Why mattresses and pillows turn yellow — and how to get those stains out

A person wearing pink disposable gloves cleans yellow stains from a white pillow and mattress
(Image credit: Getty Images)

It can be shocking to peel back your bed sheets and see yellow stains covering your mattress and pillows. There are several reasons why they might turn yellow, and this type of staining can happen to any type of mattress and pillow. 

On the whole, yellow stains on mattresses and pillows aren't anything to worry about, however there are a few exceptions so you need to know the difference. The best way to stop your mattress and pillow from turning yellow is to cover them with proper protectors. 

If after reading this you decide your bed and pillow are beyond saving, our guide to the best mattresses for all sleepers will point you in the right direction of a new bed (many of which should be on sale in the forthcoming Memorial Day mattress sales). For now, here's what you need to know about yellow stains on mattresses and pillows, what causes them, if they're safe to sleep on, and how to get them out.

In a hurry and want to know the common causes of yellow stains now? Here they are:

  • Yellowing due to a build-up of natural body oils and sweat 
  • Accidents involving urine, vomit, or blood, including from pets
  • Mould and dampness setting in
  • Spillages from food and drink
  • A build-up of body moisturiser or other skincare/hair products

Yellow stains on a mattress: 6 common causes

Everybody sweats and secretes natural body oils whilst they sleep. It’s totally normal and you won’t notice stains these yellow stains on your mattress to appear overnight. Just like the yellow stains on your pillows, these stains accumulate over time. This is because these clear liquids react with oxygen and oxidize turning yellow and eventually brown. 

Yellow stains on pillow and mattress

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Whilst you can remove yellow stains from mattresses and pillows, it is natural wear and tear and nothing to be ashamed about. However, if you start to notice that these stains also have a musty odor, then this could be a mold growth which can become harmful to your health.  Here are just some reasons why you may see yellow stains on your mattress.

1. Sweat and sebum 

It can be easy to think you have dirty pillows or mattresses when you see yellow stains but the most common reason for yellow stains on mattresses and pillows is often sweat and sebum.  The average adult can lose between 500-700ml of sweat per night, and if you’re a hot sleeper that could be even more.  Natural body oils (sebum) also seep through your mattress leading to staining. So it’s important to regularly clean your sheets and even using a mattress topper to help protect your mattress surface. 

2. Saliva

You may not want to admit this but you drool in your sleep. Maybe you’re dreaming about eating pizza or it could be because you’re breathing through your mouth instead of your nose. Either way, saliva can be the main cause of yellow stains on your pillow.  Your saliva helps to create a moist environment which in turn promotes growth of bacteria on the pillow. This bacteria breaks down and is what contributes to the yellowing of your pillow.

3. Urine

We all know that accidents happen, and knowing how to remove mattress stains including from urine is a must especially if you have children or pets sharing your bed. But urine is one of the big causes of yellow stains on your mattress. Urine contains a pigment called urochrome which is what gives it a yellowish colour. 

When this gets on fabrics it means it can easily stain which is why the stain from urine is obvious. Also, urine contains proteins and salts which can solidify and bind tightly to fabrics such as mattress covers which makes the stain difficult to remove. 

Image shows black coffee spilled on a white mattress

(Image credit: Getty Images)

4. Food and drink spills 

Eating and drinking in bed is always risky business, especially as any crumbs can attract pests like dust mites. But we all enjoy a cup of tea or coffee in bed each morning so it’s a risk we’ll have to take. However, spillages and drips happen and if the liquid soaks through your sheets on to your mattress or pillows then over time this will turn yellow and even brown if left uncleaned. 

5. Cosmetics

Don’t worry, we aren’t going to shame you for going to sleep with your make up on, but that doesn’t help when it comes to yellow stains on your pillow. A lot of makeup and cosmetics like your facial cream or serum contain oils, wax, and pigments. These transfer from your face onto your pillow whilst you sleep and when they oxidize they cause yellow stains to appear. 

6. Mold

Yellow stains whilst mostly harmless can sometimes be more serious. If you notice yellow stains on your mattress or pillows that are accompanied by a musty odor, this is a huge red flag. Mold thrives in damp, humid environments like pillows and mattresses. If think that your mattress or pillow has mold then it’s time to consider either professional cleaning or a replacement – we've taken a look at the dangers of going to bed with wet hair, if you want to learn more. 

Is it safe to sleep on a mattress with yellow strains?

The answer to whether it is safe to sleep on a mattress with yellow stains is that it depends on what the cause of the stains are. If it’s just mild yellowing due to the natural oxidation of the mattress materials, then this is generally harmless. 

If it’s yellowing caused by sweat and sebum then this is the ideal environment needed for bacterial growth. This bacteria can cause nasty odors to occur which no one wants to breathe in over night.  

Whilst bacteria from sweat and sebum don’t cause many people significant health issues they can create more infections in those with weakened immune systems. This bacteria can also worsen skin conditions like eczema or psoriasis. Yellow stains caused by sweat can also attract dust mites which can cause allergy symptoms and heighten any eczema and asthma symptoms you already have. 

Images shows black mold on a white mattress

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Then there’s the dreaded mold. Mattress mold can show itself in a couple of different ways so educating yourself on how to spot mattress mold and deal with it quickly is a good idea. If you notice that your yellow stains start to have a musty odor, feel damp or you’re having respiratory issues then it is likely to be mold.

Mold can also show up on your mattress as off-white, pink or fluffy back spots. If you’re noticing mold is purple, brown or green then this usually means that the mold growth is well established and it could be time for a new mattress.

Is it safe to sleep on a pillow with yellow stains?

Again, this really depends on what type of yellow stains are present on your pillow. Yellow stains on pillows are often just a sign of age. But if your pillow is old, as well as it being yellow you may find that it’s misshapen and uncomfortable. 

However, if you notice that your pillow smells off or feels damp, this is a sign of mold and your pillow should be replaced straight away. Sleeping on a moldy pillow can have some serious health effects leading to respiratory issues, allergies and infections. It’s crucial to act fast if you think it isn’t just a dirty pillow but in fact mold.  

Yellow stains on pillows can also mean a bacteria build up caused by sweat, body oils and dead skin that build up night after night. This bacteria can contribute to skin breakouts and as well as irritating the skin. 

How to get yellow stains out of a mattress and pillow

Speed is the name of the game here, so the faster you react to blossoming yellow stains the more effective you will be when getting them out. Removing fresh (new) yellow stains from mattresses and pillows is much easier than tackling deep-set yellow stains, and stains caused by urine, vomit and liquid spills are easier to get out than those caused by sweat and body oils. 

Yellow stains on mattresses and pillows caused by natural decay (old age) are very hard to remove, so if your bed is more than eight years old and your pillow is over two years old and heavily stained, you're better off replacing them.

Here are the key steps to removing yellow stains from a mattress and pillow:

  • Do a patch test of cleaning solutions on the underneath of your mattress or pillow.
  • Blot the stained area with a dry, clean cloth to absorb as much liquid as possible. 
  • Do NOT scrub at or rub the stain as you will push it deeper into the fabric.
  • Next, prepare your cleaning solution – check the manufacturers care guidelines first.
  • White vinegar (used sparingly and mixed with water) is effective at removing fresh yellow stains.
  • Gently blot the fabric again, then repeat until the stain lifts.
  • If the stain remains, apply the vinegar solution, then blot, then sprinkle on baking soda.
  • Leave the baking soda to soak in for at least a few hours – overnight is best.
  • If the stain still persists, repeat these steps again – it may take a few passes to remove stubborn yellow stains.

How to prevent yellow stains on a mattress

While there’s nothing you can do about a mattress that's turned yellow due to age, you can at least rest assured it’s not harmful to sleep on. But, if you want to keep your mattress healthy and prevent it from yellowing due to spills, accidents, and sweat for instance, then try the following:

  • Use a mattress topper or mattress protector. These are removable and washable, and provide a tougher barrier for liquids getting into your mattress. Some are also waterproof, ideal for younger family members who are prone to wetting the bed. See our best mattress protector and best mattress topper guides to find one that suits your needs.
  • To prevent sweat and body oils getting too deep into your mattress, set reminders to clean and air the mattress twice a year or so, along with your pillows and duvets too. Also wash bed sheets and pillow cases regularly.
  • Act quickly on all accidental spillages to clean up before the liquid seeps into the mattress too much.
  • Avoid eating or drinking in bed. While this is fun, it also increases the chances of accidental spillages.
  • Avoid letting your pet sleep on the bed. Again, while this might be cosy, urine accidents – and worse – can happen.

It’s easier to donate or dispose of a mattress that's clean. If your yellow mattress is past the point of cleaning, you may need to buy a new one. However, disposing of the old one might prove to be tricky as most charities and some junk removal companies won't take a mattress if it's deemed to be unhygienic.

How to protect your mattress and pillows from yellow stains

In order to keep your mattress and pillows free of yellow stains then you need to do two things: cleaning and prevention. 

Regularly cleaning your mattress can make a huge difference to keeping stains at bay. You can read more about how to clean a mattress and remove stubborn stains in our step-by-step guide on how to clean a mattress.

Vacuum cleaning a mattress topper

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

But it’s a good idea to tackle any stains as soon as you see them. Also, cleaning your mattress on a regular basis can help to stop the stains and bacteria build up from sweat and sebum before they even start.

Of course, how you clean your mattress does depend on what type you have, for example if you’re wondering how to clean a memory foam mattress and get urine out then it’s important to act fast to stop the mattress from getting wet and to blot instead of scrubbing the stain. Whilst cleaning a hybrid mattress can be cleaned with a combination of regular vacuuming and using household items like baking soda.  

Your pillows can also be washed and should be washed every couple of months. It’s also important that if you want to stop yellow stains on your mattress and pillows from forming that you change your bedding weekly. 

There is then the prevention method, invest in a best mattress topper that sits on top of your mattress and creates a vital barrier in between you and your mattress surface. Most mattress toppers can be cleaned alongside the rest of your bedding, and those that can’t be, can be spot cleaned. Mattress toppers can also help make your bed feel a little more comfortable. 

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Rachael Penn

Rachael is a freelance journalist based in South Wales who writes about lifestyle, travel, home and technology. She also reviews a variety of products for various publications including Tom’s Guide, CreativeBloq, IdealHome and Woman&Home. When she’s not writing and reviewing products she can be found walking her Sealyham and West Highland terrier dogs or catching up on some cringe-worthy reality tv.