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3 Tell-Tale Signs Your Pillows Have Mold & How To Get To The Root Of The Issue

Mold Remediation Expert

By Michael Rubino

Mold Remediation Expert

Michael Rubino is a mold and air quality expert and founder of HomeCleanse, a revolutionary company with the vision to end the worldwide health epidemic caused by poor air quality and toxic indoor environments.

Image by cottonbro / Pexels

Considering that we spend about a third of our lives nestled up against our pillows, these trusty sleep companions play an instrumental role in our snooze.

They offer spinal support, help us avoid that dreaded neck kink, and just provide a pleasant place to rest our heads at the end of a long day. The journey to better sleep doesn’t end with finding the perfect pillow, though. Keeping up with maintenance is vital to preventing mold in pillows—which is gross at best and dangerous at worst.

Why you definitely don’t want a moldy pillow

Without regular cleaning and care, pillows can accumulate contaminants and particles that could leave you in a nightmarish situation. Here are a couple of fast facts that might keep you up at night:

Dust mites: Your trusty pillow can become a haven for these minuscule creatures. According to the Cleveland Clinic, after two years, 10% of the weight of your pillow can come from dead dust mites and their droppings.Mold spores and mycotoxins: Thanks to their tiny size, mold spores and mycotoxins can easily find their way into your home, whether carried in by pets, opened doors and windows, or even your clothing. Unfortunately, your pillow can become a resting ground for these unwelcome guests.Bacteria: Bacteria can make their way onto your pillow’s surface through various means, such as from your skin, and gradually accumulate over time.

Mold, in particular, is something you’ll want to steer clear of on your pillows. All it needs to thrive are two things: food and moisture. Your pillow, filled with organic material like skin cells, offers plenty of food options. And when it comes to moisture, factors like high humidity, sweat, drool, or spills create the perfect breeding ground for microbial growth.

Once mold takes hold, it releases particles like spores and mycotoxins into the surrounding environment. These particles are small enough to be inhaled, ingested, and absorbed into your body. When you rest your head on a contaminated pillow, you unwittingly take these microscopic particles into your body. Not to mention, bacteria thrive in similar conditions, so it’s more than likely present as well.

By keeping your pillows clean, you not only extend their lifespan but also promote your overall well-being and improve the indoor air quality you’re breathing while asleep.

Signs of a moldy pillow

One of the best ways to protect ourselves from exposure to a moldy pillow is to know what to look out for. That way, we can quickly get started on remedying the issue. Here are a few indicators to keep an eye on:


Visible discoloration

Visible growth is one of the most straightforward indicators of a problem. With over 100,000 species of mold identified so far, growth can come in various colors and textures. Standard colors include green, pink, white, grey, blue, red, black, brown, or a combination of hues. As for textures, they could be fuzzy, powdery, velvety, or slimy. 

Also, pay attention to signs of moisture. This includes those visible brownish marks on a pillow. Again, some species of mold can grow in as little as 24-48 hours, so when moisture is present, there’s a likelihood of contamination.


Distinct odor

A noticeable odor can indicate a contamination situation on your pillow as well. Mold growth isn’t always visible. Mold colonies can create an earthy, musty, damp, cigar-like smell due to the release of gases called microbial volatile organic compounds (MVOC). If this odor is present near your pillow, it points to a problem within.


Unexplained chronic health symptoms

Some chronic health issues with seemingly no underlying cause can indicate indoor microbial growth, particularly if they flare near the pillow. 

Prolonged exposure to particles like mycotoxins, spores, and bacteria allows for opportunities to develop adverse health reactions. Everyone’s response to exposure is different, but some chronic symptoms can include difficulty sleeping, allergy-like reactions, mood shifts, and skin reactions.

Always pay attention to chronic symptoms and do not brush them off as “normal.”

What to do if you discover a moldy pillow

If you spot or smell mold on a pillow, replacing it is the best way to handle the situation. While it isn’t the most eco-friendly option, it’s the only way to remove the contamination entirely and stop exposure.

Why, you ask? Well, the fact that pillows are so porous makes them difficult to clear of mold. When a mold spore transitions into a living colony, it puts down roots called hyphae. These roots can reach deep within the material’s pores, making them nearly impossible to eliminate. If the roots are left behind, the mold has an opportunity to return, allowing exposure to continue and become nearly impossible to decontaminate completely.

With that in mind, if you discover mold on a pillow, replace it with a new one and clean the bedding and mattress to eliminate as many particles as possible. If reactions continue after using the affected bedding, I’d recommend replacing it.

How to prevent mold on pillows

No one wants a moldy pillow, but these steps can help you prevent the issue from taking root:

Wash them often

When was the last time you gave your pillows a good once-over? Keeping them clean will help eliminate microscopic particles like bacteria, mold spores, allergens, skin cells, and more.

I recommend washing your pillows at least every few months—but check your pillow’s specific care instructions, as different materials have different needs. How often you wash your pillows will also depend on how much you use them and your sleeping habits (if you’re a sweaty sleeper, for example). 

Mold can grow in 24-48 hours, so time is of the essence when it comes to drying pillows.

The best washing method will vary depending on the pillow material. While synthetic and down pillows can typically be machine-washed, memory foam requires hand washing.

Ensure the pillow dries entirely before placing it back on the bed. If it can go in the dryer, opt for this route. If they can’t be machine washed, place them in a dry location to air out quickly. Mold can grow in 24-48 hours, so time is of the essence when it comes to drying pillows.

Replace them as needed

Old pillows aren’t great at supporting our heads, necks, and backs as we sleep—and they carry a higher risk of contamination as well. Replace your pillows on time to avoid unwanted environmental exposures. I recommend investing in new ones every one to two years.

Keep your sleep environment clean

Here are a few more ways you can keep your sleep environment as clean as possible:

Best pillow materials for preventing mold

The best way to prevent mold is to keep our pillows clean and dry. When choosing pillow materials, we should keep this in mind. Opt for pillows that can be machine-washed to help remove as many microscopic particles as possible. Wool, cotton, polyester, and down alternatives are typically good options.

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