Pillow Protectors

The Best Eco-Friendly Pillow Protectors

Since we spend more than one-third of our lives laying on a pillow, it’s important to ensure our faces stay clean and comfortable while we sleep. Pillow protectors not only act as barriers to unwanted grime, but they can also extend the lifespan of these bedroom essentials.  


Experts recommend replacing pillows every 1-2 years, unless they are well-maintained. Pillow protectors can help extend their lifespan by acting as a buffer from sweat, drool, food spills, and more. While they can help reduce pillow waste, pillow protectors aren’t without their own faults. Many are made with fossil-fuel based materials, or contain dangerous chemical additives that come with some pretty uncomfy side effects. If your pillow protector is made with some of these more questionable materials, at least keep an eye out for our recommended certifications to ensure you’re doing less damage to yourself, the workers who make them, and the environment.




Cotton is the most widely used natural fiber on the planet and is very common in pillow protectors. Unfortunately, it is a water intensive crop that takes a significant toll on the soil and is associated with deforestation. Cotton is also particularly vulnerable to pests and other insects, which has led to a flourishing agrochemical industry around its cultivation. Almost 5% of global pesticide sales and 10% of global insecticides sales come from the cotton industry. Luckily, some cotton is grown in ways that can be kinder to our planet (see organic cotton below). In general, a plant-based material like cotton requires less energy to manufacture than a petroleum-based alternative like polyester. 

Organic Cotton

Organic cotton is grown without relying on the use of harmful chemicals, leaving the soil, air, and water with fewer contaminants. In an LCA looking at the differences between organic cotton and conventional cotton, the Textile Exchange found that organic cotton produces 46% fewer greenhouse gas emissions, creates 70% less acidification of land and water, the potential for soil erosion drops 26%, surface and groundwater use falls anywhere from 48% to 91%, and the demand for energy can drop by as much as 62%. While we think pillow protectors made with organic cotton are the best option, we recognize that they’re harder to come by. Less than 1% of all cotton produced is organic.


Polyester is a synthetic material that is popular for its durability and low price tag. Sure, durability and accessibility are both great, but polyester has major downsides, including the fact that it’s derived from fossil fuels. Extracting petroleum (which is needed to produce polyester) involves drilling and fracking, which have a host of negative environmental consequences (*cough*, oil spills, *cough*) that are not infrequent and can devastate already fragile wildlife populations. The environmental effects of drilling overwhelmingly impact people of color and low-income folks, who are more likely to live in communities near these sites. 

If that wasn’t bad enough, the chemical treatments used by polyester manufacturers are toxic and known to cause neurological damage and even cancer at high levels of exposure, putting factory workers at risk. Plus, every time polyester gets washed, it sheds tiny pieces of plastic threads that enter our waterways and devastate marine ecosystems or even find their way into our bodies. The Plastic Soup Foundation estimates that up to 35% of plastic pollution in our oceans comes from microfibers shed by synthetic fabrics. 

If you really love a pillow protector made with polyester, see if it’s made with recycled materials. Recycling uses significantly less energy than making polyester from scratch. Studies have found that using recycled polyester cut water requirements in production by two-thirds, and that using recycled polyester could lead to a 59% reduction in energy use. 


Polyurethane foam, made from polyurethane plastic, is a common material in memory foam pillow protectors. As we know, plastic is made from crude oil (AKA fossil fuels) and has significant emissions, resource use, and waste implications. Additionally, polyurethane foam is a significant source of VOC emissions. Why do VOCs matter, you ask? Well, according to the EPA, exposure to VOCs can cause eye, nose, and throat irritation, headaches, and nausea, not to mention liver, kidney, and central nervous system damage. A study on VOCs in bedding products found that polyurethane (and polyethylene, a slightly firmer plastic foam) emitted the most VOCs in comparison to other products. Some VOCs are also carcinogens… which is so not what we want in our sacred sleeping spaces.

Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)

Some pillow protectors are made with polyvinyl chloride. This plastic has versatile properties, such as lightness, durability, water-resistance, and easiness of processability, which makes it a highly convenient material for a protector. Unfortunately, it’s one of the most harmful plastics to human and environmental health. PVC contains dangerous chemical additives including phthalates, lead, cadmium, and/or organotins, which can leach out or evaporate into the air over time, posing unnecessary harms to children’s health. Just as with polyester, PVC releases microplastics when it’s washed, which is a big no-no, and it’s one of the most difficult plastics to recycle. For these reasons, we suggest avoiding PVC protectors.  


When we’re in a bind or overwhelmed by greenwashy-messaging, certifications can help us make choices that keep the environment and social good in mind. Here are some certifications to look out for on pillow protectors.

Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)

GOTS is the gold standard of textile certifications (which is why we like to pronounce it as GOAT-S). It requires that at least 70% of materials in the product are organic and that the product complies with multiple environmental and social criteria along its entire supply chain. If you opt for pillow protectors made with cotton, definitely prioritize finding this label.


The OEKO-TEX standard guarantees that every component of a product has been tested for potentially harmful substances such as pesticides, heavy metals, and formaldehyde, which predominantly impact people working at manufacturing facilities. This label means that the product is relatively harmless to human health, which is great for the people who make the pillow protectors AND the people who sleep on them.


The CertiPUR-US certification is a standard for polyurethane foam. While other certifications ban polyurethane foam holistically (like the GOLS certification), the CertiPUR-US certification prohibits substances like polybrominated diphenyl ether (PDBE) and flame retardants which can emit VOCs, and they require testing for formaldehyde. Unfortunately, polyurethane is, and will always be, made from plastic. While this certification ensures that the polyurethane being used is safer for human health, it doesn’t change its relationship with the fossil fuel industry. It’s also important to note that the CertiPUR-US certification is managed by the Alliance for Flexible Polyurethane Foam, which has a Board of Directors made up mostly of people in the polyfoam industry who have a vested interest in the continued use of polyurethane.


The Greenguard certification is a standard used to reduce indoor air pollution and the risk of chemical exposure – like those harmful VOCs. Look for this certification, which uses rigorous and independent third-party verification, to make sure that your pillow protector contains low levels of VOCs.


While you can live without pillow protectors, they can help extend the use phase of your pillows. If you decide to buy pillow protectors, we recommend options that use cotton or recycled materials and that bear the GOTS, OEKO-TEX, and/or CertiPUR-US certifications to reduce the adverse environmental and health impacts they could have. 


“What kind of pillow protectors are the most sustainable?”

While there’s really no such thing as “sustainable” pillow protectors because they’ll always take an environmental toll to produce, we came up with this list of more sustainable pillow protectors based on what they’re made of.

“Are pillow protectors necessary?”

No, but just like a mattress, pillows will get dirty quickly without protection. Pillow protectors can easily absorb liquid messes, preventing any unwanted stains from occurring. Also, depending on their material, they can even make your pillow cozier. To reduce the need to buy new pillows every couple of years, you can look for pillow protectors that have reduced environmental and health impacts.

“Which pillow protectors are non-toxic?”

To be honest, ‘non-toxic’ doesn’t actually mean much of anything. In fact, no chemical or material is purely “non-toxic”. Instead of saying “non-toxic”, scientists will determine whether something is NOAEL (aka it has ‘No Observed Adverse Effect Level’). The NOAEL is the highest amount of a chemical an organism can be exposed to before it begins showing some sort of toxic response, like getting sick or developing a rash. When it comes to pillow protectors, PVC has observed adverse effects, so we recommend avoiding ones made with that material to protect yourself and the environment.