What Bacteria is on My Pillow?

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?

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.

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.


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
Heat Treatment
Steam Cleaning
Allergy Treatments

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.

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