It all started with a tweet, which is how major cultural conversations seem to kick off these days.
This past weekend, a user on X (the social media platform formerly known as Twitter) shared an image of a pretty gross-looking, yellowish pillow, alongside the caption “[Girlfriend] is mad at me because I have revealed to her The Yellow Pillow. Fellas, I’m sure you all know that this thing is magic.”
The seemingly innocent message was viewed over 4 million times on the site, spurring the sorts of arguments that make us love and hate the internet in equal measure.
On the one side were those who could relate to the devotion to overused pillows, mentioning how comfortable their own versions are and how they can’t seem to get a good night’s rest without them.
“Best sleep ever using this sweat-soaked abomination,” one X user commented.
“I got rid of my yellow pillow maybe a year ago and I legit haven’t rested comfortably since,” someone else noted.
“My life has been a downward spiral since I threw away mine,” another said.
Some even posted photos of their own yellow pillows as proof of their undying fidelity to them.
The other category of commenters included folks that were flat-out offended by the shared image (“I can smell that thing from Germany”), those offering obvious advice (“You should buy them cheap on sale and just throw away or wash as needed”), and others asking the one question we thought of immediately: “Do none of you use pillow protectors?”
Clearly, yellowing pillows are a hot topic when it comes to sleeping, which got us wondering: Should we be sleeping with yellowed pillows? Can they trigger skin issues or allergic reactions? We talked to medical professionals to get to the bottom of it.
Why do pillows turn yellow, anyway?
According to board-certified allergist Dr. Neeta Ogden, a number of factors contribute to the discoloration of pillows, including “moisture and residue of human sweat, oils, beauty products and wet hair.”
People can perspire at night as a way to regulate body temperatures. Everyone sweats a bit while sleeping, and that moisture can then leak into pillows, as explained by the Sleep Foundation, a sleep information provider. Over time, the buildup of wetness causes pillows to turn yellow. Wet hair and drooling can similarly cause pillows to yellow.
Your nighttime skin care routine may also have something to do with the changing color. “Beauty products can seep into pillows,” Ogden noted.
If applying oils and moisturizers on your skin, for example, you must give them enough time to actually be absorbed before lying in bed. That way, you’ll avoid them oozing into your pillow and discoloring it. The same goes for hair products.
To be clear, a yellow pillow is not necessarily an unwashed one. These stains are hard to get rid of, after all.
According to Ogden, regular washing can “possibly” prevent the pillow from turning yellow. However, as she noted, “it can take just one overnight exposure to the right trigger for this discoloration to occur.”
Can sleeping on a yellowed pillow be a bad thing?
According to experts, the act of resting on an old, damaged pillow won’t hurt you per se and isn’t necessarily considered unsanitary. But it may lead to allergy- and skin-related concerns that could easily be avoided.
“The discolored pillow reflects an accumulation of moisture of body oils and sweat,” Ogden reiterated. “This, and the human skin scales that are present in our bedding, can be an optimal environment for dust mites, which can then be the cause of allergies.”
However, Ogden noted that it isn’t just the accumulation of moisture that leads to the presence of dust mites. “It’s the fibers plus human skin scales and dandruff that served as ‘food’ for the dust mite, plus the dark moist environment that breeds them,” she explained. “Washing the pillow regularly in hot water and using a hot dryer cycle can help.”
Chronic nasal congestion is one of the primary symptoms of allergies that can be caused by dust mites on your pillow. So if your nose is suddenly running after a night of sleep or if you’re feeling itchy, perhaps consider swapping out your pillows.
“Mold spore and other allergens can also live in the fibers of pillows,” Ogden warned.
What’s more, “pillows that have turned yellow can be bad for your skin,” explained board-certified dermatologist Dr. Faranak Kamangar. “Oil and dirt can clog the pores, causing acne, milia and rosacea.”
Even more specifically, noted the dermatologist, the presence of dust mites can “cause skin inflammation, leading to irritant or atopic dermatitis.”
The residue that accumulates on pillows can then lead to itchy, dry skin that might ooze, crust, blister or flake.
Once again: Regularly washing pillows can prevent a lot of these issues from bothering you. A yellow stain itself isn’t likely to cause any of these problems, but it’s a sign that you may want to replace your pillow.
Can pillow protectors help?
The easiest way to avoid discoloration is to invest in a pillow protector, which is essentially a pillowcase that sits under your actual pillowcase.
“It will provide a barrier between you and the allergens that can lurk in pillow fibers over time,” Ogden said, “including animal dander, mold spores, dust mites and pollen drifting in from outside.”
Essentially, that extra fabric can help prevent your body and hair moisture from percolating through the actual pillow. Put simply, it is an additional layer of protection that works wonders when paired with a pillowcase.
Although using such a product can help your pillow from getting discolored, you should also consider treating yellow spots as you notice them because, after all, yellowing is a sign of use and aging.
When asked about the best way to properly take care of a pillow, Ogden suggested replacing it every year or two and washing it in hot water frequently.
“There are no strict guidelines regarding how often you should wash it,” she said. “Keep in mind, though, that washing a cushion may affect its shape.”
For her part, Kamangar suggested washing pillows in hot water “every three months” and perhaps even using a hypoallergenic detergent without fragrances, which may also help prevent dermatological issues.
The Sleep Foundation suggests spot-treating stains if your pillow isn’t machine-washable and using bleach to “help get your pillow’s color back to normal.” If opting for the latter solution, make sure to carefully read your cushion’s care instructions since bleach is a pretty harsh chemical that might end up damaging your item if misapplied.
But why does sleeping on a yellow pillow feel so comfortable?
An informal analysis of various pillow tweets makes one thing clear: The feeling of using a yellow pillow can be akin to nostalgia, a bit like sleeping in your childhood bedroom. Its shape, smell, feel and fluffiness are so personal and embedded in the way we sleep that the devotion to the pillow just can’t be put into words.
Perhaps this comment by an X user is the closest we can get to describing the magical properties of the yellow pillow: “I love my pillow, I don’t see color.”