When it comes to life’s most plaguing questions, forget “To be or not to be?” and give “How often should I wash my sheets?” its rightful time in the spotlight. A number of elements factor into the answer, from how much you move in your sleep to your level of clothing when you hop between the sheets. Still, there is a sheet-washing frequency experts generally recommend. Here, a microbiologist and dermatologist explain how often to wash your sheets for a host of (kind of foul) reasons.
Unwashed sheets accumulate a lot of unappetizing stuff.
Exhibit A: dead skin cells. Humans shed between 30,000 and 40,000 skin cells every day, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). Congratulations because that’s impressive, but also, you spend hours of your life in bed. Guess where a lot of those dead skin cells are hanging out?
Where skin cells lead, dust mites will follow. These microscopic critters feast on your dead skin cells, according to the Mayo Clinic. Unwashed sheets (and your bed in general) are basically like an all-you-can-eat buffet to these mites.
If you sleep naked, you may even be adding tiny bits of dried fecal matter to the mix, microbiologist Michael Schmidt, Ph.D., a professor and vice chairman of microbiology and immunology at The Medical University of South Carolina, tells SELF. So, if you don’t wash your sheets for an extended period of time, it’s kind of like you’re sleeping in a cesspool of your own making.
That is, of course, unless you share a bed with someone else. If you do, you’re dealing with all of their bodily fluids and dead skin cells, too. If you have a pet that sleeps in bed with you, they could be contaminating your sheets as well.
But what does all of this actually mean for your health?
Possibly nothing. We’re not saying that sleeping on super dirty sheets is condemning you to any ill health effects. But it’s also possible for it to mess with your health, primarily that of your skin.
If you don’t wash your sheets often enough, all the bacteria they amass can disrupt your skin’s ecosystem, Whitney Bowe, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist in New York City, author of The Beauty of Dirty Skin, and assistant clinical professor of dermatology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Medical Center, tells SELF. This important balance of microorganisms is also known as your skin microbiome.
For some people, skin microbiome changes can lead to acne, Dr. Bowe explains. This disturbance may even inflame issues such as eczema if your skin is really sensitive, Dr. Bowe says. (Having eczema means the top layer of your skin can’t protect you from irritants, bacteria, and allergens as well as it should.)
Then there’s the dust mite factor. Since dust mites are common allergens, having them in your bed can provoke allergy symptoms like a runny nose, watery eyes, sneezing, and general discomfort that makes it hard to get good rest at night.
One other thing: If you sleep naked on dirty sheets and are constantly moving your pillow from between your legs to under your head, you’re theoretically running the risk that your mouth or eyes could come into contact with bits of stool. If you’re healthy, this thought is more disturbing than anything else. But if you happen to have a compromised immune system, like if you’ve come down with the flu, that could technically leave you more vulnerable to illnesses that spread through bacteria in feces, like pink eye.
Again, sleeping on wildly dirty sheets doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get sick. But it’s still smart to wash them often, just in case.
You should wash your sheets at least once a week.
This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, but both experts like this number because it’s frequent enough to avoid building up levels of contamination you really need to worry about, but it’s also pretty realistic for many people.
That’s just a general number, though. A myriad of factors determine if you should wash your sheets more often than once a week based on your lifestyle, Dr. Schmidt says. Here are a few questions to ask yourself:
- Do you wear pajamas to bed? They can trap some of your dead skin cells so they don’t wind up on your sheets.
- Do you shower before bed? That gets rid of some of those dead cells, too.
- Do any pets sleep with you?
- Do you move around a lot in your sleep? If you’re what Dr. Schmidt likes to call a “dead-to-the-world sleeper,” you’re less likely to shed skin. You’ll still shed some, but not as much as if you were constantly thrashing around in your sleep.
- Do you drool all over your pillowcase every night?
- Do you have skin issues such as acne or eczema?
Sometimes life gets in the way, though.
That’s especially true if you don’t have easy access to a washing machine and dryer. We get it.
If you must stretch your sheets beyond one week, Dr. Bowe strongly advises you always wash your face before bed, even if you only applied a moisturizer or sunscreen during the day. That will help ensure that you’re not putting a dirty face on a dirty pillowcase, at least. If you can squeeze in a shower before bed to slough off dead skin cells, that can be helpful, too.
If you want to take further precautions, making your bed daily is an excellent idea. As you make your bed, tiny dry particles your sheets have accumulated fall to the floor, says Dr. Schmidt. Then it’s a job left to your vacuum.
Finally, if laundry is the bane of your existence, you might want to consider buying more sheet sets so you don’t have to wash them as often. Where there’s a will (to avoid the drudgery of laundry day), there’s absolutely a way.