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Drop What You're Doing & Go Wash Your Pillows Immediately

Emma Loewe
October 12, 2019
Emma Loewe
mbg Sustainability + Health Director
By Emma Loewe
mbg Sustainability + Health Director
Emma Loewe is the Senior Sustainability Editor at mindbodygreen and the author of "Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us."
Image by Sophia Hsin / Stocksy
October 12, 2019
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Washing pillows may not be the most glamorous of household chores, but it's something we should all probably be doing more often.

"If you think about the life of a pillow (and I would rather not), it does absorb sweat, dust, dust mites, hair oil...I could go on, but I won't," says Christina Strutt, a former Vogue Living editor who has written about nontoxic cleaning in her book A Guide to Natural Housekeeping and lifestyle website Cabbages & Roses. Sloughed skin cells and bacteria from saliva are two more nasties that could be added to the list, and Marilee Nelson, the co-founder of nontoxic cleaning line Branch Basics says that exposure to them could disrupt sleep and exacerbate allergies.

Here's a primer on how to wash your pillows so they're a portal to sweet dreams, not allergy-induced nightmares.

First things first: How often should you be washing your pillows?

As is the case with bedsheets, you should be washing your pillowcases once a week. You can get away with washing your actual pillows every three to six months, Nelson says, as long as you have a dust mite barrier protector under your pillowcases to keep out mites, bedbugs, and all the other critters you don't want anywhere near your head. Make sure your barrier has a zipper and stays fully closed, always.

How to clean them with a washing machine.

First things first, you should check the pillow's tag to see if it has any special care instructions. (Organic cotton and latex pillows, for example, are finicky when it comes to washing.) If your pillow is machine washable, here's Nelson's formula for a deep clean:

  1. Wash on a gentle cycle with nontoxic liquid laundry cleaner like Branch Basics and a cup or two of vinegar. (This guide will give you an overview of what to avoid in detergents. Namely: chlorine bleach and sodium borate.)
  2. Use a low-heat setting for synthetic pillows and no-heat setting for feather or down pillows.
  3. Be sure to wash at least two pillows at a time, so they don't get knocked around too much.
  4. Run pillows through a second wash cycle with only water to make sure all soap is removed.
  5. If you have them, you can throw in a few wool dryer balls in with the pillows to speed up drying time and keep the materials from clumping. 
  6. When they're ready, you can leave your pillows outside to air dry in the sun for a deeper refresh (but not if they're latex...more on that later).

How to clean pillows by hand.

If you don't have a laundry machine at your disposal, you can go through a similar process in the bathtub. Fill your tub with water and add your detergent and vinegar (Strutt also likes to throw in a scoop of baking soda for its deodorizing properties), massage your pillows underwater for a few minutes, and then wring them out to dry. You can run fresh water over them to make sure all the soap is out, and then place them flat outside to dry. It's super important that they are totally dry before you bring them back into bed, or else they could get moldy.

More best practices for keeping your pillows spick-and-span.

In between washings, you can give your pillows a quick refresh by putting them in the dryer on low heat with your dryer balls. (Pro tip: Adding a few drops of essential oils to your dryer balls will make your pillows smell like heaven.) You can also just put your pillow out in the sun—but not if it's latex. "Never put raw latex in the direct sun," cautions Nelson. "It will yellow and disintegrate quickly and will exacerbate the latex smell." If your latex pillow is covered in a cotton or wool pillowcase, though, it should be OK.

How often should I be replacing my pillows?

"Typically pillows should be replaced every one to two years depending on the material," Nelson says, adding that you should write the date of purchase on your pillow's tag so you remember when the time has come to replace it. Lumps and lingering odors are signs that it's time for a new one—as are stiff necks, headaches, and sneezes upon waking. This is the longest Nelson recommends keeping every type of pillow:

  • Latex pillows: 2 to 3 years
  • Down pillows: 2 years
  • Feather pillows: 12 to 36 months
  • Synthetic down pillows: 18 to 24 months
  • Polyester pillows: 6 to 24 months

If you're in the market for a new pillow, here are a few high-rated, organic options to check out:

Emma Loewe author page.
Emma Loewe
mbg Sustainability + Health Director

Emma Loewe is the Sustainability and Health Director at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.

Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 mbg articles on topics from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping, her work has appeared on Grist, Bloomberg News, Bustle, and Forbes. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.