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Bed Basics
Bed Basics

How to Clean a Mattress: Dust Mites

A picture of a vacuum cleaning a mattress.
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There’s nothing like flopping onto your comfy mattress at the end of a long day and settling in for a good night’s sleep. Our bedrooms are our sanctuaries for resting and recharging. So, our bedrooms, where we spend at least one-third of our time asleep, should be clean, restful spaces.

After all, that time spent sleeping or lounging in bed means that there is plenty of opportunity to shed skin cells and hair—the average person sheds 500 million skin cells per day. All that dander can exacerbate allergies, create dust and lure dust mites.

For the 20 million people in the United States—and millions more worldwide—who have a dust mite allergy, dust mites can trigger sneezing, itching, coughing, wheezing and more. Thankfully, you can take steps to help banish dust mites from the bedroom with proper cleaning.

What is a dust mite?

Unless you look through a microscope, you won’t see dust mites. These tiny critters feed on the dead skin cells that people and pets shed. They favor warm and moist environments, so they often reside in mattresses, pillows, bedding, upholstered furniture, carpet and rugs.

Why are dust mites a problem?

Dust mites are a health concern for people with conditions like a dust mite allergy, atopic dermatitis (eczema), asthma or any combination of them. It’s gross and slightly horrifying to talk about, but the bug’s fecal pellets, of which they each drop about 20 a day, typically trigger the allergic reaction. The droppings are about the size of a pollen grain and can easily be inhaled, but they can also cause itchy skin. A digestive enzyme present in the fecal matter often causes the immune-system reaction, leading to telltale allergy symptoms. The bug’s exoskeleton can also be an allergen.

While dust mites might be small in size, their impact is vast. Of people who have both allergies and asthma, 40% to 85% are allergic to dust mites. In fact, exposure to dust mites in childhood is a risk factor for the development of asthma. But even people with asthma who don’t have a dust mite allergy may still endure airway inflammation from inhaling the small particles. Dust mites can trigger a bronchospasm, also known as an asthma attack.

If you’re an adult and you don’t have a dust mite allergy, atopic dermatitis, asthma or another allergic condition, the microscopic bugs likely don’t pose a threat to you. They do not bite or burrow into the skin. And they are not the kinds of critters that cause infestations, like bed bugs, which bite and can spread easily.

Do all houses have dust mites?

Getting into the nitty-gritty of dust mites and their excretions elicits the ew factor, for sure. But consider how common they are: Nearly 85% of homes in the United States have detectable levels of dust mites in at least one bed, according to study estimates. Ultimately, no matter how pristine your home is, you’ve likely got some dust mites lurking and living it up on your dead skin cells. It’s practically a fact of life. But you can take steps to make your home—and especially your mattress—less favorable to the tiny critters so that their droppings are less of a problem for your airways.

How to clean your mattress to get rid of dust mites

If you’re concerned your mattress has dust mites, you can clean it. One simple step is to remove any detachable covers and use an upholstery attachment to vacuum the mattress and all of its crevices. For extreme situations, one study found that daily mattress vacuuming dramatically curtails the critters and related allergy symptoms. But if that sounds like too much of an inconvenience to do before your morning coffee, a regular thorough vacuuming once or twice a month will also likely help. You can make a plan to do it every time you wash your bedding.

Dust mites desire moist environments. And our mattresses and bedding can get damp from sweat and body oils. You can make your mattress less hospitable by allowing it to occasionally air out in a room with low humidity (under 51%) or with a dehumidifier running.

Direct sunlight will dehydrate and kill dust mites. So allow the sun to shine directly on your mattress if your bedroom gets enough light, or take it out to air outside if it’s portable and not a latex mattress, as latex mattresses should not be exposed to direct sunlight. If none of these options are feasible, simply strip the bed and let it air out for several hours to remove any trapped moisture.

How to prevent dust mites

Routine cleaning and other tactics can help mitigate the dust mite population in your home, and especially your bedroom.

Wash bedding regularly

This includes linens, bed coverings, your washable mattress cover and a washable pillow cover (or the whole pillow, if possible)—preferably at high heat. A temperature of 122 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes kills dust mites, according to one study. But always check your manufacturer’s recommendations for proper linen, pillow and mattress cover care.

Use a mattress protector

Not only can a mattress protector minimize moisture getting into your mattress by absorbing bodily fluids and spills, but a protector can also keep out critters and minimize your allergic reactions.

Keep the humidity down, especially in your bedroom

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that dust mite populations were diminished in homes with a humidity under 51%. Run your en suite bathroom fan during and after showering. Use air-conditioning and fans when the weather brings on high heat and humidity. And use a dehumidifier if necessary.

Keep mattresses and pillows dry

If you’re prone to night sweats, delay making the bed first thing in the morning, to let your mattress air out. Also avoid going to sleep with wet hair on your pillow.

Clean regularly

Frequent vacuuming and mopping of floors and dusting of surfaces helps clear away shed skin cells from humans and fur babies, reducing dust mites’ food supply.

Eliminate carpet and upholstery

If possible, replace carpet with hard-surface floors, especially in bedrooms. Go area rug free or decorate with washable options. When it comes to furniture, avoid upholstery and fabric window coverings, or vacuum everything regularly. For headboards and furniture, leather and vinyl are less hospitable surfaces, and for window treatments, shutters and washable blinds can help.

Change your pillows regularly

Keep decorative pillows off your bed. And clean your sleeping pillow often. Replace your pillow if you’ve spilled on it, if it’s lost its shape, if it smells or if you’ve noticed an uptick in allergy symptoms after sleeping on it.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do protective covers work against dust mites?

There is limited research about special mattress and pillow covers, but the ability to wash a cover that protects the surface of your mattress can only help with tackling a problem. A 2014 research review looking at more than 20 clinical trials found that covers reduce dust mite exposure, though they do not necessarily mitigate the corresponding allergy symptoms. Other research suggests that tightly woven covers can offer some help. They also protect your mattress, so they are a good asset for protecting your investment.

Does vinegar or baking soda kill dust mites?

Although baking soda and vinegar can help remove mattress odors, neither can kill dust mites. Baking soda may help absorb moisture from a mattress if you want to sprinkle some on before vacuuming, however.

How do you get rid of dust mites on skin?

Dust mites do not ride around on skin, though they may hang out on your clothing. Washing items regularly will help remove them. They also don’t bite or burrow. But exposure to their feces or exoskeleton could cause an atopic dermatitis flare, which you should treat as directed by your doctor.

What’s the difference between dust mites and scabies?

Although they are both mites, dust mites and scabies are different. Scabies is a parasitic disease, typically transmitted via skin-to-skin contact. The female scabies mite burrows into the skin and lays eggs. Symptoms can include a rash and intense itching. Scabies generally requires treatment with prescription ointments or oral medications. Dust mites, on the other hand, will leave you alone. They just want your dead skin cells after they’ve flaked off.

Where do dust mites come from?

Dust mites come from everywhere. That may not be a satisfying answer, but it’s the truth. They’re just naturally occurring bugs that feast on the skin cells we shed. And indoors is the most hospitable environment for them because they prefer higher humidity and higher temperatures.

Dust mites may be gross to think about, but they’re a natural part of our ecosystem, and they’re impossible to eliminate completely. The main trouble they can cause is an allergic reaction or an asthma attack. That’s why it’s best to make your bedroom as inhospitable to them as possible, especially if you’re prone to indoor allergies or have lung disease. You can keep these critters from wreaking havoc on your good night’s sleep by cleaning regularly, nailing laundry day and giving your mattress some TLC. With these efforts, you can tell dust mites to bug off so you can hopefully breathe easier. However, if you’re still having trouble, it’s worth talking to your doctor about additional solutions or medications that may help.

Check out these mattress protectors to keep your mattress clean