Down vs memory foam vs feather pillows: What's the difference and which is best?

We outline the various pillow types, and the pros and cons of each

Looking for the best pillows? Then you first need to know what pillow type you're looking for. There are many different types of pillow filling, and in this article we'll explore the main options, to help you decide which is right for you. 

Read on, as we explain what the different pillow types feel to lie on in practice, and outline the pros and cons of each. And if you want to refresh your sleeping environment more generally, make sure you check out our guides to the best mattresses and the best cheap mattress deals too. 

1. Down pillows

Soak and Sleep Ultimate Hungarian Goose Down Pillow

Soak and Sleep's Ultimate Hungarian Goose Down Pillow

(Image credit: Soak and Sleep)

Down is made from a goose or duck’s finest feathers, which are found underneath its tougher, exterior feathers. The best quality down is known as Hungarian goose down or European white goose down. That said, do check the label. Most so-called ‘Down’ pillows are actually filled with a mixture of down and ordinary feathers, which means they’re cheaper but lower quality overall. 

Down pillows are more expensive than polyester pillows, but they also last much longer; potentially for several years if you take care of them. So they may actually save you money over time. 

Down pillows are soft but because they are plush, voluminous, have a high loft and hold their shape over time, they are typically very comfortable. They’re also lightweight, and from an environmental perspective, they’re a renewable and sustainable resource. 

However, down is not a great option is you tend to sleep hot at night, as this kind of filling tends to trap heat and reflect it back at the sleeper. Also, because they’re soft, they don’t provide as much support as, say, memory foam pillows. So they aren’t the best choice for those who suffer back, neck and joint problems, or side sleepers in general.

2. Feather pillows


Pillows filled with ordinary, not down, feathers are best avoided

(Image credit: Julian Hanslmaier on Unsplash)

Pillows filled with ordinary feathers are a cheaper alternative to down pillows. They’re also a better option for those who sleep hot, as they tend to stay cooler than down pillows. However, if you can afford to buy another type of pillow, we’d recommend making the investment, as feather pillows tend to lose their shape and become flat and uncomfortable quite quickly.

3. Polyester pillows

Tempur Original Support Pillow

The Tempur Original Support Pillow is a premium pillow containing a polyester filling

(Image credit: Tempur)

Polyester pillows are the most common type of pillow, and are generally cheaper than down. They're also normally firmer, and machine-washable. 

However, most mass-market polyester pillows become flat and lumpy over time. And so even at low prices, they can prove to be a false economy. They're also not particularly great at staying cool. For this reason, we’d generally recommend avoiding polyester pillows if you can’t afford a better alternative.

That said, there are some notable exceptions, such as Tempur Original Support Pillow, which is filled with polyester inside a cover of Visco Elastic Foam. This ergonomically designed, premium-priced pillow has a curve that sits perfectly under your head for comfort and support.

4. Memory foam pillows

Best pillow: Simba Hybrid with Stratos

The Simba Hybrid with Stratos is a memory foam pillow with a more traditional feel

(Image credit: Simba)

Made from viscoelastic polyurethane, memory foam pillows adjust to your specific shape, keeping your head and neck in place all night, and helping you to maintain spinal alignment. They're a great choice, then, for anyone who suffers neck and shoulder pain. They're also very durable and less likely to change shape, or go flat over time, than most feather and polyester pillows.

That said, large blocks of memory foam aren’t generally good at staying cool at night. So if you’re prone to overheating in bed, you’re better off buying a shredded memory foam pillow, which will be much more breathable and so won't radiate so much heat.

Another drawback of memory foam pillows is that many people complain they have an unpleasant chemical smell. They’re also more expensive than most pillow types. And more broadly, not everyone likes the feel of memory foam pillow: while some people like the way it keeps your head and neck firmly in place, others say it feels too rigid and inflexible. 

5. Latex pillows

Dunlopillo Super Comfort Pillow

The Dunlopillo Super Comfort Pillow has a latex filling and microfibre cover

(Image credit: Dunlopillo)

Latex is a natural material originally made from the sap of the rubber tree, although synthetic versions are increasingly common. Latex pillows have the advantage of lasting even longer than memory foam. They're also chemical-free, naturally antifungal and hypoallergenic. 

Latex has similar properties to memory foam, in that it moulds to the neck and head, but in less of a rigid way than the latter. Overall, latex is bouncier and softer than memory foam, which may be a pro or a con depending how much support and contouring you want from your pillow. Latex is also better at staying cool than memory foam. 

On the downside, latex pillows do tend to have an unpleasant smell initially, although this will fade over time. They’re also usually more expensive, and of course, are not an option if you have a latex allergy. 

Tom May is a freelance writer and author of the book, Great Ted Talks: Creativity. He has been editor of Professional Photography magazine, associate editor at Creative Bloq, and deputy editor at net magazine. He has also worked for a wide range of mainstream titles including Radio Times, NME, Heat, Company and Bella.