How to Get Yellow Stains Out of Pillows and Make Them Look Brand New

Follow these expert tips to remove even the worst yellow stains on pillows quickly and easily.

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There’s nothing better than snuggling into a soft, fluffy pillow at the end of a long day…and nothing worse than thinking about what kinds of ickiness might be lurking underneath your pristine pillowcase. Sure, you clean your sheets and pillowcases regularly, but when was the last time you tackled those yellow stains on your pillows? Is it even possible to get rid of them? The answer is a resounding yes.

Even the best pillows get discolored over time, and a little knowledge on how to remove stains—especially sweat stains—will get those yellow stains out of your pillows for good. We asked laundry experts to explain how to accomplish this task, as well as how to wash pillows the right way, stains or not.

Why do pillows turn yellow?

In a word: sweat. While hot sleepers will relate to this most, it’s a problem that affects everyone, even if you don’t realize it in the moment. “As we sleep, we tend to sweat,” says laundry expert Lori Williamson, founder of Now It’s Clean. “[This is why you] see yellowish stains on your pillow.”

Our sweat causes those yellow pillow stains because of a chemical it contains—urea. A harmless byproduct of our sweat (and, in much larger quantities, our urine too), urea breaks down and turns back into ammonia over time. If you want to get technical about it, it’s actually the ammonia that causes those yellow stains.

Can you get yellow stains out of pillows?

Absolutely! The key to success is washing and drying them properly, as well as using the right products. Most people will reach for bleach to get yellow stains out pillows, but Williamson says this is a big no-no. “When it comes to washing your pillow, resist the urge to use chlorine bleach to whiten them,” she warns. “Sweat stains are protein-based, and bleach isn’t the ideal solution, as it can cause further yellowing.”

Instead, oxygen bleach is what you’ll want for pillows that are stained yellow. Its active ingredients, hydrogen peroxide and sodium carbonate, dissolve into soda ash, an organic material that is generally considered environmentally safe. Oxygen bleach works by releasing oxygen when it’s exposed to water, gently lifting stains from the material being washed. It’s much safer for natural fabrics than regular bleach, which contains sodium hypochlorite and can damage certain dyes and fabrics.

How to remove yellow stains from pillows

Here are Williamson’s instructions for using oxygen bleach to remove yellow pillow stains:

  1. Spray your pillow with a laundry pre-treater, like Puracy Natural Stain Remover. Let sit for 15 minutes.
  2. Use a toothbrush to gently loosen stain debris on your pillow.
  3. Dissolve a scoop of oxygen bleach, such as OxiClean or Molly’s Suds Oxygen Whitener, in hot water in your bathtub, laundry tub, mop bucket, or sink.
  4. Soak your pillow in the solution overnight.
  5. Launder and dry the pillow as usual.

How to launder and dry pillows properly

Now, “launder as usual” can mean different things to different people, and it always depends on the type of pillow you’re washing. According to Paul Weiner, a former professional launderer who studied under the Italian style of linen cleaning, “the best way to wash polyester, down, and feather pillows is in the laundry machine in cold water with a mild detergent and whatever whitening solution you prefer.”

He further explains that polyester pillows can be dried on medium heat for about an hour, while down pillows should be dried on the air-dry cycle, without heat, for at least the same amount of time. These types of pillows can be soaked overnight to remove yellow stains, but others, like foam, gel, and cooling pillows should not ever be laundered in the washing machine. To get yellow stains out of these pillows, Weiner says, pretreatment and hand-washing are key.

How to hand-wash pillows to remove yellow stains

To remove yellow stains from pillows that can’t be machine-washed, follow these instructions:

  1. Spray the stains with a laundry pre-treater.
  2. Let sit for as long as the instructions indicate, usually anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour, depending on the age and severity of the stain.
  3. Prepare a solution of hot water and mild laundry detergent in a small bowl or bucket. (The ratio should be 1 to 3 tablespoons of detergent per gallon for regular detergents, and 1 tablespoon per gallon for concentrated detergents.)
  4. Dip a kitchen towel or a toothbrush in your detergent solution, then gently scrub the stain from the fabric.
  5. When the stain is mostly gone, rinse away the soap and debris with detergent-free water, using the same method of rubbing your pillow gently with your wet cloth.
  6. Repeat as necessary until the stain is gone.
  7. Let air-dry until completely dry, or pat-dry with a towel.

Never put these kinds of pillows in a dryer, notes Weiner. Instead, hang them or lay them flat to dry.

How to keep pillows white

As they say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and that’s certainly the case with keeping your pillows white. A quality, quilted pillow protector like the Water Pillow by Mediflow or an antimicrobial sateen protector from Brooklinen will save you a wash or two. It provides an extra barrier between your pillowcase and the pillow that should absorb most of your sweat and saliva, and it’s easier to clean than your entire pillow.

Different pillowcases will also affect staining. Satin and silk pillowcases, for example, tend to be less absorbent than cotton or microfiber, so they won’t transfer body oils to your pillow as quickly. Fabrics like flannel or fleece, however, trap heat against the skin and encourage sweating, and microfiber doesn’t allow a smooth flow of air between the fabric and your body, which can also make you sweat.

That said, all pillows can potentially stain yellow, so the best way to keep your pillows white is to wash them regularly. In general, it’s a good idea to wash your pillows at least twice a year, though some experts recommend washing them every one to three months, or as needed.