Let's assume that, unless you’re in your first year of college, you're in the habit of washing your sheets regularly. (Sorry, but if memory serves, the "fresh" in "freshman" has nothing to do with crisp bedding.) And if you watched our how-to on cleaning a mattress, we trust that you've added that worthy task to the rotation of household chores sure to improve your life. In the equation of healthful sleep hygiene, that just leaves the pillow. Most of us—even perfectly responsible adults—don’t give this essential sleep accessory the TLC it deserves. Here's a three-step program from the experts at Consumer Reports that will keep your pillow fresh, clean, and ready for a good night's sleep.    

Step 1: Air It Out

Give your pillows a daily fluffing to restore their shape and remove dust. Then every month or so, hang them outdoors on a clothesline for a few hours, ideally on a bright, breezy day, either warm or chilly. If that's not an option, run them through the dryer on a no-heat cycle.   

Step 2: Wash It Gently

Pillows should be washed occasionally to remove dirt, dust, and dead skin, and to leave them smelling fresh. Do it too often and they'll lose their shape. It should be fine to put them on the same twice-a-year schedule we recommend for mattress cleaning.

Most foam-filled or synthetic pillows can be machine-washed, though it's always wise to check the care instructions on the label. We suggest selecting your washer’s gentle cycle and running the load with lukewarm water and a top-rated laundry detergent. If your washing machine is large enough, wash two pillows at a time. That will help balance the load, allowing the water and detergent to circulate more effectively. The agitator on conventional top loaders can be tough on pillows, so it's best to agitate on the gentle cycle only for a few minutes (or the shortest possible setting, if you can't control the specific time). Alternatively, make a special trip to the laundromat to use its front-loaders.   

Down- and feather-filled pillows should be hand-washed only. Fill a basin with warm water and add as much detergent as you would for a small load in the washer. Submerge the pillow completely and knead gently. Drain the basin and press on the pillow to expel the water before rolling it in a dry towel. Then put the pillow in your washer and run the slowest possible spin cycle to gently extract water before drying.  

Step 3: Dry It Thoroughly

In our laundry labs we weigh items before and after running them through the clothes dryer to see whether they've retained any moisture. You're not going to go to those lengths, but it's important to make sure the pillow is dried all the way through, or mildew could develop.

Skip the auto-dry setting, because the sensors will detect only surface moisture, leaving you with a pillow that's still damp on the inside. Instead, time dry the pillow for a good hour on moderate heat. Adding a couple of dry towels will speed things up. Toss in two fresh tennis balls, as well, and they'll keep the filling from clumping as they bounce around the drum. If the weather is mild, you can also hang pillows on the clothesline until they're dried all the way through. Either way, you need to really feel around inside the pillow to check for moisture. If none remains, it's time to make the bed.   

We recommend using pillow covers to protect pillows from substances such as sweat, body oils, and face cream. Launder both the pillow cover and the pillowcase regularly, say, once a week, along with your sheets.

In the market for a new pillow? Take a look at our pillow buying guide, as well as our take on the heavily hyped My Pillow.