I have a terrible little confession to make. I recently left my bedsheets unwashed for an entire month. I lay awake on the 30th night, unable to sleep, itching, as I imagined the bacteria and mites and fungi that might be colonizing my bed—and maybe me.
I dread washing bedding in winter. It takes days to dry, and it hangs like a canopy across my sitting room, making the air damp and cold. So, last week, to improve hygiene standards, my 33-year-old adult self lugged a bin bag of bedding on the bus to my parents’ house, looking like a low-grade Father Christmas or a first year uni student who had aged dramatically almost. I used their washing machine and then hung all my bedding in their utility room, which is essentially a large, very warm cupboard in which things dry incredibly fast.
I’m not alone in my bedding sins. When Hits Radio presenter Stacey Solomon said on air this week that she changes her bedding once a week, her co-presenter James Barr seemed surprised and said that he does it about once a month. Solomon replied; “Do you know what? While you are single and enjoying that life, wallow in your own filth for a little while. You’ve got no one to impress. You know when you’re single and you don’t have to shave your legs? So you just go full Gruffalo. I feel it’s the same.”
So, as someone who has, as Solomon puts it, has “wallowed in my own filth”, I’m keen to know what happens when you leave bedding unwashed for a month. What happens in the dead of night? “Bedding can be the perfect place for bacteria to thrive,” says Dr Christine Peters, a clinical microbiologist consultant in Glasgow. “There is a supply of water – from sweat, saliva and damp bodies post showers. There is food for bacteria to survive on in the form of skin cells sloughing off constantly and food crumbs if you eat in bed. Bacteria can thrive in this kind of environment. If you add in pets, dirty socks, dirty bodies – the total number of microbes surviving and thriving – will increase.
“Mouth and throat flora will be in saliva and particles generated by coughs and sneezes, skin bacteria sloughed off with skin cells like Staphylococcus and Candida. Add to this the bacteria that live in your gut and around your perineum and you have a rich diversity of organisms – most of which are normal bacteria for you. If you share a bed – there will be bacteria that comes from them and are not part of your normal bacterial makeup.”
It sounds disgusting, but is it a genuine health risk? “The health hazards can be in the form of allergies – mites and fungi can also thrive in unwashed bedding and affect asthma,” says Dr Peters. “It can also be important for infections, for example any open wounds or scratches could be infected by bacteria like Staphylococci which live on skin cells. Bedding can also be a source of re-infection. For example, scabies (a mite) can survive off the body long enough to reinfect a person who has been treated. Thread worms are also notorious for when you treat the person, but the eggs of the worm remain in bedsheets and can reinfect. A key piece of advice for managing an outbreak in a family of these organisms is bed linen washing. Studies of hospital linen have demonstrated the survival of bacteria on linen including antibiotic resistant organisms.”
Yet, for someone without asthma, wounds or scratches who is simply being a bit lazy at home, the build-up of bacteria over a month is generally harmless. Like dirty clothes, after a while they simply become unpleasant. In 2022, research from bedding company Pizuna Linens found that almost half of single men said they don’t wash their bed sheets for up to four months at a time, with 12 percent saying they wash them when they remember – which could be even longer. Meanwhile 62 per cent of single women clean their bedding every two weeks, and couples claim to do theirs every three weeks.
Dr Manal Mohammed, lecturer in medical microbiology at Westminster University, recommends washing your bedding every week. “Especially if you spend a lot of time in bed, sleep in the nude, or sweat a lot at night. It’s also recommended that pillowcases are changed every two to three days. All bed linens should be washed in warm to high temperatures (around 40℃-60℃) in order to effectively kill germs. Avoid overloading laundry machines and use enough soap, and make sure bed linens are completely dried before using.”
And what about nightwear? Well, according to the American Cleaning Institute, pajamas should be washed every three to four days – about two pairs a week. Dust mites love pajamas, especially when we don’t wash them often. The accumulation of dead skin provides these mites with an endless supply of meals, so regular washing can help keep their numbers down. Dressing gowns should also be taken off and washed about every four wears.
Any longer than four wears and you’re risking bacteria growing in your robe. However, with both pajamas and robes, if you shower every night before you get ready for bed, you won’t need to change them as much because you’re clean every time you put them on, according to the ACI. Yet, if you lather up with body lotion after a shower, your clothes are picking up oil and minerals in your lotion, and it is probably best you wash both more often.
Showering or bathing before bed, removing makeup, avoiding oils and lotions, not eating or drinking in bed, keeping pets off your sheets, and taking dirty socks off, is also a good idea. After all, you shed around 500 million skin cells per day while sleeping in bed.
When it comes to duvets and mattresses, Dr Peters says they can be subject to a similar build up of bacteria, mites, bed bugs and fungi, just like bedsheets. “Mattress toppers can be washed more frequently and mattresses can be turned over and vacuumed,” she says. “Keeping duvets dry and with duvet cover changes and washes, the bio burden can be kept low.”
On a totally unrelated note, on this cold January day without a tumble dryer, I really must go and see my parents immediately, just to catch up and see how they’re doing.