How (and When) to Wash Bed Sheets

There's a general consensus among health and cleaning experts about how often we should be washing our bed sheets: once a week. But before you say "That's crazy!" and go back to washing your sheets every two to four weeks like most people do, give this some thought: Unless you sleep fully clothed in long-sleeve pajamas, your bed sheets are pretty much like underclothes that you wear every day for about eight hours. After all, they're right up against your skin for the entire time you're in bed. Now, would you wear the same underwear and T-shirt every day for three weeks—without washing them? We can only hope not.

1950s BOY & GIRL BROTHER &...
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Bed linens get more use than you think, and need to be washed often.

Why Wash Your Sheets Once a Week

When you learn about the kinds of stuff that collects in your bed sheets, you can start to see why the underwear analogy fits like a pair of skivvies. Alok Vij, MD, a dermatologist with Cleveland Clinic, reports that the average person sheds 1.5 grams of dead skin cells each day. That's about 3/8 of a teaspoon and enough food for one million dust mites. Dust mites live in our bed sheets and clothing, and pretty much everywhere else. They're there—you just can't see them. And if you're allergic to dust mites, dirty sheets can make things worse.

Our skin also harbors bacteria. Having a lot of dead skin lying around raises bacteria levels, which can cause a skin condition called folliculitis and can exacerbate eczema, according to Dr. Vij. He also stresses that regular washing is especially important for people who share their beds with pets, noting that animals often host fungal organisms and can transmit conditions such as ringworm and scabies to humans.

Dust mite.
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Dust mite (good thing we can't see them).

In addition to skin cells, sheets absorb a lot of sweat and anything else that comes with it: hair, lotion, dirt, even fecal matter. This is why the Oregon Public Health Division requires hotels to wash linens and towels of long-stay guests at least once a week. It's easy to see why you should do the same at home.

How to Wash Bed Sheets

Now that you've been convinced to wash your sheets more often, you can get added benefit from what the experts say about how to wash them properly. According to Tide (the laundry detergent maker), Whirlpool's Institute of Home Science, and Martha Stewart (who else?), you should wash bed sheets in hot water, or in the hottest water recommended on the care label. Cotton is usually fine in hot water; polyester and other synthetics may need warm. Other recommendations from these experts:

  • Use two or more sets of sheets in rotation, to minimize the inconvenience of frequent washing.
  • Ball up sheets loosely before adding them to a top-loading washer with an agitator. This prevents sheets from getting wrapped around and tugged and pulled by the agitator. Do not wrap sheets around the agitator when loading them into the washer.
  • Wash sheets separately to prevent smaller items from getting balled up in the sheets in the washer and dryer.
  • Don't use conventional fabric softener. Some are made with animal fat, which can weaken the fabric and promote holes in sheets.
  • Brighten white sheets with oxygen bleach.
  • Avoid over-drying sheets or drying them on high heat, which leads to wrinkling and premature wear. Instead of high-heat drying for disinfection, hang sheets in the sun or iron them after drying.
Shadow of woman hanging laundry
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Sunlight naturally disinfects fabric.