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How Do You Clean Bed Sheets?

Updated on October 5, 2022 by Joseph D. Nielson

Table of Contents

A young man dramatically flips his white bed sheets to prepare cleaning

Most home cleaning enthusiasts know the basics – what we like to call the fundamental “ABCs” of cleaning. They know how to do the dishes. They’re experienced in taking the vacuum for a spin. And they know how to use a duster like it’s a second arm.

How to clean bed sheets often gets lumped into that category of cleaning tasks whose procedures seem entirely self-evident. Maybe you learned your techniques from a guardian while growing up. Perhaps you had a discerning roommate who taught you the tricks of the trade. Or you might have just “winged it,” cleaning your sheets the same way you clean clothing.

But, now and again, it’s helpful to challenge received wisdom. Are we really cleaning our bedsheets the right way?

In this article, Fresh Home Guide takes a deep dive. Why is it essential to keep your bed sheets clean? How do you wash bed sheets so they come out ultra-clean every time? How often should you wash bed sheets? Do you wash bed sheets in hot or cold water? These are just a few of the questions we’re tackling today.

If you are new to cleaning, and want the full educational experience, we encourage you to read the full breakdown. However, if you’re strapped for time, skip to “How to Clean Your Sheets, Step by Step” for a succinct how-to. Or skip to the “Special Care” section for how to clean silk bed sheets and other delicate materials.

The Real Dirt on Bedsheets: Dust Mites, Body Oil and More

First, let’s consider how bed sheets get dirty. (This should serve as inspiration for regular cleaning further down the line!). Bed sheets pick up several forms of dirt and grime, but here are the most common offenders:

  • Body oil: All bodies naturally secrete oils. It’s a fact of life. These secretions are particularly abundant when you sweat during the night (as most people do), but oil secretions can happen regardless of sweat.
  • Dead skin cells: Your body sloughs off an average of 500 million dead skin cells a day! Over time, those little cells add up.
  • Dust mites: Those dead skin cells provide nourishment for dust mites, a common household pest. Dust mites can perform their entire life cycle in your sheets: eating, shedding, producing waste, and eventually dying.
  • Pet dander: We love our furry friends, but they’re messy. They shed hair, skin and (sometimes) conditions like scabies and ringworm. And they’ve been known to drag smelly dog items into the bed on occasion!
  • Bacteria: All of the above provide a nourishing environment for bacteria, which can grow exceptionally quickly in a warm, food-rich environment like your bed.
  • Drool and other secretions: Lastly, we have all those other bodily secretions, like saliva, runny noses – and some that are better left unsaid.

It’s pretty gross, isn’t it? We told you it would serve as cleaning inspiration! We learn how to wash sheets so we don’t have to go to bed every night with the items listed above. While some of these problems can be solved by placing an air purifier for the whole house, the only sure-fire way to tackle them is with regular sheet washing.

So What? Dirt Is Harmless, Right?

Some dirt – in some cases – is harmless. But excess amounts of dander, oil, dust-mite leavings, pet hair and bacteria can cause serious issues.

All of these items (individually, or in combination) can exacerbate allergies, trigger asthma, and cause discomforting eczema. In other words, they create a disagreeable environment for your skin and lungs.

Moreover, dirty bed sheets can lead to diminished sleep quality. Sleep experts often highlight the value of “sleep hygiene,” the conditions and environment best suited for restful sleep; dirty bed sheets constitute bad sleep hygiene, and may cause sleep deprivation or other common sleep problems.  

Some people ask us how to clean bed sheets without washing them in a machine or how to wash bed sheets by hand. While it’s possible to clean bed sheets by hand, we highly recommend a washing machine for best results.

A mother and daughter enjoy sleeping in on their clean bed sheets

How to Clean Your Sheets, Step by Step

Whether you’re a seasoned pro, or you just moved out and are trying your hand at self-sufficiency, it’s wise to learn the best practices for how to clean bed sheets. You can also use this guide as a teaching opportunity – cleaning bed sheets is one of the best ways to help kids keep their room clean.

Below, we’ll tackle finicky fabrics like silk, bamboo and linen – but for your average cottons and polyesters, these steps will do the trick.

Step One: Remove and Read the Care Instructions

Remove your sheets. We like to create a makeshift sack using the fitted bedsheet, which helps hold the top sheet, duvet covers and pillow sheets in place as we transport them to the washing machine. (Side note: with your sheets stripped, now’s a good time to wipe down your bed frame. In our pros and cons of metal bed frame article, we recommend a duster and damp cloth for the job!)

Prepare your sheets according to the instructions listed on the care label. You can usually find this universal care label sewn into the bottom left corner of the sheet. This will be your roadmap for all the steps to follow. For instance, if the care label says, “machine wash warm,” “wash colors separately” or “tumble dry low,” heed this advice. 

Step Two: Loading without Overcrowding or Mixing

Load your washing machine, taking care not to overcrowd. Overcrowding a washing machine causes uneven cleaning, since not all areas will be soaked by water and detergent. Further, overcrowding can put a strain on your washing machine motor, potentially causing mechanical issues. If your washing machine feels overloaded, consider doing two loads. Yes, it will take a little longer – but the results will be much better.

Here is the appropriate time to talk about mixing. We recommend keeping your sheets separate from all other laundry, including towels (a common partner in wash routines). Towels are made of roughly textured material, which can batter and wear down sheets over many wash cycles together. Towels are also notorious for lint production, transferring pesky specks onto your sheets. Finally, clothes can get caught inside sheets, tangling together in a tough-to-clean mess.

Step Three: Portioning Detergent

Some people think that more detergent equals more clean. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Excessive detergent can wear down your sheets faster, lowering their functional lives.

It’s tough to give exact measurements, since the amount of detergent will depend on your washing machine type (HE or regular), load (heavily soiled, lightly soiled, large or small), water (hard water versus soft water) and the detergent itself (liquid, powder, pods, etc.). Still, the rule of thumb among experts and researchers seems to be 1-2 tablespoons of detergent for a roughly eight to 15-pound load.

But you can always play it safe: refer to the detergent bottle for exact amounts, taking care not to add more than necessary.

Step Four: Selecting a Cycle

Here’s where that care label comes in handy. It should give you some indication of the temperature and cycle best suited for the sheet(s).

The sheet cycle is a safe bet, if your washing machine has it. If you can’t locate either the care label or sheet cycle, use a warm setting color cycle, which will clean your sheets without damaging them. For heavily soiled loads, you may use a hot setting, but be sparing with how often you wash your sheets on hot.

Step Five: Add-Ons and Reinforcements

Why stop at detergent? Here are some common reinforcements, as well as their value to sheets:

  • A cup of vinegar: A cup of vinegar will further disinfect your sheets and help disperse any lingering traces of detergent that can cause irritation on dried sheets.
  • A quarter cup of lemon juice: The acidity in the lemon juice will help disinfect your sheets, and the essential oils will give them a fresh scent. Lemon juice also has whitening and odor-repelling properties!
  • Fabric softener: Fabric softener helps reduce static, smooth wrinkles and lends the sheets a soft, pillowy touch. Add softener into the designated dispenser, or add it manually during the rinse cycle, when the tub is filled. Adding softener directly to clothing can result in stains or streaks.
  • Washing sheets with vinegar and baking soda: Add a half-cup of baking soda directly to the drum of your washing machine, and a half-cup of vinegar to the fabric softener dispenser for a natural odor-buster. Do not mix them together in the drum – unless you’re conducting a science experiment!
  • Pet Odor Eliminators: The best pet odor eliminator products can remove any unwanted smells and bacteria from your sheets. Follow the label. These products are almost always applied prior to washing.

Be experimental. Try these (mostly) natural add-ins for brighter, fresher sheets.

Step Six: How to Dry Bed Sheets

Some people swear by hang-drying their bed sheets for best results. If you have the real estate for hang-drying, and don’t mind waiting for the sun to work its magic, this is a wonderful option.

However: We’ve always had great luck tumble-drying bed sheets. It’s effortless, it’s consistent, and it takes a fraction of the time. We tumble-dry on a low-heat setting with a few dryer balls to reduce wrinkling. As usual, consult your care labels for any advice otherwise!

A clean bed with linen bed sheets and pillowcases, and a rustic, woven throw blanket

Special Care: Linen Sheets, Silk Sheets and Bamboo Sheets

Before delving into finer fabrics, we’ll reiterate that it’s always best practice to read the care label. That said, you can scoot by with a little extra attention and a (slightly) amended laundry procedure. For special fabrics like linen, silk and bamboo, you will mostly follow the steps above – with a few key differences. Here’s how to do it:

  • Linen sheets: Use the permanent press or “delicate” cycle option, choosing a “warm” or “cold” temperature setting. Do not run linen sheets on “hot.” Avoid fabric softener (it can leave an uncomfortable residue on linen sheets) and instead, add a dot of essential oil to dryer balls for a fresh scent. Finish with a low tumble-dry.
  • Silk sheets: For the first few washes, clean your silk sheets by hand in lukewarm water mixed with mild detergent. After a few hand-washes, you can start using the machine – on a “delicate” setting with mild detergent or silk-specific detergent. Silks do best in a gentler front-loading washing machine; if you have a top-loading washing machine, place your silk sheets in a laundry bag. Line-dry silk sheets away from direct sunlight.
  • Bamboo sheets: Bamboo sheets do best in a gentle, “delicate” cycle with cold water and mild detergent. Using warm water will result in pilling. Finish with a low tumble-dry, removing the sheets 10 minutes early when they are still slightly damp. Allowing bamboo sheets to finish drying flat will reduce wrinkles.

Sure, caring for special sheets takes time – but the rewards are worth it. Plus, it’s mostly downtime. While you wait for your sheets to clean, knock some other cleaning tasks off your list. Read through our guides on the best way to clean a carpet and the best ways to clean stainless steel appliances.

New Sheets: How to Wash Sheets the First Time

Of course, you can throw all of these tips right out the window if you are washing (cotton or polyester) sheets for the first time.

First washes play by their own rules. Most manufacturers recommend washing sheets before your first use, since textile products often carry over chemical products from the production process. But before you grab that detergent, hold on a moment.

According to our research (and other experts on the topic), first washes work best without detergent. Instead, wash your sheets with a cup of baking soda in the drum, followed by a half-cup of vinegar before the last rinse. Not only will the baking soda-vinegar combo wash away any lingering chemicals, but it will also soften the sheets, which can feel stiff out of the package.

FAQ

You’re all set to clean your sheets! However, if you still have questions, we hope this brief FAQ section can answer them.

How Often Should You Clean Bed Sheets?

Experts recommend cleaning your sheets at least every two weeks, although a weekly schedule is preferable.

Do You Wash Bed Sheets as Delicates?

As mentioned above, you should wash linen, bamboo and silk on “delicate. Common materials like cotton do not necessarily need a delicate cycle, though you may choose delicate to prolong the life of your sheets.

How to Clean Bedsheets After Covid?

If there were ever a time to test the higher heat limits of your sheets, it would be with COVID present. Please refer to the CDC page on home disinfection for proper protocol.

Do You Wash Bed Sheets on Hot or Cold?

It depends! For most materials, we recommend the “Goldilocks zone” of the warm setting. However, cotton can withstand high heat, while special-care materials (like bamboo, silk and linen) fare better in colder settings.

Whether you’re a seasoned cleaning pro or a newcomer to the wide world of cleaning, we hope you have enjoyed our in-depth guide to washing bed sheets. Stay tuned in the future as we tackle more bedroom cleaning questions, like “how do you clean a bed mattress?” and “how do you clean a box spring?” Happy cleaning!

Joseph and Family
About Joseph D. Nielson

Former journalist and editor for various press groups, I now dedicate my time to reviewing products for the home and family life. When I get time to myself, I enjoy rock climbing, taking my dirt bike for a rip, and most importantly providing my family with the best home possible!