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    A quick and easy guide to the different pillow fillings

    Americans spent $740 million on sleeping pillows in 2010. Now, pillow prices can vary, but if you go by the big-box standard, about one in every four people in the country bought a new pillow that year.

    It’s not just the quality of your sleep that the market effects. In 2004 psychologist Barry Schwartz wrote a book called The Paradox of Choice. His basic premise was that “less is more” regarding the plethora of consumer choices and their impact on our mental health.

    If any industry embodies this idea more, it’s the pillow industry. Pillow filling is what distinguishes pillows from each other.

    Today you can find pillows filled with cutting-edge synthetic downs and fibers, or you can find them filled with feathers, latex, buckwheat hulls, memory foam, water, and goose down. Even materials that were rendered “obsolete” with the advent of polyester are making a comeback.

    All of these choices are enough to keep you up at night, which is why we’ve compiled a quick and easy guide to the different pillow fillings. It’s the A,B,C…and Z’s of getting a comfortable night’s rest.

    Polyester

    The most popular, and affordable pillow filling choice. Walk down the aisle of any big box retailer and most of the pillows you’ll see on the shelves have some sort of polyester fiberfill in them.

    Polyester-fill pillows are lightweight and super easy to clean, with many being machine washable. These may not seem like big deal “features” now, but as we get into some of the more exotic pillow filling materials, you’ll realize there is a balancing act to be played between comfort and convenience.

    Polyester pillows are not moldable, so make sure you get a good feel for the different weights available, because you’re pretty much stuck with the level of firmness you buy. The fill will clump after a while, and unlike feather and down pillows, the clumps are practically impossible to get out.

    They are not the most breathable option, so if you find yourself constantly searching for the cool side of the pillow, you may want to look elsewhere.

    That being said, these types of pillows aren’t exactly designed for longevity. A flattened, clumpy pillow is generally a sign that it’s time to purchase a new one.

    Memory Foam

    If you’re a pillow layman, then polyester and memory foam are likely the only two options you’ve really heard about. As much as memory foam mattresses revolutionized the bed, memory foam pillows helped make pillow choice a thing when considering your sleep setup.

    It only takes one touch to understand why memory foam is so impressive. It seems to inhabit this impossible state where it’s soft yet firm, giving yet it will retain its shape.

    It’s this balance that allows this pillow filling to provide support and comfort. Of course, you’re paying a little more for this, but these pillows are built to last so they kind of pay for themselves.

    It might sound like memory foam is the easy choice, but there are stipulations to consider. Most memory foam pillows come in one shape. Because the foam is so good at remembering its shape, it will do everything it can to retain it, so if you don’t like the shape out of the packaging, there isn’t much you can do.

    This is why there are models for side sleepers, back sleepers, even specific ones for people suffering from neck pain. One way to get a little bit of versatility in your pillow is to opt for shredded memory foam. This way you have a little leeway with what shape you want to mold it into.

    Whether it’s a single block or a shredded fill, memory foam can often carry a distinct odor with it. It doesn’t do much better in terms of uncomfortable heat retention than the standard polyester fill. That being said, memory foam pillows have done wonders for many people.

    Latex

    For those that weren’t satisfied with their memory phone pillows, latex is like the world’s best-kept secret. Shredded latex filling addresses the two chief complaints that arise with memory foam – softness and breathability.

    With latex pillow filling options, especially shredded latex, you get a natural pillow filling that is soft and supportive, easily malleable, and very breathable.

    Latex is more environmentally friendly, something many pillows can’t offer. If molded well, latex pillows can offer a significant amount of pressure relief to the neck. Despite the supportiveness, latex manages to stay soft as well.

    Even the softest latex pillow will never be cuddly. The rubbery feel familiar to all latex products is not something you want to bury your face in, but it can provide a great night’s sleep, for a price.

    Latex pillows are more expensive than memory foam and polyester, preventing them from being the first option for most.

    Down/Down Alternative

    Down anything is an idea that just oozes comfort and luxury. Down is used as a high-end fill for top-end jackets, sleeping bags, and pillows. It’s fluff under feathers that keep birds warm, and whatever genius decided to put it in pillows deserves a medal.

    Down is soft, light, and very malleable. It requires little to no break-in period, and the odor isn’t a complaint with them, though depending on how the down was processed, it can trigger allergies. Down pillows are obviously not vegan-friendly, and currently, none of the down “harvesting” methods are ethical.

    Fortunately, there are down alternatives available. These are hard to tell apart from the real thing, though purists will say that clumping is more of a concern.

    Down and down alternative is among the lightest and softest of the pillow fillings, which can be a double-edged sword. Frequent fluffing is needed to keep whatever heft the pillow started with.

    Expect to pay quite a bit for a true down pillow, the cheaper options are often down mixed with feathers, which come with their own pros and cons…

    Feather

    Feather is like the little sibling to down filling. You can expect everything that a down-filled pillow offers, just not as much.

    You can also expect not to pay as much. The agreeable pricing on feather pillows often makes them one of the first alternatives people try when they’re exploring pillow filling options.

    Feather pillows are soft and very easy to shape. They include the quills, which can sometimes poke through the cover. The quills have a tendency to align and lay flat over time (ouch!) unless you fluff the pillow regularly.

    As pillow filling materials go, feather pillows hit a good balance of softness, durability, and price. If you’re good about fluffing and shaking your feather pillow, you can expect to enjoy one for quite a long time.

    Buckwheat Hulls

    It’s in your food, it’s in your beer, tea, and spirits, and now you can find it in your…pillows? Buckwheat has been a staple in Japan for centuries, and now it’s finding its way across the world and into your furniture.

    You’re not crazy if filling your pillow with what is similar to small pistachio shells sounds crazy, but there is more to this than just a passing fad.

    As logic would suggest, the buckwheat hull pillow filling is pretty firm, but you won’t be sleeping on rocks. The firmness provides the support, and buckwheat pillow filling is gaining popularity for those trouble cases where no other pillow works.

    The little shells are very malleable, and the pillow won’t ever lose its shape. Adding or removing the hulls will adjust the overall lift you get from the pillow.

    You’ll have to put up with a little noise, the pillow will “rustle” every time it’s moved. Buckwheat pillows can be heavy too, easily weighing upwards of five pounds.

    Besides all the contouring and support, the hulls provide excellent airflow, so maybe you won’t need to flip it over in the middle of the night after all.

    If you’ve been dealing with consistent neck pain, and have tried some of the other options out there, a buckwheat pillow could be an eco-friendly, long-lasting solution.

    Filling Up On Pillow Filling

    Have you gotten your fill yet? Who knew pillow buying could be such a headache?

    Remember to read the fine print when purchasing a pillow. In the case of the latex and memory foam options, you’ll need to figure out if the solid block or the shredded filling is right for you. Don’t get caught with the wrong kind.

    If you’re still not sure where to start, take a look at our checklist for choosing a pillow. And don’t rush, this is a decision you’ll definitely want to sleep on.