Pillows harbor dirt, dust, sweat, and bacteria that build up over time. Learn how to clean pillows so you can rest assured you have a fresh place to lie your head.

By Berit Thorkelson and Jessica Bennett
Updated August 25, 2020
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On sofas and beds, pillows can quickly gather buildup from daily use. Dirt, dust, sweat, saliva, bacteria, and even mold or mildew can accumulate inside pillows over time, causing unpleasant odors and breaking down their support. To make sure your pillows stay fresh and germ-free, it's important to clean them every few months. Although they might seem big, bulky, and unfamiliar to launder, washing and drying pillows is simpler than it seems. Use our guide to learn how to wash pillows, how to keep them clean, and when to replace them. These tips will help make sure your pillows are washed, dried, and fluffed to perfection.

Bed with plaid throw blanket and pillows
Credit: Kim Cornelison

How to Wash Pillows

Before washing pillows, remove any covers or pillowcase, and check the manufacturer's instructions for washing. Unless the pillow is marked dry-clean only, follow these instructions for washing and drying pillows.

1. Wash Pillows in the Washing Machine

Most down and synthetic pillows can be machine washed and dried on low heat, says cleaning expert Donna Smallin Kuper of Unclutter.com. Note that water needs to be 140°F or higher to kill dust mites, so make sure your water heater isn't set too low. Consider an extra spin cycle to squeeze out as much dampness as possible.

2. Choose Laundry Detergent Wisely

The best type of laundry detergent for washing pillows is a fragrance-free soap, says cleaning expert Leslie Reichert. She recommends Better Life's natural laundry detergent ($16, Bed Bath & Beyond), Charlie's Soap laundry powder ($18, Target), or her great-grandma's homemade laundry soap recipe: 2 cups soap flakes and 1 cup each baking soda, washing soda, and borax. It's also important to use the manufacturer's detergent recommendation to wash pillows. Excess detergent that is not rinsed out can leave a sticky residue that causes clumping.

3. Dry Pillows Well

Make sure to dry pillows completely, as lingering dampness could reintroduce the very mildew, bacteria, and dust mites you're trying to avoid. Dry pillows in your dryer on a low heat setting, checking them every 20 to 30 minutes to ensure even drying. To make them even fluffier, dry pillows with dryer balls ($10, Target) or a tennis ball in a sock.

4. Don't Overload the Machine

You'll want to wash and dry at least two pillows at a time to keep your machine balanced. However, take care not to stuff too many in at once. Pillows need plenty of water to get thoroughly clean and plenty of space to get thoroughly dry.

Bed with colorful pillows and wall artwork
Credit: Jay Wilde

How to Keep Pillows Clean

Use these upkeep tips to keep your pillows fresh and clean.

1. Fluff Pillows Daily

Regular fluffing helps keep pillows in good condition. Take a few minutes every day to fluff your bed and sofa pillows to remove dust and restore their shape.

2. Vacuum Foam Pillows

Foam pillows shouldn't be washed, Reichert says. She recommends sprinkling them with cornstarch, letting sit for an hour or longer, then vacuuming both sides thoroughly instead.

3. Freshen Pillows in the Dryer

Put your pillows in the dryer on "air fluff" every few months to get rid of much of the dust. Include a vinegar-dampened washcloth, suggests Mary Findley of GoClean.com, to help kill mold and mildew.

4. Use Pillow Protectors

Removable pillow protectors ($5, Target) buy you more time between full-on pillow cleaning. "I remove and machine-wash my protectors in hot water once a month," Smallin Kuper says.

5. Replace Pillows After Two Years

While regular cleaning can prolong their lifespan, pillows should be replaced about every two years. You'll know when it's time to replace your pillow when it no longer provides enough support, feels lumpy and uncomfortable, or develops odors or stains that can't be removed.

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