Are You Really Allergic to Down?

In Gear by Sally13 Comments

If you’re looking into buying cold weather hiking, trekking or backpacking gear, you’ve most likely already run into products that are down-insulated. Down is a premium insulation material, and its no wonder that so many backpackers prefer it in their gear. But what if you’re allergic to down itself?

What is Down?

Down, the fine, under layer on water fowl, is the insulation material of choice for warmth that is also lightweight. Most down on the market come from geese, but some comes from ducks, like our Kelty SB 20 sleeping bags. Because down feathers are not only lightweight, but compressible, products filled with them make highly functional backpacking and trekking gear.

Because they both fly and swim, water fowl need to stay light and warm. Down, the feather-y like fluffy material under their outer feathers, provides unsurpassed natural insulation that's both extremely light and warm.

Because they both fly and swim, water fowl need to stay light and warm. Down, the feather-y like fluffy material under their outer feathers, provides unsurpassed natural insulation that’s both extremely light and warm.

I’ve suffered from allergies all of my life. While allergic reactions are a nuisance, my allergens tend to be any and all furry animals, so even though it pains my soul, they can be avoided.

Feathers, though, are another story.

I’ve slept on down-filled pillows a few times in my life. I hate down pillows (all fluff, and no support), so it was only on a pillow that wasn’t mine. The few times I have slept on one, it’s been unpleasant and caused some form of allergic reaction. The exception to this being down pillows in hotels.

I just took this to mean that I was allergic to feathers, and crossed another cute animal I might be able to touch off my list.

Down and Synthetic Insulation

When preparing for the Pacific Crest Trail, Nikita and I ran into a problem when it came to finding gear to keep us warm. Most sleeping bags and performance cold weather jackets are down insulated. Why? Because down is both very warm, and very light, making it a premium material for backpacking and cold weather performance.

Why are sleeping bags and some pillows so fluffy? They're stuffed full of feathery materials, plucked from geese and ducks. These feathers may be causing your down allergy.

Why are sleeping bags and some pillows so fluffy? They’re stuffed full of feathery materials, plucked from geese and ducks.

Problems arise when you try and find an alternative to down, as we did. Most synthetic insulation in sleeping bags and jackets is comprised of different weights of polyester threading, used to trap air and maintain loft and durability.

Synthetic insulation has come a long way, but it still can’t compare to down in weight and compressibility. Meaning, if we were to go with synthetic insulated gear, we could expect to almost double our pack weight in that area.

Here’s just one comparison:

In the 1º – 15ºF  range (the lower temperature limit the sleeping bag will protect against), a synthetic sleeping bag weighs twice as much as down insulated bags in the same range. Take a look here:

Marmot Trestles 15º Sleeping BagSynthetic: 3 lbs 6 oz.

Big Agnes Encampment 15 Sleeping BagSynthetic: 3 lbs 10 oz.

Mountain Hardwear Ratio 15 Sleeping BagDown: 2 lbs 10 oz.

Sierra Designs Zissou 15 Sleeping BagDown: 2 lbs 10 oz.

Overall, the down sleeping bags weigh about 62% less than their synthetic alternatives.

When it comes to long distance hiking, an extra two pounds should never be seen as an after thought. Every pound, some hikers even say every ounce, matters. And if you’re planning a long backpacking trip, weight factors heavily (HAHA) into your gear purchases.

See our dilemma?

Can You Still Use Down if You’re Allergic?

If you suffer from allergies, imagine taking clumps of your allergen, stuffing them into a coat, and wearing it all day. Or try stuffing it into a pillow and sleeping on it all night. Let me know which one is worse.

Allergy sufferers know that even though you can pop a Claritin or Zyrtec, the best way to minimize your reaction is to get away from the allergen- or keep it away. If I really was allergic to down, there’s no way I’d be able to wrap up in it every night.

How Common are Down Allergies?

The fact is, I’d never been tested for a down allergy. I don’t think many people have. I’ve just tested positive for so many allergens, that I acquired the habit of erring on the side of caution where a potential allergen is concerned.

A few days after ruling out down insulation Nikita showed me this GearFinder help article, where a reader had the same problem I did finding a compressible, lightweight synthetic sleeping bag due to a down allergy. Kristin the gear expert responds:

“Guess what? You are probably not allergic to down. You are likely allergic to the dust particles that remain in down that is not cleaned and processed properly. Or dust mites. Or mold that can grow in an I’m properly stored down bag.”

This definitely struck a chord with me, because I am tremendously allergic to dust, I was willing to explore the possibility that I was probably just allergic to the dust on the pillows.

Digging a little deeper, I found that many “down” pillows on the market, especially if they are under $100, are actually feather pillows and only contain about 5% actual down. I have a feeling that the folks whose pillows I slept on weren’t the type to spend big bucks on a real down-filled pillow.

How to Choose a Down Fill Power for Allergy Sufferers

Even if you find you’re not allergic to down, your search isn’t over. When it comes to finding the right down-insulated gear, you need to look at the fill power of the products.

“Fill power” is a scale used to rate the loft quality of down, with ratings reflecting the number of cubic centimeters one ounce of down occupies. Lower fill powers are about 550-fill, while higher fill powers are 750-fill and above. The higher the fill power, the more insulating the down.

For allergy sufferers, there’s a minimum fill power required to get down that doesn’t contain dust and impurities that could cause a reaction: nothing below 800-fill.

If you really want to get your down insulation that won’t bother your allergies, be prepared to spend more. As with everything in life, the better quality, higher fill power down is more expensive, and can be hard to find. It’s up to you to decide if the weight and bulk of synthetic alternatives is problematic enough to spend the extra (extra) cash on high fill power down.

That being said, I’m really walking the line with my Kelty SB 20 TraiLogic sleeping bag, which is 800-fill. But before deciding that I was or wasn’t allergic to down, I slept in the new bag for a couple of nights.

The result? Nothing but a normal night’s sleep, and no reaction to speak of.

 

Are you allergic down, or not sure? We’d love to hear from others who have experience with down allergies, or down and allergens. Let us know in the comments!

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Comments

  1. I recently was given a winter down coat! I wore it once and broke out with massive hives on my chest&back! Very itchy! ! Haven’t worn it since! !I love the coat VERY WARM! ! OH WELL! !

    1. Author

      Hey Jody, thanks for commenting! I feel you on breaking out in hives- allergic reactions are no fun! Does the coat provide a fill power number? If it’s low, below 750 or 800, you might be dealing with a coat that’s stuffed with low quality down. So even though it’s warm, it may not be as clean and might contain allergens causing you to break out. I recommend finding a down coat with a high fill power. My MontBell UL Down Parka is super warm and hasn’t made me break out or sneeze once!

  2. Excellent article!

    Recently, for the first time in almost 40 years, I experienced massive breakouts and hives. My dermatologist diagnosed my condition as eczema, and although I have a family history of it, i’d never suffered from it, until now. She suggested I see an allergist, and it was during that visit I found out that I have a major dust mite allergy. Good to know, but I was still baffled why the breakouts all of a sudden? The allergist provided me with a bulleted-list on minimizing the dust-level in my home; there was a section that read “remove any feather and/or ‘fluffy’ bedding.” Ah ha! That was it! Reading that section reminded me of the three throw pillows on my bed, filled with feathers (not sure if it were down), that I’d purchased from Marshall’s shortly before the breakouts started. I was convinced that was the source of my allergy. I got rid of the pillows immediately. Sure enough, my breakouts almost completely stopped.

  3. Aside from the allergy to down, people need to be aware that our very compromised political system created laws to benefit petrochemical companies that force manufacturers of everything from sleeping bags and tents to bed mattresses, sofas and pillows, to saturate them with very toxic flame-retardant chemicals. So, it may not even be an allergy to down, but rather to the toxic chemicals with which the materials have been saturated. People with Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS) are much more aware of all of these issues, but those of us who suffer from less extreme sensitivities here and there and those who never notice anything all need to be aware of these health hazards. Google “Doug Hoschek” to learn more about his work in helping to bring to light the toxic fabrics that get marketed to U.S. consumers. Being aware is at least a start. This doesn’t do much for those of us who are on a tight budget and can’t afford the very high-end, very expensive products that are cleaner an have higher fill power. I was looking at some used sleeping bags too, but it’s impossible to tell how they’ve been cared for. Niche alert – we need a “Made in the USA” company that can deliver ethical, non-harmful down sleeping bags in all price points!

    1. Author

      Hi Val,

      Thanks very much for your comment. That’s quite interesting and something I didn’t know about.

  4. Great article!

    I came upon this page because I just recently bought throw pillows online for my living room and didn’t realize it was down/feather filled until I received the pillows. 2 beautiful throw pillows that I will have to see whether I’ll have an allergic reaction to or not. *crossing my fingers and hoping for the best!*

    I know I am allergic to down due to two events in my life:
    #1: I had just moved into my first apartment and bought a new bed along with designer bedding. I wanted a down comforter that would keep me warm in the Winter and enough weight to feel like I’ve been tucked in. (I just now realize how spoiled I sound, but I was just excited about being on my own and wanted quality materials.) Every morning, I’d notice my face was swollen and my eyes were itchy and red but I went on with my life. Throughout the day, swelling on my face went down and my eyes were back to normal. After a few days of this, I realized it was something in my bedroom. So every night, I would take one thing out of the room and see if I had a reaction in the morning until I found out it was my down comforter. I didn’t think to return it to where I bought it, so I gave it to my mom and just bought a down alternative and been fine ever since. But it was a tedious process since everything in my bedroom was new and I wasn’t sure what was giving me the allergic reaction. This event didn’t reassure me that I was really allergic to down until event #2 happened.

    #2: I have bad allergies… period. I feel it all year round and it kept getting worse. I was finally fed up with it and went to an allergy specialist where I took the environmental allergy test. My results: I’m allergic to grasses, trees, weeds, cats, dogs, and… you guessed it, FEATHERS!

    So, anyways, that was my story. Thanks for letting me share 🙂

  5. I came across this informative article while looking online to see if I could wear a down jacket… I have severe allergies to feathers and down. Like the reader who first commented, I get hives. I was at a very high-end hotel once where they were supposed to have “de-feathered” the room, and I was itching at midnight, getting the first stages… The manager came and when we stripped back the sheets, there were loose feathers all over the mattress! My husband said it looked like a goose had been shot on my bed. Needless to say, I now check very thoroughly. My father is an ENT and says that the size of the dander/allergen is so very small that fabric does not trap it, so that is why feather or down pillows can be an issue. Looks like any “breathable” fabric would have trouble trapping the allergen that causes trouble, including (sadly) cute puffer jackets.

  6. I was actually allergy tested and discovered I’m severely allergic to goose and duck feathers. Not the dust on them (as it separately tests for dust mites), but components on the feathers themselves (probably comparable to being allergic to cats and dogs because of the dander is my guess). Anyway I’m super bummed because I wanted to get a down filled North Face coat because I’m easily cold and live in a cold weather environment. So sad! Do you think the allergens could penetrate the outer shell of the jacket though and other me? I’m wondering if I could safely wear the coat of the down is trapped inside. Thoughts?

    1. Author

      Hey Amanda. That sucks that you’re allergic to feathers! In my experience, I’ve always had reactions from low fill power down and feather-filled items. When the allergens are present, I react, no matter the material that’s encasing it. I wouldn’t risk it, but that’s just based on my experience.

  7. It’s not some big conspiracy. Jesus Christ. Yes, collusion happens in politics and big business but this is just the march of technology and fabric coatings! Yes, some people have MCS or Multiple Chemical Sensitivity.

    However, Nylon and polyester can combust in seconds bear a naked flame source – ESPECIALLY CAMPING STOVES.

    This is to prevent death and severe life changing injuries!!!!

  8. I recently got a 90% down, 10% waterfowl feathers coat. I wore it the day I got it and had no issues, in fact I wore it everyday for about a week before I washed it. The day after I washed it I wore it again and by the end of the day my entire face and upper body was covered in hives. Kept wearing it bc I couldn’t believe that washing it would make a difference, I washed it again last night and by the end of the day today I was broken out in hives again!?! I have a tshirt and sweatshirt under but I still believe it has to be the coat, only the first day after I wash it.

    1. Author

      Hi Chelsea,

      I think I remember something similar like that happening to me. Perhaps the washing agitated the down and feathers and brought out some allergens onto the surface of the coat. The detergent could also be a possibility. Did you wash the coat with a special down wash?

  9. I have sever allergy to feather/ down bedding. Every time I sleep on a feather pillow or down comforter I wake up being unable to breathe. My chest is heavy and I wheeze and require an updraft and prednisone to decrease my symptoms. It’s terrible because whenever I travel it can be a major issue. I wish it wasn’t an issue because I would love a beautiful down comforter but it is it won’t work for me. I have tested negative for allergies to multiple substances and it baffles the allergists that I work with, but I can tell you it’s a horrible feeling when o can’t breathe so with that being said, yes my allergy to feathers is real

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