How to Wash Pillows and How Often You Should

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When was the last time you laundered your pillows? Here’s how to wash them in the machine or by hand, and how often you should.

How to wash pillows by machine or hand

Dust mites and odors collect in all types of pillows, from those on your bed to throw pillows on your sofa. Bed pillows, in particular, gather a lot of sweat and moisture that can lead to mold and mildew. Here’s how to get them clean and fresh.

Can You Wash Your Pillow?

Not all pillows are washable, so you should always check the care label before you begin. If your care label is missing, you need to know what type of pillow it is before you know which washing method to use.

  • Feather pillows, down and “down alternative” pillows: Wash in the machine. Hand-washing is not recommended because the filling will clump. 
  • Polyester: Wash in the machine or by hand. 
  • Memory foam pillows and latex: Shredded foam pillows are washable in the machine or by hand. Solid foam pillows are not washable. See below for how to clean non-washable pillows instead.
  • Buckwheat hull pillows: Not washable. See the method below for non-washable pillows.

How to Machine Wash Pillows

Once you know your pillow is safe to wash, the instructions below will get your pillows clean and fresh without damage.

Step 1: Add your pillows to the machine.

Whether you have a top or front-loading washer, try to wash two pillows at a time so your machine stays balanced throughout the spin cycle. If you have a top-loading washer and king-sized pillows, the agitator may take up so much room that you can only wash one at a time. In that case, fill the remaining part of the washer drum with a towel to balance the weight.

Step 2: Add half the usual amount of laundry detergent.

You don’t need a lot of detergent to clean pillows. Using too much means some will remain after the rinse cycle, leading to odors and matting. To brighten and deodorize them, skip the chlorine bleach since it can damage synthetic fillings and will weaken the fabric. Add a couple of tablespoons of oxygen bleach to brighten them instead. Skip the fabric softener, too: it will make your pillow’s filling clump.

Step 3: Use the correct cycle setting and temperature

Machine wash pillows in your machine on a gentle cycle. Cold water works best for cotton, down, and feather pillows and warm water is best for synthetics like polyester. Be sure to choose an extra rinse cycle to get out all the detergent and any other residue.

Step 4: Dry your pillows

Set the dryer to delicate or low heat, then add two pillows and two clean tennis balls or dryer balls. The tennis balls help fluff pillows and keep the filling from clumping together. If you prefer to air-dry, hang your pillows from the long sides and rotate them every 20-30 minutes.

If you’re using the dryer, you’ll most likely have to run two and perhaps three cycles to get them completely dry. Turn them over between cycles to help them dry evenly. If you’re line-drying your pillows, fluff them by hand once they’re dry. Never put damp pillows into pillowcases or sleep on them, or they’ll develop mold or mildew inside.

How to Hand Wash Pillows

Hand-washing is suitable for most throw pillows or shredded memory foam. It is not a good method to use with down pillows or solid foam pillows, which should be machine washed instead.

  1. Add four inches of lukewarm water to a large sink or tub. Swirl in a small amount of liquid detergent, then add a pillow, pressing down to submerge it.
  2. Use your hands to squeeze the suds through the pillow. Carefully turn it over and repeat.
  3. Drain the basin and squeeze the soapy water out of the pillow. Push the pillow to one side, refill the basin with water again, and squeeze the pillow to release suds. Repeat until the water is clear and squeezing does not produce suds.
  4. Gently press the excess water out of the pillow and air dry it. If using the dryer, tumble dry it no a low-heat setting.

How to Clean Non-Washable Pillows

Some types of pillows can’t go into the machine or get washed by hand. That doesn’t mean you can’t clean them.

Solid Memory Foam or Latex Foam Pillows

To clean your solid memory foam pillow, remove it from the cover and sprinkle baking soda (bicarb) on both sides. Wait 30 minutes for the powder to neutralize odors and absorb moisture, then vacuum it with the upholstery attachment. Spot clean any dirt with a damp cloth and a mild soap solution, taking care not to saturate the pillow. For tougher stains or soiled areas, use hydrogen peroxide instead. Let it dry outdoors or in a sunny spot for the day.

Buckwheat Hull Pillows

Don’t wash buckwheat hulls used as pillow filling. Instead, empty the hulls into a shallow box and put them in a sunny spot for the day, so the sunlight can eliminate odors and mildew. If placing them outside, make sure the box is sheltered from the wind. Launder the pillow covers in the meantime, and refill them with hulls once it’s dry. 

How Often Should You Wash Pillows?

Wash your pillows immediately after any illness to eliminate germs, sweat, and odors. Otherwise, wash them twice a year to keep dust mites under control. If you have severe allergies, use pillow protectors to keep dust mites out of your pillows. Wash your protectors monthly. (I use these.)

Between washings, you can freshen down and synthetic pillows by running them in the dryer using medium heat for 5-10 minutes each week when you change the bed.

Even with regular washing, pillows don’t last forever. You need to replace pillows every 2-3 years or any time they smell off despite washing. You can tell if a pillow is worn out if you fold the pillow in half and it stays folded instead of springing back to flat.

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  1. Michelle Muller says:

    What about memory foam pillows?

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Memory foam can’t be washed in a machine. To clean memory foam pillows, spot treat the surface with a damp washcloth and some soapy water. Be careful that you don’t drench the foam, though. Then dry it in a sunny spot with good air circulation, but never put it in a dryer since that will damage it, too.

  2. Great tips but my pillows are duck feather/down and they’ve gone yellow with sweat. I’ve never washed pillows before but the ones I have are perfect for me, and are still in good nick, so not willing to throw them out. You seem to be talking about synthetic pillows, will your method be safe to use with duck feather/down?

    1. Katie Berry says:

      This method works for feather/down pillows, too, so long as their fabric exterior is in good shape and free from tears. You’ll want to be sure to rinse them a second time, and use tennis balls in the dryer to fluff them. That also prevents them from clumping and developing mold.