Some people go years without washing their pillows—is it just gross, or actually bad for your health?

By Claire Gillespie
September 28, 2020
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The average person doesn’t change their bedsheets as often as you might think. According to a Mattress Advisor survey of 1,000 men and women, most people change the sheets every 24.4 days. That means they’re sleeping in the same sheets for about three and a half weeks, which is a bit gross when you think about it.

And that’s just the sheets. Pillows get the hygiene treatment even less often. In some cases, people go years without washing their pillows—and if you’re wondering what they look like, a viral TikTok video spares no (dirty) detail.

A woman claims her boyfriend refused to replace his pillows and hadn’t washed them once in 10 years. So she decided to do it for him. First, she put them in the bath with a mixture of borax, bleach, and dishwasher tablets. Lots of prodding with a metal stick followed, then she put them through a washing machine cycle. And even though they were stained brown before she started, they came out looking very clean—much to her satisfaction.

“He probably won’t notice,” she wrote on the video. “But I can sleep better knowing those nasty pillows are clean.”

The video has had more than 1.7 million views and sparked great debate about pillow-washing. “They are meant to be replaced every two years… they come with expiry dates on them…” wrote one viewer. Another stated the obvious, writing, “10 years of sweat, dead skin, dirt, oil and bacteria.” Incidentally, there were several comments on the guilty party, such as “I would replace the boyfriend. Hygiene is everything.”

Anna Harasim, founder of Anna’s Cleaning Service in NYC, says pillows should be washed at least once a year (in other words, 10 times as often as this guy does it). But soaking them in the bath then tossing them into the washing machine might not be the best method. Pillows are available with various types of filler, including memory foam, gel, synthetic filler, down, and feathers, and each type is best washed in a particular way.

How to wash memory foam and gel pillows

Memory foam and gel pillows shouldn’t be washed in the machine, Harasim says. “They might get too heavy when they’re soaked and damage the washer,” she tells Health. Instead, wash the removable covers in the washer and get rid of dust by carefully vacuuming the pillows on low pressure with an upholstery nozzle. You can also put foam pillows in the dryer on a heat-free cycle for about 20 minutes, or spot clean them with a soapy cloth.

How to wash synthetic filler pillows

Generally, pillows with synthetic filler can go in the washer, but only on a delicate cycle, Harasim says. It’s best to not put more than two pillows in the washer at one time, and if you have a top-loading washer, insert them vertically. To stop the filler from clumping, dry the pillows in the dryer (on low heat) with some clean tennis balls. If you take them out a few times during the dry cycle and fluff them up by hand, you won’t end up with any hard lumps.

How to wash feather and down pillows

Harasim’s best advice is to wash feather and down pillows very carefully. “Check the fabric for any tears first,” she says. “If any feathers are getting out, it’s best not to wash the pillow in the washer.” If there aren’t any openings, it’s safe to throw your feather and down pillows in the washer. But stick to no more than two pillows at a time, and use only a small amount of detergent. Use the delicate cycle, and rinse them a second time after the first cycle. And you can use the tennis-balls-in-the-dryer trick for feather and down pillows too.

Don’t be tempted to wash your feather and down pillows more than once a year, because too frequent washing makes them deteriorate quicker. (If this type of bedding is properly maintained, it should last for several years, Harasim says.) But if you do want to wash feather and down pillows more often, Harasim recommends putting the feathers in a separate bag and washing the coating on its own.

No type of pillow should be subjected to crushing, twisting, or any type of mechanical stress, Harasim adds. She recommends disabling spinning on your washer or, as a last resort, reducing it to 400 revolutions. “All pillows should be washed as carefully as possible,” she says.

What about hand washing pillows? 

If you want to hand wash your pillow, remove the pillowcase (that can go in the washer) and fill a sink or large bowl with enough warm water to submerge the pillow completely. Harasim recommends using liquid clothes detergent for delicate items or a cleanser made specifically for the type of filler in your pillows. Mix it around in the water to make sure it’s evenly spread. “You can add a tablespoon of ammonia in the water for stain removal, but avoid aggressive chemicals, which can disrupt the structure of the material,” she says. Massage and squeeze the pillow gently to get rid of all dirt, then rinse thoroughly with fresh water. At this stage, Harasim suggests adding a few drops of essential oil, such as lavender, orange, or eucalyptus, to help repel insects.

Is an unwashed pillow a health concern? 

While washing your pillowcases regularly gets rid of a lot of the oil, sweat, and dead skin cells that accumulates (yes, from your face), the actual pillow carries a significant amount of skin debris as well, Jeffrey Fromowitz, MD, a dermatologist in Boca Raton, Florida, tells Health. Another big concern: dust mites on your pillow, which can trigger allergic reactions, discomfort, and itching.

Beyond that, an unwashed pillow probably won’t cause any major health issues, except for preventing you from getting a good night's rest, Nelman Low, MD, an otolaryngologist (head and neck specialist) in Torrance, California, tells Health. “Sleeping with a clean pillow is just good sense,” Dr. Low says. “A supportive, clean pillow can make sleeping much easier.” 

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