The thought of stripping, washing, and re-making our beds once a week (which is how often the American Academy of Dermatology suggests) have many postponing the annoying chore. A recent survey by Mattress Advisor found that people averaged 24 days between washings. But there are many reasons not to neglect laundering our sheets and pillowcases. "[Viruses] can live on linens for two to three days,” warns Dr. Alexis Young, M.D., assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City, New York.
Meet the Expert
- Dr. Alexis Young, M.D., is an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City, New York.
- Rosa Nogales-Hernandez is the head of home cleaning at Valet Living, a full-service amenities provider to the multifamily housing industry based in Tampa, Florida.
- Jennifer Ahoni is a scientist, engineer, and an 11-year veteran of Procter & Gamble with expertise in air care and fabric care.
- Rebecca Stone is a technical designer at Garnet Hill, a sustainable and ethically-sourced clothing and bedding company.
Health considerations aside, there are plenty of “ick” factors that come into play when leaving sheets unwashed for too long. Here, experts share their top 10 reasons why you should be washing your sheets regularly.
You Shed Thousands of Dead Skin Cells
According to the AAD, humans shed between 30,000 and 40,000 skin cells every day, and where they lurk, dust mites follow. “Dust mites love to feed off our dead skin,” Young says. “Share a bed with someone, and you’re doubling those numbers. And for those who toss and turn in their sleep, as well as those who sleep with little or no clothing on, expect additional skin shedding due to all that rubbing against your linens.”
Showering at night to slough off dead skin cells and wearing clean pajamas will help keep dead skin cells off your sheets. “Dead skin cells make up 75% of the dust in our homes,” Nogales-Hernandez says. “Taking these precautions will keep your whole house cleaner.”
You Sweat During the Night
The average adult produces one liter of sweat, 10 grams of salt, and 40 grams of sebum (equivalent to four pats of butter) throughout the course of a day. “Since adults usually get between seven and nine hours of sleep a night, much of these body soils will transfer to your sheets,” Jennifer Ahoni, a senior scientist at Tide, shares. And according to Young, “Sweat contains a large number of bacteria and yeast, which can transfer to other parts of your body, resulting in bacterial folliculitis, yeast, and fungal infections like ringworm.”
If you sleep under heavy covers, crank the thermostat up at night, or if you just normally perspire a lot, you should be washing your bedding twice a week. “And be sure to shower after exercising and before climbing into bed,” Young adds.
You Wear Makeup or Medication to Bed
“Makeup residue can build up on linens, allowing bacteria to thrive, while oils and powders rubbing against your skin and sheets for hours can lead to irritation and acne,” Young notes. Wash your face before bed, but if you forget or are too tired, throw your pillowcases in the wash the next day with your regular laundry, Nogales-Hernandez suggests.
Acne medications like benzoyl peroxide or ointments with a petroleum jelly-base can stain sheets as well, so it’s important to wash your pillowcases regularly or place a towel over your pillow if you’re applying any type of medication to your face at night, according to Young.
You Sleep With Pets
Keep in mind pets shed dead skin cells, too. “Dander and dirt from their fur can cause dermatitis, resulting in dry, itchy or reddened skin,” Young warns. “Pets could also harbor fleas, mites, ticks and other parasites which could cause bacterial infections on your skin.”
If you can’t banish your pet to the floor, consider resting a blanket (that can be washed often) or a pet bed over your comforter or duvet.
You Suffer From Allergies or Asthma
People with asthma, allergies, or eczema can trigger or worsen their symptoms by sleeping on dirty sheets filled with dust mites. And even if you don’t suffer from these conditions, you can still experience red eyes, a stuffy nose, or sneezing due to dust mites and pollen.
“Be sure to wash on the hottest temperature suggested on the care label,” Young suggests. “And if you’re suffering from any of these disorders, or have atopic dermatitis, be sure to use a hypoallergenic detergent to avoid flares.”
You Drool During the Night
When you’re sleeping, your swallowing reflexes relax, which can allow saliva to accumulate in your mouth and escape out of the sides, hence drooling. “Saliva contains large amounts of bacteria and yeast, which could transfer to other parts of the body and cause infections like folliculitis and breakouts,” Young explains.
Try switching up your sleep position, as you’re less likely to drool if you sleep on your side or stomach, and wash your pillowcases at least every other day with your regular laundry, flipping your pillow and using the clean side between washings.
You Snack in Bed
Eating in bed is never a good idea, as it leads to unwanted pests in your place of relaxation. “Even small food particles and spills can invite unwanted pests including ants, flies, and even cockroaches,” Nogales-Hernandez explains. “If you’re forced to eat in bed due to sickness or injury, wash your sheets twice a week at a minimum.”
You Have Acne or Eczema
“If you don’t wash your sheets often enough, bacteria can disrupt the balance in your microbiome, which is home to the ‘good’ bacteria and microbes in your body, and predispose you to conditions like eczema and acne,” Young says. “If your skin is inflamed, the top layer won’t be able to protect itself from harmful irritants and allergens, including dust mites.”
You Have Sex
“Theoretically, STDs can survive on dirty sheets, but you’re more likely to suffer from parasites, both body and genital lice, which could transfer to the sheets and cause itchy eruptions and bacterial infections,” Young says. “Scabies infestations, for example, are caused by a mite that burrows into the top layer of the skin during sex, but they’re also notorious for living on linens and transferring from linens to humans, resulting in an unbearably itchy dermatitis.”
You Don’t Feel Well
If you’ve suffered through the flu, a cold, or any sickness, it’s especially important to wash your sheets every few days. “Otherwise, you could easily spread pathogenic bacteria, fungus, yeast, or a virus, contaminating anyone in contact with your linens,” Young says. “In these situations, it’s crucial to wash bedding on high heat and consider bleach if it’s safe to use on your linens.”
But What's the Best Way to Wash Sheets?
Always follow the care instructions provided on your sheets to protect their longevity. “The label on most of our sheets suggests washing in warm water and tumbling dry on low,” notes Rebecca Stone, technical designer at Garnet Hill. “It can take longer for linens to dry on low, but doing so will extend the life of your bedding as high heat can cause fibers to break down more quickly.”
If you’re sick, you'll have to kill microorganisms using the hottest wash and dryer settings, according Dr. Young. Don’t have the time to wash your linens? “Keep an extra set so you always have a clean backup,” Rosa Nogales-Hernandez, the head of home cleaning at Valet Living, suggests. “And remember to wash your comforters and duvets at least once a month.”