Jolie Kerr is a cleaning expert and advice columnist. She'll be here every other week helping to answer your filthiest questions. Are you dirty? Check The Squalor Archive for assistance. Are you still dirty? Email her.
Yes! Yes, you can wash the pillows! And by all means, you should do so! And if you give me just one second in which to collect myself after my bizarrely enthusiastic initial response, I'll tell you more about this fascinating topic.
The Official Order of Clean Persons Directive is that you should wash your pillows at least twice a year, and replace them after 18 months of use. I have to tell you that to remain in good standing with the Order, but if you promise not to drop a dime on me, I'll also tell you that the Directive is a load of horse dung.
The reason why it's horse dung is twofold:
1. It's just a fact of life that most people aren't going to launder their pillows twice a year—it would be grand indeed if they did, but I live here with you in the real world, and I know it's probably not gonna happen. If I can convince you to wash those pillows once a year, I'll be a happy Clean Person indeed. Sound fair? One extra load of wash a year? I don't even feel bad asking that of you!
2. The part about replacing a pillow every 18 months is not only unrealistic advice, it's a wasteful habit to encourage in people. It's true that over time, even with regular cleaning, pillows lose their loft, but it's also true that many of us like a broken-in pillow, so to heck with the lost-loft argument for wasting money and landfill mass on a new pillow every year and a half. That's insanity.
But I've buried the lede. The thing you'll want to be knowing is why you should wash your pillows, and that's dandy, because I would like to tell you why you should wash your pillows.
There are three main reasons to wash pillows, the first of which is that they're full up on dust mites. Now, unless you're actively allergic to dust mites, it's not the biggest deal in the world that a bunch of those lil' guys are hanging out in your pillows. Psychologically, you might not love that fact, but health-wise, it's not as bad as it sounds. Still though, over time, the presence of dust mites is going to compromise the integrity of the pillow.
The second reason is that the pillow is stained. Which, again, isn't the biggest deal in the world, because you're covering it up with a pillowcase. Wait. You are covering it up with a pillowcase, right? Right. Of course you are. How foolish of me to even question that. But those stains … you know that they're your drool stains? Yeah. Bleeeeh. The stains can also come from sweat, the oil that your hair and body constantly excrete, and any foreign matter that makes it into your bed. Like cookies, or Totino's Pizza Rolls.
The third reason is that the pillow smells. That's all. Maybe you like the smell of it! That's cool. You are absolutely allowed to like the smell of your particular pillow. But it's a thing to consider if you're introducing new people to your pillows.
Maybe after reading all that, you're still like, "Eh, who cares?" In which case, sure, don't wash your pillows! If you don't care, you don't care. And I don't really care, either, which I don't intend for you to take in a mean way, it's just that … I'm not sleeping on your pillows, so seriously, I don't care about them. (I care about you, though. Can we hug? I feel like we should hug.)
But if, after reading all that, you sort of think you might want to wash your pillows, I'm here to tell you what you need to know about that process. Here are the basics.
First thing's first: Check the care label on the pillows and follow the instructions provided by the manufacturer. That tag is also going to tell you what the pillows are made of, if that's a thing you don't already know. And it's important to know that, because certain kinds of pillows shouldn't be machine-washed.
Poly-filled pillows can be machine-washed on the gentle cycle—go ahead and wash more than one pillow at a time to balance the load. If you only have one pillow, throwing some towels in the machine will serve to balance things out. Towels are also a good thing to toss into a top-loading machine that has one of those center agitators, since those things have a tendency to shred pillows and other such bulky items. Use the warm-water setting unless the care tag tells you otherwise, and be sparing with your detergent. A tablespoon of liquid detergent is really all you need and want, otherwise the pillows retain some of the soap even after the rinse cycle.
Poly-filled pillows can be machine-dried on a low-heat setting. Dryer balls or tennis balls should also be tossed into the mix to help fluff the pillows up and redistribute the stuffing evenly.
Oh yes, you can for sure wash a feather pillow in the washing machine. People will try to tell you otherwise, but they're lying right to your face. Same basic instructions as with poly-filled pillows: Use a small amount of mild detergent, warm water, delicate cycle.
The important thing, when working with feather pillows, is to be sure you get them really, really dry, because otherwise those feathers can mildew up real fast, and yick. The even trickier thing about this is that you're stuck with using the air-dry setting in the machine, because feathers don't love the dryer's heat, so it's going to be a long process. Just like with poly-filled pillows, dryer or tennis balls are crucial to even redistribution of the stuffing.
Foam-filled pillows are best hand-washed in a large sink or the tub, and then air-dried. Don't put foam pillows in the dryer, even on the no-heat setting; the foam is likely to crumble apart. If you've got a front-loading machine, or a top-loader that doesn't have a center agitator, you can probably safely machine-wash pillows—just opt for the gentlest cycle available to you, and either cool or warm water in concert with a small amount of a mild detergent.
This, however, does not apply to solid foam pillows, nor to memory foam, which cannot be washed, basically, like, at all. I mean, there are ways, but they'll probably either be so labor-intensive or apt to ruin the pillow that I'm not going to go into them here out of a sense of responsibility to you.
Pillows of all stripes can be sent out to the cleaners, if all of this feels like too much and you want to throw money at the problem. Or just don't wash the pillows at all! Just promise me you won't tell the Order I said so.
Jolie Kerr is the author of the book My Boyfriend Barfed In My Handbag … And Other Things You Can't Ask Martha (Plume); more cleaning-obsessed natterings can be found on Twitter, Kinja, and Tumblr. Squalor appears on Jezebel and Deadspin on alternating weeks.
Image by Sam Woolley, photos via Shutterstock.