How to Wash Pillows (Without Hauling Them to the Dry Cleaners)

Sure, you wash your pillowcases regularly, but when is the last time you washed your actual pillows? It may seem unnecessary, until you consider this: Pillows (with a little help from your sweaty head) provide a warm and humid environment that’s ideal for dust mites, fungi and bacteria, which can cause flareups ranging from acne to allergies. It’s gross, but there’s no need to lose sleep over it: We spoke to Patric Richardson, “Laundry Evangelist” and author of the audiobook Laundry Love, for the full scoop on how to wash pillows and keep bacteria at bay (read: out of your bed).

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How To Wash Pillows

The care label on your pillows might say ‘dry clean’ only, but don’t believe everything you read, friends (unless you’re reading it here, of course). Good news: You can absolutely take a hard pass on the huge dry cleaning bill, because washing your pillows at home is a piece of cake—once you know what’s in them, that is. According to Richardson, the vast majority of pillows—whether they’re down, down alternative or foam—can be washed in the same fashion. (Spoiler: It’s the drying part that requires a different approach, depending on the fill material.)

Here's what you need to do:

  1. Make sure your washing machine’s capacity can handle the size of your pillow—and keep in mind that you might need to add additional laundry (or a second pillow) if you have a top-loading machine, so that when your bulky pillow starts throwing its weight around, your machine doesn’t get thrown out of balance.
  2. Toss them into the washing machine with a tiny bit of soap (not detergent) and [select a] warm water express wash,” Richardson says.

How to Dry Pillows

So, how do you get those soggy suckers bone-dry and fluffy before you rest your head?

  • For down and down alternative pillows, Richardson says you can send them straight into the dryer on either the air fluff setting, or the ‘no heat’ setting if your dryer doesn’t have an air fluff option. Just be sure to add some tennis balls to the mix so that your pillows are nice and lofty when they emerge.
  • When it comes to foam pillows, though, the laundry pro says it’s a two-step process: Start by hanging your foam pillows to dry. Once that’s done, send them into the dryer along with a few tennis balls for a quick, ten-minute tumble on the air fluff or no heat setting.

How to Hand Wash Pillows

When we asked Richardon if he has a tried-and-true method for hand washing pillows, his answer was blunt: “Don’t fool with hand washing.” Submerging the pillow in soapy water and trying to clean—and wring it dry—yourself can be an exercise in frustration, and it’s not worth the effort.

How to Spot-Treat Pillows

Maybe your glass of red wine sloshed a little, or perhaps breakfast in bed got a bit messy. Good news: You can skip the washing machine entirely, provided you follow the expert’s advice on spot treating pillows. “The trick is [to] put the soap on your towel and then spot onto the pillow,” the pro says. “Then, take a wet towel of warm water and ‘rinse’ the pillow” to remove soapy residue. As for drying the spot-treated area, you should “always start at the middle and rub out to the sides.”

How often you should wash pillows

Washing pillows doesn’t need to be a super regular part of your laundry regimen. Still, pillows should be washed two to four times per year (think: every time the season changes)—any less and you’ll have fungus for a bedfellow (ew).

When to replace your pillows

No matter how good you are about cleaning ‘em, pillows still need to be replaced eventually. There’s no hard-and-fast rule when it comes to how often you should purchase new pillows, but some indications to look out for include lumpiness, as well as loss of loft and body (i.e., your pillow needs frequent fluffing just to hold the weight of your head, and when you fold it, it stays that way).

How to Keep Pillows Clean

The number one thing you can do to keep pillows fresh and full of life for as long as possible is to invest in some high-quality pillow protectors that can be removed and regularly laundered, along with pillow cases. Pillow protectors provide an extra layer of defense against sweat (i.e., the main reason that your pillow is paradise to fungi and bacteria) and they also do a bang-up job of sealing in allergens, like dust mites and their droppings.

Wait—what about the rest of your bedding?

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Now that you know the truth about your dirty pillows (yes, they are indeed horror movie material), you might be giving the rest of your bedding the side-eye, too—and you’re not wrong. Unfortunately, and for all the same reasons, comforters and bed sheets get pretty gross as well. The good news is that this primer on pillow-washing should leave you pretty well-equipped to clean the rest of your bedding, but here are some cleaning basics to keep in mind.

Washing Your Comforter

You can take a deep dive into comforter cleaning here, but the gist of it is this: If you protect your comforter with a duvet cover, it only needs to be washed every six months—and the process for washing it, whether the filling is down or down alternative, is the same as described above for pillows. (I.e., a big enough washing machine, warm water, a minimal amount of very gentle soap, and very thorough drying—potentially multiple cycles—without heat.) Of course, comforters that are used without a duvet cover, and are thus in direct contact with your body when you sleep, will require considerably more frequent washing. Another piece of advice that might sound familiar: To boost the fluff factor, definitely add tennis balls when drying your comforter.

Washing Your Sheets

Hopefully, we don’t need to tell you how to wash your sheets—but you might be wondering how often you ought to do it. Well, friends, the experts say your sheets are akin to clothing, which makes sense since you spend roughly 8 hours a day sweating all over them. No, you don’t have to change your sheets every day as you would a t-shirt, but it’s wise to wash them every 7 days, at least. As for the washing process, just follow the care instructions—but keep in mind that, when it comes to banishing bacteria and the like, it’s a good idea to wash and dry with as much heat as the fabric can tolerate.

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Freelance PureWow Editor

Emma Singer is a freelance contributing editor and writer at PureWow who has over 7 years of professional proofreading, copyediting and writing experience. At PureWow, she covers...