Nobody wants to think about dust mites and bed bugs when drifting off to sleep. But reality bites hard, and it pays to take preventative measures to keep your sleep space clean and safe. Here’s everything you ever wanted to know (and didn’t want to know) about dust mites and bed bugs, including how to spot them, how to kill them, and how to keep them out of your mattress.
Table of Contents
- What are dust mites?
- Do dust mites bite? What is a dust mite allergy?
- Why do dust mites love mattresses and bedding?
- How can you reduce dust mites in your bedding?
- What is the NOMITE mark and why look for it when buying a mattress protector?
- What are bed bugs?
- How to kill bed bugs
- How to keep bed bugs out of your mattress and bedding
- What to do if you find bed bugs
- Final thoughts on bed bugs and dust mites
What are dust mites?
Dust mites are very small (0.3 mm typically) and impossible to see without a microscope or magnifying glass. Dust mites are insect-like but are not insects. Instead, they are in the class of arthropods like spiders (they have eight legs). Of course, this distinction doesn’t matter if you’re creeped out by creepy crawlies or have allergy symptoms.
Do dust mites bite? What is a dust mite allergy?
Dust mites feed on human skin flakes in dust but don’t bite humans, unlike bed bugs and fleas. You also can’t feel them crawling on your skin (or see them), unlike bed bugs and fleas.
Most dust mite allergies are a reaction to dust mite feces, not to the mites themselves. This means it’s still important to maintain a clean and dry sleep space that doesn’t encourage dust mite infestation. Fewer dust mites means fewer feces to trigger a reaction that can cause skin irritation, asthma, and other problems.
Why do dust mites love mattresses and bedding?
Dust mites love warm and damp conditions. If you have a synthetic mattress, box spring, or innerspring mattress, you’re more likely to attract dust mites. The same is true if you use a synthetic or semi-synthetic duvet with poor breathability.
These materials can create the perfect environment for dust mites because they trap heat, make you sweat, and don’t release heat and moisture during the day. Mattresses are also hard, if not impossible, to clean, as are box springs.
In contrast, all latex mattresses and natural materials like wool, cotton, kapok, and even down and feathers make your bed comfortable and cozy for you but not for dust mites.
These materials are breathable and support thermoregulation, meaning you stay at the right temperature and stay dry while you sleep. Natural bedding also airs out fast in the morning, releasing humidity and heat and making things less attractive for dust mites.
How can you reduce dust mites in your bedding?
There are four main ways to minimize the presence of dust mites in your bed and bedding:
- Choose bedding that is cozy for you but inhospitable to dust mites
- Maintain your bedding to kill and wash away dust mites and their feces
- Keep your sleep space clean and clutter-free
- Protect your bedding using specialty mattress, duvet, and pillow protectors.
Good bedding options to reduce dust mites include latex mattresses with a wool flame barrier and cotton cover. This kind of breathable mattress set-up isn’t attractive to dust mites but is breathable and comfortable for most people.
If you have an innerspring mattress, don’t worry, you can still keep dust mites in check by using a specialty mattress protector. These dust mite mattress protectors have a very tight weave that means the gaps between the fibers are too small for dust mites and their feces to get through.
Mattress protectors help to keep dust mites out of your mattress. This doesn’t mean there won’t be dust mites in your bedding though, but bedding is far easier to wash than a mattress.
Other ways to keep dust mites in check
To keep the numbers of dust mites low, keep your sleep space tidy and free of clutter. This will give mites fewer places to hide and reproduce. It also makes it much easier to vacuum regularly.
Don’t forget to vacuum under your bed. Consider vacuuming the top, bottom, and sides of your mattress and box spring too, wherever possible.
Because dust mites thrive in hot and humid conditions, they hate it when you air out your bedding. Do this every day by folding back your duvet and sheets to let any moisture from sweat evaporate during the day.
Keep the rest of your home clean and tidy too. Dust mites also live in carpets, couches, and even curtains and other soft furnishings. Vacuum, wash, and air out these items regularly too, and you’ll have fewer dust mites in your home and your bedroom.
What is the NOMITE mark and why look for it when buying a mattress protector?
Some bedding products carry the NOMITE mark. This is an anti-allergen standard that shows a duvet, mattress protector, or pillow protector has a tight enough weave to block dust mites (and down and feathers) from moving in or out of the duvet.
By purchasing products with the NOMITE mark, you can rest easy, knowing that dust mites are much less likely to infest your mattress or bedding. Because the dust mites are stuck outside the covers, washing your bedding regularly means you can quickly clean up your sleep space and remove allergens.
What are bed bugs?
Unlike dust mites, bed bugs are insects and do bite humans. They usually bite at night, which makes sense, given they typically live in beds. Bed bug bites can cause skin rashes, including blisters and widespread areas of redness, allergy symptoms, and intense anxiety (speaking from personal experience).
You can also see bed bugs, especially when they are swollen with blood, and you can feel them on your skin. Often, though, bed bugs bite us without us even knowing, meaning an infestation can quickly take hold unless we’re vigilant and diligent about cleaning.
Bed bugs are brownish-red, about 5-7 mm long as adults (the size of an apple seed), and have a flat, oval-shape body when unfed. Once they’ve fed, bed bugs have a balloon-like appearance and are longer.
Bed bug nymphs are smaller and light yellow, while the eggs are tiny (pinhead-size) and white. So, while you can see the adults, it’s very hard to see (and remove) the nymphs and eggs.
How to kill bed bugs
The good news is that bed bugs can be killed without the need for toxic chemicals. In fact, one of the best ways to rapidly kill a bed bug is to steam it, which boils the blood and causes the bug to explode.
I learned this disturbing fact about steaming bed bugs to death during a particularly eventful night in a hostel in my twenties.
Having first felt the bugs biting me, I turned on the lights and saw a tidal wave of bed bugs crawling out of an exposed brick wall.
Hostel staff quickly went into action steaming all of the dorm occupants’ possessions. I had a flight home the next day, so I bagged up all my clothes and shoes in airtight bags, wore new clothes for the flight, then threw everything in the deep freezer until I could wash it the next day.
Suffice it to say, after that experience, I’m on high alert for bed bugs whenever I travel.
I’ve also seen friends deal with bed bug infestations in their homes, and it was (and remains) a lot of work. This has made me very wary of anything resembling a bed bug. (Top tip: don’t eat anything containing whole flaxseeds in bed, unless you want to go hunting for a magnifying glass in a state of panic.)
Ways to kill bed bugs include:
- Steam cleaning – Works for most mattresses, box springs, couches, chairs, and even backpacks and other items you can’t easily wash
- Washing everything in hot water – bedding, curtains, removable sofa covers and other upholstery, and any clothes, fabric bags, and other textiles
- Vacuuming (again and again and again) – carefully empty and clean the canister and filter each time
- Sprinkling diatomaceous earth – set each bed legs in a shallow dish of diatomaceous earth to prevent bed bugs climbing up onto your bed; sprinkle some around baseboards too.
Note: Diatomaceous earth is non-toxic and works by damaging the outer shell of bed bugs, so they dehydrate and die. This powder is very fine and made from fossilized algae. You can usually find it at garden stores as it can also help control wasps, ants, silverfish, roaches, and fleas.
Although non-toxic, diatomaceous earth shouldn’t be eaten, so be careful if you have pets and young children.
How to keep bed bugs out of your mattress and bedding
As always, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. By which I mean, do your very best to keep bed bugs out of your home. That way, you will never have to consider fumigation with toxic chemicals, spend your vacation time cleaning your home top to bottom, or washing every item of clothing, bedding, and soft furnishings you own.
Preventing bed bug infestations is also much more sustainable than dealing with the bugs once they’ve taken up residence. After all, some clothing, bedding, and furniture cannot be safely washed in hot water, leaving you with little choice but to throw it away.
Top tips for keeping your bedroom bed bug-free include:
- Checking the bed bug registry before renting accommodation (hotels and apartments)
- Checking mattresses (under the sheets and at the seams especially) when sleeping away from home
- Washing all clothing, bags, and other washable items when returning home after travelling
- Washing any new or secondhand bedding and other soft furnishings before first use
- Checking antiques, books, and other secondhand items before bringing them home
- Checking a new mattress upon arrival (these are often transported in trucks that take away old mattresses)
- Being especially mindful of guests who have recently stayed at hostels in bed bug hotspots
- Using a mattress protector when travelling and at home.
It also helps to:
- Keep your bedroom free of clutter (no clothes on the floor!)
- Repair, replace, or remove peeling wallpaper and loose electrical faceplates
- Seal cracks in bed frames, baseboards, walls, ceilings, door frames, windows, and other furniture
- Seal around pipes, wires, and where other utilities enter your home
- Remain vigilant for signs of bed bugs (bites, skin irritation, etc.).
For an impressively thorough guide on how to check for bed bugs, see this page.
What to do if you find bed bugs
If you do find bed bugs in your box spring or in areas of your mattress fabric that are worn or torn, you’ll likely need to throw out these items. Chances are that the bed bugs will have gained entry to the inside of the mattress and box spring and laid eggs where you can’t reach them to get rid of them.
When throwing out infested items, seal and label them carefully, so no one else ends up with the problem.
For other items, see How to kill bed bugs above. And consider calling in professional pest control for guidance. Many companies now offer non-toxic pest control services.
Once you’ve treated and (hopefully) eradicated the bed bugs, be sure to get a mattress protector for your new mattress. Bed bugs are extremely wily and hard to get rid of. That means you may find your new mattress also becomes infested unless you protect it from the get-go.
Final thoughts on bed bugs and dust mites
Bed bugs are bigger than dust mites and much more problematic for most people. While we all have dust mites in our homes, most of us don’t, thankfully, have bed bugs. If bed bugs do get into your home, you’ll soon know about it (see above).
Even dust mites can cause issues, though, and it’s good practice to keep bedding clean and hygienic to minimize the risk of allergy symptoms.
To help you protect your mattress and bedding, check out the Leaf Score recommendations for:
- The best bed bug and dust mite mattress encasements (coming soon)
- The best pillow protectors (coming soon)
- The best duvet protectors (coming soon).
Ah, the million dollar question.
The general consensus appears to be that a pore size of 6 mm or less will keep out dust mites and bed bugs. For complete protection against allergens, including dust mite feces and dander, you’re going to need a tighter weave with pores no more than 3 mm big.
If you wash your bedding (sheets, pillowcases, comforter) at least every two weeks (ideally every week), you will usually only need to wash your full mattress encasement every 2-3 months. This kind of schedule helps to reduce the build-up of allergens and prevent damage to natural fibers from body oils and sweat.
Before washing your encasement, zip it up! That way, no allergens get into the encasement from other bedding.