How to Wash Pillows the Right Way

Whether you sleep on memory foam, down, feather, polyester, latex, or something else, here are the best methods to clean and fluff every pillow.

A young woman dressed in overalls and a plaid checkered shirt fluffs and prepares a pillow for washing. Use this guide for instructions on how to wash pillows the right way.
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You’re here because you’re wondering “How long can I go without washing my pillow?” You’re possibly even hoping that we’ll give you information to settle the anxiety over whether your pillowcase does the work it needs to do or not. But even with a pillow protector hugging your head support, we have some truth for you that may be hard to sleep with: Your pillow is the perfect environment for bacteria and dust mites to flourish.

It makes sense when you think about it — and trust us, we wish it was otherwise! But when you lay your head to rest every night, your pillow then goes on to collect sweat, drool, skincare products, hair, and more. So, how long ago was it that you washed your pillow again?

How often should you wash your pillows?

Washing your pillows every two to three months is sufficient for keeping them clean. Tonya Harris, cleaning and environmental toxin expert and co-founder of Slightly Greener, notes that if you have pets sleeping in your bed or you struggle with allergies, you should aim to wash them at least seasonally.

In between washes, you can keep your pillows as clean as possible by fluffing them daily. Fluffing your pillows each day helps get rid of dust and prevents it from accumulating. If you have time, it’s not a bad idea to hang your pillows outside on a clothesline for a few hours (when the weather is sunny and free of humidity) to keep them dry and prevent mildew.

How to wash pillows in the washing machine

Before you throw your pillow in the washing machine, be sure to read the tag carefully. How you wash your pillow will come down to what it’s made of — certain materials need to be handled with a little extra love and care so they don’t get ruined in the cleaning process.

While most pillows will have laundering instructions on the tag, there are some general tips to keep in mind when washing them, and some pillows that cannot be machine-washed at all:

Make sure your pillows are machine safe
If so, note any temperature or detergent restrictions, as some materials could be compromised in rougher rinse cycles. Harris suggests warm or hot water and a gentle liquid laundry detergent in order to keep your pillow in the best shape possible.

Use hot water and a delicate cycle in the machine
Alex Varela, general manager of Dallas Maids, a cleaning service based in Texas, recommends zapping bacteria with the hottest water, “You can run a cycle on the hottest setting, adding Oxiclean and laundry detergent so that you can make sure the pillows will be sanitized.” Harris adds that a gentle or delicate cycle will best preserve the integrity of the pillow.

Use white vinegar and hydrogen peroxide for a deep clean
If you feel like your pillows need a deeper clean, Varela says that you can wash them with one cup of white vinegar and two cups of hydrogen peroxide, which will remove basically any trace of odor, bacteria, and grime.

In order to help your pillows maintain their shape and get cleaned evenly, you should always wash a pillow with another large item. “Wash two pillows if possible,” Harris says. “Or throw in some extra articles of clothing or towels to keep the machine balanced.”

You might want to use an extra spin cycle for your pillow
If the machine was not properly balanced, or you have an old or sensitive washer, you may find that your pillows emerge water-logged and dripping. In that case, put them back into the washing machine and run a drain-and-spin cycle, which will remove the excess water and leave pillows in better condition for drying.

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Tips for washing feather or down pillows

Most feather or down pillows are fairly simple to wash and can be thrown in the washing machine using the above tips.

  • Cycle and suds: Be extra careful to wash them on the gentle or delicate cycle and use low-sudsing detergent so that your wash won’t agitate the fill. An extra rinse cycle will help get all of the moisture out of these pillows. 
  • Temperature: You might want to stick with warm or cool water with these pillows — hot and high temperatures may cause the pillow to begin to break down.  
  • Dryer: They can be thrown in the dryer, but avoid high heat, which can cause shrinkage. Keep in mind that feather or down pillows can take a while to fully dry, and any clumping could be a sign that they’re not ready yet. A couple tennis balls added to the drum can help break up clumps in the filling. 

Tips for washing polyester pillows

Wash polyester pillows with towels or other pillows so that they keep their shape.

  • Cycle and suds: For most polyester pillows, you can machine wash them on a gentle or delicate cycle using cold water. Don’t use too much detergent with these. In fact, you should also plan to run an extra rinse cycle to get rid of any lingering detergent.  
  • Dryer: Polyester pillows can also be thrown in the dryer. You might want to add clean tennis balls or wool dryer balls in with them in order to break up any clumping that might occur.  

Tips for washing memory foam or latex pillows

Memory foam or latex pillows are higher maintenance and generally require hand washing or spot-cleaning only.

  • Cycle and suds: None! Avoid the washing machine as this can break up foam or latex. 
  • Spot-clean: To clean them properly, vacuum them to get rid of dust and debris, then spot clean with a moist cloth and a little bit of mild or diluted laundry detergent.  
  • Dryer: Avoid! Foam or latex pillows also cannot go in the dryer, so lay them on a flat surface and air-dry them instead.  

Tips for washing buckwheat pillows

When it comes to buckwheat pillows, you really only want to wash the cover, as the buckwheat fill shouldn’t get wet. Buckwheat pillows are a process, but if you’re looking for more control over your comfort levels, they’re a great option. Since you can easily add or remove buckwheat hulls, they're very adjustable. They also tend to be more on the firm side rather than the soft side, so they’re very supportive and can conform to your neck and head during use.

1. Open up the pillow and remove the buckwheat hulls. Place them in a shallow dish or sheet.

2. If you’re trying to get rid of any smells, you can put the hulls in the sun.

3. Wash the pillow shell in cold water on a gentle cycle with a light detergent. The cover should be air-dried as well, and should be fully dry before used, as you don’t want to sleep on damp buckwheat.

Once it’s fully dried, fill it back up with the buckwheat hulls, and it will be good as new.

How to wash pillows without a washing machine

Two freshly washed pillows sit on a outdoor rack to dry under the sun. Use our guide for instructions on how to wash any kind of pillow the right way. That includes latex, down, memory foam, polyester, feather, and more.
PJjaruwan / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Whether you don’t have access to a washing machine or you’re unsure that your pillow can withstand one, hand washing is your second-best option. It takes a little more time, but it’s just as effective.

Harris says you should start by removing the pillowcase and vacuuming the pillow on both sides using an upholstery attachment so that you can remove excess dust and dirt. “For odors, sprinkle a layer of baking soda on one side, let it sit for a couple of hours, then vacuum it up. Repeat on the other side,” she recommends.

If you don’t have an upholstery attachment or it’s questionably dirty, Varela has another method.

For pillows that can be washed (so pillows other than latex, foam, and buckwheat), “Soak the pillows in a big container, like a sink or bathtub, with warm water and two spoonfuls of detergent. Next, you’ll need to ‘knead’ your pillows to remove all the dirt that’s been getting on the inside. Finish by rinsing with plenty of warm water.”

How to dry pillows without damaging them

Most pillows, aside from memory foam, latex, or buckwheat pillows, are safe to put in the dryer, but check the tag for specific instructions.

If they are dryer-safe, Varela says, “Put them on a low-delicate cycle for a couple of hours. If possible, toss some tennis balls or dryer balls to help them dry faster.”

She adds that you might also need to run a few cycles — pillows take much longer to dry than regular clothing. You should also give them some time to air dry to ensure all the remaining moisture is gone.

For pillows that are not dryer friendly, Varela recommends wrapping them in a dry towel and squeezing them to get rid of excess water. Do this a few times before letting them air-dry in direct sunlight, if possible.

Spot-cleaning pillows 101

If you notice your pillow is stained but you don’t think they need to be washed yet (or you simply don’t have the time), spot cleaning is simple. “Combine a gentle dish soap or Castile soap with warm water and gently scrub the area that needs to be cleaned with a soft sponge,” Harris advises.

You can also regularly vacuum your pillows to keep dust at bay.

Clean pillows are more hygienic, can help improve your sleep, and ultimately make you feel even more relaxed, so be sure to follow these tips every few months.

What got past your pillowcase and into your pillow?

Are you ready to know exactly what got through into the core of your pillow? A 2005 study done by the University of Manchester found, on average, more than a million fungal spores in household pillows. The research found that pillows, especially synthetic ones, can harbor dust mites, which can aggravate allergies and even make you sick over time. Not only is this relatively horrifying to sleep on, but it could potentially lead to sleep issues down the line.

“Pillows can trap sweat, moisture, dirt, dust, allergens, and other particles, which can build up and affect sleep quality over time,” explains Harris. Dust mites can irritate allergies, making it harder to breathe comfortably when lying down.

Fortunately, washing your pillows can be easy, especially if you plan ahead. Use the long cycle time to do something meditative, like reading a book or a crafting project. And rest easy at night, knowing you’re sleeping on a clean pillow.