How to Wash Pillows by Hand or in a Washing Machine


At the end of the day (or even in the middle of it), there’s no better feeling than laying your head to rest on a clean, comfy pillow! We need to emphasise the word ‘clean’, here, because while a pillow may feel good, it’s more important for it to be hygienic.

Many studies show that our pillows house a large number of bacteria in the form of dead skin cells, body oils, and more. In fact, the cleanliness of a brand new pillow lasts a mere couple of weeks; thereafter, the accumulation of bacteria will rapidly increase, causing potential skin and respiratory-related problems.

While your pillows may be mildly soiled after a month or two, fast-forward to a couple of months later and you will have a highly unsanitary pillow under your head! Therefore, washing your pillows every 3-5 months, at least, is strongly advised. Now, the real question is how to clean pillows without damaging the material and/or stitching; well, depending on the type of pillow in question – cotton, memory foam, down (feathers), or synthetic – you can either wash it by hand or throw it in the washer. Nevertheless, there is a proper way to carry out both methods, and that’s what we are here to share with you today!

Read on for a start-to-finish guide on how to clean pillows by hand, and in a washing machine.

1. How to Wash a Pillow by Hand

Recommended for: Memory Foam Pillows

Vigorous tossing around in a washing machine (and dryer) can leave memory foam pillows lumpy and unusable; therefore, hand-washing this type of material is highly recommended. It is the safest way to clean a memory foam pillow, and extremely effective in sanitising the material if done correctly. The guide below will require a bit of time and effort, but in the end, it gets the job!

Step One: Dust off Debris

Even with a pillowcase, secretions from your scalp, fine particles such as dust and dead skin cells, as well as hair, can penetrate the material and hide in or rest on your pillow. While washing the pillow will kill bacteria that are hiding inside the foam, you can dust off most of the debris by patting the pillow with enough force to release it from the surface. This will aid in cleaning the pillow effectively without excess debris getting in the mix.

Step Two: Soak in Hot Water & Detergent

Considering the fact that pillows aren’t exactly small items, you will need a large enough basin or tub to submerge one in water. Wash the tub/basin thoroughly before filling it with hot water, and add a cap (or 2 tablespoons) of liquid laundry detergent to it; swirl or swish the water around so that the detergent mixes properly and creates bubbles before placing the pillow inside. For the stirring part, use a long ladle or something that will keep your hand from touching the hot water. Fill just enough water to cover the pillow; you don’t want the memory foam to soak up too much water but rather, just enough for the cleaner to penetrate the core of the pillow.

NOTE: The temperature of the water should be 40-45 C for a safe and effective clean.

Step Three: Wash by Hand

Wait until the water is lukewarm before you begin this step. It is important that you use proper hand techniques to wash a pillow thoroughly without damaging the foam. During this process, you will need to drain out and refill the tub/basin with a fresh solution of water and detergent at least 3 or 4 times for an effective clean. Room temperature water is suitable after the pre-wash soak as hot water is aimed at killing bacteria in pillows, and helps to breakdown stains before the actual cleaning begins.

Use the tips and techniques below to wash your memory foam pillow in a safe and effective manner:

      • Use your palms to press down on different areas of the pillow to help activate the detergent within the material
      • Gently kneed the pillow without folding or twisting to ‘scrub’ at dirt inside and on the outer side of the material
      • Flip the pillow every now and then for an all-round clean; continue using the same hand techniques
      • Massage or gently squeeze the corners and ends of the pillow as dirt from the foam’s core generally gets pushed towards these areas
      • Rinse out the tub thoroughly each time you replace the water

NOTE: These hand-washing techniques should be used on the pillow while it is submerged in water for best results.

Step Four: Rinse Out

It’s important to remove every trace of detergent from your pillow as many cleaning agents can cause skin and eye irritation. To ensure that you rinse out your pillow thoroughly, hold it under running water and gently squeeze the pillow to remove the detergent. This will take a little while since all those hand-washing techniques would have worked the detergent deep into the material. Nevertheless, the cleaning solution will wash out if given enough time.

To ensure that there is no soapy residue leftover, refill the tub with clean water and place the pillow inside; gently press down on the foam and observe the water for suds. If the material is giving out bubbles, that means the detergent hasn’t washed out completely. In this case, the best way to get rid of all traces of detergent is the same way you worked it into the material; i.e. the hand techniques used when washing the pillow. Once you find that there is no more soapiness leaving the pillow, move on to the next step!

Step Five: Dry the Pillow

Just like the washer, a dryer will also damage memory foam pillows in more ways than one. Apart from the vigorous spinning, high heat can cause the foam to crumble; therefore, it is imperative to dry your memory foam pillow using proper drying methods. The best and quickest way to dry memory foam in a safe manner is by air drying it out in the sun. If this isn’t an option for you, simply place it over a clothes rack, preferably under a fan or in a ventilated room. Flip the pillow after a couple of hours to the dry both sides. Be sure to gently squeeze out excess water before drying. 

NOTE: Never hang memory foam pillows to dry as this can cause the material to become uneven.

2. How to Wash Pillows in a Washer

Recommended for: Synthetic, Down, and Cotton Pillows 

It’s fairly easy to clean pillows in a washing machine since it requires lesser time and effort; however, there is a right and wrong way of doing this. The correct way ensures that the pillows go through a safe, effective, and damage-free machine-wash cycle. Here are the steps you need to follow to achieve these results.

Step One: Fill the Tub and Add Detergent

Fill the machine with hot water and add 1 cup of laundry detergent. If there are stains present on the pillows, add a cup of bleach or household ammonia to the water, along with half a cup of dishwashing detergent. This combination is great for removing stains from carpets and other types of fabrics or materials. Be sure to stir the water to dissolve the powders and have them mix properly before adding the pillows.

NOTE: The ratios provided above are suitable for washing four pillows in a washing machine. Use half the amounts when washing two pillows at a time.

Step Two: Put 2 or 4 Pillows into the Washer

Depending on the type and size of your washing machine, it’s advisable to wash two or four pillows at a time. This ensures proper balance within the washer and eliminates excess tossing around which can be harsh on pillows. It’s advisable to remove hair and debris from the outer material of the pillows in the same manner as mentioned earlier (please refer to step 1 of ‘how to wash a pillow by hand’).

Step Three: Start the Machine

In order to tackle stains, as well as remove any trace of detergent from the pillows, the recommended cycle will be the longest one your machine offers which should include at least two rinses. A hot water cycle is typically advised when washing pillows because it provides a deeper clean which is necessary for dense materials.

Step Four: Flip Pillows after the 1st Wash

After your machine drains out the first wash, stop it before it refills. At this time, flip and adjust the pillows for a thorough, all-round clean. Restart the machine and allow it to complete the rest of the cycle without interference.

Step Five: Put Them in the Dryer

If you have the ‘air’ setting on your dryer, it is suitable for down pillows, while synthetic pillows can use some heat when in the dryer. Set the dryer to the shortest time possible; the idea here is to remove excess water before air-drying the pillows as mentioned earlier (please refer to step five of ‘how to wash a pillow by hand’).

Whether you are washing your pillows by hand or in a washing machine, avoid doing it the wrong way by following one of the right guides above!

Karen Saunders


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