By Jill Neimark
When you snuggle into bed at night and rest your weary head upon your dreamy pillow, are you risking your health? Perhaps, according to a perturbing new study from The University of Manchester, published in the journal Allergy, where researchers found that both synthetic and down pillows are full of dust mites and millions of fungal spores—and that in fact, they create a kind of miniature ecosystem inside our pillows.
According to Ashley Woodcock, who conducted the research, “Pillows are inhabited by the house dust mite, which eats fungi, and one theory is that the fungi are using the dust mites’ feces as a major source of nutrition, along with human skin scales.”
In addition, we sweat as we sleep, adding necessary moisture to this miniature ecosystem—and its known that the food consumption and development of dust mites increases with moisture and humidity.
Woodcock’s research team analyzed samples of ten pillows that had been in use for 18 months to 20 years, and identified between four and sixteen fungal species per sample. A few thousand spores of fungus per gram were found, and the synthetic pillows actually contained the highest number of spores. The most common fungus was aspergillus fumigatus, especially in the synthetic pillows.
Aspergillus can be a problem for adults and kids with mold allergies, asthma, sinus problems, or compromised immune systems. Are we spending a third of our lives basically burying our heads in fungal spores as we sleep? (To say nothing of our comforters, which also often contain down or synthetic materials). “We really thought it was the kind of stuff you find on a bathroom wall in a damp house,” Woodcock said—not in your pillows.
Needless to say, I’m one of those folks who has a bunch of huge, European style feather-filled pillows on my bed, because I like to relax in bed at night and write on my ultraportable laptop. I also sleep on those pillows. It never occurred to me I could be compromising my health. But I probably was, according to Jeffrey C. May, of May Indoor Air Investigations in Cambridge, Massachusetts. According to May: “For many individuals with allergies and/or asthma, feather-filled pillows (and quilts) can be a serious health risk. I have had clients whose sinus problems and nightly coughing bouts disappeared the day they threw out their feather pillows and quilts.
The exposures from some pillows is comparable to having a live bird, and hypersensitivity diseases comparable to those experienced by bird handlers have occurred.” May says he has taken dust samples from hundreds of feather-filled items. “The actual content is quite unpredictable. Some items are filled with bacteria-like organisms that I believe may have originally grown in the feathers of the live bird.
Other new or old feather items emitted millions of respirable feather fragments. Older feather items, particularly pillows, can be severely infested with dust mites,” says May. “I would recommend anything (even a folded towel!) before using a feather pillow.”
So what can you do to ensure nighttime health? Here are recommendations to make your bed safe and comfortable:
1) If you aren’t ready to replace your pillows yet, put them in a hot dryer weekly to help prevent the growth of mites and microorganisms.
2) Don’t go to bed with wet hair, as you’ll wick much more moisture and water into your pillow
3) Use zippered dust mite casings. A good casing will have high thread counts that allow the pillow to breathe while protecting you from mites and their allergens.
4) Buy a dehumidifier for your bedroom since dust mites flourish on higher humidities (70% and above).
5) Choose a pillow with a healthy fill that does not support mold and dust mites. There are many other healthy choices for pillows besides down or synthetic fill. When I researched the types of pillows available, I discovered everything from cotton-filled, to wool-filled, silk-filled, and even buckwheat-hull filled.
But there were no firsthand reports on loft, comfort, scent, so I tried several types of pillows and here’s what I have to report:
One very popular brand of cotton-filled pillow is made by Kaye of KB Cotton Pillow and available on many sites for allergy sufferers. KB’s cotton-filled pillows are machine washable and can be put in the dryer, as long as you put three tennis balls in with the pillow so that the cotton doesn’t bunch up. KB’s pillow does not have a lot of loft or springiness, it’s flat and comfortable, for those folks who prefer that style, and it’s reasonably priced.
Another pillow I loved comes from Nina Kelley of Kelley Green, a mom-and-pop company in Oregon. Says Nina, who is 52, “We live right by the wool mill in southern Oregon and they make wool beds. The comfort is beyond description: you lay down on a wool-filled bed and it seems to pull all the tension and pain out of your body. It cradles you.”
Kelley Green’s wool-filled pillows use hemp covers and have great, springy loft and smell good. These can be set out in the sun for an hour to cleanse them periodically. Studies at from Polytechnic Institute in Wales show that wool batting efficiently draws away moisture released through your skin. So you will feel comfortably dry even when you have an unusually “sweaty” night.
These pillows are reasonably priced and the loft is wonderful—for those who like to read in bed, or sleep on their backs or sides. They come in various sizes, can be custom-made, and the company offers a special “neck roll” pillow for proper spinal alignment for side-sleepers.
Finally, perhaps the best pillow I tried comes from Dream Soft Bedware, a company that offers a fabulous range of natural bedding. Their wool-filled pillows come in light, medium or extra fill. I ordered a medium-loft Euro-style pillow from them and it was both springy and soft and the casing smooth and wonderful. According to the owner, Kristina, their wool is sheared in a clean environment, twice washed in hot water with a biodegradable detergent and no harsh chemicals.
For cleaning pillows, a sunbath or putting them in the dryer on cold and air fluff for about 10 minutes, with a few tennis balls to stop the wool from bunching, will keep them clean. Pillows come in all sizes from neckroll to standard queen, kind, Euro and boudoir.
I did not try silk filled pillows because they are so expensive, but I hear the loft is similar to cotton (not very springy, so preferable for those who like a fairly flat pillow). In addition, consider the other components of your bed: you may want a dust-mite casing for your mattress, and a comforter that is wool or cotton filled and able to be washed and dried, or aired out in the sun, or else, cotton quilts and blankets that can be regularly washed and dried.
For wool-filled and KB’s cotton-filled pillows:
Kristina Bryant www.DreamSoftBedware.com Customer service: 1-877-768-4233
For wool-filled, hemp-covered pillows: Nina Kelly www.kelleygreen.org
For advice on indoor allergens, including pillows: Jeffrey May, Jeff@mayindoorair.com, or go to his website:
For dust mite casings: www.allergycontrol.com