How to Wash Pillows

Last updated: September 28, 2019

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Whether you sleep on a warm feather or special cooling pillow, if it’s got yellow stains and smells bad, it’s high time you cleaned it. These things appear because while you sleep, your pillow collects moist from the sweat, oil, drool, and dead skin cells. Dust mites feed on them and as they multiply, they also leave more and more excrement. You can beat, vacuum, and fluff the pillow for a bit for more coziness but for full cleansing, you’ll need to wash it.

But is the washer safe for all pillows like down and memory foam pillows? Are there any other ways to wash the pillow and keep it clean? Read on for all the info you need, whatever type of pillow you have.

The first thing you should do prior to cleaning your pillow is to check the label and see if it is machine-washable and at what temperature. Most cotton, synthetic, and feather pillows are washable in the machine but you may have one that isn’t. If you put such a pillow in the machine or dryer, you may seriously damage it. The same goes for traveler’s pillows, throw pillows, and cushions.

Machine washing for cotton, synthetic and feather (down) pillows 

  • Use a machine without an agitator to ensure your pillow remains the same undamaged shape. This doesn’t mean you must avoid the agitator at all costs but it’s much safer without it. 
  • Remove the case and inspect the pillow for weak seams or holes before you put the pillow into the machine. You don’t want it to fall apart while washing. Wash the case with other bed linen separately
  • Put two (or more) pillows at a time. This way, the machine will be less noisy and won’t jump around too much
  • Set the machine for the extra-large load and wash on a gentle cycle. The temperature should be low but check the label for the exact recommendation.
  • Put the pillows in the dryer after washing. Adjust to low heat for synthetic and cotton pillows. For down pillows, choose an “air” setting with no heat.
  • Depending on the size, the pillow may take up to 6 hours to dry. Take it out every 45-50 minutes to fluff it and then put it back in. You can decrease the drying time if you put two tennis balls in the dryer. Just make sure they are in separate clean socks.
  • Check the pillows for moisture by smelling and pressing them. If you feel they are completely dry, you can stop the drying process. Otherwise, put them back for more tumbling.
  • Once the pillows are dry, take them out but don’t put them in the case or under the sheets right away. Just in case there’s any more moisture, fluff the pillow and leave it out of the case and uncovered (ideally in the sunlight) for a couple of hours so the moisture can evaporate. Fluff again to make it like new.

Hand washing for memory foam, cotton, synthetic and feather (down) pillows

Memory foam pillows, beaded, and decorative pillows must be washed by hand. You can also hand-wash other types of pillows if you desire so. Follow these steps to ensure proper pillow cleaning.

  • Take the case and/or protective cover off and put them in the dirty laundry. You should wash them in a washing machine at a high temperature.
  • Fill a tub or other container large enough with warm water. Don’t fill it all the way to the top because the pillow will take some of the space and you don’t want to lose the soapy water coming out of it.
  • Add one tablespoon of mild detergent for small pillows and more for bigger ones. Stir the water until it becomes bubbly.
  • Put the pillow in the water. Press and squeeze it in and then pull its sides as if to restore its shape. This will help get the dirt out. Massage the surface of the pillow to get rid of stains
  • Take the pillow out of the soapy water and drain it as much as possible. Pour the water out and rinse the tub
  • Rinse the pillow really well. As you put it under the running water, squeeze it again. It may seem like it takes too long to rinse it but make sure the water that comes out of the pillow is free from soapy bubbles. A poorly rinsed pillow will have a stronger detergent smell and may cause eye or skin irritation.
  • Put the pillow on a clean towel and in the sun to dry or, unless it’s a memory foam pillow, you can put it in the dryer. Every now and then check the pillow to see if it is thoroughly dry. It’s better to have it dry longer than necessary than the other way round. Moist pillows can cause mold and mildew to grow on them, your bed, or bedding.

Cleaning non-washable pillows

Some manufacturers do not recommend soaking pillows at all – instead, they say you should “spot clean only”. In this case, you can only clean stained parts of its surface with a damp cloth. Another way to freshen them up is to vacuum them.

Vacuuming can extract some of the odors and moisture from the pillow. This leaves it refreshed. Make sure you use a vacuum with low suction.

If you have to spot clean stains from your pillow, try using a paste using baking soda and water. Put the paste onto the pillow and leave it in the sunlight or a well-ventilated area. The next day, shake the baking soda off and vacuum the pillow to take the excess out. For persistent stains, use some vinegar or bleach and clean the spot with an old toothbrush.

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For pillows with an unpleasant smell, make water and vinegar solution and spray it over the pillow. After a couple of minutes, dry it with a towel and then leave the pillow in the sun.

Extra tips for keeping your pillows clean

You can avoid having your pillow get dirty too soon and keep it as good as new if you take care of it regularly. We gathered these tips to help you:

  • Leave your pillow in the sunlight every once in a while. The sun kills dust mites from our beddings and pillows. Its warmth extracts moisture accumulated in the pillow. Moisture is one of the reasons your pillow becomes flatter the longer you use it. Another reason could be poor quality, especially if it’s made of polyester.
  • Avoid fabric softener. If you have sensitive skin or eyes, it may be irritating. The bigger problem is that fabric softeners can mask bad smells so you may have a feeling that you’re sleeping on a clean pillow when the opposite could be the case.
  • Use baking soda with lemon juice to fight the yellow stains. You can make a paste and rub it on the pillow prior to washing or you may start by adding a cup of baking soda to the washer – this way you avoid using extra chemicals. If it doesn’t work, you can try with small amounts of bleach.
  • Use pillow protectors with zippers. They keep the pillow safe from oil, sweat, and odors.
  • Wash the pillowcase regularly. A dirty pillowcase will easily transfer dirt onto the pillow. You keep the pillow clean by washing the case often.
  • Go to bed clean. Wash your face or take a shower in the evening. Not only will a shower keep your pillow clean, but it will also help you sleep better and get more deep, restorative sleep.

How often should I wash my pillows?

There isn’t an exact period of time but you may wash your pillow somewhere between three and six months. You can wash it sooner if the stains and odors appear or scarcer if it appears clean for a long time.

You don’t have to wash pillows that you don’t use for sleeping often. However, if a pillow has been in your closet for years, you should probably wash it before using it again.

When should I buy a new pillow?

A high-quality pillow can last for many years whereas poor-quality ones need to be replaced after a few months. This is how you’ll know you need a new pillow:

  • The pillow is lumped and uneven, making it hard to sleep on
  • You’re waking up with pain and tension in the neck and shoulder area (Some pillows that are good for other people may cause painful sleep to you in which case you’re using a wrong pillow. However, if you were sleeping well for some time and started having these problems suddenly, your pillow may be too old)
  • You have to fluff your pillow all the time to make the pillow usable
  • There are strong stains and odors that cannot be washed
  • You wake up sneezing or your eyes are irritated (these are caused by dust mites)

Additional resources

  1. How to Wash a Pillow to Keep It Smelling Fresh https://www.consumerreports.org/pillows/how-to-wash-a-pillow/
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