how does mold grow on pillows?
Sleep Safety

How Do Pillows Get Moldy? (Easy Identification + Removal)

Last Updated on February 10, 2024 by Louise Carter

Mold impacts many homes and can grow on any fabric. This means a bedroom with mold and mildew in its walls or ceilings could also host moldy pillows, cushions, bed sheets, and clothing.

Mold will appear as dark green or black rings on pillows. The pillows will also have a distinctive, unpleasant smell, no matter how often you wash or change the pillowcases.

Pillows grow moldy when a room has excessive humidity (above 60% on a hygrometer), sleeping without a pillowcase, sleeping with wet hair, or when pillowcases aren’t washed frequently enough.

Sweat and drool on a pillow will create moisture, creating the perfect breeding ground for mold.

Shielding the pillow and laundering pillowcases no less than once a week will minimize the risks of mold and kill mold spores before they multiply.

Breathing in mold spores can lead to severe health issues. Ideally, moldy pillows should be discarded upon detection, but they can be washed if you identify the problem early.

Can Mold Grow on Pillows?

Mold and mildew in the home aren’t restricted to structural components of your house, nor are they limited to rooms subject to condensation, like bathrooms or kitchens.

Mold can spread from walls onto pillows or grow independently on soft furnishings.

What Does Mold on a Pillow Look Like?

Remove the pillowcases and inspect the pillows for green or black rings. If you’ve left bread or cheese too long, you’ll immediately recognize the warning signs.

Understanding the warning signs of mildew (another mold) is also essential.

Mildew is common on flat surfaces like walls but can grow on pillows and cushions. Mildew is usually white or gray in appearance and fluffy to the touch.

While mildew still needs to be removed, it’s easier to deal with than mold. Mildew is a surface-level concern and can usually be cleaned with laundry detergent.

how to remove mold from pillows

Do Moldy Pillows Smell Bed

If your pillows grow moldy, they’ll smell damp, stale, and musty, no matter how often you wash and dry your pillowcases in a laundry cycle.

The smell will also affect the odor of new pillowcases. This stench results from Microbial Volatile Organic Compounds (MVOCs) that are released into the air while fungi metabolize.

According to Critical Reviews in Toxicology, there are over 200 MVOCs, each with a distinct scent.

While many people compare the scent of mold to sweat after a workout, the table (below) lists some of the aromas to which different MVOcs are often compared.

Microbial Volatile Organic Compounds (MVOCs)Similar-Smelling Substance
BenzenesGasoline
EstersCloying sweetness, similar to overripe fruit
LactonesSour milk
SulfurRotten eggs
TerpenesCheese
Toluenes, aldehydes, or ketonesMetallic, like paint thinner

The smell of mold is strong, so you should be able to detect it from a safe distance. Don’t hold the pillows to your nose for a deeper sniff because this will put you at risk of inhaling the mold spores.

How Does Mold Grow on Pillows?

Mold is a fungus that grows and spreads when exposed to damp and moisture.

While mold is more commonly associated with dark, dank areas like attics and crawlspaces, it can also grow on clothing, bedding, and pillows.

If a bedroom has mold, the risk of it spreading to the pillows is elevated. Even if you don’t see black mold spores elsewhere in your bedroom, there are other common causes of moldy pillows:

Excessive Moisture

Mold and moisture go hand in hand, so ensure your bedroom isn’t too humid. Use a hygrometer to check the humidity levels in your sleeping space. If they exceed 60%, moldy pillows are a possibility.

Potential explanations for high humidity in the home include:

  • Lack of fresh air and ventilation, especially in environments with a sub-tropical climate.
  • Steam escaping bathrooms and kitchens following baths, showers, cooking, or boiling kettles.
  • Drying your laundry indoors.
  • Prominent use of gas heaters.
  • Rising damp in external walls.
  • Plastering or painting a bedroom and not allowing sufficient drying time.
  • Use of an air conditioner.

High humidity can make it difficult to breathe easily at night and may interfere with your ability to sleep.

Unsanitary Pillowcases

Some people find sleeping easier without a pillowcase, but it may have consequences. Pillowcases protect the pillows, keeping sweat, drool, skin oils, and other causes of mold away from the pillow.

Can sweat cause mold on pillows? Sweat results from running at a high body temperature, and sweat dampens a pillow. Both can cause mold growth.

Cotton pillowcases are likeliest to gather sweat, so consider upgrading to a more luxurious fabric. Bamboo is moisture-wicking and won’t absorb sweat.

Just using a pillowcase won’t prevent mold growth. You must wash the pillowcase at least once a week. If you get hot at night or share your pillow with pets, wash more often.

A standard spin in the washing machine should minimize the risks of mold, especially if you use detergent and an antibacterial solution. If you have silk or satin pillowcases, wash them by hand.

Damp Pillowcases

As important as it is to wash your pillowcases, it’s even more critical that you allow them to dry properly before returning them to your bed. Air drying in the sun is recommended.

Avoid relying on radiators to dry your pillowcases. If your pillowcases or bedding are slightly damp when applied to a bed, fungi will be encouraged to grow and spread.

As well as your pillowcases, consider washing your pillows around once a month.

If they won’t fit in a washing machine, or it would damage the pillows to wash them this way, handwash the cushions with detergent and an antibacterial agent.

Can Wet Hair Cause Mold on Pillows?

If you take a bath or shower before bed, which is recommended for a good night’s sleep, wear a shower cap or dry your hair thoroughly before resting your head on the pillow.

As mold flourishes and thrives in damp and moist environments, long, wet hair will create a nirvana. Any existing fungi on the pillow will multiply upon contact with wet hair.

If you must wash your hair before bed, blow dry it before getting into bed. Ideally, perform this task in a different room, away from your sleeping space, to minimize the risk of moldy pillows.

Can a Moldy Pillow Make You Sick?

According to the Journal of Nutritional and Environmental Medicine, even the healthiest person with a robust immune system can develop respiratory, neurological, and hematological issues due to mold.

Breathing concerns are the most pronounced issue with moldy pillows. You could get a blocked and stuffy nose or experience breathing difficulties by inhaling fungal spores.

If you place your face on moldy pillows, allergic reactions can affect the skin.

Be vigilant about any signs of a rash or itching around the eyes and mouth. Mold spores contain mycotoxins, so inflammation is an ever-present risk.

Constant inhalation of mold spores can also affect the brain. You may find it difficult to concentrate, make decisions, and form or retain memories, feeling like you haven’t slept well.

Immunocompromised people need to be most careful about breathing in mold spores.

If you have any pre-existing health concerns, mold on your pillow can impact the performance of internal organs, especially the lungs and kidneys.

do moldy pillows smell bed?

How To Prevent Moldy Pillows

While mold on pillows can be removed if caught early, avoiding this outcome is preferable.

Take steps to reduce the risk of moldy pillows by doing the following:

  • Don’t have too many pillows on your bed. Fewer cushions provide more breathing space.
  • Use pillowcases to protect pillows, and wash them at least once a week.
  • Provide pillows with access to direct sunlight at least once a month.
  • Regularly vacuum your bedroom and sleep space, including your bedding and pillows.
  • Keep your bedroom well-ventilated and get a dehumidifier if necessary.
  • Never place damp pillowcases or bedding on your bed.
  • Replace old pillows showing wear and tear, especially if they’re over 18 months old.

The longer you leave the mold to take hold, the harder it’ll be to remove.

How To Remove Mold from Pillows

If you’ve followed all the instructions above but still find mold on your pillows, you should throw them away and buy replacements.

Moldy pillows can be cleaned. Using a sponge, apply a vinegar and baking soda solution to the pillow. Alternatively, use a combination of fresh lemon juice and table salt. Then, rinse the pillow.

A pillow that’s badly affected by mold must be treated with bleach.

Fill a bathtub or large sink with warm water and add half a cup of bleach. Soak the pillow for 30 minutes, then rinse it. Unfortunately, the chemical smell is likely to linger.

After washing pillows, leave them to dry in the sun. Sunlight kills mold spores, so leave the pillows outside until they’re completely dry, and use a toothbrush to remove stubborn stains.

Cleaning your pillows won’t always resolve a mold issue. You may need to accept that your pillows are no longer fit for purpose and replace them.

Mold on pillows can spread quickly and harm your health. Never ignore warning signs of mold in your sleeping space – it should always be considered a health hazard.