PSA: It's Definitely Time to Wash or Toss Your Pillows

We hate to break it, but pillows are the ultimate germ-catchers.

March 16, 2021

We already know that sheets need to be cleaned far more often than is convenient (once a week… yep—it’s a chore), but when you really start to think about the dead skin cells, dust, and dirt that settle on your sheets, it’s a natural next step to say, “Oh god, what about my pillows?” Oh god indeed, your pillows are some of the worst perpetrators. Turns out, pillows are filled with all sorts of allergens like dust, pollen, body oils and skin cells, and fungi which may be stuffing you up and making it harder to sleep.

It's a whole, happy little eco-system in there. A 2005 study by the University of Manchester found an average of more than a million fungal spores in the household pillows they tested; synthetic pillows were found to have a higher concentration of aspergillus fumigatus, the most common strain, which feed dust mites, can exacerbate asthma, and can lead to disease in those with compromised immune systems.

Dust mites, which in all honesty sound and look a bit scarier than they are, feed on the fungi as well as shed skin cells. While most people don't need to worry much about the mites themselves, their fecal matter can cause allergic reactions. Those who are allergic to dust mites will be very familiar with symptoms like chronic stuffy nose, trouble breathing, or eczema.

Okay, don’t panic. There are things you can do to mitigate the build up of all the aforementioned nastiness.

The National Sleep Foundation recommends washing your pillow every six months and replacing them every few years. If you purchase quality down rather than polyester and commit to washing it at least every six months, good news! You can hold onto yours for up to 10 years. So—ready to wash those pillows? Yup, me too. Here are a few handy tips, courtesy of Dean Davies, an upholstery cleaning expert at Fantastic Services, for getting the job done:

Prevent Yucky Buildup in the First Place.

Okay, this one sounds at once like a no-brainer and impossible, but there are things you can do to extend the life of your pillows. First thing’s first: double layer ‘em. While you could certainly invest in some pillow protectors, layering two pillowcases does the job just as well (without the crinkling sound in your ear). Editorial lead of Home52, Arati Menon, learned this trick from her mom, and proposes that we “think of it as the final layer of defense, as a hygienic buffer between your human grossness and the trusting pillow. It extends the time between pillow washings—and in my case, fresh purchases.”

And another thing: Make sure you always dry your hair before hopping into bed. A moist environment breeds mold and mites, plus it can make things smell less than fresh. Also, if you happen to spill (we’ve all had coffee in bed, it happens), be sure to wash and dry your pillows immediately after.

Wash every six months.

Like we said above. Wash! "Feather, down, and synthetic pillows can be simply cleaned in the washer," Davies told me by e-mail. "It's best to launder two pillows (of the same kind) at once as this will help to keep the washing machine balanced during the cycle." He suggested that top- or front-loading machines without agitators make this process a bit easier, but if you haven't got the choice, try to place your pillows upright so they don't get tangled around the agitator and damaged during the cycle.

He also suggested a novel technique: "To minimize the clumping of synthetic fibers during the washing cycle, roll up your pillows into a long, skinny cylinder. Then place rubber bands on both ends and in the middle."

When in doubt, check the tag.

While most feather and polyester pillows can be machine washed, sometimes particular care instructions will come on the tag. If you can't find any info, use lukewarm or cold water—hot water may cause shrinkage, according to Davies—and set your machine to a gentle cycle. Opt for a mild liquid detergent over powder, which tends to leave less residue.

Foam pillows, on the other hand, should never go in a machine, as agitation and heat will damage them. "You can clean the pillow by dipping it in a sink full of water or by letting the water run through the pillow while moving it around," Davies says.

Air-dry completely or dry with tennis balls.

"If a pillow can be machine dried, you can toss it into the dryer and put a couple of clean tennis balls inside to prevent fibers from clumping and reduce the drying time," Davies said. "Alternatively, you can air-dry pillows in the sun, simply lay them flat to preserve their shape." For foam pillows, Davies recommends placing in a room with good air flow or hanging outside on a sunny day.

Eventually, you need to replace them.

If you're not sure how long you've had your pillow, Davies suggested a "fold test" to guesstimate: Simply fold it in half, and if it doesn't go back to its regular shape immediately, it's probably past its prime. This indicates that the fibers are clumped together from wear and tear, which means you can probably use a more simple test, your pillow still comfortable?

If your pillow is stain-free, check your local rules for textile recycling to see if pillows are accepted.

How often do you wash and change pillows? We are very curious. Let us know below!

This article was updated in March 2021 to keep your pillows even fresher.

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Cory Baldwin

Written by: Cory Baldwin

Food52's director of partner content Cory Baldwin has been an editor at food, travel, and fashion publications including Saveur, Departures and Racked.


Tracy M. March 24, 2021
I just retired, and I'm still using the same pillow I had in high school! It's made of shredded foam rubber in a cotton, zippered, pillow protector. I've refreshed the foam a handful of times over the years. I've also replaced the pillow protector twice. I imagine it's well over 50% dust mite bodies and feces. I don't care; it's the most comfortable pillow ever. I absolutely despise the solid block of polyester fiber that has been the runaway most common pillow type for decades.
/anne... March 19, 2021
If you sew, keep your old washed synthetic fill pillows - they make great toy stuffing, or floor cushion stuffing, as once it's no longer springy, it's great to stuff firmly in a toy or cushion.
BerryBaby September 23, 2018
The manufacturer stated the pillows were washable and dryable. Not in our washer! Had a disaster 2 inches of water all over the floor in the laundry room what a mess. Now we take them to the laundromat.
Greg September 19, 2018
Every three months (as the seasons change) ...also, flip/rotate your mattress at the same time. (a good vacuuming and a quick spray of Lysol or your fav doesn't hurt).
I have two pillows, stacked, very old, and washed quarterly. I take them with me when I travel. They are my 'security pillows' lol
BerryBaby September 23, 2018
With a new pillow top mattresses you can't flip anymore. We can only rotate. Every time I change the sheets I spray the beds with Febreze and vacuum as necessary.
Eva September 19, 2018
I wash our down and feather pillows regularly. For me that is every 3 to 4 months. They must be machine dried to avoid clumping of wet feathers. I use wool dryer balls in the dryer and dry for 2 hours on low heat setting. In summer I frequently lay them outside in the hot sun for natural bleaching.
Karl September 19, 2018
Best thing is to put them outside on an extremely frigid day in the sunshine in the winter. True for all bed linens. The UV rays of the sun kills mite eggs, as does significant time in freezing temperatures. Clotheslines can to things dryer machines cannot.
Author Comment
Cory B. September 19, 2018
Thanks for the tip! I'll definitely try this.
Greg September 19, 2018
I did not know that! Thank you for the great suggestion.
Liz S. March 16, 2021
I had a bout with mange scabies (pet origin) ... good news is when you kill them on the pet, they have limited life on humans. But anyway, I have a steamer and steamed my mattress, washed all that could be washed and other things into the dryer at high heat for 40 min. (the 40 min per a site on the scabies mites). The dryer fluffed things so well that between washings of washables, I do that. No recurrences. But I do think the UV/frigid temps is a good plan. Thanks @Karl !
Liz S. March 16, 2021 I like these pillow covers. They are not noisy at all. I discovered this brand looking for something to use for an older dog's dog bed. They did such a good job at keeping his mattress dry that I ended up buying for my mattress and my pillows.
QwertyJuan September 18, 2018
You will pry my 60+ year old pillow out of my cold, dead hands... and not a minute before. My pillow was made in Italy by my grandmother out of CHICKEN feathers (we had to take it apart once to replace the old cover that was basically disintegrating, so I found out that it actually was, in fact, chicken feathers... brown to be exact). It was then brought over in the late 50's when the family emigrated to Canada(we honestly don't know how old it was before it came to Canada... so it could, in fact, be over 70 years old). My dad used it until the 1980's at which time I "stole" it and claimed it as mine. It is probably the heaviest most dense pillow you'd ever see in your life... but after using it for 30+ years... I'm never giving it up, so I guess that makes me the Rick Astley of pillow loving! :)
Author Comment
Cory B. September 19, 2018
Wow, what a cool and special thing! I definitely would hold onto that pillow, too!