How To Clean Pillows: The Ultimate Guide

Most people, once they find a perfect pillow, rarely take it off their bed. Once it's broken in, comfy and nice, why mess with it, right? But did you know that pillows should be washed regularly, not just left to collect nasty things like dust mites, mold, and sweat? If you're unfamiliar with washing pillows, you should know that you're not alone. Luckily, we've pulled together the ultimate comprehensive guide to teach you everything you could ever need to know about keeping your pillows clean.

There are several kinds of pillow filling, such as cotton, feathers, memory foam, and poly-fiber. Most cotton, feather, and poly-fiber pillows can be machine-washed. Always check the manufacturer's instructions first. Memory foam pillows must be hand washed. In between washings, pillows can be spot cleaned or freshened when they get musty.

Keep reading for directions on how to machine wash, hand wash, spot clean, or freshen your pillows. We'll also cover what to do when they start turning yellow - yes, it is possible to save a yellowed pillow and return it to its original state. And of course, even with the best of care, pillows need to be replaced regularly. How long can you keep the same pillow? Read more to find out.

A dry cleaner's employee hands in rubber protective gloves holding spray bottle and brush removing saliva stain from white pillow, How To Clean Pillows: The Ultimate Guide

Why Wash Pillows?

Every night, you lay your head down on your pillow, close your eyes, and sleep. But if you knew what lived in your pillow after months without cleaning, it would be enough to give you nightmares. Pillows can fall victim to a number of unsanitary conditions, such as:

  • Dust mites
  • Bed bugs
  • Sweat, oils, and other bodily fluids that collect naturally as you sleep
  • These fluids can also create conditions for mold and mildew to grow

Plus, most pillows are treated with chemicals during the manufacturing process. If you've never washed your pillow, those chemicals are still probably touching your face every night. Yes, washing new pillows is a real thing.

Pillows should be washed every 3-6 months. People who sweat a lot at night or tend to leave behind a lot of dirt will want to clean them at the three-month mark. For example, if you often fall asleep with makeup or lotion on, your pillow may not be able to wait six months for a good washing.

Dirty pillow on wooden table

How To Wash Pillows

Always follow the care instructions from the manufacturer. Some down or feather pillows are machine washable - but some aren't. The advice of the pillow maker, ultimately, is the best for proper care and maintenance. Machine washing the wrong pillow may damage the filling or cause mold or mildew to grow. 

How To Machine Wash Pillows

  1. First, remove any protective covers or pillowcases.
  2. Check over the pillow for any holes or rips. Mend any problem areas - you don't want stuffing or feathers coming out in the wash!
  3. Always wash two pillows at a time. This keeps the machine balanced. If you have a top-loading machine, place pillows vertically on opposite sides of the drum.
  4. Use a low-sud wash. Too much soap and too many suds will be hard to rinse out of the pillow. Pick something gentle and low-sudsing such as Woolite. If you're washing a down pillow, there are special kits with the correct soap.
  5. Wash in warm water on a delicate cycle. 

Click here to see this kit on Amazon.

Need more help? Read How To Wash Feather Pillows [5 Steps].

When you're ready for the dryer, there are only a few steps:

  1. Squeeze extra water out of the pillows.
  2. Add a couple of tennis balls or dryer balls. This will help keep the filling from clumping.
  3. Dry in the dryer on delicate cycle, low heat. If you're drying a feather pillow, you may prefer no heat or to air dry. Feathers are sensitive, so use your own judgment. After all, you know how hot your dryer gets. Read more about drying pillows here.

The most important part is to make sure the pillow gets completely dry. Any dampness left can encourage mold and mildew to grow, so don't leave any moisture.

How To Hand Wash Pillows

Some pillows require hand washing. Memory foam, for example, will not survive the washing machine. Throw pillows that do not have a separate, removable cover are generally safer when hand washed. And some feather pillows require hand washing.

To wash pillows by hand, you'll need a bucket, tub, or some kind of basin to put the pillow (and water) in. You will also need a mild detergent or upholstery shampoo. 

  1. First, fill the basin or tub with enough warm water to cover the pillow.
  2. Add a tablespoon or two of soap or shampoo. Remember, the more suds you have, the harder it will be to rinse them out of the pillow later. Add enough to clean, but don't go wild.
  3. Put the pillow in the soapy water, scrubbing gently. Churn the pillow around in the water, making sure the soap and water soak through the pillow well.
  4. Rinse pillows in cold water until the soap is removed and the water runs clear.
  5. Hand wash pillows are almost always hand dry pillows as well. Simply allow them to air dry after gently blotting out excess water.

How To Spot Clean Pillows

Spot cleaning in between regular washings can help reduce bacteria growth. As a result, this can stretch the amount of time that you can go between washings. While you should still regularly wash your pillows, if spot cleanings occur monthly, it's easier to wait for the maximum time of six months between full washings.

Spot cleaning can be done in two ways:

Use a sponge or towel to gently blot away any stains or dirt. Allow it to air dry. Avoid any cleaning solvents that may discolor or stain the pillow. If needed, use a stain removal or spotting agent like Shout Wipe & Go.

Click here to see these Shout wipes on Amazon.

You can also clean and sanitize pillows with a handheld steam cleaner. You can also deodorize other hard to clean furniture with this method. This PurSteam cleaner has 9 attachments for chemical-free cleaning that is easy and convenient.

Click here to see this handheld steam cleaner on Amazon.

How To Freshen Up Pillows

Pillows out in the open to dry

If you're not ready to wash your pillows again yet, you might still want to freshen them up before a guest comes, or just to remove an annoying musty odor. There are a few ways to go about it:

  • Just pop the pillow in the dryer for a few minutes. Select an air-dry cycle and be sure to add a few tennis balls and a dryer sheet.
  • Sprinkle a little baking soda over the pillow. Let it sit for about 30 minutes, then vacuum the excess away.
  • Hang the pillow outside on a clothesline to air out.

How To Sanitize Pillows

While a steam cleaner can sanitize pillows, some people prefer to be more active. Using disinfectants feels more reassuring that you've killed the germs. Be sure to use a fabric disinfectant on pillows. Spray generously, then allow to air dry. For example, this one by Tide kills 99.99% of certain bacteria when used as directed.

Click here to see this fabric disinfectant on Amazon.

Can You Use Lysol Spray On Pillows?

While you can use Lysol spray on pillows, it may not help as much as you think it does. Be sure to read the directions before you apply any disinfectant, anywhere - it's just good practice. For example, you might be surprised to realize that your favorite disinfectant actually only works on hard surfaces. As a result, spraying it on a soft pillow? Just an expensive way to get your pillow wet.

However, this doesn't mean you can't use Lysol spray on pillows. Some types of Lysol spray do work effectively on soft surfaces. Just be sure to read the label and know that you have the right one. Below, this all-surface spray kills germs on both hard and soft surfaces and would be a perfect choice for disinfecting pillows. In fact, you could use it whenever someone in the house is ill, to disinfect all common surfaces.

Click here to see this Lysol spray on Amazon.

Why Do Pillows Turn Yellow?

Typically, pillows turn yellow because of sweat or other body oils. As the pillow absorbs these bodily fluids, it starts to yellow and look rather grungy. If your pillow, no matter how much you clean it, always seems to be yellowing again in no time, you may want to invest in a pillow protector like this one:

Click here to see this pillow protector on Amazon.

Using a waterproof pillow protector with a zipper will keep sweat and other oils from leaking through to the pillow and staining it. It will also reduce how frequently you need to wash your pillow. With a pillow protector, most people can go for the full six months between washes.

For more guidance on this topic, check out our post: Why Do Pillows Turn Yellow (And How To Fix The Problem)

How Do You Get Your Pillow White Again?

Woman holding a pile of bedding for sleeping

Once your pillow has yellowed, have no fear. It is still possible to return it to its former, still white, state. It is also worth noting that many people who have trouble with sweat on their white pillows also struggle with their sheets. If you have trouble with sweat yellowing your white sheets, the following recipes work for sheets as well.

To get rid of ugly yellow stains and spots on your pillows, try one of the following recipes:

  1. The next time you wash your pillows, add 1 cup of hydrogen peroxide and 1/2 cup of vinegar to the washing machine. If it's possible, try to let it soak for a while. Fill the tub, then add the detergent, peroxide, and vinegar. Leave it to sit and work into the pillow before beginning the wash cycle.
  2. Add 1 cup of bleach and 1/2 cup of borax to the wash and let it soak. In this case, be sure to do 2 rinse cycles. Borax is fairly gritty and it can stick to the pillows. You need a second rinse to get it all off.

Click here to see borax on Amazon.

For more ideas on treating yellow sheets (and pillows), try reading: How To Wash White Sheets [Inc. How Hotels Keep Sheets White!]

How Often Do You Need A New Pillow?

As a general rule, most pillows need to be replaced every 1-2 years. You can tell it's time for a new pillow when the shape and padding no longer provide enough support. Flat, worn pillows create a strain on the neck, as the neck is no longer held in line with the rest of the spine. Some signs you need a new pillow can include:

  • Your pillow folds easily in half.
  • You wake up with neck pain, headaches, or cramped shoulder muscles.
  • Your pillow feels lumpy.

When properly cared for, memory foam can last 3-4 years. Down or feather pillows can sometimes last for 5 years, though pillow quality can vary wildly. For this reason, you should replace them when they begin to show the signs of aging listed above.

To Summarize

Pillows need to be washed every 3-6 months. This prevents bacteria growth, keeps mold and mildew in check, and kills dust mites. To be able to go longer between washings, try doing frequent spot cleanings or use a zippered pillow protector.

When it's time for cleaning, read the care instructions on the tag for the best results. Most poly-fiber or cotton pillows are machine washable, as are some feather pillows. Memory foam and other types of feather pillows are for hand washing only. Some pillows may even be marked to spot clean, in which case you can use a sponge or handheld steam cleaner.

Proper care and maintenance of your pillows can improve allergies and hygiene, and create a more sanitary sleeping environment. Plus, pillows last longer with proper neck support when they are well cared for. As most pillows are machine washable, cleaning them is really not that hard and well worth the effort.

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