The Best Bedding for Sensitive Skin
If you have sensitive skin or a skin condition like eczema or dermatitis, you know what it’s like to wake up itching in the middle of the night. And your sheets may be part of the problem.
Experts say an essential part of comfortable sleep when you have sensitive skin is choosing the right bedding. In general, you’ll want to sleep on natural fibers and stay away from notoriously scratchy ones. “Look for 100% organic cotton, silk, or bamboo linen—think lightweight, smooth, and breathable to help reduce sweat and friction, two things that can further irritate eczema and sensitive skin,” explains New Jersey dermatologist Avnee Shah, MD, of The Dermatology Group.
Here are the most important factors to consider when choosing sheets for irritation-prone, sensitive skin.
The best sheet fabrics for sensitive skin
According to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), cotton is lightweight and allows for maximum air circulation—a bonus if you tend to be a hot sleeper. Plus, it’s known to get even softer with each washing. Organic cotton that has not been treated with harsh chemicals or dyes is the safest bet for someone with reactive skin.
Silk, another natural fiber, feels delicious against skin and is also a good thermoregulator, which means it can keep you warm when the temperature drops and cool in hot weather. Because it is, well, silky, some people swear by it as a pillowcase material for preventing facial wrinkles while they sleep, though there is no scientific evidence. The downside of silk sheets is that they can be pricey and require special care.
Bamboo has the added benefit of having naturally antimicrobial, antibacterial, and hypoallergenic properties—a winning trifecta for sensitive-skin types. It is soft, sustainable, and biodegradable, which makes it especially appealing for eco-conscious shoppers.
What’s on the no-go list? Pass on fabrics like wool and polyester, which are inherently more irritating and constricting. They also trap heat, which can lead to sweating that exacerbates sensitive skin and eczema; for the same reason experts also advise against fleece and flannel. And leave the itchy lace accents and embroidered pillow shams for Grandma’s house.
Marketers have long been obsessed with high thread counts, but the fact remains that anything over about a 400 count requires synthetic fabric processing, a no-no for sensitive skin types who are best off with natural fibers. The NSF recommends thread counts between 200 to 400, for optimal air flow and overnight comfort while deep sleeping.
You’ll also want to think about the color of your sheets. Those with sensitive skin can react to fragrances and coloring in dark, bright, and strongly patterned sheets “For this reason, lighter-colored sheets, which are less dyed, work better for sensitive skin,” explains Shah. This is a time when sticking with classic colors like white, ivory, or pale colors like light gray can help spell relief.
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How to keep your sheets from irritating sensitive skin
Once you get your new sheets, wash them before dressing your bed. There can be irritants in the packaging or traces of chemicals used during manufacturing that may be sitting on the fabric, waiting to transfer to your skin.
How you wash your sheets is also just as important as the kind of sheets you have, since laundry detergent is a notorious cause of everything from rashes to itching and eczema breakouts, says Shah. Detergent formulas often aren’t pH balanced and can be very alkaline, which further upsets the already porous skin barrier of sensitive types.
Many people with the best of intentions reach for detergents labeled “natural,” assuming they’ll be simplest and best for sensitive skin, but some earthy ingredients can be just as irritating and even more acrid than synthetic counterparts. Instead, stick with options that are specifically formulated for sensitive skin, which is more about what isn’t in the formula then what is. “Look for a hypoallergenic laundry detergent without perfume, dyes and sulfates—I like All Free Clear, Honest Free & Clear, and Tide Pods Free and Gentle,” suggests Shah. Also steer clear of bleach and color dyes.
Ditch the fabric softener and dryer sheets since they’re often loaded with fragrance, fillers, and preservatives. If you want softening action, this is one time when wool can come to the rescue—look for hypoallergenic wool dryer balls to do the same job without the risk of irritation. You can also make your own dryer sheets that leave behind a pleasant scent by cutting up cotton fabric (like from an old T-shirt) into squares and adding a few drops of essential lavender or lemon essential oils, suggests the National Eczema Foundation. Then toss into the dryer cycle as you would a dryer sheet.
If you’ve been using traditional detergents, it’s also a good idea to clean your washing machine with a vinegar and hot water wash; simply run an empty hot cycle using two cups of vinegar. That removes detergent residue that can build up in machines and then transfer to fabrics, according to the National Eczema Foundation.
Sensitive skin or not, doing a washing machine cleanse every once in a while will help keep all your clothing and bedding their most sparkling, plus it will keep the machine functioning optimally. And when washing your fabrics, running a second rinse can be very helpful for sensitive skin types, since it helps remove any excess detergent and residue that could be left behind—especially if you tend to have a heavier hand with detergent than is necessary per load.
And you’re not imagining it; fresh sheets really do help you enjoy a better night’s sleep. Shah says you should wash your sheets about once a week in hypoallergenic detergent for the most comfortable slumber. “We shed skin cells on a daily basis and they accumulate over time—not only do dust mites love to feed on these cells, but bacteria thrive in this environment as well—not at all ideal for those with eczema, since you already have a compromised skin barrier,” explains Shah.
Shudder. We’re off to put those sheets in the washer, pronto.
If you’ve been slacking on your sheet-washing, here are even more reasons why you should clean your sheets regularly.