How to Wash Your Pillows
Because pillowcases can only do so much to protect you from oil, sweat, and bacteria.
Mar 31st, 2023 •
How long has it been since you washed your pillows? Even if you’re on top of laundering your bedding, if you don’t include your pillows in your regular cleaning routine, you’re resting your head on a fluffy pile of bacteria and allergens.
Thankfully, most pillows can be easily washed. Read on to learn more about how to clean your pillows, what types of pillows need special care, and how to keep your pillows in good shape.
Is Washing My Pillow Important?
It’s easy to assume that using a pillowcase is all you need to keep your pillow clean. While this is a crucial step, small amounts of dead skin cells, makeup, drool (yours and your pet’s), oil, sweat, and more still make their way through your pillowcase to your pillow.
These small amounts build up over time, eventually creating a breeding ground for bacteria, odors, and allergens. If you want to foster a more hygienic sleep environment overall, you need to fight that buildup by washing your pillows regularly as part of the whole cleaning process.
How Should I Wash My Pillows?
The prospect of somehow ruining our pillows by washing them wrong makes many of us avoid the task altogether. Fortunately, it’s easy to get it right with some prepwork.
You should first look at the tag on your pillow to determine the best way to clean it. If you find a tag or if you already snipped it off after buying the pillow, most brand websites post detailed care instructions.
Depending on the materials in your pillow, you might be able to machine-wash and -dry it. On the other hand, the pillow might be more delicate and require air drying, spot cleaning, washing the cover only, dry cleaning, or not cleaning at all.
Many pillows are fine in the washing machine and don’t technically require any special care. However, even if the care tag on your pillow seems relatively straightforward, there are still some considerations to keep in mind:
- Balance out your washing machine: Once full of water, your light and fluffy pillows become quite heavy and can throw off the drum of your washing machine, which can damage your pillows or even the machine itself. To avoid this, wash two pillows at a time or make sure you include enough other laundry in the machine to offset the pillow’s weight.
- Use a small amount of gentle detergent: To avoid residue buildup, use less detergent than you think you need. More soap does not equate to a cleaner pillow.
- Wash on delicate cycle: Most pillows do best when you wash them in warm water on a gentle cycle.
- Pre-treat any stains: Just as you would with stains on clothing, pre-treat tough stains with a stain remover.
- Dry your pillow completely: The outside of your pillow will feel dry before the inside is free of moisture. Keep your pillow in the dryer for a couple of extra cycles to ensure you aren’t leaving water in your pillow, which could cause mildew to grow.
What Types of Pillows Require Special Care?
There’s a lot of innovation happening in the pillow world right now. As a result, there may be unique comfort materials in your pillow that neither you nor we know how to launder. That’s why it’s so important to read the tag, find instructions online, or reach out to the manufacturer if you’re unsure. The safest bet is always to follow their instructions.
However, if you know what materials your pillow contains, you’re probably safe to follow more general care instructions for that material. Below, we break down the steps for washing and drying common pillow types.
Down and Other Feather Pillows
Manufacturers differ in whether they recommend customers machine-wash and -dry, hand-wash, or dry clean down and feather pillows. However, most down pillows are safe to wash as long as you do so with care. To properly wash your down or feather pillow:
- Use a small amount of gentle detergent or one made specifically for down or feathers.
- Use warm or cool water. Do not use hot water. You can wash most down and feather pillows in low-temperature water.
- If possible, choose a delicate wash cycle and use additional rinse and spin cycles. This keeps the pillow from getting damaged while also getting out as much water as possible before drying.
You can dry down and feather pillows on a low cycle in the dryer or air dry them in a sunny spot. Gently press the excess water out of the pillow before drying. If you’re machine-drying, add tennis balls or dryer balls to the drum to help fluff the pillows as they dry. You may also want to stop the dryer periodically and manually break up any clumps you feel forming.
Remember that it might take a few cycles to dry your pillows thoroughly. Better an extra cycle than a mildewy pillow.
Memory Foam Pillows
Memory foam pillows come in two varieties: solid and shredded. Solid memory foam pillows should not be machine- or hand-washed. In fact, you should not submerge them in water at all. Instead, spot-cleaning is the best way to care for solid memory foam pillows.
To spot-clean a pillow:
- Wet the area with a damp cloth.
- Add a small amount of clear, gentle detergent to the cloth and carefully blot or rub the soiled area until clean.
- If detergent is insufficient, you can also treat the spot with a stain remover.
- Remove the detergent or stain remover with a clean, damp cloth.
- Place the pillow in a sunny spot or in front of a fan to speed up the drying process.
Some shredded memory foam pillows are machine-washable and -dryable, while others require hand-washing. When machine-washing and -drying your pillow, be sure to squeeze out excess water before putting it in the dryer since memory foam absorbs a lot of water. When air-drying, try to find a warm spot in the sun to evaporate the water quickly and avoid mildew growth.
If hand-washing your pillow:
- Fill a sink or bathtub with lukewarm water and gentle detergent.
- Submerge the pillow, squeezing it repeatedly to work water through the material.
- Drain the water and refill with clean water. Submerge again and squeeze the pillow repeatedly to rinse away the detergent.
- If necessary, you may repeat the step above until the water leaving the pillow is clear and free of suds.
- Empty the sink or bathtub and gently squeeze the pillow (do not wring it) to eliminate excess water.
- Air dry the pillow, ideally in a sunny spot or in front of a fan.
The frequency with which you need to wash throw pillows varies depending on how you use them. For example, if they’re solely decorative, you can wash them less frequently, but if you snuggle up with them on the couch when watching TV, you should wash them every three months.
As with other pillows, follow the instructions on the tag. Many throw pillows have a removable cover, so remove that and wash it separately. Treat the throw pillows like other pillows—if machine-washing, use warm water and a delicate cycle, and if hand-washing, follow the steps outlined above.
Are There Any Pillows That I Should Not Wash?
You can clean most pillows using one of the methods above, but certain types of filling require more care.
Buckwheat hulls make up the filling of these pillows. Unfortunately, soaking buckwheat hulls ruins them, so the insides of these pillows are not washable. Fortunately, you can still wash the outer shell of the pillow.
You will need a container, such as a large pillowcase or garbage bag, to hold the buckwheat hulls while you wash the cover according to the manufacturer’s guidelines. Make sure the pillow cover has dried completely before refilling it with your buckwheat hulls, as they soak up water, which destroys them and can lead to mold growth.
Kapok is a cotton-like fiber that grows in tropical climates—and it makes for a fantastic pillow filling that can last for many years. Unfortunately, it’s not washable. However, you can spot-clean your kapok pillow, or if it has a removable cover, follow the same steps as outlined above for buckwheat hulls.
Microbead pillows are actually machine-washable, but given the havoc they can wreak on your washing machine if even a tiny hole tears in the pillow casing, it’s a good idea to treat them with a bit more care. Use a pillowcase that is long enough to tie at the end and encase the pillow in it before washing.
Is There Any Way to Prolong My Pillow’s Lifespan?
If you’re invested enough in your pillows to read an article about properly washing them, chances are you’d like to keep them around for as long as possible. While most pillows need replacing every one to two years, you can extend your pillow’s lifespan through proper care. Here are some tips:
- Use a pillow protector: Beyond using a pillowcase (which is an absolute must), a pillow protector can keep some of your skin’s oils, sweat, and makeup from seeping through and getting on your pillow. If you absolutely hate washing your pillows, this is also a good way to give yourself a little bit longer between washes.
- Wash your pillows: Okay, you probably know that we recommend this by now, but we have to reiterate that keeping your pillow clean is important when it comes to prolonging the pillow’s lifespan.
- Change your pillowcase weekly: For your own personal health, you need to change your pillowcase at least weekly to keep the buildup of skin cells, oil, makeup, and dirt at bay. But this also helps prolong your pillow’s lifespan, as it keeps your pillow cleaner.
All that said, pillows are a part of our bedding that need to be replaced pretty often. While some specialty pillows can have longer lifespans if cared for properly, most pillows lose some of their loft and supportiveness over time. If you’re looking for a new high-quality pillow, check out our guide to the best pillows of 2023.
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