Few things in life feel as good as the cool side of the pillow. Why are some pillowcases better at keeping their cool, though? Here’s the lowdown on weaves, thread counts, materials, and other factors to consider when choosing pillowcases or shams.
Table of Contents
- The best natural materials for pillowcases
- Chemicals of concern
- What size should a pillowcase be?
- Pillowcase enclosure style
- Pillowcase thread count and weave
- How to choose a durable pillowcase
- Pillowcase care and maintenance
- Pillowcase certifications
- End-of-life and pillowcase recycling
- Final thoughts on factors to consider when choosing pillowcases
Many sheet sets include two matching pillowcases along with a fitted sheet. Flat sheets are usually sold separately, as are duvet covers, although some sets include all of the above. This can be great for effortlessly matching the color and style of your bedding, but the downside is that what works well for a duvet cover might not be your best choice for pillowcases.
For a comfortable, restful sleep, you will also want to consider the following factors when choosing new pillowcases:
- Type of fiber and fabric
- The use of chemicals to process the fabric
- Size and shape
- Enclosure style
- Thread count and weave
- Breathability and durability
- Care and maintenance
- End-of-life disposal and recycling.
Let’s go through each factor in turn, so you can make an informed choice for your next duvet cover purchase.
The best natural materials for pillowcases
The best materials for pillowcases are usually the same as the best natural materials for sheets and duvet covers. In short, this means:
- Organic cotton
- Blends of the three.
For pillowcases, you may also want to consider:
- Eco-friendly bamboo
- A bamboo blend with hemp, cotton, or linen
- Ethical silk.
The breathability and feel of a pillowcase matters a lot, perhaps even more so than for sheets. Thankfully, cotton, hemp, and linen are all very breathable and can feel very soft and smooth, depending on the weave, fiber quality, and thread count.
Cotton is a bit more versatile than some other natural fibers and can be cool and crisp, or soft and cozy depending on the thread count and weave. This natural fiber is also more readily available and tends to be more affordable as a result, even when certified organic.
One downside to cotton is that it can feel cold when wet. So, if you tend to sweat or drool on your pillowcase, you might prefer hemp or linen instead.
Hemp is great at wicking away moisture and regulating the temperature of your head. The fiber then releases humidity and heat during the day. Hemp is also antimicrobial and anti-odor, which can be important for pillowcases, especially if you don’t wash your bedding regularly. Hemp is also very soft and gets softer with every wash.
Linen is another great choice for pillowcases because it is:
- Great for keeping your head cool
- Very durable (more so even than cotton)
Want to know more about flax linen and sebaceous (sweat) gland function? You’re in luck; I wrote a whole paper on the subject.
The downsides of flax linen are that it can be more expensive than cotton and less available, and that it tends to have a rumpled appearance. You can iron linen pillowcases, but it’s more eco-friendly to just embrace the casual, wrinkled look of linen. If you’re just going for linen pillowcases and sheets, play around with texture by choosing a crisp cotton duvet cover in a corresponding color.
See more about how to match sheets and shams here.
Chemicals of concern
If you’re lucky (and a stomach-sleeper), you’re going to be face to fabric with your pillowcase for 7-9 hours every night. This means it’s extra important to ensure that the pillow and pillowcase aren’t exposing you to toxic chemicals.
As with any home textile, pillowcases can be and are made with a variety of chemicals that can harm health. These include:
- Azo dyes
- Other toxic dyes
- Chlorine bleach
Depending on the fabric and fiber, the pillowcase may also contain traces of pesticides and herbicides as well as heavy metals.
The best way to ensure your pillowcase is safe and sustainable is to choose natural fibers that haven’t been treated with toxic chemicals at any stage. This means choosing organic fibers and final products free of the things listed above and other chemicals of concern, which we discuss in greater depth here.
What size should a pillowcase be?
The obvious answer is that a pillowcase should be big enough to accommodate you pillow. That’s not the end of it, though.
Pillowcases work best when they fit fairly snug to your pillow. This prevents excess material getting tangled in hair, arms, hands, noses, jewelry, or whatever else. A pillowcase that is too small, in contrast, will result in an overly firm pillow that bulges and looks unsightly.
If you have a pillow that doesn’t feel firm enough and you can’t easily add stuffing, consider sizing down for the pillowcase. By squeezing the filling into a slightly smaller space, you may be able to add some height and firmness and avoid needing to replace your pillow.
Getting the right size pillowcase also matters in order to use the enclosures properly. Too big, and the pillow won’t stay in the envelope fold-over fabric and the pillowcase can wiggle down the pillow. Too small and the pillow will have to bend to fit into the fold, which can then rip the pillowcase and make for an uncomfortable sleep.
Pillowcases come in a range of sizes to fit conventional pillow measurements, i.e., toddler, standard, queen, king, and Cali king.
The best way to ensure your new pillowcases will fit your pillows and vice versa is to measure what you already have. This means measuring the width and length of your pillowcase from seam to seam. For pillows, you’ll also need to factor in the loft or height of the pillow. Add this to the width and length to ensure the pillowcase will actually fit.
A common rule of thumb is to choose a pillowcase that is two inches wider and longer than your pillow, to properly accommodate pillow height. This accounts for tall pillows, though, which are usually best for side-sleepers. If you’re a stomach-sleeper who prefers a low-profile or flatter pillow, a smaller pillowcase will usually fit better.
Pillowcase enclosure style
European style pillowcases have an envelope enclosure, while North American style pillowcases are often open-ended. This was a surprise to me when moving from the UK to Canada many years ago.
I like envelope enclosures as I tend to sleep on my front and have at least one arm or hand under my pillow at night. A pillowcase that migrates down the pillow or is open ended is liable to snag on my fingers, which I find irritating.
If you’re a committed back-sleeper who doesn’t move around much in your sleep, you may not much care about envelope enclosures for your pillowcase. For everyone else, I definitely recommend the envelope!
However, if you have a non-standard pillow or very firm pillow, an open-ended pillowcase may be best.
Don’t fold a larger molded latex pillow to try to fit it into the fold-over fabric of a smaller pillowcase. This could damage both your pillow and the pillowcase.
Watch out for embellishments and seams
It’s rare for pillowcases to have a raised pattern or embroidery, although you can get monogrammed pillowcases with small initials in one corner.
Seams, however, are always present in pillowcases and may cause endless irritation if they’re poorly placed or raised. The ideal pillowcase for most people is one with smooth seams that are tucked neatly at the edge and one side of the pillow. These are usually French seams that tuck in on themselves for a smooth, more rounded, cozy-looking finish.
Some pillowcases are made with flat seams, though. These make for a crisper, cleaner look and are more common for pillows with a false hem and deliberate excess material at the edges. Decorative seams and stitching can feel rough against your face or neck, chafe, leave odd indentations when you wake, and can disrupt sleep.
If you’re very sensitive to textures, check the design of any pillowcase you’re considering. Zoom in on product photos if you don’t have the product in front of you in a store. If you still can’t tell, contact the company and ask how the pillowcase is stitched together.
Pillowcase thread count and weave
Pillowcases are usually made with the same kind of fabric as matching sheets, which means you don’t have much control over thread count and weave if you’re buying a set. However, you may want to add extra pillowcases or buy these separately to your sheets, so you can choose a different thread count or weave.
Why would you want to do this? Because your face might like a different level of coziness, softness, and breathability to the rest of your body.
If you sleep cold but love a cool pillow, for example, sateen sheets and percale pillowcases may be just the ticket. A sateen pillowcase could prove too dense and insulating.
The thread count of your pillowcase will also matter more if you don’t use a pillow protector to fully encase your pillow, or if your pillow isn’t easily washable. A higher thread count and denser weave will better protect your pillow from dust mites, crumbs, and even drool and sweat.
However, a higher thread count and denser weave can also:
- Soak up more water
- Trap more heat
- Be less breathable.
If you live somewhere with hot summers and cold winter, consider having seasonal pillowcases:
- For winter, choose shams with a higher thread count and cozier feel
- For summer, choose shams that feel crisp and cool with a percale weave and lower thread count.
Finally, if you have any face jewelry that you don’t remove before sleeping, or if you have a ring that often snags on your pillowcase, consider a percale weave. This will be more durable and less likely to snag and rip. If you really want a sateen pillowcase, choose one with a higher thread count to improve durability.
Want to know more about percale, sateen, and other weaves for bedding? We go deep on weaves and thread counts here.
How to choose a durable pillowcase
The durability of a pillowcase depends not only on the thread count and weave but also the fiber quality and overall design and construction. You’re going to be washing your pillowcases once a week (ideally) for years, if not decades, to come. As such, it needs to hold up to regular use and washing.
Where things get tricky is that a higher thread count might mean a pillowcase is made with poor quality, shorter fibers that more easily break.
What you want to look for, then, at least for cotton pillowcases are single-ply, long staple or extra long staple (ELS) cotton. These are sometimes known as Egyptian ELS cotton, pima, or Supima long-staple cotton and are much more durable than conventional cotton. The fibers are also softer and allow for a lower thread count while maintaining durability and luxury.
Pillowcase care and maintenance
It’s best to wash pillowcases once a week with the rest of your sheets. If you are very sweaty, drool a lot, or accidentally spill something on your pillow, wash the case sooner.
As with other home textiles, many pillowcases will shrink a little on their first wash. They may shrink further on subsequent washes too. Some come pre-washed and pre-shrunk. Whatever you do, don’t choose pillowcases with ‘anti-shrinking’ agents. These are chemicals that can be harmful to health.
If you find that your pillowcase shrinks an unreasonable amount and no longer works when washed according to the care instructions, contact the manufacturer. They may offer you a refund or exchange and take the feedback on board to redesign the pillowcase to allow for more shrinkage.
In general, it’s best to wash pillowcases:
- Inside out
- Separate from anything that could snag it
- Using gentle, natural detergent
- Cold or warm water only
- On a gentle cycle.
To dry, hang pillowcases on the line or use a clothes airer wherever possible. If you do need to machine dry the pillowcase, follow the care instructions, which usually means using low heat only and removing right away once dry (to avoid wrinkles and overheating damage to the fibers).
We offer more information on the different care needs for natural bedding materials on the following pages:
- Care and maintenance of organic cotton bedding
- Care and maintenance of linen bedding
- Care and maintenance of hemp bedding.
If you’re buying cotton pillowcases, always look for certified organic cotton. The label should be on the pillowcase itself, not just on product packaging and marketing materials. Ideally, the pillowcase would carry robust organic certification through GOTS or USDA Organic.
For hemp and linen, certification matters less, given that these fibers tend to be grown under organic conditions even if they’re not officially certified. Still, it’s nice to see GOTS or USDA Organic on hemp and linen pillowcases.
If you’re considering pillowcases made with non-organic certified materials, look for other certifications that cover additional factors, such as:
- How the pillowcases are made
- Which chemicals are used
- Who makes the pillowcases and under what working conditions.
Certifications such as GOTS and Made in Green by Oeko-Tex include social and environmental considerations, while MadeSafe and eco-INSTITUT focus on the compositions of the pillowcases and chemical processes only. Seals such as Fair Trade and Nest only cover social factors and some environmental factors but don’t certify products as organic or non-toxic.
Check out our guide to the most important green certifications for bedding, including pillowcases, here.
End-of-life and pillowcase recycling
Pillowcases should, with proper care, last for many years, if not decades. This assumes they’re also made well and with quality fibers.
When your pillowcase really has reached the end of its useful life as a pillowcase, though, don’t just throw it in the trash. The beauty of natural fibers and non-toxic dyes and other treatments is that the pillowcase is safe and simple to recycle or upcycle.
If a pillowcase has a rip or tear, consider mending it or cutting and resewing, so that it fits a smaller pillow or cushion. You can also use old pillowcases to store other bedding, such as winter or summer sheet sets, smaller comforters or duvet inserts, and blankets.
If you have a baby or any inclination towards a zero-waste lifestyle, consider cutting an old pillowcase into squares. The soft, machine washable material makes for excellent reusable wet wipes, toilet tissue, napkins, or handkerchiefs. And if you have a party coming up, consider cutting the pillowcase into triangles to make your own bunting!
If you’re not feeling creative, find a local fabric recycling drop-off, or ask around to see if any local artists need free fabric.
Final thoughts on factors to consider when choosing pillowcases
While writing this piece on pillowcases, I fell sick with a nasty cold. Cue fever, sweating, chills, and a stuffy nose. Ugh.
When I finally got into bed, I quickly realized my pillow had gotten mixed up with my wife’s. How could I tell? Because even though we have the same pillow inserts, my wife’s has a pillowcase made with brushed organic cotton and my pillowcase is linen.
The difference in the materials was stark: the linen felt cool to the touch despite our current heat wave and nightly temperature of just under 84 F; the cotton pillowcase felt cozy and insulating, which is great for my wife, who sleeps cold, but terrible for me as a hot sleeper (with a fever!).
In my twenties, my bedding choices were mostly based on style, budget, and convenience. Now I’m older and sleep is harder to come by, I make a point of choosing bedding that actually works for my sleep needs. For me, this means choosing materials like linen and hemp, or organic cotton in a cooler percale weave.
Sleep needs can change over the seasons and over our lifetimes. We tend to pay a lot of attention to mattresses and pillow inserts, but don’t discount how much of a difference the right pillowcase can make to getting good quality sleep night after night.