How to wash pillows – sanitize feather, down and synthetic fibers

Find out how to wash pillows in a machine, by hand and without water

how to wash pillows: linen bedding from soak & sleep
(Image credit: Soak & Sleep)

Everyone needs to learn how to wash pillows at some point. Pillowcases can only protect your pillow so far, as dust mites and other allergens soon gather if they are not washed and aired every so often. What's more, it only takes one spilled cup of coffee (or sick child) to soak through and stain them.

Luckily, most of the best pillows are designed to cope with the occasional wash (and we have methods for those which aren't). Whether they are synthetic fibers, or made from natural feather and down, there are different ways to give them all a good clean. As always, you should follow the manufacturer's instructions for the best results, but we cover the basics of washing – and drying – each pillow type. Done right, your pillow will last longer, stay fresher and you won't damage it (or your washer) in the process.

Follow the steps below for lovely clean pillows. For more washing tips, head over to our guide on how to do laundry

How often should you wash your pillows?

When should you clean your pillow? When it becomes stained and smelly – or once a month if in doubt. You can leave it longer if you use protector pillowcases under your regular pillowcases but if you are not washing at least twice a year, you risk it harboring germs and allergens.

Housekeeping guru, Martha Stewart (opens in new tab) recommends, 'While you'll want to wash the rest of your bedding regularly, pillows have a bit more of a grace period. At the very least, pillows should undergo a good wash every six months.'

Bear in mind that washing pillows too often – or incorrectly – will shorten their life. You should plan to replace pillows every couple of years anyway, but incorrect washing can make them lumpy and unusable much sooner.

Aldi storage bed

(Image credit: Aldi )

Is it safe to wash pillows in the washing machine?

The quickest and easiest way to wash most pillows is in the washing machine. Unless your pillows are labeled as not being washer safe, this is fine to do as long as your check the load limit of your washer and do not surpass it. It is definitely not worth ruining your washing machine for the sake of a couple of pillows. 

However, this information applies to down and hollow fibre pillows but we do not recommend washing memory foam in the washer (or getting it wet at all) and silk or wool pillows are best handwashed.

Read on for the low down on how to wash each type of pillow properly in a washing machine or by hand.

How to wash feather and down pillows in the washer

Machine washing feather and down pillows should be fine, so long as you wash on a low temperature, and make sure as much of the moisture is removed from the pillow after washing as possible. A higher spin speed will help.

Ideally, dry feather and down pillows on a low heat setting in a tumble dryer – this will restore the fluffiness you loved when you bought them. Putting rubber drying balls (opens in new tab) – or tennis balls in a couple of socks – in the tumble dryer isn't a must, but will help the pillow filling spread evenly, You can also remove from the dryer every so often and plump by hand for the same effect.

If you don't have a tumble dryer, choose a hot day and dry them in the sunshine. Use the plumping method if you are air-drying pillows, too. 

Ensure the pillows are thoroughly dry before returning them to the bed, otherwise they will soon smell musty. This is a good reason to have spare pillows for every bed in the house to allow for washing day.

How to wash pillows - pillows on a bed with blue headboard and exposed brick - getty

(Image credit: Getty)

How to wash synthetic pillows

Synthetic pillows are the easiest to wash and will often be marked 'easy clean'. That said, they are prone to lumping if not done the right way.

You can wash most synthetic pillows in hotter temperatures than other types, unless it's a synthetic filling that imitates down, in which case stick to 100ºF/40ºC. Always check the label.

Lynsey Crombie, a.k.a. Queen of Clean (opens in new tab) recommends, 'If your pillows are made from polyester then these can go into the washing machine on a low heat using your usual detergent although DON’T use fabric conditioner.'

'I would advise that you do a double rinse to get as much of the suds out as possible. For the second rinse you can also add a capful of White Wine Vinegar which will help get rid of any nasty odours and those yellow patches.'

As with down pillows, tumble dry on a low heat setting, or air dry outside on a hot day in direct sun. It is best to dry them flat, using a level clothes airer to do so. Plump every so often as they dry to spread the filling evenly.

Furano Cotton Duvet Cover + 2 Pillowcases

(Image credit: Made)

How to wash a memory foam or latex pillows

Our honest advice is: don't bother. Foam will almost certainly be destroyed in the washing machine, and hand washing is difficult, as the pillow will become extremely heavy and will be very hard to get dry. 

If you have a memory foam pillow, protect it with a pillow protector and wash that, not the pillow. As they are harder to clean, you might want to avoid use around anyone accident prone to better the chances of keeping them liquid free.

To keep on top of dust mites and allergens, simply use a vacuum attachment to remove any dust or debris. A good open cell memory foam will vacuum well.

Here's another way to spot-clean your memory foam or latex pillow.

  • Spot clean any bad stains with a damp cloth wet with soapy water (use a washing powder rather than a washing up liquid). 
  • Ensure you rinse the soapy deposits off before you allow it to air dry. 
  • While the pillow is drying, sprinkle it with bicarbonate of soda; leave for an hour then vacuum it off. 
  • Turn the pillow over and repeat the process. This will remove any smells your pillow might be harbourin and absorbs moisture.

100% Mulberry Silk Luxury Pillow Case, Etsy

(Image credit: Etsy)

How to wash silk and wool pillows

Natural silk and wool-filled pillows are best hand washed, because the filling is likely to clump after machine washing. 

Knowing how to wash silk in general is handy, but here are the specifics for silk and wool pillows:

  • Fill a bath with warm water and add mild detergent. 
  • Move around the pillow vigorously, then rinse. 
  • You make find you need to rinse a few times to get all the detergent out. 
  • Squeeze excess water and dry for two to three days, preferably in open air. 

How to clean a pillow (without washing)

Want to clean your pillow without water? It is possible. Many of our tips for cleaning a mattress will work, here, too – or why not tackle both at the same time?

Here's how to wash your pillows without water:

  • Check the care label on your pillow. Usually, it will tell you exactly what you can or can't do.
  • Strip off all the outer pillowcases and check there are no opening in the seams of the inner pillowcase – you don't want the contents spilling.
  • Take the pillows outside and carefully bang them together to get rid of any dust that you can. Repeat.
  • Vacuuming pillows will also get rid of supplementary dust before washing.

How to clean pillows with sunlight

No, cleaning bedding with sunlight is not just an old wives' tale: the ultraviolet rays from the sun do kill bacteria and freshen bedding, so leaving your pillows out in the sun is definitely an effective way of cleaning them. 

You might struggle to use this method in mid-winter (if you're in the Northern Hemisphere, at least), because you do need a good few hours of direct sunlight for this way of cleaning pillows to really work.

Also, bear in mind that you'll need to remove any stains from your pillow before you place it out in the sun.

How to keep your pillows clean

Spills happen and even if you are very careful, sweat and skin cells will inevitably shed onto your pillow. 

A pillowcase and pillow protector will help prevent your pillows from becoming too dirty. You can even get waterproof pillow protectors on Amazon (opens in new tab) that are particularly useful in situations where accidents are very hard to avoid and memory foam is being used.

Get a spare set of pillows so you are always prepared if you need to do an emergency clean – this allows adequate time for thorough washing and drying.

Anna is Content Editor at Real Homes. She moved to the world of interiors from academic research in the field of English Literature and photography. She is the author of London Writing of the 1930s and has a passion for contemporary home decor and gardening. At Real Homes, she covers a range of topics, from practical advice to interior and garden design. 

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