Home Hacks

My Mom’s Trick for Fluffier, Cleaner Pillows

Get ready to question everything (you thought) you knew about making the bed.

April 30, 2020
Photo by Bobbi Lin

Remember the great (and fiercely fought) top-sheet-or-no-top-sheet debate from a few years ago? It was all-out war for a while, with non-top-sheeters being called everything from disgusting to monsters. In the opposite corner, the single-sheeters were also spoiling for a fight, calling the top sheet a scam perpetuated by Big Linen.

Look I get it: People have strong opinions on bed-making. Between the decorative pillows vs. none, light blanket vs. duvet, hospital corners vs. fanfolds vs. untucked, it seems that when it comes to how they sleep, people have all kinds of preferences.

And so do I. So here I am, adding to the bedding confusion: I think you should use two pillowcases per pillow. Yes, you heard me. Two cases. One pillow.

Full disclosure: I didn’t always subscribe to this. Like every “regular” person I know, I used a single pillowcase. But I was deeply confounded by a problem I had. Each time I bought myself a new set of pillows, I'd be shocked at how quickly they’d get flat and dirty—and forced to replace them at an alarming rate. The more I bought, the flatter and more annoying they got. To the point where I started having dreams of running after white, pert, fluffy pillows, except they were always faster (and meaner).

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Top Comment:
“My pet peeve about pillow cleanliness is that people use bolsters or big decorative pillows in back, and don’t leave a big, clean basket into which to toss them. Where do they go? On the floor, and then back on the bed—yuck! In hotels the maids put them on the upholstered chairs while changing the beds and then put the clean pillows right back on top of them—yuck! My other cleanliness tip: ALWAYS bring your own pillowcases when traveling and staying in hotels! ”
— J

Then my mother visited. And as she changed my bedding for me one morning, she sent me a text at work: “You don’t use two pillowcases like I taught you to?”

Once I stopped rolling my eyes at the pillow policing, I started to think back, and realized that through my childhood, when I’d watch her make our beds, I’d always see her slip on a pillow cover—or undercover as she called it—first. This was typically an old pillowcase, softened with time, patterns rubbed off from repeated washing, upcycled with a zipper or some other closure sewn on. On top of that, she’d slip on a more aesthetically pleasing, newer one. Think of them as a pillow cover and a pillowcase, she’d say.

Sound like a pain? I thought so, too. But then, her pillows, even when naked, always looked clean and felt fluffy. Mine—not so much.

Naturally I had to do some digging on the subject before I switched loyalties, and found she’s not the only one. According to the comments on this thread an 'under pillowcase' is typically a quite thick, coarser cotton while an upper matches the bed linen or is a finer thread count. Turns out doubling up makes complete sense. And makes people happy.

The reality of life—no point denying it—is that we shed a little every day. Gross, but true. Over time, our bedding and pillows get filled with sweats, stains, and dribbles. "It’s not just daily use that breaks down your pillow, but a buildup of dirt and oil that can actually flatten the fibers in it over time," confirms Sarah Natow, supply chain director at bedding company Buffy.

As someone who perpetually swings from very cold to very sweaty at night, I especially know this. So, using a second pillowcase isn’t just to maintain aesthetics, it helps prevent damage to the pillow and the down inside. 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, which Natow says should be no more often than once every couple of years. (She also recommends leaving them in the sun for a couple hours, or throwing them in the dryer with dryer balls every so often for longevity. And regular hugging.)

And before you tell me to use a pillow protector instead…don’t. A pillow protector, if anything, makes a pillow super crinkly and the very opposite of comfortable (not to mention the rustling wakes me up!). A second cover on the other hand makes it extra soft—especially if you reuse an old one like my mom does—like resting your head on a loaf of fluffy Hokkaido milk bread.

So...clean and cozy sleep. Plus, money saved. Convinced yet?

Where do you stand on this crucial bedding issue? Tell us in the comments below!

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Arati Menon

Written by: Arati Menon

Arati grew up hanging off the petticoat-tails of three generations of Indian matriarchs who used food to speak their language of love—and she finds herself instinctually following suit. Life has taken her all across the world, but she carries with her a menagerie of inherited home and kitchen objects that serve as her anchor. Formerly at GQ and Architectural Digest, she's now based in Brooklyn.


Lori September 7, 2022
There are pillow “covers” made of cotton, suitable for pillow “underwear,” that are not crinkly. But do have zippers.

I have another problem. My spouse, whom I lovingly call lizard head, seems to drool or emit enough sweat to make our white pillow cases yellowish. No oxy, peroxide or bleach can bring the them back. Have had to weave a dark gray pillow layer into our mostly white pillow lineup.

Pillow Hygiene Enthusiast
FrugalCat September 6, 2023
Make a paste with baking soda, peroxide and blue Dawn dish soap. Apply to your pillow cases and rub in with a brush. Let sit for an hour, then wash. This also gets yellow armpit stains out of undershirts.
Earlene August 24, 2021
In my experience, you need more than a pillowcase as the pillow protector. The Swedish big box store (you know who) had PADDED pillow protectors. They’re breathable cotton, don’t flatten the pillow, are silent, and yet thick enough that the pillow is truly protected. Europeans are so out in front of us when it comes to good bed hygiene.
Charleen August 24, 2021
I know this is off the subject a bit but I always buy king size comforters for my queen size bed. I put it on side-wise and it then can cover the pillows. Not everyone can afford matching sheets and comforters. I do, however, be careful of the pattern, if any, to make sure it will look good in the "wrong" direction.

I use zip pillow protectors under my pillowcases. Give those crinkly ones to your cat.
Diana M. August 24, 2021
Do you wash both pillowcases weekly?
Pam B. August 23, 2021
When I change the sheets on a sunny day, I put my pillows outside to bask in the sun for several hours, turning them over mid-day. There's no better way to sanitize, and they smell great.
David H. August 23, 2021
I use pillow protectors, with edge zippers, that are not "crinkly." They are simply made from cotton. They are cheap, pure white, and you can get them on Amazon for cheap.
naneki August 23, 2021
GigiR August 23, 2021
Have you ever tried the following for dust removal on pillows and duvets, heavy coats, etc? Take your item and put it in a large plastic trash bag or whatever you call them. Then, insert the vacuum cleaner nozzle into the opening. Clutch the bag ends tightly around the nozzle and turn on the vac. The bag with item will be sucked flat. After a couple of minutes, turn off the vac. See if that improves the dust status or aroma of the item. I know there are those that will say it’ll wreck the item, like a down pillow. Just use your judgement.

nita August 23, 2021
Great example of using the first two R's (reduce, reuse...)

1. Reduce buying more "stuff". Especially "stuff" that may not be easily recyclable (e.g. zippers)

2. Reuse those extra pillowcases. I tend to buy "sets" and my pillowcases always outlast the sheets.

Maureen July 27, 2021
I don't understand why your pillow protectors make your pillow crunchy. What are they made of? I buy 100% cotton protectors which work just fine. No crunch! Kudos though to you and your mom for recycling your old pillow cases, but the protectors come with a zipper, very convenient if you don't sew.
Arati M. August 23, 2021
I'm sure there are some lovely, comfy ones that have escaped me, Maureen! Until then, old cases it is! Thank you for reading!
D'Lynn H. August 23, 2021
I know exactly what you mean about them being noisy. I bought the allergen protectors and they are very noisy. I replaced them with more allergen protectors that turned out to be noisier. So, I am going to look for the all-cotton protectors other readers have mentioned.
Paula C. October 21, 2020
I think pillow protectors are great but I know there are many varieties available but the ones I’ve used have never made my pillows crinkly so maybe it’s the fabric type of the protector that makes a difference? I generally use ones that are allergy protectors and very smooth and “silky”. However I can see where an old case would work also.
Ranjini P. May 20, 2020
What a wonderful idea!My mom,grandmom and now myself ,will definitely use this!I now use a thin cotton South Indian towel onto of my pillows to reduce wear and tear!
Arati M. October 21, 2020
I know exactly the kind you speak of, Ranjini :)
jld529 May 19, 2020
i, too, use an "undercover" on my pillows, but my mom called them ticking. We always had down pillows and once a month she would prop them up on the window sill for an airing. I still do this and can attest to the freshness of the pillow afterwards. Try it.
elly May 19, 2020
Same here! Pillow protectors with zip, made from quilted or tightly woven fabric. And a breathable moisture proof mattress protector underneath a quilted fitted protector.
Paula V. May 19, 2020
I have always used pillow protectors. Plain white cotton ones with a zipper. I wash them with my laundry detergent ( I’m partial to Tide) a couple of scoops of baking soda and for the softener I highly recommend plain old white vinegar! I use this formula for all my laundry and my towels and sheets and pillows come out smelling fresh! No not like a salad! Hang your clothes out or put your pillow protectors in the dryer. But protect your pillows!
Claudia I. May 19, 2020
Mind. Blown. I also eschewed the annoying and unnecessary top sh*t several years ago. It changed my life. And now you're going to change it again! This is brilliant, and as soon as I send this off, into the breach I shall go making my pillows like new -- fresh and rejuvenated and protected!! Thank you so much, Arati.
Arati M. May 19, 2020
Woohoo! Welcome to the club.
Liliane May 10, 2020
Im a two pillow case girl. Old one under, new matching case on top!!!
What do you know!!! Your mom and I are on the same page. Cheers to your mom !!
Happy mothers day to you moms out there 💐
Mary-Denise S. May 10, 2020
My mom was born in 1920 (her mother in 1895). I was born in 1949. If you were born in 2005, you could be my granddaughter. My current top pillowcase is linen, with someone else's monogram on it. I love it, and look forward to warm weather when I can change out flannel sheets for linen!
Arati M. May 19, 2020
She will be thrilled to hear. She thinks it's pretty amusing that I now follow the same tips I used to laugh at!
Alice May 6, 2020
Just read your article. My mother always used 2 pillow cases. Then later in life went to all cotton pillow protectors. I’m now 72 and have been using all cotton pillow protectors for years. They definitely save your pillows, especially if you have all down.
Terry May 5, 2020
There are soft cotton, non-crinkly sounding, pillow protectors out there.
Arati M. May 6, 2020
Wow, I must’ve met all the wrong protectors ;) However I will say, I love the idea of reusing old, worm pillowcases as the covers.
Danielle May 11, 2020
Yes, except your worn out pillowcases won’t protect your pillow like a fresh pillow protector will. And you can buy cotton pillow protectors. Almost anywhere that sells linens.
diana. May 5, 2020
I'm curious, how do you clean your down pillows?
Yvonne May 19, 2020
I wash them in the laundry with powder, not liquid, detergent. Dry them with white tennis balls to ensure it fluffs up.
Mary-Denise S. May 5, 2020
My grandmother taught me to use two pillowcases, and also to "air" the bed for an hour or so after rising. The morning sun shines on the unmade sheets and they stay nicer between washings.
Arati M. May 6, 2020
Nothing like the curative powers of sunshine! My mother and grandmother do/did the same. I just moved to an apartment with no direct sunshine and I have to say, I really miss it cleansing the room!