By Sarah Klein
The question: How often should I replace my pillow?
The answer: Nearly 70 percent of people say a comfortable pillow is very important to a good night’s sleep, but many of us make a crucial mistake when it comes to our favorite pillows: We’re keeping them for way too long.
In fact, pillows should probably be replaced around every six months, says Robert Oexman, DC, director of the Sleep to Live Institute, and definitely within two years, according to WebMD, a stark difference from the five-to-10-year lifespan of the typical mattress. “People talk about how nasty a mattress gets,” says Oexman, but pillows are more frequently forgotten.
Unlike mattresses, the concern is less about the pillow breaking down and no longer providing ample support, he says. Instead, “it’s just not something you want to be around longer than six months.”
That’s because a host of critters and debris can be found in the very pillow you lay your face on night after night after night. Dirt and oil and dead skin cells get trapped there, which might lead to acne. Dust mites, which belong to the spider family, also like to hang out in the crevices of your pillow. “You can’t see them, but they’re concentrated where people are in things like bedding and carpeting,” says Mark R. Neustrom, DO, of Kansas City Allergy and Asthma Associates.
While Internet rumors would have you believe otherwise, your mattress and pillows don’t double or triple in weight thanks to the dust mite population thriving within them. But you’re still better off erring on the side of replacing bedding too frequently.
Setting aside the upsetting imagery of spider relatives holding meetings in your pillows, dust mite accumulation can cause very real health problems, namely unpleasant reactions in people who are allergic to the bugs. Roughly 20 percent of people have allergies, says Neustrom, and of those who do, around two thirds may be allergic to the types of dust mites that congregate indoors, he says.
Unlike allergens like cat dander, however, the protein that triggers reactions to dust mites isn’t typically airborne, he says, so symptoms that are particularly strong first thing in the morning is a good sign the problem might be your pillow. Anyone with year-round nasal symptoms also might want to get tested for a dust mite allergy, he says.
The good news, however, is that dust mites don’t carry with them any risks other than those allergic or asthmatic reactions, and they don’t spread any kind of disease. Still, that doesn’t mean you want to be sleeping among hundreds of thousands of them.
Airtight covers for mattresses and pillows can certainly help, as can washing bedding — including pillows — regularly. Thirty minutes on low in the dryer can also help clear out some of the clutter from your pillows, says Oexman.
When the time does come to shop for a new pillow, keep in mind that the goal is to find one that fills the gap between your head and your shoulders when you lie down. The perfect pillow positions your head into alignment when you’re snuggling in your favorite sleep position, says Oexman. Stomach and back sleepers need much thinner pillows than side sleepers for this reason, he says. Whether you purchase a down or a foam or a gel pillow is entirely up to your personal preference, he says. Whenever you get a new mattress, he adds, you must also get a new pillow, as the gap between your head and shoulders will change with the change in mattress firmness.
And what about that old trick to measure pillow support of folding it in half and then placing a shoe on top to see if it will stay put? Oexman says this carries no weight whatsoever. “Take a down pillow made for a stomach sleeper,” he says. “That’s going to be a very, very thin pillow, and when you fold it over, that shoe’s not going to flip off, but that’s still the right pillow for a stomach sleeper.”