How To Clean Grimy Pillowcases

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Tired of sleeping on a yellowed, smelly pillow? These steps get grimy pillowcases clean again.

If you’ve laundered your bedding and still notice greasy, yellow stains and odors, these steps to clean grimy pillowcases will get your linens clean and fresh again.

How To Clean and Whiten Grimy Pillowcases

When you’re dealing with a yellowed pillowcase, it’s tempting to add extra bleach to the wash to get the pillowcase white again. However, that won’t work because bleach doesn’t remove grease and can make the stain permanent. Instead, follow these steps, which dissolve the chemical bonds between the greasy residue and the fabric to get your pillowcase white again.

1. Prepare a cleaning solution. First, fill a sink basin with very hot water, then add 1/4 cup Dawn Original dish detergent (Fairy or Sunlight in the UK) and 1 cup baking soda. Swirl until the baking soda is dissolved and then add the pillowcase.

2. Scrub the fabric. Grab a hunk of the pillowcase in each hand and scrub it against itself. Switch to another area on the pillowcase and repeat until you’ve given it a good all-over rub. (A laundry scrub board works even better.)

3. Refill the sink and let it soak. Drain the sink, refill it with hot water, and add a few more drops of dish soap. Then put the pillowcase back in and let it soak for 1-2 hours, or even overnight. After it has soaked, rinse it thoroughly in HOT water until the water runs clear.

4. Launder. Finally, put the pillowcase through a hot wash and rinse cycle in your washing machine using your regular laundry detergent plus 2 cups of white vinegar. Do not add fabric softener. The vinegar in this final step removes any lingering soap or grease residue and kills odors, so don’t skip it. If your machine has one, use a second rinse cycle for this last step.

Why Do Pillowcases Get Yellow and Grimy?

Parents of teens are familiar with how their hormones lead to greasy hair and skin, which stains their pillows. Active adults and those who exercise heavily or work outdoors also find their pillowcases turn yellow due to hair and body oils. Moisturizers, overnight face treatments, and makeup residue can also lead to a grimy or slick, waxy feeling on your pillowcase.

How to Wash Pillowcases to Keep them Stain-Free

There are two secrets that help keep that yellowing grime from staining your pillowcases once you’ve removed it.

First, skip the fabric softeners and dryer sheets. These work by coating fabric with a light layer of wax or grease, which attracts and holds onto skin and hair oils. If you’ve been using them to fight static cling, try adding white vinegar to your rinse cycle instead. (Here are other reasons to use vinegar in your laundry.)

Second, use an oxygenated bleach when washing your linens. Chlorine bleach doesn’t remove grease well and can cause the proteins in sweat and body oils to permanently bond with the fabric. Plus, adding bleach along with the recommended vinegar is dangerous. Oxygenated bleach turns into hydrogen peroxide in the wash, where it helps eliminate stains and whiten your pillowcases again.

How to Keep Pillowcases from Getting Greasy

To keep your pillowcases from getting greasy, get in the habit of showering before bed or, at the very least, wash your face well so body oils don’t rub off on your pillow while you sleep.

Another way to prevent grimy stains on your pillowcases is to wash your bedding every week. Follow a good bedroom cleaning routine that includes laundering your sheets and pillowcases. If you are very active or work outdoors, have allergies, or are just prone to oily hair, you should consider changing pillowcases every other day.

Finally, if you like to stretch the time between shampooing, you might want to consider wearing a satin-lined sleep cap or bonnet to bed. The satin keeps your hair from tangling or getting frizzy while you sleep, while the cap protects your bedding from hair products and oils, so your pillowcase never develops that yellow, waxy layer of grime at all.

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  1. I tried this and was amazed at how clean and stain-free they came out. Sent this pin to my daughters

    1. Katie Berry says:

      I’m happy to have helped, Lonnie!

  2. Patrica Hand says:

    Thank you so much for this post about cleaning grimy pillow cases!! This WORKS….yay!! I tried it on 3 pillow cases today and soaked them in the Dawn and baking soda, wow it really got the grimies out. I boiled water on the stove so it would be really hot and poured it into a basin with everything. Now I have some more pillowcases to clean. This may not solve the world problems, but it solves one of mine…ha ha.

    1. Katie Berry says:

      I’m happy to have helped, Patricia!

  3. Will this work if you have used bleach on these pillows before ?

    1. Katie Berry says:

      It should, Dorothy, provided you’ve since laundered and dried them.

  4. What type of vinegar do you use? White vinegar?

    1. Katie Berry says:

      That’s what I use, yes.

  5. I have inherited beautiful old linens but they are yellow in some ares especially the pillowcases. I have laid them on the grass in the sun, my mother’s way especially for cloth baby bibs n diapers.) but the yellow comes back. Plus they have that waxy smell. They seem very strong or not easily torn. They are all white.

    1. Katie Berry says:

      I’m very reluctant to offer any tips on cleaning something as precious as heirloom linens, E.A. You might find some good info in this video from Martha Stewart about cleaning vintage linens, though. Best of luck!

  6. This grimy pillowcase issue has been plaguing our household for ages, but I never thought to do a search on it. Good thing I did! Found your great site and… solved.

    I have 2 questions:
    1) regarding the oxygenated bleach + vinegar treatment
    where do you add the vinegar? do you add it in the fabric softener compartment of the clothes washer dispenser drawer?
    2) re washing bed linens in hot water
    what temperature is considered hot water?

    thank you

  7. How much vinegar do you use in the fabric softener dispenser?


    1. Katie Berry says:

      Whatever amount of fabric softener you’d have used, replace that with vinegar.

  8. I found your website looking for a way to clean my pillowcases. It worked and they are very clean. Thank You.Solves a real pet peeve of mine. When I wash the sheets and use the oxiclean and vinegar, what is the ratio? With the new washing machines, HE and just a tad of detergent is recommended. I am assuming the mixture goes into the tub and not the soap dispenser.

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Yes, it goes into the tub, not the dispenser. For an HE machine, I’d use half the amount described above.

  9. Finally, pillowcases that aren’t stiff and smelly. That worked out great. Now to do the rest of them. Thanks for the information. Using a washboard made in Ohio made the process go better than hand rubbing the cloth together too.

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Glad to have helped!

  10. This has been a life save. I haven’t been able to use my softest, most favourite set of sheets because of the horrible look of the pillowcases. I follow this yesterday and have got the sheets back on my bed today. Can’t wait for bed tonight. Thanks

    1. Katie Berry says:

      So glad to have helped, Dawn! Sweet dreams. 🙂

  11. A. Sulaiman says:

    I’m looking forward to trying this so I can save my beloved white pillowcases!

    However, I don’t have Dawn at home, will any dish detergent do the job?

    Thank you Katie.

    1. Katie Berry says:

      I recommend Dawn because it’s an excellent degreaser. If you want to use a substitute, make sure it focuses on degreasing and not moisturizing hands.

  12. Hello
    Will this work on expensive dark green linen please?

    1. Katie Berry says:

      You should always take expensive items to a professional cleaner.

  13. Wow! The amount of gunk that came out of those pillow cases & pillow covers was disgusting! It feels so good to have clean cases & covers again. Thank you!

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