Got Allergies? You Definitely Should Wash Your Pillow Way More Often—Here’s the Best Way To Do It

High angle shot of a beautiful young woman sleeping in her bed at home during the night
Is there any better feeling in the world than slipping into a bed with freshly laundered sheets? Okay, probably yes, but the fact remains that having clean sheets is one of those "adulting" things that is honestly quite nice. Ideally, you're changing your sheets once a week for the benefit of your skin and allergies. But surprise surprise: learning how to wash pillows properly is just as important as washing your bedding and blankets.

Why? Well, your pillows, like your sheets, are secretly kind of nasty. "Anything that happens to be absorbent or porous is always going to have more bacteria,” says Jason Tetro, a microbiologist and author of The Germ Files. And while you're spending all that time sleeping on you're pillows, you're also sweating, producing oil, and shedding skin cells. Allergy-inducing dust mites1, the microscopic pests that feed on these dead skin cells, can accumulate in your bedding—and, most notably, your pillows, says Deirdre Hooper, MD, board-certified dermatologist at Audubon Dermatology in New Orleans. Dust mites also love humid environments2, so introducing moisture into the mix—through sweating, drooling, or even sleeping with wet hair—can further entice the critters to multiply in your pillow.

Experts In This Article

"Your pillow can certainly harbor dust mites, and they grow better in warm weather," says Dr. Hooper. "If you're having trouble with allergies or sneezing, it certainly could be dust mites you're breathing in through your pillow." (Cue a horrified shudder.)

If general pillow care and maintenance is uncharted territory for you, fear not. Read ahead for expert intel on how to wash pillows and say "goodnight" to germs in the process.

How often should I wash my pillows?

You should wash your pillows at least every six months to keep them hygienic, says Nathan Brown, PhD, microbiologist, co-founder, and chief science officer at Parallel Health. Tetro is even more stringent, recommending that you wash pillows once a season (so, every three months) to keep them fresh, clean, and fluffy. (If you have allergies, you'll likely want to err on the side of washing your pillows more often.)

If you find it challenging to wash your pillows so frequently (or your pillow is made of a material that is difficult to wash), Tetro suggests investing in a water-repelling pillow cover to preserve your clean pillows. These covers go on top of the pillow and underneath your pillowcase, keeping water and outside bacteria at bay.

“All kinds of bacteria, viruses, mites, fungi, grime, and allergens stick to our pillows." —Nathan Brown, PhD, co-founder and chief science officer, Parallel Health

It's not just your pillows, either. You can encounter bacteria and allergy-inducing dust mites from your pillowcase, too.  While most of the germs that rub off from us onto our pillowcases are generally harmless, Dr. Brown and Tetro say that some harmful, antibiotic-resistant types of bacteria can be transmitted to the fabric through contact. “If we don’t wash our pillowcases often enough, then the skin oils, grime, and microbes that collect in the fabric can—if they’re infectious—reinfect us,” says Dr. Brown.

That's why both Dr. Brown and Tetro suggest washing your pillowcases every week, especially if you’re currently battling a skin infection or have a skin disorder like eczema, rosacea, or severe acne. “Even when your skin is healthy,” says Dr. Brown, “excess commensal microbes on your pillowcase may be irritating to your skin.”

Can you wash pillows in the washing machine?

Good news: Many different kinds of pillows can be washed in the washing machine. Your standard down alternative pillow can likely stand a washing machine cycle. That said, certain types of pillows are too delicate to be tossed in. For example,“if your pillow is made out of foam, it cannot go into the washer,” says Marla Mock, president of Molly Maid, a Neighborly company.

Before you wash your pillow, always check the care label instructions and follow the brand's recommended laundry instructions. In general, you can typically clean synthetic, down-alternative, and feather pillows in the washing machine. However, memory foam, latex, buckwheat, and decorative pillows cannot be machine washed. You'll have to hand wash or spot treat those instead (but don't worry, we've got instructions for you later).

How to wash pillows in the washing machine

1. Check the care label on the pillow

Mock says you should always, always, always check the laundry care label on your pillows before washing them! Laundry care labels contain specific instructions and recommendations from the manufacturer on how to wash pillows and dry them without ruining their texture or weakening the fabric shell of the pillow.

2. Take off the pillowcase or protector

Remove the pillowcase from the pillow and wash it separately. The care instructions for your sheets and pillows are likely different, so they’ll need to be handled as such.

3. Load the washer

If possible, wash your pillows two at a time, says Mock. This will help keep the washer balanced, preventing their filling from clumping up. “To keep your pillows from getting damaged, place them in the washer vertically and use a mild, liquid detergent,” says Mock. And keep the load pillows-only. “The biggest mistake is throwing your pillow in with a small load of laundry,” says Mock. “That can cause your pillow to lump and damage more quickly in the wash.”

4. Use a gentle cycle

To ensure your pillow will last the test of time, choose the "gentle" or "delicate" cycle. Other cycles use faster, more frequent tumbling motions, which could break up the fabric of your pillows.

Add the recommended amount of detergent to the machine—you definitely won’t need the amount you use for a full load of soiled clothing. Much of a pillow’s volume is thanks to air, meaning the actual amount of fabric that needs to be cleaned is less than you’d expect.

5. Run it through an extra rinse cycle with white vinegar

To make sure all the detergent is gone, run the pillows through an extra rinse cycle. Add half a cup or so of white vinegar to the load before running the extra rinse cycle if you're looking for extra disinfecting power. The acetic acid found in vinegar can kill certain types of bacteria3, but unlike bleach, it won’t weaken the fibers of the pillow.

6. Dry the pillows

If the care label says they are dryer safe, move the pillows to your dryer and run them through a no- or low-heat dryer cycle. In order to make sure the pillows dry evenly, stop the dryer every 15 minutes or so, taking the pillows out and giving them a good fluff.

Becky Rapinchuk, cleaning expert and author of Clean Mama’s Guide to a Healthy Home, also recommends tossing in some wool dryer balls to fluff the pillows and keep them moving in the machine. “It will help to return those fibers to their natural fluffy state,” she says. A clean tennis ball works too, though Rapinchuk notes these can be loud and there’s a chance the green or yellow dye could transfer, depending on the type of ball you use. To avoid any dye transfer from tennis balls, put them in a white sock and tie them off.

“If the tag on your pillow says it is not safe for the dryer, we recommend wrapping the wet pillow in a towel to absorb moisture, and then letting it air dry,” says Mock. Place it outdoors in a clean, open area that’s exposed to direct sunlight (weather permitting, of course). “The sun is going to help bleach out any residual stains, and assuming it’s warm it’ll make sure everything is dry on the inside,” adds Rapinchuk. (Don’t do this if you can’t find a clean spot to put your pillows or if it’s humid.)

7. Check for dryness before using

Before putting your pillow back in its pillowcase, make sure it’s completely dry inside and out. Give it a few squeezes to see if there’s any lingering moisture in the filling—if there is, throw the pillow in for another dryer cycle with the same settings, or place it back outside to fully air dry.

How to hand wash pillows

As mentioned earlier, certain pillows are not meant to go in the washing machine. If your pillow is made of memory foam, latex, buckwheat, or is a more delicate decorative pillow, you'll have to find other means to clean it.

If your non-machine-washable pillow just needs to be spruced up a bit, sprinkle some baking soda across the surface, letting it sit for a few minutes before vacuuming it off. Mock says this method is great way to freshen up bedroom pillows and get rid of any lingering odors. You can also lightly mist it with a few tablespoons of vodka to kill bacteria, then let it air dry, says Rapinchuk.

If your delicate pillow needs a full clean, Mock recommends hand washing it. Here's her step-by-step method:

1. Fill up a clean sink or bathtub with warm water

Make sure there isn't any debris leftover in your sink or bathtub, then fill it with enough warm water to fully submerge your pillow. Mix in a few drops of detergent. (Check the care label on your pillow to see if there are any particular recommendations.)

2. Soak your pillow

Submerge the pillow in the warm water for 10 minutes so that it's fully soaked.

3. Massage it

Massage your pillow gently, squeezing water in and out and making sure it gets nice and lathered up.

4. Rinse your pillow

Once it's good and soaked, rinse your pillow with warm water. Wring out the excess water and residue by hand.

5. Air dry

Lightly pat the pillow dry with a clean towel. Then let it fully air dry in the sun or another warm spot. Make sure the pillow is totally dry before using it.

How do you get the yellow out of pillows?

To get the yellow stains out of your pillows (which come from the minerals in your sweat), you'll want to pre-treat them before washing. Rapinchuk recommends using a concentrated laundry spray or an oxygen cleaner to attack yellow stains or anything else staining your pillow. “[Oxygen cleaner] has sodium percarbonate in it, which is dried hydrogen peroxide, and it gives a bit of that bleaching action you want without using actual bleach,” she says.

Spray the stained areas and let sit for 15 minutes before cleaning, then add oxygen cleaner to the load when washing (or to the tub if you're hand washing).

Want to prevent yellow staining? Rapinchuk recommends investing in a pillow protector. These act as a protective sleeve, which zips shut over your pillow (but underneath pillowcase) to provide an extra buffer against sweat, drool, and more. Rapinchuk washes hers every other week and tosses it right into the washer and dryer with her other bedding.

How do you deep clean pillows?

Washing your pillows thoroughly with a mild detergent and a disinfectant like white vinegar is the only way to fully remove germs and allergens from your pillows. “All kinds of bacteria, viruses, mites, fungi, grime, and allergens stick to our pillows,” explains Dr. Brown, and because of the pillow’s porous nature, they can live deep below the fabric lining.

When should you replace a pillow?

Rapinchuk has a helpful test to know when it’s time to bid your pillow adieu: Holding the pillow from one of the short ends, bend it in half, then release it. If your pillow bounces back, the structure is still springy and cushioned enough to provide support. If it stays bent and feels heavy or lumpy, it's probably time to replace it. “When you don’t have a little bit of a bounce back, it’s probably seen better days,” she says.

Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.
  1. Siebers, R et al. “Permeability of synthetic and feather pillows to live house dust mites and house dust.” Clinical and experimental allergy : journal of the British Society for Allergy and Clinical Immunology vol. 34,6 (2004): 888-90. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2222.2004.01972.x
  2. Arlian, L G et al. “Reducing relative humidity is a practical way to control dust mites and their allergens in homes in temperate climates.” The Journal of allergy and clinical immunology vol. 107,1 (2001): 99-104. doi:10.1067/mai.2001.112119
  3. Cortesia, Claudia et al. “Acetic Acid, the active component of vinegar, is an effective tuberculocidal disinfectant.” mBio vol. 5,2 e00013-14. 25 Feb. 2014, doi:10.1128/mBio.00013-14

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