Pillow care — How to wash and otherwise take good care of bed pillows and throw pillows

Every time I come across a description of what’s in my bed pillow (not the fiber content, but the added dust, allergens, dust mites, skin, and sweat—eew), I vow to replace it more often. In fact, the image makes me want to replace my pillow weekly, every time I wash the sheets. Not practical of course. Or sustainable. Happily, I’ve learned a few things about pillow care. And I discovered that it’s possible to wash pillows. Here’s how.

• Check the tag of your pillow, because a few are dry-clean only. Down and fiberfill pillows can be washed in the washing machine. Foam and latex pillows are another story (more about those below). 

• Use the best washing machine for the job. You can wash pillows at home, if your machine is big enough. (I like to wash my pillows at the laundromat, in large front loaders. I bring along my big comforters and do them at the same time, in another machine.) 

• If you can, use a machine without an agitator. Front loaders and top loaders without agitators are best for pillows because they give them room to move around. (In an agitator-machine, the machine may dance across the floor when you wash pillows.) If you do use a top-loading machine (with or without an agitator), stand the pillows up vertically; don’t wrap them around the agitator. You may need to rearrange the pillow now and then to keep them evenly placed in the machine. 

• Remove the pillow protector, if you use one, and wash it separately.

• Repair any tears in your pillow before washing.

• Wash two pillows at a time (not one), to keep the machine from getting all wonky.

• Use a mild liquid soap (powdered detergent may leave residue). Some people like to add about half a cup of washing soda per load, to remove stains and add freshening. You can also add a few drops of essential oil, like lavender, for scent.

• Select warm water (for synthetics) or cool water (for down) and a gentle cycle. Run two rinse cycles, to make sure all of the detergent is out. Then run two spin cycles, to get as much water out as possible. (If you’re at the laundromat and don’t have the option, just run it a second time, without any detergent.)

• Dry on a warm setting with a couple of clean tennis balls (or dryer balls) to help fluff the pillow. Don’t go by the dryer’s auto dry setting—it’ll tell you the pillow is dry long before the center is dry. It may take an hour or more for the pillow to dry completely.

• Hang the pillow outside in the fresh air to finish drying, weather permitting. Make sure it’s completely dry, or you’ll be growing mold in your pillow before you know it. (Fluff the pillow in the dryer without heat, if you like, when you bring it in.)

How do I clean a foam or latex pillow?

Foam and latex pillows need a gentler pillow care approach than the washing machine can deliver. (The foam or latex will pull apart when agitated.) You should never put a foam or latex pillow in the dryer, either. It’s a fire hazard—plus the pillow will probably never dry!

You have a few options for washing a foam or latex pillow. (The first two options result in a very heavy, wet pillow; I would opt to spot clean instead whenever possible.) Remove the pillow protector. Then do one of the following:

• Option 1: Swish some mild liquid detergent in a sink or tub of water, then submerge the pillow in the water. Gently move it around. Drain off the soapy water and replace with rinse water. Swish the pillow in the rinse water and drain. Repeat until all of the soap is removed. 

Dry the pillow on a flat, ventilated surface in a spot with good air circulation. A spot in the sun, especially on a breezy day, is perfect. If you need to dry the pillow indoors, place it near a fan to keep the air circulating around it.

• Option 2: Hold the pillow under running water, moving it around until the water runs through all of it. Do this until the water runs clear. Air dry as described above.

• Option 3: Spot clean with some mild detergent on a wet washcloth. Don’t scrub too hard; just gently rub in circular motions. Rinse with clear water on a clean washcloth. Press with a dry cloth to soak up the water, then air dry as described above.  

How do I clean buckwheat hull pillows?

Pillow care for buckwheat hull pillows is very different! To clean a buckwheat hull pillow, spread the hulls onto baking sheets, then place them in the sun for a few hours. In the meantime, wash the case with warm water and mild detergent. 

(If you have one of these pillows, please comment below and let me know how you like it!) 

Some tips on otherwise maintaining your bed pillows:

• When you buy a new pillow, also buy a pillow protector to keep dust, dirt, and oil from being absorbed by the pillow. (These are available in all kinds of fabrics, including organic cotton.)

• Fluff the bed pillows when you make the bed. This will help remove dust and restore their shape.

• Every so often, hang your pillows out in the sun. Or toss them in the dryer on the no-heat cycle. I like to do this while the sheets are in the washing machine.

• To freshen a pillow without washing, take off the cover and sprinkle the pillow with baking soda. Allow it to sit for a couple of hours, then vacuum off the soda with the brush attachment of your vacuum. Repeat on the other side. 

• Spot clean any stains between machine washings. Make sure you dry the pillow thoroughly. 

How often should I wash/replace bed pillows?

Pillow care experts recommend washing pillows every 3 to 6 months and replacing them every couple of years. 

How about throw pillows?

• Most throw pillows can be washed, too. Again, check the label (unless you cut it off when you got home, like I always do. Come to think of it, it would be a good idea to save those in an envelope; just mark the name of the pillow on the tag!)

If the cover zips off or unties, remove it. Then you can wash the cover and the pillow separately, which is ideal. (And maybe only the cover needs washing.)

Follow the directions above for washing and drying—either in a machine, submerging in water, or spot cleaning, depending on the fiber content and how dirty the pillow is. 

• Vacuum throw pillows regularly to keep them from accumulating dirt. 

• Think about displaying that hard-to-clean pillow (adorned with fringe or pompoms, for example) where the dog won’t sit on it and toddlers won’t spill on it. 

Alan (hubby) and I are giving each other new bed pillows for Xmas this year. Do you have a favorite brand/fiber/type you’d recommend? Do you have any pillow care tips to share?

You might also like: Caring for quilts—TLC for old and new quilts.

2 thoughts on “Pillow care — How to wash and otherwise take good care of bed pillows and throw pillows”

    • Hi Adrienne! For stubborn stains, I’d try some bleach (I like the non-chlorine variety) in the wash water. I’d let them soak for maybe half an hour in that, then rinse and wash again with your regular detergent. Adding some borax to the water with your detergent may also help it work harder! Please let us know if that works! Fingers crossed!


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