Do you treat your sheets like a cast-iron pan? Mainly wiped down, occasionally rinsed, never with detergent? Or perhaps, like one TikTok user's boyfriend, you're hanging on to a decade-old set of pillows that have never seen a splash of water.
Homebound and hygiene-conscious, we’re paying more attention to keeping things clean in the bedroom. And while most people probably don’t “season” their sheets, many of us aren’t cleaning our beds as often as we should be.
Sweat, skin cells and tiny prowlers
Is that just plain gross or is it a bigger problem? According to the respiratory expert Prof John Blakey, "if you didn't wash your bedding for a year it would be more than a kilo heavier just because of dead skin."
It gets worse. Microscopic dust-mite arthropods (like tiny spiders) thrive on these skin cells, particularly on pillows, because they love the humid environment. “More than 10 per cent of the weight of the manky pillows will be hundreds of thousands of dust mites and their droppings,” Blakey says. Even if that doesn’t unnerve you, it can be problematic for anyone with asthma. Dust-mite allergy can also cause all-year-round hay-fever-type symptoms.
Other microscopic lurkers that flourish on sweaty, old bedding include bacteria that can alter the lungs’ microbiome and lead to infections or interfere with inhaled drugs, says Blakey, along with allergy-causing fungal spores such as Aspergillus fumigatus, which can trigger asthma. To complete the cycle, it is thought these little spores, which are most commonly found in pillows, might feed on dust-mite droppings.
Even skin conditions such as eczema and dermatitis can be exacerbated by bacteria that lurk in unwashed bedding, according to the dermatologist Dr Stephen Shumack. Exposing infected skin to sheets can also cause reinfection. Other nasties to look out for that can hang out in sheets and pillowcases are staphylococcus and scabies.
So freshly laundered bedding clearly has more perks than the exquisite smell of clean sheets. But when and how should we clean it?
Sheets and pillowcases
Although there is no hard-and-fast rule, the consensus is that sheets and pillowcases should be washed each week. “I’d be a little worried if people weren’t washing their bedding approximately weekly,” says Blakey, and only a hot wash will kill mites and fungi. Asthma specialists recommend washing in water hotter than 55 degrees. Failing that, they suggest hot tumble-drying for 10 minutes or washing in cold water with a product containing tea tree or eucalyptus oil.
Opening the windows and airing sheets in the sun are also recommended. Shumack suggests people with skin conditions wash even more often, adding that ironing sheets and pillowcases can also help sterilise them.
It should be noted that sweat – and urine – contain urea, which can react with cleaning products and form compounds called nitrosamines, which trigger asthma. The best evidence so far in this regard points to bleaches, so it is better to avoid cleaning agents that contain chlorine. Pouring bleach into a bath to clean filthy pillows, as in the TikTok video, “might well make someone wheezy”, notes Blakey. People with skin rashes can also react to certain cleaning products, says Shumack. This can be alleviated by making sure the bedding is rinsed well after washing to avoid any residue.
The Good Housekeeping Institute suggests pillows should be washed every six months. But as they are hot spots for dust mites and their teeny friends, asthma specialists recommend washing and drying them thoroughly each month.
Most pillows will come with cleaning instructions on their tags, so it’s best to follow the manufacturer’s directions – but if you’ve cut your pillow tags off (or never had them to begin with), down and synthetic pillows can typically be machine-washed, while memory-foam pillows should be soaked with gentle detergent, rinsed, gently squeezed, then left to air-dry.
To keep mites away, asthma specialists recommend covering pillows, as well as mattresses and quilts, with mite-resistant cases – although this is no substitute for washing them regularly.
To help people with asthma, replace pillows when you notice they’re starting to lose their lustre; some manufacturers suggest doing this every couple of years.
Duvets – and likely other covers, such as blankets – can also collect dust mites, so these should be at least aired, and ideally washed, regularly. Many duvets and covers are dry-clean only, so pay close attention to the manufacturer’s directions.
While some manufacturers suggest replacing duvets every five years, there is no definitive rule about this, and the lifespan of your duvet will likely depend on how often you wash it.
Either way, if you do want to get rid of your duvet or pillow, "the crafty ones among us can upcycle them into large floor cushions, door stops or use for packing and moving," says Ryan Collins of Planet Ark. Unfortunately, they are not recyclable so will otherwise need to go in the bin.
“If you can’t remember when you bought your mattress, get a new one!” says Blakey. He also recommends vacuuming your mattress and, for sensitive people, using allergen-impregnable covers to help avoid contact with dust mites and their droppings.
Disposing of mattresses can cause other problems, though. Some are recycled, but many can end up in landfill. This is a problem because they are hard to compact and take up a lot of space. And most of their components, such as wood, foam, fabric and steel springs, can be recycled. “By not recycling these materials we’re wasting the resources, energy and water that went into making the product in the first case,” says Collins.
A number of mattress-recycling services are available in Ireland, however, including Mattress Recyling Ireland, based in Co Longford, and Eco Mattress Recycling, which provides a door-to-door collection service in Dublin. It also provides trainees on back-to-work schemes with experience. The retailer Harvey Norman also recycles old mattresses for a fee of €30. Under the service, mattresses are deconstructed and each part is recycled individually to ensure materials are not mixed.
Even though these measures can help keep mites and other little lurkers at bay, all-round cleanliness certainly helps. Blakey says not to forget about exposure from other sources, such as sofas, rugs, clothes and office chairs. “Just having a clean bed isn’t going to be a cure-all.” – Guardian