber tree. That means if you want an all-natural foam pillow, a latex pillow could be up your alley. See

Both pillow types feel more similar to each other than they do to down feathers. Latex is cooler and springier than memory foam, but it doesn’t contour as well. Memory foam is flexible, but it is not as responsive and takes longer to regain its original shape.

Bottom Line

Both memory foam and down pillows can be an excellent solution for a better night’s sleep. High-quality down is durable, all-natural, and comforting. Memory foam is contouring, flexible, and supportive. Keep these aspects in mind, as well as your sleep style and personal needs, while you shop.

Christine Lapp is a full-time graduate student and part-time freelancer for Sleep Junkie. Since she was a little girl on the soccer field, Christine has had a love for sports, and she believes everybody should get up and get moving once a day. Now, she incorporates her love for exercise into her studies, pursuing a degree in exercise physiology. Christine understands that what you do during your waking hours has a direct impact on your night’s sleep. In our better sleep guides, she offers advice for developing healthy daytime habits to nurture a more peaceful slumber.

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