Acne, pillowcases and…. toilet seats?

If you are anything like me, this might have been you:

Teenage self: Stupid hormones, I hate my skin, I can’t wait to have flawless, perfect skin after I’m finished with puberty.

5946342235_7ff02f259b_z-2Expectation: Flawless effortless skin. Image credit: Kingsley Huang via Flickr 
4375620025_1d6be05e67_z Reality: 100s of face products that don’t work. Image credit: Cass Chin via Flickr 


10 years on, dreams are shattered and I’m still dealing with acne. But maybe that’s just me. I’m 28 and just had a visit to the dermatologist a week ago (when will it end?!). After talking to a friend about my visit she told me I just need to clean my pillowcase every couple of days to improve my skin (who has time for that?). She proceeded to tell me that pillowcases have more bacteria on them than toilet seats.

That’s right, a pillow. What you sleep on every night after washing your face and brushing your teeth. I was horrified. Being the good science nerd that I am, I ran home to research.


The study – do pillowcases have more bacteria than toilet seats?

As my research began, I found article after article over dramatizing the research made in this area. No surprise there. But where did all this visually disturbing information come from? This data came from a 2013 study by lead author Robert Dunn. Dunn’s study looked at the microorganisms that are living on the surfaces of our homes, including cutting boards, door handles, refrigerators and of course pillowcases and toilet seats. The study discovered that pillowcases seem to have slightly more bacteria on them than toilet seats, but much of the same bacteria are found on both. Gross right? Or is it?



When people hear the word bacteria, they automatically assume: dirty and sick. This is not the case. We are surrounded by millions of bacteria, and not all of it is bad. We actually have more bacteria than we do cells, many working in conjunction with our bodies. Our skin has been estimated to have approximately 1 trillion bacteria of about 1000 different species. And, get this! Every time you scratch your arm, or shake hands with a person, you are actually sending thousands of bacteria into the air or onto different surfaces. So it is no surprise that the items we use every day have been found to have large amounts of bacteria.

Yes, the Dunn study found more bacteria on our pillows than on toilet seats, but considering we lay on our pillows for 8 hours a day (or so they recommend), and transferring our skin bacteria, this makes sense. Unless you have an unfortunate bout of gastro, you are not spending half this time sitting on your toilet. The Dunn study also found the same bacteria on both pillow cases and toilet seat: skin bacteria. So how does this relate to acne?


Acne and pillowcases

So for the most part, our skin is not breaking-out from our pillows because we are being infected by new acne-causing bacteria. But does that mean cleaning our pillows doesn’t matter?

Not only do you shed bacteria, but you are also shedding dead skin cells. Meaning our pillows may not only have bacteria, but collect dead skin cells, dirt, dust and oil. So laying our heads down on our dirty pillowcases – it all ends up on our faces!

Not a nice thought! Acne is primarily caused by clogged pores. These clogged pores become breeding grounds for skin bacteria to infect, and boom – we have blemishes and acne.

This buildup of dirt and oil on our pillows causes our pores to clog, and so could be causing acne!

13997118471_d45acf7ed7_zSweet dreams? Image credit: Wicker Paradise via Flickr


So yes, our pillowcases do have more bacteria than a toilet seat, but that is not why we should regularly clean the sheets. Maybe it’s time I start changing my pillowcase every few days.

When was the last time you washed your pillow cases?

13 Responses to “Acne, pillowcases and…. toilet seats?”

  1. Yau Low says:

    Life savior! Wasn’t sure when the last time I washed my pillow case was but the next would definitely be now!

  2. BirdKate says:

    Haha man I am so lazy with washing my pillow cases but I do still get pimples at 27 (seriously I thought this was supposed to end???). Maybe it’s time to be a bit more diligent with my pillows! Great piece 🙂

  3. Nicole says:

    Thanks Marie. Yes, acne is no fun! Unfortunately, it’s not a “one size fits all” when it comes to the causes of acne. As you’ve probably experienced, it’s very difficult to determine what works best for different people in treatments. I don’t think that it’s the major cause of acne for everyone, especially if there are genetics at play, but could be a contributing factor!

  4. Nicole says:

    Thanks Brent! And yes, what’s interesting is that the original article makes no reference to acne and the bacteria on our pillows. It was the journalists that took that spin and made their own inferences…really highlights the importance of science communications!

  5. Nicole says:

    Thanks Naufal, puts it into perspective doesn’t it!

    Elena, Daniel and Larissa: I know, I had the same thought…instantly washed them after this research! Though it’s already been a week…and I haven’t washed again….

  6. Alina says:

    Nice post! I will definitely need to change my pillow case more often. There’s quite a bit on research about the influence of diet on acne- this may be an interesting read 🙂

  7. Ben says:

    So bacteria aren’t to blame for acne – nice to see acknowledgement that not all bacteria are out to get us!

  8. Marie says:

    This was a really interesting read Nicole, thanks for sharing your insights from the dermatologist. Don’t worry, I’ve struggled with bad acne too, and never thought it could be related to cleaning pillow cases and sheets. But do you think this is a primary cause of acne or it is related to other factors, such as genetics?

  9. Larissa Naoroji says:

    Yes I will definitely wash my pillowcases more often!

  10. bseymour says:

    That was a very interesting read that I felt touched on the issues of miscommunication of science and hyperbolic claims. Who knew my pillow case may be causing my acne. Or that the legitimate reason for cleaning pillow cases may get drowned out by exciting buzz words.

  11. Daniel Kelly says:

    Well that’s convinced me to wash my pillow cases a bit more often!

  12. Elena says:

    I literally could not tell you the last time my pillowcase was washed…

    Great blog though, i do like how you acknowledged that the types of bacteria also play a role. I recall reading an article once which detailed how frequently we should be vs what we actually do. The worst one i think was bed sheets supposedly needing cleaning weekly (how we’re supposed to do this in the winter is another mystery) 😮

  13. Naufal says:

    Fascinating article! It seems so obvious but I never considered my pillow to do that to my face! It seems that it would make sense that toilet seats would have more bacteria, but it goes to show how dirty we can be, especially in bed!