Pillow Bacteria

Updated on November 26, 2019

Your bed is one of the most important places in your life: a recent study found that when you combine the time we spend there while sleeping, trying to get to sleep, and doing various other bed-specific activities, the average person spends around 36 years in bed over the course of their lives. Whether you think of your bed as a sanctuary or just an everyday part of your life, you will inevitably wind up spending more time there than almost anywhere else.

As such an important part of daily life, you obviously want your bed to be clean–and, if you asked the average person, they would tell you they do enough to keep their beds sanitary and fresh. The fact is, however, that most people overestimate how well they actually maintain the cleanliness of their beds and bedding. As a result, many beds host shocking amounts of unwanted life forms we associate with dirtiness–including bacteria, dust mites, molds, and fungi.

What Could Be in My Bed?

Dust Mites
Dust mites, or Dermatophagoides farinae, are microscopic insect-like creatures that are too small to see with the naked eye. They live through several life cycles, which usually takes two to five weeks from egg to mature adult. Once mature, dust mites generally live for two to four months, during which time a female can lay up to 100 eggs. There are at least 13 species of dust mites, all of which have evolved to live inside the human home. Their ideal temperature is between 66 and 77 degrees, which lines up with the average indoor room temperature. In addition, dust mites primarily live off of the dead skin cells shed from the bodies of humans and their pets. Because of this, mites tend to thrive primarily in areas of a house where skin cells settle, including the bedroom. In fact, studies have shown that dust mites are more likely to be found in the bedroom than in any other room of a house. Though people are generally not allergic to the mites themselves, and though they do not bite or tend to carry diseases that are dangerous to humans, some people are allergic to their feces and to the carcasses they leave behind when they die. Throughout its lifetime, each dust mite can produce up to 200 times its own weight in waste products, which works its way into dust. An estimated 20 million Americans have dust mite allergies, which can cause varying degrees of symptoms. Dust mites are incredibly common. According to the American Lung Association, four out of five homes in the United States have at least one bed with dust mites, and a typical mattress can contain tens of thousands of individual mites.
Mold refers to a subspecies of fungus. It can live both indoors and outdoors, thrives in warm and damp environments, and often finds its way into homes. There are many, many different types of mold, but the most common mold types you are likely to see in a home are Cladosporium, Aspergillus, Alternaria, and Penicillium. A report from the World Health Organization showed that 10% to 50% of residential homes have damp conditions that can facilitate mold growth. In many homes that have mold, the infestation can spread to the bedroom, and specifically to mattresses and pillows. This is especially true if your bedroom is in a damp area (such as a basement), if it is next to a leaky bathroom, or if you have had issues with flooding or extreme humidity in or around the bedroom area. Mold in a mattress may not be visible or noticeable at first, but once it appears, it can and will spread quickly if steps are not taken to remove it. Mold types can range in terms of potential harm to humans, as will be explored below, but it is not healthy to have any sort of mold in your sleeping environment (and especially your bed). Because you spend so much time in your bed, a mold infestation there can cause frequent and prolonged exposure, which can increase the risk of negative health effects.

Other Fungi
Mold is only one type of fungus in the larger fungi family. Many other types of fungi can live and thrive in your bedding, including in your sheets, on your mattress, and on your pillow. Some fungi seem to be particularly attracted to pillows: it is estimated that the average pillow can host as many as 16 different species of fungus and literally millions of fungal spores. One study closely examined a series of 10 pillows that were in active, regular use, and found 47 separate species of fungi on their surfaces. It is possible that fungi and dust mites actually have a symbiotic relationship, and that where you find one, you are likely to find the other. According to a leading theory, this is because the dust mites eat fungi, and fungi use the feces of the dust mites as a major source of nutrition and nitrogen (along with shed human cells), all of which makes up a pretty unpleasant microsystem to go to bed with.
Bacteria can be found in many places, but the amount of bacteria that can amass on beds, bedding, and pillows is, to say the least, unsettling. A study which asked respondents to swab their unwashed sheets over a period of four weeks found that unwashed pillowcases and sheets had up to 39 times more bacteria than pet-food bowls and several thousand times more bacteria than a toilet seat. It also seems that the older your mattress is, the more bacteria it will accrue. One recent study took bacteria samples from mattresses that ranged in age, from those that respondents had for one year to those that respondents had for seven years. That study found that due to increased exposure to new bacteria over time, as well as the reproduction of existing bacteria, the older mattresses had the highest bacterial presence, with more than 16 million colony-forming units of bacteria per square inch. There are four general types of bacteria that are most commonly found in beds. Two of them, gram-positive cocci and gram-positive rods, are not generally harmful to humans. However, the other two–gram-negative rods and bacilli, can have negative health effects and lead to a number of diseases. By and large, these bacteria come from us: researchers traced them to our skin, our mouths, and our stool. In large-scale mattress and bedding studies, the most abundant bacterial populations detected were members of the gram-positive actinomyces family, which were found at the end of the bed, where our feet go when we sleep. Members of other bacterial families, like clostridiales, bacteroidales, fusobacteriales, and neisseriaceae, were found in large quantities closer to the head area and on the pillow, though they were also found on the rest of the bedding. The amount of bacteria in human beds isn’t just shocking on its own. It’s especially shocking in comparison to the sleep environments of other animals. For instance, a University of North Carolina study found that on average, human beds have a greater quantity and diversity of bacteria than chimpanzee nests. This is because, unlike our closest primate relatives, human beings tend to sleep in the same bed and bedding night after night, which causes a bacterial ecosystem to emerge.
Body Detritus
The average person sheds around 15 million skin cells each night. In addition to causing their own potential allergic and health issues, these accumulated skin cells serve as food for the various other life forms–especially dust mites–that like to make their homes on your sheets, mattresses, and pillows. There’s also the matter of sweat to consider: some studies have found that people can sweat up to 26 gallons of fluid onto their bed every year. Like shed skin, in addition to being plain old gross, that sweat can provide a hospitable environment to various moisture-loving molds and fungi.

Potential Health Effects

The mere presence of all of these extra guests in your bed is unsettling all on its own. However, there’s also the matter of the potential health issues each one can pose.

  • In addition to inviting mold, fungi, and bacteria, human sweat can carry diseases and infections such as staph and strep. These disease molecules are exuded through your pores, then cling to your skin, and wash off with your sweat, which then lands them in your bedding and on your mattress. If you sleep with a partner, those molecules can infect them, and also have the potential to re-infect you once you are no longer sick with an infection.
  • Dust mites and their feces produce proteins that cause allergic reactions in people with dust allergies. These symptoms include red and itchy eyes, runny noses, and other cold-like symptoms in people who are allergic. They can also induce asthma attacks, and can inflame other pre-existing lung conditions.
  • Certain fungi and molds can cause allergic reactions, which can range from relatively mild cold-like or dermatological symptoms to more severe respiratory issues, especially in people with asthma and pre-existing lung problems. Some of these reactions can be extremely serious, specifically in people with suppressed immune systems. Aspergillus fumigatus, which is a relatively common fungus that can spread to beds and bedding, can cause a condition called Aspergillosis, which can cause death in people with leukaemia, people taking anti-rejection drugs for transplants, and people with HIV/AIDS. Mold and fungi can also cause obstructive sleep apnea, which can lead to sleep disturbance and serious health complications.
  • There are many, many types of bacteria found in bedding, some of which are not directly harmful to humans. However, some bacteria found in bedding can cause a whole array of health issues. One of these is Staphylococcus aureus, which can cause what’s commonly known as a staph infection, which in some rare cases can be deadly. Bacteroides, a large species of bacteria, includes individual bacteria which have been linked to pneumonia and appendicitis. Other bacteria found in bedding includes fusobacteriaceae, some of which can cause severe infections, and neisseriaceae, which can transmit and reduce immunity to gonorrhea.
  • Unwashed or under-washed bedding and mattresses can also cause and/or exacerbate skin issues like acne. The oils from your skin, as well as whatever dirt particles you picked up during the day, and any cosmetics or lotions you may have on when you go to sleep, all wind up on your bed and bedding. These particles accumulate, and, if they aren’t washed off, can clog your pores and irritate your skin when you sleep.

How to Prevent Bio-Growth in Your Bed

Learning about all these creatures growing in your bed can be daunting, but you’re not helpless against them. In fact, there are many steps that you can take to drastically cut down on bacteria, fungi, mold, dust mites, and other potentially harmful populations on your mattress and pillows and in your bedding.

Wash your sheets, blankets, and pillowcases every week
It is recommended that you wash all your bedding–including pillowcases, sheets, blankets, quilts, and comforters–at least one time every week. It’s easy to get busy or overwhelmed and forget to wash your bedding regularly, but it’s worth it to make an effort to incorporate bedding-washing into your weekly routine. If you don’t have time to immediately wash your bedding, make sure to at least change all bedding on your bed on a weekly basis.
Consider latex and memory foam pillows
One major step you can take against dust mites, fungi, and bacteria is to consider switching out your standard pillows for latex and/or memory foam. Down and poly-fill pillows are more likely to serve as attractive homes for bacteria, fungi, and dust mites, as they tend to absorb more sweat and skin cells, and have more fibrous material. Latex and memory foam also have the benefit of providing added support, especially for side sleepers and people who experience neck pain.
Invest in mattress and pillow covers
For additional protection, it’s definitely recommended that you purchase mattress and pillow covers that are specifically designed to be antimicrobial and mite-proof. These covers provide an added safeguard, to prevent bacteria, mites, or fungi–as well as sweat and skin cells–from spreading from your bedding to your mattress and pillow. When you hear about these sorts of covers, you may be thinking about the old school vinyl or rubbery kind, but they actually come in all sorts of fabrics and styles, and many are specially designed to be quiet and comfortable.
Prevent mold with a dehumidifier
Mold needs a humid, damp, and warm space in order to thrive. If your room is even somewhat humid, you may want to use a dehumidifier, specifically one set up right next to your bed, to make the area more inhospitable to mold. Dehumidifiers work by taking moist air out of a room, trapping the moisture from the air, and then blowing out dry air. Drying out your bedroom on a regular basis is an easy and relatively cheap way to take a preventative step against mold forming in your bed, as well as in the rest of the bedroom. Additionally, dehumidifiers may be helpful in a number of other ways. For some people with allergies, asthma, and other health conditions triggered by humidity, dehumidifiers help ease breathing and prevent breathing-related sleep obstruction. They can also help prevent potential property damage caused by humidity, such as warping and rusting of furniture, walls, floors, and ceilings.

Cleaning Bedding: Mattresses and Pillows

We’ve talked about cleaning sheets, blankets, and pillowcases. But what about cleaning your pillows and mattress? After all, as we saw in the bacterial and fungi studies, pillows and mattresses can be just as dirty–if not dirtier–than bedding.

There are several ways to tell if a mattress or pillow needs to be cleaned immediately. If it has a consistent smell or any obvious stains, it’s time to give it a wash. If you have allergies, you should also look out for any persistent or worsening upper respiratory symptoms (sore throat, breathing problems, coughing and sneezing), itchy eyes/skin, and any other symptoms you tend to get when facing common bedroom allergens like dust and mold. An uptick in allergens is another signal that it’s time to clean your mattress and pillow.

However, even without a smell, stains, or noticeable allergen presence, it’s definitely good to stay ahead of the game and make mattress and pillow cleaning a regular part of your routine. You don’t have to do it as often as other chores (like washing sheets), but regularly maintaining mattress and pillow cleanliness stops unwanted buildup and prevents potential infestations that might be harder to deal with later.

Cleaning your mattress and pillows is not quite as easy as cleaning your sheets, but it’s easier than you think, and it’s definitely necessary if you want to keep them sanitary and extend their lifetimes for as long as possible.

There are essentially two ways to go about cleaning mattresses and pillows: DIY cleaning, and professional cleaning.

DIY Cleaning

If you’re attempting to wash your pillows and mattress on your own, there are several basic steps to follow.

First, strip both mattresses and pillows of all bedding. Then, find out if there are specific cleaning instructions from the manufacturer. You can sometimes find this information on tags attached to the product, but if not, you can look up instructions on the manufacturer’s website, or call their customer support line.

Certain mattresses and pillows have very specific cleaning instructions, and it’s worth it to do your research. However, generally and unless otherwise specified, you can then follow these cleaning steps for mattresses and pillows respectively.

Start by vacuuming the mattress, to get all residual particles off of the surface. A vacuum with an upholstery attachment is best, but if you don’t have one, you can also use a standard vacuum. Make sure to vacuum the full surface of the mattress, including the sides, and pay special attention to the seams.

Then, spot-clean the mattress. It’s important to note that you should never soak a mattress or apply large amounts of water to it directly. If you want to get out specific spots or stains, spray a cleaning solution onto a cloth (you can use enzyme cleaner for biological stains, or just dish soap with water), and then blot with the cloth. Apply cold water to a second cloth and blot with that, and then blot dry with a dry cloth.

Afterward, sprinkle baking soda over the top of the mattress, and leave for at least 4 hours. This helps break down particles and acid and absorb moisture and odor, and can also help kill mold and bacteria. After that, vacuum a second time to get rid of the baking soda.

Finally, once that side of the mattress is clean, flip it over and repeat all the cleaning steps on the other side.

Some pillows can be washed in a regular washing machine. If your pillow is washing machine safe, unless otherwise specified, set the washing machine to the gentle cycle, and use hot water and mild detergent.

Make sure to run the pillow through the washer’s rinse cycle several times to make sure you get all of the detergent out. When drying, set the dryer to low heat, and add two clean tennis balls to the load with the pillows to fluff them and decrease drying time.

Some pillows, especially memory foam pillows, are absolutely not washer-dryer safe. Those pillows generally have specific cleaning instructions. However, unless otherwise instructed, many of them can be cleaned with lukewarm water and gentle detergent in the sink or bathtub.

For those pillows, fill up the sink or bathtub with the detergent-water mix. Then, submerge the pillow in the water and squeeze it to allow the water to penetrate the cells of the pillow.

Once that’s done, squeeze out the water from the pillow and drain the soapy water from the sink or tub, and then fill it back up with clean water. Then, re-submerge the pillow in the clean water and squeeze again, repeating until the water runs clear, and then continuing until excess water has been removed. The pillows should be left to air dry, preferably in direct sunlight.

Professional Cleaning

For some people, getting mattresses and pillows professionally cleaned is the best option. This saves you the time and energy of having to do it yourself, as well as the guesswork about whether or not you’re doing it right. After all, a professional cleaner has the expertise to ensure that you won’t wind up damaging or even ruining your beloved pillows or mattresses. Professionals also have specialty tools and cleaning agents that are specifically designed for the task at hand.

There are a number of options when it comes to professional pillow and mattress cleaning. They include:

Maid Service Cleaning

Some professional house cleaning and maid companies and individual contractors offer pillow and mattress cleaning among their range of services. This basically consists of a professional-grade version of DIY pillow and mattress cleaning, without actually having to do it yourself.

If you opt to use a cleaning service, it doesn’t hurt to ask about specific methods for pillow and mattress cleaning, especially if your pillow or mattress has specific cleaning instructions. Generally, though, if a service offers pillow and mattress cleaning specifically, they will likely have experience with the various types of pillows and mattresses, and know what to do.

It should be noted that while most home cleaning and maid services do offer pillow cleaning (especially if the pillows are washer/dryer friendly), it is less common for a home cleaning service to offer full mattress cleaning.

Professional Deep Cleaning

This refers to a range of services offered by specialized cleaning professionals. These are people who come into homes and offices and perform deep cleaning services. Some work on mattresses and pillows in addition to other things (such as upholstery, carpets, furniture, or flooring), while some specialize in mattresses and pillows exclusively.

Generally, the professional will come to your home, and either transport your mattress to a cleaning facility, or, much more commonly, clean it on location. Different professionals use different combinations of cleaning methods, including:

Power Vacuuming
This is generally one of the first steps of the cleaning process, during which mattress cleaners investigate the mattresses for specific dirty spots, and then use specially designed, professional grade, high-power vacuums to clean the surface, seams, and sides of the mattress, as well as the box spring and mattress underside.

They can also use this technique on pillows, especially foam and memory pillows.

Ultraviolet Light
Ultraviolet Light, otherwise known as UV light, is a natural purifier that is found in the rays of the sun. Mattress cleaners use UV light–specifically, UV-C (or, Deep Ultraviolet) light–as a natural pesticide and germicide.

They emit UV-C rays onto mattresses and pillows in order to quickly eradicate dust mites, viruses, bacteria, and various other microbial life forms.

Heat Treatment
Heat treatment is used for a similar purpose as Ultraviolet Light when cleaning mattresses and pillows: that is, killing and removing unwanted things from the mattress.

This treatment was traditionally used to treat bed bugs, who cannot survive if exposed to a certain temperature for a certain amount of time–in their case, any temperature over 119 degrees, for over 90 consistent minutes.

However, many of the other targets of mattress and pillow cleaning, such as dust mites, viruses, germs, and bacteria, have a similar intolerance to sustained high heat. Therefore, cleaners use hyper-concentrated blasts of heat from specially designed instruments to kill and remove them.

Steam Cleaning
Steam cleaning is a system in which pressurized hot water is filtered through a cleaning wand to clean the surface of a mattress or pillow, after which a powerful vacuum is used to absorb the moisture and pick up any residual dirt and detritus.

Some mattresses, like those made out of rayon, as well as many foam and hybrid mattresses, cannot be steam cleaned.

Instead, professional cleaners have various methods of pressurized and non-pressurized deep cleaning that are designed to substitute this part of the process.

Allergy Treatments
Some mattress cleaners offer specifically targeted allergy treatments in their cleaning packages. This sometimes means that they offer an additional mattress cover engineered to reduce allergen exposure, and sometimes refers to anti-allergen chemical blends that are applied to the mattress.

It should be noted that additional testing is needed regarding how effective these treatments are, specifically the anti-allergen chemical blends.

However, mattress cleaning as a whole can help with allergies, and you should work with your individual mattress cleaner on which method is best for you.

Mattress professionals often have specialty products that are meant to lift odors from your mattress and keep them off for as long as possible. Often, these are patented chemical blends that are designed to be used on beds, and therefore not to be too harsh.

In-Store Pillow Dry Cleaning

Dry cleaning works by using a petroleum solvent instead of water during the cleaning process, and then extracting the solvent along with all unwanted dirt and particles. Many dry cleaners offer pillow-cleaning services.

This is especially helpful for pillows that cannot be machine washed: in fact, some pillows specifically require dry cleaning treatment.


Learn More About Bed Bacteria and Cleaning

What’s Living In Your Dirty Sheets?: WebMD’s guide to the potential dangers of unwashed bedding, beds, and pillows.

Bed Cleaning Guide:  HGTV’s how-to on cleaning everything on your bed, from pillowcases to comforters.

Cleaning Pillows 101: Consumer Reports writes all about pillows and how to clean them.

Cleaning Mattresses 101: More info on how mattress cleaning works, and why you should do it.

How Often Should You Wash….?: Everything you need to know about how often to wash the things in your bedroom (and beyond) to keep clean.