The Pillow Materials Cheat Sheet: Foam, Polyester & Everything In-Between

Tracey Wallace, Founder & CEO - Feb 7th 2019

The apparel and fiber production industry is the fourth largest polluter of air and water on Earth. This extends to the fiber filling of your mattress and your pillow.

Currently, foam is the leading fill of mattress and pillows in the US. That’s because foam is inexpensive to produce and incredibly malleable –– which reduces shipping costs.

In 2014, Casper Sleep was one of the very first mattress brands to sell mattress online that could be delivered to your door –– without a huge shipping cost.

Today, several hundred mattress brands sell similar mattress via the same business model –– and there are thousands of YouTube, Facebook and Instagram videos showing the “unboxing” of these mattresses.

  • You open the vertical box.
  • In it is a rolled up mattress.
  • You unroll it.
  • Within a couple hours, it has popped back into place as a horizontal mattress.

It’s easy. It’s quick. It’s cheap. And it’s the same material many brands use for their pillows, as well.

But it is not environmentally friendly.

What are pillows made of?

Most foam or memory foam mattress and pillows are made from polyurethane. Polystyrene is made from petroleum, a non-renewable resource.

The foam manufacturing process is particularly dangerous to those working in the factories. This is because polystyrene is made from Styrene, which is classified as a possible human carcinogen by the EPA and by the Department of Health and Human Services.

Workers exposed to Styrene in manufacturing plants can potentially experience negative health effects including:

  • Irritation of the eyes, skin, respiratory tract and gastrointestinal effects
  • Central nervous system disorders such as depression, headache, fatigue and weakness

In addition, foam is highly flammable during the manufacturing process (increasing risk for factory workers) and must be sprayed with chemical flame retardants before being sold to the public.

As of 2007, all mattresses are required to contain enough Fire Retardant Chemicals to withstand a 2-foot wide blowtorch open flame for 70 seconds.

Nearly 92% of the market, or most major sleep product brands, use a highly controversial fire retardants due to its cost efficiency.

There have been efforts to curb this, however, particularly in California with TB117-2013.From the Green Science Policy Institute:

TB117-2013 takes a commonsense approach to protecting public health and safety by addressing how and where fires start in the real world. Fires start on fabric, and cigarettes are the leading cause of furniture fires. TB117-2013 requires a smolder test for fabric, which was absent from the old standard. And flame retardant chemicals are not needed in order to meet TB117-2013! This means improved fire safety without toxic chemicals.

There are now companies producing foldable mattresses than can be shipped to your door that are not foam. For instance, Parachute has recently launched it’s new mattress –– one of the first that will be delivered to your door that is not foam-based.

Foam, however, has also been used in bed pillows. Some likes its firm feel –– others buy these pillows in coordination with their mattress.

Either way, foam or memory foam pillow filling in pillows has the same negative effects as in mattresses. So, what are your pillow material alternatives?

What is inside a pillow?

Well, foam is the main option, as already discussed. There are foam alternatives, of course. There are even non-polyurethane foam alternatives, including soy-based foams.

Other inside the pillow materials are:

  • Organic Cotton
  • Hemp
  • Tencel
  • Recycled Polyester
  • Recycled Cotton
  • Recycled Wool
  • Buckwheat Hull

The worst, or the unsustainable materials to use are:

  • Foam or memory foam
  • Bamboo
  • Silk
  • Conventional Cotton
  • Acrylic
  • Rayon/Viscose
  • Feather Pillows & Down

Later in this article, we’ll explore each of these pillow types.

The History of Pillow Materials

Pillow materials and the pillow shape have varied very little over time.

  • Wealthier Greeks rested on richly embroidered cushion and bolsters.
  • Egyptians regarded the head as the seat of life and as such, spent quite a bit of money on lavish pillows for the dead.
  • The Chinese believed soft pillows robbed the body of vitality. Instead, their pillows were made of wood, leather and ceramic materials. Many pillows in China were filled with herbal remedies to cure disease as well.

Until the mid-1800s, it was believed that a sleeping position closer to sitting rather than lying down was better for the body. Pillows were used to bolster people upright. People would use a pair of pillows on the bed, as well as a large, cylindrical bolster. The sleeper would prop him or herself up against these pillows for a more seated sleeping position.

Wikipedia

Until cotton became easier to obtain around 1840, American women used pillows to showcase their needlework and sewing skills using linen pillow cases. They would mark in these pillows their initials and the number the case was within the pillow set.

Source: The Met Museum.

As part of the Industrial Revolution, the American textile industry throughout the 1800s flourished. Pillow ticking (or pillow covers and cases) went from being handsewn by American women to the study cotton cases we see on many pillows today.

Many artisans, like women who did needlework, became wage workers at this point in time. In fact, the most common part-time occupation for women during this time was textile manufacturing.

Industrialization timeline of the American Northeast.

Traditional pillow material fill was down and feather. For the most part, synthetic polyester (either recycled or virgin) has replaced down and feather pillow materials as the most preferred pillow fill. This is because it is relatively inexpensive, can be washed and few people are allergic to it.

Sustainable Pillow Materials: Alternative Pillow Materials

Today, down and feather are no longer the most commonly used pillow fill materials. Indeed, there are hundreds of different pillow fill types and materials that you can choose from. Some of those choices are sustainable and eco-friendly, others are not.

In this section, we’ll be breaking down the sustainable options to give you a good understanding of which may be right for you based on your comfort level, sleeping position and more.

Here are the most sustainable pillow materials:

  • Organic Cotton
  • Recycled Polyester Pillows
  • Recycled Wool Pillows
  • Recycled Cotton Pillows
  • Buckwheat Hull Pillows
  • Hemp Pillows
  • Tencel Pillows

Keep in mind that almost all pillows come in a variety of shapes and sizes.

If you are a stomach sleepers, you will want to find a thinner, flatter pillow.

If you are a side sleeper, you'll want a firm pillow.

The shape or size of the pillow that you ultimately buy will help to relieve pain while sleeping. It is also important to take in to account the width of your shoulders. The wider your shoulders are, the more firm pillow you will want in order to keep your spine in alignment.

Organic Cotton

Organic cotton starts with GMO-free seed and follows practices that maintain soil health, water conservation, biodiversity and safe labor. It is grown without the use of pesticides and predominantly rainfed.

On the comfort side, organic cotton’s biggest downside is that it clumps quickly. Other than that, it is soft, moldable and stays cool.

Recycled Polyester & Microfiber Pillows

Recycled fibers are about as eco as you can get. Made from post-consumer plastic bottles. Using these materials reduces emissions, water and virgin materials.

Pillows made with recycled polyester (or recycled plastic bottle fill) are down-like in their feel, but remain cool, are hypoallergenic, machine washable, and extremely moldable.

Recycled polyester pillows are often referred to as microfiber and are great alternative pillow materials to down and feather pillows or gel pillows. Be careful, however, to note the use of recycled or virgin plastic in the polyester production process to understand if you are getting filling that is eco-conscious or not.

Recycled Wool Pillow

Wool is a strong, durable fiber that makes for a firmer pillow, appreciated by side sleepers. It naturally wicks away moisture and regulates your temperature while you sleep, keeping you cool in summer and warm in winter. Wool is also naturally resistant to fire, bacteria, mold, mildew and dust mites. And when the wool is untreated, it’s also hypoallergenic. This is a natural and organic pillow material alternative.

Find a recycled wool pillow, which is best in order to reuse and up-cycle materials rather than using a virgin wool.

Recycled Cotton

Recycled cotton is one of the best pillow materials you can use. Recycled cotton pillow material is best for the pillow case or cover given that cotton fill often clumps. Recycled cotton material is low on water usage and up-cycles materials already in production.

Buckwheat Hull

Buckwheat pillows are filled with buckwheat hulls, which are the husks protecting buckwheat kernels. They are a natural and sustainable option to pillows that are filled with synthetic material.

One big complaint about buckwheat hull is that it makes a sound every time you move your head or neck. This can be annoying or frustrating to some sleepers and affect your night's sleep.

Hemp

Hemp is a fast-growing, low-maintenance crop that’s primarily rainfed, requires minimal chemical inputs, and can be used in its entirety. A phytoremediative crop that puts nutrients back into the land.

As a filling, hemp pillows can feel like cotton — soft, durable, moldable, and yet not too lofty. Hemp can be a little rough at first, but it softens overtime. Hemp is also breathable, comfortable, and naturally resistant to mold, mildew, and insects (including dust mites) – making it a great natural and organic alternative pillow material.

Tencel

Tencel is made from responsibly forested eucalyptus trees in a closed-loop system of natural materials. Efficient, clean and 98% of by-products are recovered and reused.

Tencel is used most often as a pillow cover. Many memory foam brands will tout using this kind of martial for their cover –– so, beware getting a sustainable pillow cover, but not a sustainable pillow itself.

Unsustainable Pillow Materials: Traditional Pillow Materials

The pillow materials, fill, batting and pillow case cover material mentioned below are used commonly. You probably already own a pillow that contains these materials.

That’s ok!

The goal of this article is to help understand your options moving forward. The following pillow types are not eco-friendly, and therefore are unsustainable.

  • Foam Pillows & Memory Foam Pillows
  • Bamboo Pillows
  • Silk Pillows
  • Conventional Cotton Pillows
  • Acrylic Pillows
  • Rayon/Viscose Pillows
  • Feather & Down Pillows
  • Virgin Polyester Pillows
  • Gel Pillows

Foam Pillows & Memory Foam Pillow Material

We already covered this pretty extensively in the first section of this article. Here are the cons of foam, which is the most used pillow material in the industry:

  • Highly flammable
  • Made of polyurethane, which is produced with petroleum
  • Health hazardous for employee making foam in factories (and thus, this material is often not produced in the US, due to EPA regulations)

Many foam or memory foam pillows contains chemical flame retardants where you would lay your head every night

Bamboo Pillow Material

Bamboo pillow materials are often used as pillow covers. Unfortunately, converting stalky bamboo into soft fabric is a viscose process that requires high chemical and energy demands.

Common issues with non-sustainable tree-sourcing also spur deforestation of ancient bamboo forests.

Silk Pillows

Similar to bamboo, silk is often used as a pillow material for pillow covers. The growing and feeding of silk worms requires massive amounts of trees and growth hormones. It is not a renewable animal fiber, meaning silk worms die in the extraction process.

Conventional Cotton

Conventional cotton is used both for the inside pillow material as well as the pillow cover. It is grown from GMO seeds with large amounts of herbicides, inorganic fertilizers and hazardous pesticides. Conventional cotton is a very water-intensive crop due to irrigation.

Acrylic

Acrylic pillow materials are often used for outdoor pillows and furniture. This material is made from polyacrylonitrile, a soft plastic and known carcinogen in a chemical- and energy-intensive process. Waste water is difficult to treat and final fabric is nearly impossible to recycle.

Rayon/Viscose

Viscose (a type of Rayon) is often used as a cotton replacement, both for inside pillow material and for the pillow cover. These fibers are made in an energy-intensive process that generally start with unknown tree sources. Toxic chemicals are used in the pulping and spinning processes, generating hazardous waste and unusable by-product.

Feather & Down Pillows

Down and feather pillows are some of the more traditional pillow materials on the market. Hay was likely the original, and is not in use any longer.

Feather & Down are technical OK for the environment. It is biodegradable and naturally decomposes. Unfortunately, they are not great for the animals from which the feathers and down are taken.

Common types of down and feather pillows are goose down and duck down.

Virgin Polyester

Virgin polyester pillow are often the cheapest on the market. However, contribute to our plastics problem in using 100% virgin plastic in the polyester production process.

Some brands also call their virgin polyester microfiber. Be careful to inquire about the virgin or recycled nature of the polyester to ensure you are getting the proper pillow filling.

Gel Pillows

Gel pillows are often filled with gel-infused memory foam. The biggest advertised benefit to gel pillows is coolness. However, gel pillows do not always sleep significantly cooler than a standard memory foam pillow. In addition, gel pillows have the same negative environmental issues as memory foam.

What is the best material for a pillow [A quiz!]

The best material for a pillow is entirely up to you. It will depend on a lot of personal factors like:

  • Comfort preference and sleep position
  • Heat levels throughout the night
  • Beliefs around animal products
  • Level of eco-friendliness desired
  • If you’ll need to wash the pillow often
  • If you have allergies
  • If you have any pain while sleeping for which you'll need pain relief

Here’s a quick pillow material quiz to help you make the right choice.

powered by Typeform

Why Recycled Plastic Bottle Pillow Materials Matter

Only 15% of textiles are recycled in the U.S. That accounts for 70 pounds of trashed textile material per American per year, according to the Sustainable Agriculture & Food Systems Funders association.

In addition, the textile industry is one of the most polluting industries in the world. That is because of:

  • Land use
  • Chemicals and toxins
  • Water consumption and pollution
  • Energy use and emissions
  • Labor issues
  • Water and recycling

According to SAFSF:

In the U.S. food movement, the release of the 2012 NRDC report “Wasted: How America is Losing up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill” sparked a revolution in awareness of the issue of food waste.

The issue of waste in the textile and apparel sectors is similarly in need of exposure. A 2014 report commissioned by the Sustainable Apparel Coalition focused on the possibilities for recycling both pre and post-consumer textile waste into new yarns. The report led to a Recycling Innovation Working Group, now renamed the Circular Innovation Working Group and led by Cradle to Cradle. 75 other emerging initiatives include state and municipal textile recycling programs in Massachusetts, Texas, San Francisco, and elsewhere and corporate in-store take-back initiatives like Patagonia’s Worn Wear initiative and Eileen Fisher’s Fisher Found program, which is working to scale up its three-pronged approach for reselling like-new, renewed, and entirely remade garments.

The ReFED project on food waste, launched by the Betsy and Jesse Fink Foundation and now supported by a collaborative of fourteen foundations, offers one model for systematically approaching the issue of textile waste, while Closed Loop Partners has piloted an integrated financing model with a $100 million loan fund, venture fund, and foundation, all focused on accelerating recycling technologies for a range of consumer products, including apparel.

The best way you can help as a consumer is to buy textiles that are recycled –– like recycled cotton, wool and rPET products –– and support brands and organizations focused on bringing more items like these to market.

Summary

All of us want – and need – a good night's sleep. To do that, we need a comfortable pillows that works with us and not against us. The type of pillow we need is often based on very personal preferences like sleep position, comfort level, spine alignment, head and neck pain and pain relief and more.

For many of us, when buying new pillows, it's also important to think about the environmental factors as well. There are plenty of pillow material options containing natural materials and recycled materials that are breathable, soft, moldable, machine washable, hypoallergenic and more.

Just remember: foam isn't your only option!