Buying new bed linens might seem as simple as picking a color and the right size, but there are many other factors to consider when choosing sheets. Here’s an in-depth look at how to find the right safe, sustainable, and stylish sheets for your specific sleep needs.
Table of Contents
- Size matters (for sheets)
- Essential Bed Sheets
- Labeling on the sheets for ease of use
- Does thread count really matter for bed sheets?
- Essential Bed Sheets
- Which weave is best for bedding?
- Which sheets are the most durable?
- Which sheets are the easiest to care for and maintain?
- Essential Bed Sheets
- How do you recycle or dispose of old sheets?
- Final thoughts on factors to consider when choosing sheets
Most adults spend 7-9 hours a night up close and personal with their bed sheets. That means it’s a good idea to choose sheets that support comfortable sleep and good health.
As a new(ish) parent who loves sleep, I have no time or patience for sheets that don’t feel good or that actively hinder the little sleep I manage to get.
How can you make sure to choose sheets that will work for your sleep needs? In addition to selecting sheets that match your style, you’ll want to consider the following factors:
- Type of material
- Bleaches, dyes, and other treatments
- Thread count
- Care and maintenance
- End-of-life disposal and recycling.
We look into the best natural materials for bed sheets here and offer an in-depth look at chemicals of concern in bed sheets here. Suffice it to say, for a safe, non-toxic, sustainable bedding set-up, you’ll want to choose sheets made without hazardous chemicals and with fibers such as:
- Organic cotton
Once those basic considerations are out of the way, though, what about thread count, weave, and so forth? Let’s dig in and put these issues to bed.
Size matters (for sheets)
Sheets usually come in standard sizes to match the dimensions of Twin, Twin XL, Double/Full, Queen, King, and California King mattresses and bed frames. If you have an especially deep or shallow mattress or plan to use a pillow-top or mattress topper, check the depth of any fitted sheets. You may need to shop around for a different sheet set to fit your mattress snugly.
In my experience, fitted sheets that are too big are just as bad as sheets that are too small. Sure, you can get the larger sheet on the mattress, but the extra material bunches and makes for an uncomfortable sleep surface. Sheets that bunch like this are also more likely to rip as toes and hands can snag the excess material.
Note, too, that pillows vary in size. This means that a sheet set for a full or double bed may include pillowcases that don’t fit your Queen-size pillows, for instance. And if you have King-size pillows, check the measurements of any pillow shams before you buy. Most pillowcases will be too small for oversize pillows.
Pillowcase special features
Some pillowcases have an envelope style with a folded panel into which you tuck one end of the pillow. This helps to secure the pillow and ensure the entire pillow is covered by the case. I’m a big fan of this style of pillowcase as it prevents the pillowcase shifting around on the pillow and exposing the pillow (which is harder to clean).
The downside of envelope-style pillowcases is that they have to be a good fit for your pillow.
Too small, and the pillow will feel firmer or simply not fit. Too large and the pillow will pop out of the envelope enclosure anyway, rendering if largely redundant. Check the style of pillowcase and the size before you buy.
Envelope enclosures are also known as European style pillowcases. I grew up with these and was surprised when they weren’t standard practice for pillowcases in North America. If you’re also a recent European transplant to North America, don’t get caught out like I did!
Labeling on the sheets for ease of use
Another special feature I like to see on sheets is labeling of the long and short sides (or the head or foot). This saves you having to guess which side of a fitted sheet you’re holding, so you can avoid the irritation of having to remove half the sheet, turn it around, and start again.
Some sheets also carry labels that show their size really clearly. This is great if you’re running a guesthouse or just have a range of bed sizes in your home. I have a small guestroom with a double/full bed, so having well-labeled sheets is extremely helpful.
Does thread count really matter for bed sheets?
Thread count does matter for sheets, but not as much as some bedding companies like to make out. And a higher thread count isn’t always better, nor is it always accurate. In fact, some manufacturers inflate the thread count of sheets, making it hard to know if you can trust product descriptions.
The long and short of it is that a higher thread count usually means a tighter and denser weave and fabric. This can mean sheets feel softer and smoother, but not always. And while a higher thread count can be good news for winter sheets and cooler sleepers, it’s not always a good choice if you sleep hot or want cool summer sheets. After all, a denser fabric traps more body heat.
As someone who tends to sleep hot, I often find that supposedly luxury sheets with a high thread count are uncomfortably sweat-inducing.
Sheets with a higher thread count may also be heavier and more cumbersome to wash, dry, and work with when dressing your bed.
The weave of a fabric also determines, to some extent, the possible thread count. And it’s the combination of the weave and thread count that really determines how sheets feel and perform.
In general, look for sheets with a thread count in the region of:
- 250-300 for percale sheets
- 300-600 for sateen sheets.
Which weave is best for bedding?
The two most common weaves for bed sheets are percale and sateen. A percale weave alternates warp and weft threads evenly. A sateen weave skips the weft over some warp threads, which allows for more threads to be used overall.
Compared to sateen, a sheet with a percale weave will usually be:
- More durable even at a lower thread count
- More breathable
- Better for summer
- Better for hot sleepers
- Lighter overall.
Sateen sheets usually look and feel smoother and softer than percale but need a higher thread count for durability. Sateen sheets can be a good option if you sleep cool or live somewhere cold, or if you really like the slight sheen of these sheets compared to the more matte appearance of percale.
We look more closely at percale, sateen, and other weaves for bed sheets here, along with an in-depth discussion of thread counts.
Which sheets are the most durable?
A high thread count doesn’t mean a sheet is more durable. In fact, higher thread counts could indicate that a sheet is made of lower quality yarn.
The most durable cotton sheets are those made with long-staple or extra-long-staple (ELS) cotton. Often, this is Egyptian ELS cotton, although pima and Supima long-staple cotton are also increasingly common. To be classified as ELS, cotton fibers must be single-ply strands measuring at least 1-3/8th inches long. These ELS cotton fibers are naturally softer and stronger.
The longer threads of fiber in ELS mean that the weft and warp of the weave is smoother and flatter and, therefore, less likely to snag and rip. The smoothness also makes for softer, more luxurious sheets. And because the ELS yarn allows for a lower thread count while maintaining quality and durability, the sheets are lighter and more breathable than sheets made with inferior cotton.
There’s another way to increase the durability of sheets: combing the cotton. This process literally involves combing the cotton fiber to remove any residual debris and any super short fibers. The resulting, longer staple, fiber is then spun into a yarn for weaving into combed cotton sheets that are softer and more resilient against snags.
Which sheets are the easiest to care for and maintain?
The easiest sheets to care for and maintain are those made with quality materials and craftsmanship. Your sheets are much less likely to stand the test of time and look and feel good for years to come if they have:
- Loose threads
- Poorly stitched hems and tags
- Unsuitable dyes
- Poor quality fibers
- Harsh chemical treatments
- Other manufacturing issues.
As for materials, organic cotton, linen, and hemp are all great choices for safe and sustainable sheets. However, they all have their own care needs, so be sure to choose ones that work for your lifestyle and home.
From personal experience, I find that organic cotton sheets are usually the easiest to care for, followed by linen sheets. Hemp sheets can be a little fussy, although they are hard-wearing.
For all duvet covers, regardless of material, it’s a good idea to zip them up inside out before washing. That way, the zippers are less likely to abrade the fabric.
Sheets that carry GOTS or MadeSafe certification are made with natural and non-toxic materials and processes. This means they’re free of chlorine bleach, azo dyes, biocides, and other harmful chemicals commonly found in textiles.
As for materials, the best choices for safe and sustainable sheets are:
- Organic cotton
Each material has its own pros and cons for bed sheets, and the performance of bed sheets also varies depending on thread count and weave. If you’re a hot sleeper or you’re looking for summer sheets, for instance, you won’t want to choose fleece or jersey knits. You’ll also do best with sheets that have a lower thread count while still being high quality.
How do you recycle or dispose of old sheets?
Bed sheets made with natural fibers that haven’t been treated with toxic chemicals are much easier to recycle or reuse. If they do end up in a landfill, these kinds of sheets will also break down fast without posing a risk to the environment.
In contrast, sheets made with synthetic fibers can produce microplastic pollution while in use and in a landfill. They’re not biodegradable and are often hard to recycle because of the mix of different types of fibers.
Sheets treated with toxic dyes, stain repellents, anti-odor treatments, and antimicrobial treatments also pose a risk to the environment at end-of-life. Such treatments can mean the sheets leach chemicals into groundwater, soil, and the air, for instance.
Choosing natural fiber sheets that are free of hazardous chemicals ensures ease of recycling or upcycling once they’re too worn to keep using for their original purpose. If your sheets still have life in them and you’re just switching up your bedroom aesthetic or have a new mattress that your sheets don’t fit, consider donating your sheets to a local charity or thrift store.
You might also consider upcycling your sheets. If you’re crafty, an old sheet could become a new rug. Sheets are also great for making reusable wipes and rags. Here are some creative ways to reuse and recycle old bed sheets.
Final thoughts on factors to consider when choosing sheets
Before we wrap up, it’s worth mentioning one more consideration when choosing sheets: the impact of manufacturing. As ethical consumers, we follow the mantra of ‘buy less, buy better.’ This means only buying sheets you actually need and making sure they’re of good enough quality that they’ll last a long time before you need to replace them.
I’d also expand the definition of ‘better’ to encompass safer, more sustainable manufacturing practices that don’t harm people, non-human animals, or the environment. This might mean:
- Choosing fibers that are grown in a way that doesn’t displace wildlife through deforestation or excessive water use
- Looking for sheets that don’t contain chemicals tested on animals
- Favoring companies with fair labor practices, going beyond a basic wage and worker rights.
We love to highlight companies that actively support good quality of life for everyone involved in making your bed sheets throughout the supply chain. That way, you can sleep more easily, knowing that your new sheets are truly clean.