Why pillows turn yellow — and how to tell if they’re healthy to sleep on


We all know the difference a good pillow can make to our quality of sleep, but why do pillows turn yellow? As you may have guessed, it’s mostly to do with what the pillow is exposed to each night.

Here we look at the main reasons why pillows turn yellow, and how to tell if yours is still healthy to sleep on. Most should be replaced every one to two years, so if yours is older and covered in yellow or brown stains, then it’s time for a change. Our best pillows guide can help you find your next main sleep squeeze (and the Cyber Monday mattress deals often include sleep accessories, so now’s a great time to buy). 

For now, let’s get to the bottom of those yellow stains on your pillows, and whether they can be reduced or removed. For advice on cleaning, read our expert feature on how to wash a pillow and how often. 

Why do pillows turn yellow?

There are a few reasons for his, but sweat is the most common reason why pillows turn yellow. The majority of people sweat to some extent during sleep (even if we are physically unaware of it) and over time a build-up of sweat seeping through your pillowcase to your pillow causes yellow staining.

Woman sleeping on her side

(Image credit: Getty/Wavebreakmedia Ltd)

Aside from sweat, other forms of moisture can also make your pillows turn yellow, including natural oils from your skin. Throw in facial oils, serums and moisturisers, not to mention products you have on your hair, and yellow stains on your pillows are inevitable. 

It’s the same with mattresses, so if yours is over seven years old and covered in stains (and shows other signs of wear and tear), consider upgrading. Our best mattress guide can help, and many of them are already popping up among the Presidents’ Day mattress sales.

To recap, the most common reasons why pillows turn yellow are:

  • Sweat
  • Natural body oils
  • Drool
  • Wet hair
  • Hair products
  • Cosmetics
  • Oil-based serums and moisturisers

Are pillows with yellow stains ok to sleep on?

If your pillow is over two years old and covered in yellow and brown stains, we’d recommend buying a new one. This is especially true if you haven’t washed your pillow since buying it and don’t use a pillow protector. 

Chances are, the pillow has a build-up of other things besides sweat, oils and dead skin: dust mites might be lurking, as well as other allergens. Moisture from sweat and oil can also breed bacteria. And if your pillow is causing you neck pain or has lost its shape, then it’s definitely time to replace it. 

Dr Karan Raj went viral on TikTok for explaining why you need to replace your pillow at least every two years and what happens when you don’t. Here’s what he said…


♬ Steven Universe – L.Dre

How to stop your pillows turning yellow

There’s nothing you can do to stop yourself from sweating completely in bed, but you can better protect your pillows from yellow stains. The most effective way is to cover your pillow with a pillow protector. These are an inexpensive way to add an extra barrier between sweat, oils, moisture and your pillow. 

Pillow protectors can be washed weekly along with the rest of your bed linens, making them low maintenance. We’d recommend having a few in rotation so that you always have one on standby. 

Try not to sleep on wet hair as otherwise all that water will seep through and turn your pillow yellow over time. Also, avoid wearing heavy oil-based serums and creams to bed, and remove your make-up before hitting the hay. 

So to recap:

  • Use a good quality pillow protector
  • Dry your hair before going to bed
  • Try to avoid heavy oil-based products
  • Remove your make-up before sleep

Can you remove yellow stains from a pillow?

You can’t remove yellow stains completely (especially older stains that have really bedded in), but there are ways to reduce them. Now, whenever we talk about cleaning bedding, including how to clean a mattress, we always recommend reading the care instructions first.

A person spot treats yellow stains on a white pillow

(Image credit: Getty)

Your pillow should have a small fabric tag sticking out the side – that’s where you’ll find guidance on how to wash your pillows and how to dry them (never cover damp pillows with linens as otherwise they could develop mildew). 

Spot-treat stains before machine washing your pillow (if it can be machine washed). Stain removal sprays and creams are potent but effective, while mixing your own paste of baking soda and water offers a natural approach.

Some cleaning experts recommend using a mix of bleach and washing detergent to remove stubborn yellow stains, but you need to be very sure that the materials used to make your pillow can withstand such a tough treatment.

Why do pillows turn yellow: The bottom line

For the most part, pillows turn yellow because of sweat and oils seeping through your linens to the pillow itself, but cosmetics, hair products, water (from damp hair) and drool can also cause yellow stains on pillows. 

The best way to reduce staining is to cover your pillows with a waterproof, anti-allergen pillow protector. These safeguard against moisture and dust mites, and help your pillow to reach its full lifespan, saving you money in the long-run. If you are looking to upgrade and fancy an adjustable pillow that can be customized to your sleep style, read our Layla Kapok Pillow review.

On that note, consider investing in the best mattress protector to safeguard your mattress from stains, spills and allergens. Depending on how deep they are, you could even place one over your mattress topper to keep that safe too.