What’s the Best Fill Material for Pillows?

8 Types of Pillow Stuffing Explained (2022 Guide)

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Woman placing fill for pillow stuffing

The market for pillow stuffing is surprisingly varied, so it can be hard to figure out what the best fill for pillows is on your own. Thankfully, the internet has no shortage of crafty people with various projects and opinions.

With a combination of market research, experience in quilting and sewing, and some old-fashioned product testing, we’ve come up with enough pillow fillers to fit just about any project. Whether polyester fiberfill or soft feathery down, you’re sure to find something to your liking on this list. 

Stuffing a pillow isn’t the same as stuffing a couch, comforter, or teddy bear. When you’re figuring out what the best filling is for your pillow, there are many things you’ll need to think about. You have to consider what the pillow will be used for, where it will be placed, how it will need to be washed, and so much more when choosing pillow filling types.

For most people and projects, the two best types of filling are polyfill and memory foam. While memory foam may be expensive, it’s more supportive than others, yet remains soft. Polyfill is a cheap alternative and a versatile choice. 

There are benefits and drawbacks to every kind of pillow stuffing under the sun, so it’s important to consider your options carefully here. Fire safety, back pain, long car rides, and durability are just some of the factors we’ll be considering, so keep reading to find out what the best material to fill your pillows is. 

Product Reviews

Let’s look into just a few different filling types to help get you started and see what the best fill material for pillows might be.

The All-Arounder: Polyester Fiberfill (Polyfill)

Polyester is a byproduct of oil refinement. It’s technically a kind of plastic that’s been thinned and fluffed into fibers, but don’t let its composition fool you. Polyester fiberfill–otherwise known as polyfill–is one of the softest materials you can fill a pillow with. It’s also lightweight and keeps its shape for a slightly longer period than something like down filling.

Unfortunately, this comes with several drawbacks. While its soft and squishy nature can make for a good generalist pillow—like what you might use on the back of your computer chair for lumbar support—it can’t mold to the body well. It also doesn’t offer enough firmness or support to be used for sleeping, a thing which many college students can attest to.

And as hypoallergenic, cheap, and easy to clean as polyfill is, that still doesn’t negate the environmental cost. The creation process for polyester is probably one of the most environmentally damaging things we do as a species, thanks to the amount of oil it takes. It’s such a dirty process that the work often ends up polluting the surrounding wildlife and environment. 

Pros:

  • Cheap
  • Easy to Clean
  • Extra Soft
  • Hypoallergenic

Cons:

  • Breaks Down Into Microplastics
  • Production Means Excessive Pollution
  • No Support or Molding to the Body; Just Fluff
  • Very Flammable and Retains Heat

The Old Standby: Cotton Stuffing

What could be more of a classic than cotton filling? Probably the most common type of stuffing out there, cotton offers more support than polyfill or down while still being friendly to both allergies and the environment. It’s also the easiest type of pillow stuffing to get, as well as being one of the cheapest kinds available. 

The cotton pillow filler is far from perfect, however. One of the downsides to cotton is how lumpy it gets with regular use, requiring frequent fluffing to maintain its shape. It doesn’t flatten quite as much as down, but it takes longer to bounce back after it’s been thoroughly squished. In many cases, it’s best to replace the old cotton entirely with new cotton.

On top of that, you have to be careful when washing cotton. Unlike cotton fabric, cotton pillow stuffing retains a ton of water, and it can take hours to dry completely. This can also completely warp the shape of the pillow due to cotton’s tendency to shrink, especially if washed on a hotter setting. And that’s not even getting into the potential for mold in a perpetually damp pillow.

Still, cotton isn’t a terrible material, just a very dated one. In the end, you can’t beat just how cheap and eco-friendly cotton is.

Pros:

  • More Support
  • Cheap and Easy To Find and Replace
  • Environmentally Friendly
  • Hypoallergenic

Cons:

  • Heavy and Slow To Dry When Wet
  • Frequently Requires Fluffing
  • Replacing Pillow Stuffing More Often
  • When It Gets Flat, It Gets Flat

For Back Pain: Memory Foam Pillow Stuffing

Most of the time, memory foam is made of polyurethane. There are two main types of memory foam: shredded memory foam and block memory foam. The shredded kind is more fluffy but doesn’t hold its shape as well; the solid blocks are usually made into a given shape with a fitted pillow cover.

Polyurethane memory foam is a marvel of science. If you or the person you’re making the pillow for has chronic back or neck pain, then a memory foam pillow will be your best bet. However, you’ll likely need to have a cover that’s made to match. Conventional pillow stuffing techniques don’t work unless you’re using shredded foam, which negates many benefits. While shredded foam is more breathable than a thick chunk of foam, traditional foam blocks are more supportive and can be improved with a cooling pad.

It isn’t without downsides, though. Memory foam stuffing is made with a lot of complex and volatile chemicals. Sometimes prolonged use can lead to the breakdown of those chemicals, making them smelly. It also absorbs heat, which can make it uncomfortable during hotter months. On top of that, memory foam is one of the most expensive materials.

No material is perfect, and memory foam is no exception. But it’s good at what it does. If the person your pillow is for experiences chronic neck or back pain, then a contoured block of memory foam is the best option for keeping their spine aligned while they sleep. 

Pros:

  • Comfortable, Particularly for Neck and Back Pain Sufferers
  • It Keeps Its Shape and Doesn’t Need Adjusting

Cons:

  • Expensive
  • Pillowcases May Need To Be Made To Fit Instead of the Other Way Around

For Luxurious Comfort: Down Pillow Stuffing

When it comes to pillow filler, nothing says luxury like stuffing a pillow with down feathers. Down comes from the soft chests and underbellies of birds, which makes it extra-fluffy as pillow stuffing. This fluff comes at a high cost but makes for an extremely malleable, easily adjusted pillow. That’s why down has become synonymous with comfort in popular culture.

The cost isn’t the only downside, however. An expensive pillow is one thing, but an expensive pillow that wicks up heat, flattens if not kept fluffed, and can’t just be thrown in the wash is another thing entirely. Down may be easily replaced, but you’ll need to do that replacement so often that it can turn into a money sink. 

Historically, down pillows were seen as a status symbol due to how soft they were and the labor it took to gather the down. However, in today’s market, they may be more trouble than they’re worth, thanks to allergies and affordable alternatives that offer similar softness with more support. For those reasons, it may be better to leave the feathers on the ducks and get a more sustainable material.

Pros:

  • Soft and Fluffy
  • Extra-Malleable and Easy To Manipulate
  • Easily Replaced if Flattened
  • Environmentally Friendly

Cons:

  • Expensive (More Over Time)
  • Flattens Over an Extended Period
  • Gets Hot in the Summer
  • Can Be Complicated To Wash

An Affordable Alternative: Feather Pillow Stuffing

You’d think feather pillows and down pillows would be the same, but they aren’t. Unlike down pillows, feather pillows are just stuffed with wing and back feathers of birds. They aren’t as soft but are cheaper than their down-stuffed counterparts. They’re also easily molded into whatever shape you want them, just like down pillows.

But feather pillows share a lot of the downsides that down pillows have. Not only do they flatten into the rough shape of a pancake with prolonged use, but they also retain heat. They’re hard to clean, too, and can start to smell after a while. Before long, you’ll have a badly squished, hot, smelly pillow on your hands that’s completely forgotten how to be a pillow.

Just like with anything these days, however, price can be a factor when picking pillow stuffing, and you won’t find much that’s cheaper and easier to stuff a pillow with than plain feathers. If the person the pillow is for doesn’t mind replacing the filling, then feather pillow stuffing might be the way to go based on that alone.

Pros:

  • Cheap
  • Easy To Replace
  • Soft and Easy To Mold
  • Environmentally Friendly

Cons:

  • Flattens Easily
  • Needs Frequent Replacement
  • Retains Heat
  • Can Start To Smell

For Support: Buckwheat Hull Pillow Stuffing

We’ve all seen those oddly shaped pillows in corner stores and gas stations by now; they’re the ones that are made to wrap around the neck for a long car or plane ride. And when those neck pillows aren’t being made with microbeads or memory foam, they’re typically being made with something called buckwheat hulls. 

Buckwheat hulls are basically your natural alternative to plastic microbeads. They’re breathable, can conform to any neck or head shape you can imagine, and make for a remarkably durable pillow. 

Due to how firm a buckwheat hull pillow can be, this probably isn’t ideal for general use or sleeping. You’re not going to make or find a good sleeping pillow using buckwheat hulls. They’re loud when shifted, they’re too firm for most people, they’re heavy, and they can sometimes be a nest for house mites. 

For car pillows that go around the neck; however, buckwheat hulls are an excellent pillow filler.

Pros:

  • Durable
  • Conforms to the Neck and Supports the Spine
  • Highly Breathable; Doesn’t Retain Heat
  • Organic and Environmentally Friendly

Cons:

  • Heavy
  • Too Firm for Many People
  • May Attract House Mites
  • Makes a Rustling Sound When Shifted

Affordable Neck Support: Microbead Pillow Stuffing

Most of those neck pillows you find in gas stations mentioned above aren’t filled with buckwheat hulls; that would be too expensive. For something that’ll do the same job without chewing up a budget, most companies that mass-produce those kinds of pillows use polystyrene microbeads. 

It should be noted that microbeads are terrible for the environment—this isn’t the kind of thing you can just recycle. If a microbead pillow breaks, you can always get more microbeads and fix the tear, but the spilled beads go to the landfill. They can also produce a chemical odor due to the nature of their construction. On top of that, they’re known to lose their shape and get lumpy.

But if the intended recipient of your pillow has neck problems and you’re on a budget, microbeads might be the way to go. For all its problems, microbead pillow filler still makes for a serviceable neck pillow to wear while stuck in one place for a while. 

Pros:

  • Cheaper Than Buckwheat Hulls but Fills the Same Purpose
  • Breathable and Doesn’t Retain Heat
  • It’s Good for Supporting the Spine
  • Molds to Any Neck and Head Shape Easily

Cons:

  • Bad for the Environment
  • It Can Produce a Chemical Smell
  • It Gets Lumpy and Doesn’t Hold Its Shape Well
  • Not Durable

Soft and Renewable: Wool Pillow Stuffing

Wool is one of the oldest kinds of pillow stuffing available, and there are reasons for its continued use. Soft and warm, wool will always be an environmentally friendly and comfortable option for sleeping and general use. It molds easily into whatever shape you want and makes for a good insulator in winter without getting too hot in the summer.

The elephant in the room, when it comes to wool, however, is allergies. And if you’re using synthetic wool, you’re missing out on the environmentally friendly part. So while wool is a good option for many situations, you have to ask yourself many questions before you make your final decision on its use. It also tends to lump and can’t hold its shape well.

Wool is the kind of material that comes with a cost-benefit analysis, so that is what makes it an afterthought for most people when it comes to pillow filler. For people who think wool is worth it, you’ll find people that swear by its comfort and practicality. For those who would never even begin to consider it, there are legitimate reasons why they wouldn’t.

Pros:

  • Environmentally Friendly if Natural; Hypoallergenic if Synthetic
  • Soft and Malleable
  • Warm; a Good Insulator That Doesn’t Get Too Hot
  • Not Too Expensive

Cons: 

  • Allergies if Natural; Not As Environmentally Friendly if Synthetic
  • It Tends To Get Lumpy With Prolonged Use
  • Not the Most Durable Material
  • It Doesn’t Hold Its Shape Well

The Buyer’s Guide to Pillow Stuffing

However, when considering the best material for pillows, there are two factors worth looking into. How much these factors matter will vary from person to person, and your pillow must fit the needs of the person who will eventually be using it.

Purpose

Above everything else, you should start with what’s the pillow’s purpose. Is it meant to go on a couch? Will it end up in a baby’s room? Does the person using it spend long hours commuting or working at a desk? There will always be more uses for pillows than just sleeping, and it’s important to consider them.

Even if it is nothing more than a sleeping pillow, some considerations still need to be taken into account. Does the person using the pillow have the time, energy, and money to replace the stuffing regularly? Do they suffer from chronic neck or back pain? Do they sleep on their back or on their side? How many pillows do they like to have in their bed?

All of these questions factor into a pillow’s purpose, and it’s that purpose that will give you your starting point when picking your pillow stuffing.

Cost

The price of pillow stuffing can vary wildly from one material to the next, and depending on what material you pick, it can balloon over time for the end user. If it were just the initial cost of your chosen pillow filler that was a problem, then it would come down to what you can afford. But if you’re making or buying a pillow for someone else, things can get complicated.

First, you have to consider how often the pillow stuffing will need to be replaced over the lifetime of the pillow. Pillow stuffing usually warrants replacement whenever it starts to get too lumpy or flat to be fluffed or repositioned. Once that happens, you have to consider both ease of replacement and how costly it will be, meaning an investment in money and labor.

When the flat cost of replacement is high, that cost will be multiplied by how often it needs to be replaced. If you don’t have to replace the stuffing very often, the flat cost doesn’t have to be that low. But if you have to replace it once every couple of months, it’s best to stick with a material that’s cheap and easy to find. 

If the end user doesn’t have as much to spend on replacement pillow filler, then your best bet is something that can last a long time and won’t lose shape.

Conclusion: The Best Pillow Fillers

However, when it comes to the best fill for pillows, there’s not necessarily a clear winner. In a head-to-head match, the debate will be down to polyfill or memory foam in most cases. Memory foam is expensive and niche but ridiculously good at what it does; polyfill is cheap and versatile but with a few key drawbacks. For more specific uses, go with other materials, but those are the top two contenders overall.

With back problems, sleep apnea, and scoliosis, it should be noted that this writer prefers memory foam.

Nate Devore
Nate Devore
For over 15 years Nate has been obsessed with solving his own personal and difficult health challenges related to sleep, energy, and fatigue. As one of our sleep experts at sleeping.com, Nate is passionate about helping you get the best night’s sleep possible.

Medical Disclaimer: The content on this page should not be taken as medical advice or used as a recommendation for any specific treatment. Always consult your doctor before making any decisions.

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