How to Clean Your Pillows

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on April 08, 2022
4 min read

Pillows are very intimate items that we use daily. Most have a common design that consists of a case of fabric filled with microfibers, feathers, or some type of stuffing. Pillows with microfiber fillings are the most common type used in the US and China. The constant closeness of pillows to your face makes cleaning them essential. Clean pillows are important due to their continued close contact with human airways and the potential for germs on the cover and inside. 

Pillows carry many germs or human respiratory pathogens. Respiratory pathogens are not only present on the cover but can seep through fabrics and seams and into the filling material. Common pathogens found on sleeping surfaces include bacteria, fungi, and adenoviruses

Due to the large number of filling materials inside a pillow, usual disinfecting methods like spraying with Lysol may not be effective. Pillows should be cleaned often to prevent accumulation of odors and bacteria. Special attention should be paid to pillows with certain types of filling, such as feathers or memory foam.

If your pillow can be washed, it should be washed at least twice a year. If you eat in bed, have pets, or sweat a lot, you should wash pillows quarterly. Special pillows like body pillows or throw pillows should be cleaned every 3 to 6 months. This is dependent on how, where, and how often they are used.

Cleaning a pillow isn’t hard, but it's important to determine the best cleaning method. This is especially true when using a washing machine. Read the label directions. If the pillows are safe to wash in a machine, consider washing them in pairs — they can get to be heavy, and washing two at a time can balance the weight. If your pillow has a wet stain, pretreat it with a stain cleaner before washing.

Most pillows can be washed with warm water and mild detergent on the gentle cycle. Place pillows in two at a time. Add half as much detergent as you would normally use for a regular load. Soap may be difficult to rinse out of some filling types. After the wash cycle is finished, run an extra rinse cycle. If your machine has an extended spin cycle, use this to get as much water out as possible. 

Depending on fill type, there may be certain precautions needed for machine washing. 

  • Down feather — down feather pillows can be placed in the washing machine. Cool water should be used because high temperatures can damage the down.
  • Polyester — polyester should be washed with less detergent. One tablespoon on the gentle cycle with warm water should be enough. 
  • Latex or memory foam — agitation can break up the foam, so these pillows may be better suited to hand washing. 
  • Buckwheat hulls — the hulls should be emptied onto a large cookie sheet or bowl and set in the sun to eliminate odors. The casings can be washed with mild detergent and cold water.  

Pillows should be given daily fluffing to remove dust and retain shape. Every month or so, they should be hung outdoors on a bright sunny day.  They can be rotated or flipped every hour or two to expose all surfaces to fresh air. The air helps to remove odors.

Some pillows cannot be machine washed. They require specific types of care. The label should give laundering directions. If they're spot clean only, you should clean spots and stains on the surface but not immerse the whole pillow. If they're hand wash only, they generally can be placed in water, but they should be gently cleaned by hand rather than in the machine. Pillows that require dry cleaning should only be cleaned by a professional because water may cause damage. 

A pillow must be dried completely. If not, it can get mildew. When drying, you can squeeze water out of your pillow, but be careful not to wring it out, which can warp its shape. After removing the pillow from its wash source, fluff it up a bit and remove any clumps.

If the weather is warm, most pillows can be hung on a clothesline until all the way dry. Regardless of how you dry your pillows, check for moisture inside them when they are cool.

Some pillows can be put in the dryer, depending on their filling. When drying down feather pillows, use the dryer on a no-heat air-dry setting. You can add dryer balls or tennis balls to the dryer to separate clumps. 

Most pillows can be dried for an hour on moderate heat. Adding dry towels can help to speed things up. When possible, use the lowest heat settings and add tennis balls to keep your pillows fluffy. Partially through the cycle, open the dryer, fluff the pillows, and put them back in. After a complete dryer cycle, let the pillows finish cooling down. If they still feel wet after cooling, run them again. Don't worry about the auto dry sensor on your dryer. The sensor will only detect moisture on the surface, not dampness on the inside.

When the pillows are removed from the dryer, if they are still damp, they also can be placed on a clothesline. Wait an hour or so after drying to store pillows from the dryer. This gives enough time for the pillows to cool down, so you can see if they are dry or damp. 

Keeping pillows clean is the way to make them last as long as possible. But even well-maintained pillows will need to be replaced. Most pillows should be replaced every 1 to 2 years. More expensive and better-quality pillows may need to be replaced every 5 years.