Problems In The Sack: Are Your Pillows A Health Hazard?

pillows on chair

Are your pillows so far past their best that they're a threat to your health?

Try this quick test (courtesy of Good Housekeeping's Kathleen Huddy). Take your pillows and fold them longways in half - then place a decently sturdy book on top, and let go. Any pillows that don't flip your book onto the floor...well, it seems you have a problem there.

We spent a third of our lives with pillows attached to our faces. It's therefore pretty horrifying that they're usually filled with an entire ecosystem of disgustingness, primarily our discarded skin cells. Up to a third of the weight of an old, unwashed pillow is skill cells, dust mites, dust mite poop and other creatures busily feeding on the things we leave behind. In a way it's a marvellous demonstration of how the natural world recycles in our wake. It would almost be inspiring - if we weren't taking about something we regularly shove our faces into.

A study commissioned by the Barts and The London NHS Trust (now Barts Health NHS) in 2012 looked at pillows in hospital wards - places where bedding is washed on a regular basis. Where pillows suffered damage or were inadequately washed, they proved a ready breeding-ground for some of the worst hospital bugs imaginable, including the dreaded methicillin-resistant staphyllococcus aureas (MRSA). It's worth nothing that the study was undertaken by a company looking to profit by offering more hygienic pillows - but the evidence remains damning. 

girl on pillow

So what can you find in an ill-tended pillow? Here's a quick rogue's gallery:

  • Dust Mites. Potentially hundreds of thousands of them, livingm, eating and yes, defecating, right under your nose. Dust mites use proteins to break down skin cells, and once excreted, these gut enzymes can elicit powerful allergic reactions, damaging the defensive systems in human skin and disturbing the sleep of millions of asthma sufferers.
  • Mold. A study by the University of Manchester concluded that a typical used pillow contains more than a million fungal spores, including aspergillus fumigatus, a fungus linked to deaths in bone marrow transplants and leukemia patients.
  • Bacteria. Potentially more than in your bathroom. Think about that.

What's the solution?

The first is a no-brainer: wash your pillows. Make sure it's on a high enough temperature to kill dust mites - 60 Celsius is a good bet. When you dry them, make sure they're really dry before starting to use them again, as dust mites thrive in humid conditions.

Alternately, if you want to freshen your pillows without washing them, pop them in the freezer for 24 hours!

If either of these isn't going to do the job, you need new ones. There are no agreed-upon guidelines on how often you need to change them - but bear in mind that a year represents nearly 3,000 hours of having your face pressed into them. It's your call...

Looking for ideas? Check out this collection!

Images: jakuza and lisaclarke.


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  • jason-dainter

    Nice one Mike! This was a total eye opener! My pillow is going straight into the freezer after reading this! Anyone else found any good tips in natural pillow cleansing?


  • asta55

    Thank you for the great tips. What about memory foam pillows?


    • mike-sowden
      says (in reply to asta55):

      I don't have any experience of washing memory foam pillows myself, alas - but from what I can tell, the big no-no there is letting the middle of it get wet, because it will take so long to dry out properly that it will attract mold and other unwanted forms of life. Instead of throwing it in the washing machine wholesale, clean the surface (and once dry, be sure to give it a good beating outside afterwards, to shake off as much dust as possible). It's also worth hunting down the new varieties of memory foam pillow that are infused with green tea!


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