When it comes to bedding fills, you have a lot of options, but one of the most famous is down. However, did you know it’s not just down that has a soft, fluffy feel? There are lots of alternative downs on the market today that try to imitate the texture and loft of down.
But just how successful are they? Are there any advantages or drawbacks to these fills? Below, we’ll talk about exactly what natural down is, what down alternative is, and which one could be right for you.
If you’re looking for a squishy, soft material with a ton of loft and warmth, down makes some of the softest bedding on the market, including duvets, comforters, and pillows.
What is Natural Down?
Down (or goose down) is made from the soft, fluffy feathers that protect geese, ducks, and other waterfowl from cold water. Most commercial down that goes in bedding and clothing comes from geese. Down has developed to be warm, breathable, and insulating both when it’s on birds’ bellies and when it’s in your comforter.
Natural Down Pros and Cons
High-quality down has a ton of loft (fluff or height) and fill power (more on this below), meaning your pillows and comforter will have that luxurious cloudlike look you see in hotels.
Down offers better breathability and insulation to keep you cozy while preventing you from sweating. It’s also lightweight for those who want a high level of warmth without a lot of heaviness.
Down fill is a natural material for those who worry about toxic chemicals or don’t like synthetic fibers in their bedding.
Best of all, down is durable—you can expect down pillows, comforters, and duvets to last up to a decade.
On the flip side, the maintenance of down bedding and clothing can be a pain. You can’t get down wet because it makes the feathers clump up. In the wild, ducks and geese can preen their feathers to help coat them in special oils, making them waterproof.
In your comforter, however, there’s no way to prevent down clumps from forming in the wash, and there’s not really any way to fix them once you have them. You might be able to unclump your down somewhat, but it won’t be the same as it was before you wet it.
Down is also more expensive than alternative down or plant-based fills like cotton, buckwheat, or eucalyptus.
Finally, some people may consider down unethical. A lot of birds are live-plucked for their down, meaning they have their feathers torn out while they’re still alive. Cruelty-free down is harvested by waiting until the birds molt, but this down is costly and harder to come by. Down advertised as cruelty-free may also not actually be so.
If you’re looking for a cheaper option or one that’s not based on animal products, you might be interested in down alternative over natural down.
What is Down Alternative?
Down alternative is made of synthetic fibers like polyester or microfiber, though it may sometimes consist of natural fibers such as cotton or rayon derived from plant materials. The main characteristic of down alternative is not what it’s made of, but what it strives to do in terms of feeling and looking like down.
Down alternative has a feel that’s a bit different from down, but it tries to imitate down’s fill power and loft using alternative fibers. Different down alternative products have different levels of success at this, but the best down alternative comforters, pillows, etc. should have a feel that’s somewhat similar to the real deal.
Down Alternative Pros and Cons
One of the great things about alternative down is that you can just toss it in the washer and dryer. Of course, you should always look at the care instructions on your product’s label, but generally speaking, most down alternatives are machine-washable.
Down alternative fills are also more budget-friendly than most natural downs.
If you like a heavier bed cover, you might prefer a down alternative because they usually weigh more than down covers of the same size and similar fill power.
You can also typically rest assured that your synthetic or plant-based down alternative fibers are cruelty-free.
If you don’t like synthetic fill, then the majority of down alternative products are not going to be for you. Even some of the down alternative products that use natural fibers may mix in synthetics.
Down alternative, no matter its composition, is also not as durable as natural down. You can expect your down alternative products to last about half of down’s life expectancy.
Down alternative also won’t have the feel of natural down. Synthetic materials are not as lofty, not as breathable, and not as flexible and squishy. Down alternative also doesn’t have the same body heat retention power as down, so it won’t keep you as cozy on cold winter nights.
What does fill power mean?
Fill power is the number of cubic inches of loft one ounce of a filling (typically down) produces. The fill power is indicative of the quality of the down, as better down takes up a larger amount of space. Higher fill power means better quality down, more loft, and superior insulating ability.
Is it possible to get cruelty-free down?
It is possible, but in the current market, it isn’t easy (or cheap). To harvest humane down, farmers must wait until the bird molts naturally and gather the down afterward. However, since geese and ducks don’t molt that frequently, most manufacturers are more motivated to live-pluck to speed along the growth of new feathers.
Can you be allergic to down?
You can be allergic to just about anything. However, since down is an animal product, you may be more likely to suffer allergies to it.
It’s worth noting that most allergy sufferers who have reactions to their down pillows or down comforters are actually allergic to the dust, pollen, dust mites, and other allergens hiding out inside these items. That’s why cleaning your bedding frequently is important.
Are there plant-based down alternatives?
Yes. We’ve already talked about cotton and rayon (fabric spun from processed cellulose) as possible down alternatives. However, if you’re not all that dedicated to the feel of down, you could also try buckwheat, eucalyptus, bamboo viscose, or latex foam—depending on whether you’re looking for pillows or a bed cover. Breathable plant-based bedding may be the best option for hot sleepers.
How often should I clean my pillows and bedding?
As a general rule (assuming you use pillowcases, a top sheet, and a mattress cover) you should wash your comforter every 3 months, your pillows and duvet insert every 3 to 6 months, and your mattress once a year. Wash your sheets and pillowcases at least once a week. And wash your mattress cover every couple of months.
Depending on your preferences, both down and alternative down can be great solutions for your bedding needs. When shopping for the right bedding, be sure to keep your needs in mind. If you’re a cold sleeper or want to feel like you’re sleeping on a cozy cloud, spring for down. If you want something a little more budget and or animal-friendly, purchase a down alternative.
This article is for informational purposes and should not replace advice from your doctor or other medical professional.