Yes, you really need a pillow protector
Don't mistake this sleep staple for your regular pillowcase—they're not one and the same, and you'll want both.
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I’ve been familiar with pillow protectors for years because, alas, I drool. A lot. My mom didn’t want younger me to keep ruining pillows with big yellow stains, so she bought a pillow protector. Since then, I’ve been loyal to the product—after all, nothing else keeps my pillows looking spick-and-span longer than they otherwise would.
What is a pillow protector?
A pillow protector is a sleeve for your pillow that goes under your pillowcase to provide a buffer from sweat, drool, food spills, makeup, and so on. They're made with a range of materials, from tightly woven cotton to synthetic polyester blends to terry and even vinyl. Some have a plasticized interior and fabric shell that help create a barrier between liquids and dirt and your pillow—in other words, you get the benefits of vinyl, with the comfort of fabric. Pillow protectors generally have two components: the fabric (or plastic) material and the zipper closure. They’re simple enough but can make a huge difference in extending a pillow's shelf life.
Who should use a pillow protector?
In short: Anyone who sleeps with a pillow should use a pillow protector. I write about sleep full-time, and as someone who’s eyeballs deep in the subject, there’s not a soul who could convince me they're better off not using one. The simple zippered sleeves aim to protect a pillow's exterior and interior filling from anything that could get in, whether it be liquids or dust mites to various fungi. (Ick factor aside, fungi are everywhere and researchers have concluded that there isn’t reason to worry about those that reside in your pillow.) But with the mini zoo that’s taking up residence where you rest your head, why wouldn’t you another layer of fabric to keep it a bit cleaner—especially if the pillow itself can’t be washed?
Pillows aren’t the biggest bedding investment—that crown goes to mattresses—but they have a relatively short lifespan, based on what experts say. According to them, you should replace your pillow every couple years, at most.
I do not listen to this guidance, because I’m stubborn. I’ve been devoted to my current pillow for about three years. Why does this not gross me out—or, at least not that much—knowing what I know about my drooling habits and those microscopic inhabitants? I always use my trusty pillow protector.
Are pillow protectors helpful for allergies?
These covers have even more potential for folks who suffer from allergies. Though when it comes to allergy-proofness not all pillow protectors—or really, their fabrics—are equal. There are two factors to consider: the certification or label on the product, and how often you clean it.
While researching for this article, I came across protectors that were labeled as allergy-proof or allergen-resistant—but after digging into it, I learned this claim doesn’t mean much on its own. As it turns out, the term “hypoallergenic” means something to most people in a colloquial sense, but it doesn’t have a standard scientific definition, says Dr. John McKeon, the CEO of Allergy Standards. The organization tests products to ensure they meet criteria for the Asthma and Allergy Friendly Label—the most reputable and common label for bedding, in particular.
To be certified Asthma and Allergy Friendly, a pillow protector must pass a series of tests with stringent criteria. The tests check products’ durability after washing; whether the fabrics’ pores (or the spaces between the threads that make up the fabric weave) change when stretched, allowing allergens to pass through; and even the barrier the zipper forms, McKeon says. Pillow protectors without the seal may also provide some allergen protection—McKeon says it is expensive for companies to pay for the tests and the licensing for the certification—but it’s less surefire.
As for cleanliness and washing, well, you can probably make some conclusions without elaboration. Generally, all bedding should be washed every two weeks—and that includes your pillow protector and pillowcase. Allergy sufferers may want to wash their pillow itself every few months, too. Shredded foam pillows, as well as those filled with down alternatives and other synthetics and even some down pillows, can be thrown in your washing machine, a major plus to consider when you’re shopping for a pillow. (Our favorite pillows from Coop Home Goods come in a zippered fabric bag that covers another thinner polyester bag containing the fill, and all of its components are washable.)
What materials are pillow protectors made of?
Pillow protectors are made with a slew of materials—from natural fabrics to vinyl (which amounts to a plastic bag for your pillow). Historically, I’ve opted for natural fabrics, as it makes them more breathable. You may think this would make the cover less protective and allergy-proof, but it’s not always the case. A fabric’s weave partly determines its effectiveness. If it’s tightly woven, that alone can provide a sufficient barrier against the biggest allergens. In fact, a handful of certified Asthma and Allergy Friendly products are made with natural fabrics such as cotton and silk—there’s something for everyone.
Alternatively, you can opt for synthetic materials, like microfibers or polyester blends. Microfiber blends are inherently tightly woven, which can have allergen-blocking benefits as the fabric is, literally, tight-knit—though I’d still defer to AAFA-certified products over microfiber when seeking allergy relief. Pillow protectors can also be made with less common fabrics, like terry—take this Sureguard pack that’s available on Amazon, for example. (Though if you think you'd dislike the texture of sleeping on a towel, it may not be the best option for you.)
Vinyl pillow protectors are yet another option. The plastic is impermeable to liquid and dust, but it’s also, well, plastic. You’ll be more likely to feel and hear crinkling, and the material's lack of breathability could cause your head to overheat and sweat. While they're probably easy to clean with a quick wipe-down, you also can’t easily toss one into the washing machine.
Finally, most pillow protectors close with a zipper on one end, which is the best way to handle the whole they-need-to-be-removable thing. Some may have an envelope closure or buttons—though I’ve only run across a handful—but if you’re concerned with allergens, this often isn’t as good as a basic zipper.
How much do pillow protectors cost?
Fortunately, pillow protectors are among the cheapest bedroom accessories you can buy. You can splurge with something like Brooklinen’s 500 thread count sateen pillow protectors, which retail for $28. If spending more than $10 is unfathomable, fear not. There are plenty of options in the single digits—some even come with not one but two pillow protectors in a package—like the microfiber Room Essentials pillow protectors from Target—just $5 for a package of two standard-size protectors. Of course, with lots to choose from, it'll be easy to find something that fits your needs and won’t break the bank.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how much you spend so much as you get something that you like and that works for you. If you’re looking for impermeability but worried about sleeping hot, consider a plasticized backing and fabric exterior. If breathability is your main concern, there are plenty of cotton options out there. No matter what you get, your pillow will thank you.
Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.