Think of all the things that happen on a dorm room bed. Sleeping, yes—the most innocuous, universal example. Seems pretty clean, right? But picture a drooling slumberer, sweat wicking into the sheets. Imagine the near-invisible flecks of skin sloughing off, finding their way into the mattress. The steady nighttime breathing that could be exhaling who knows what kinds of microbes. And that’s without even getting to the more unsavory things that people do in beds.
It might sound like creeping paranoia—the kind of path that’ll eventually lead to zipping yourself inside a bubble. Then again, it’s a dorm room mattress. It’s probably seen a lot of bodies. (Not as many as a hotel room mattress, but still.) And they're strangers’ bodies, containing alarming possibilities. Isn’t it just good sense to wonder just how sanitary your “new” dorm mattress is?
A lot of things could be lurking in that mattress. First, there’s dead skin, which we all leave behind wherever we are. “We slough off dead cells continuously,” says Phillip Tierno, professor of microbiology and pathology at NYU Langone Health. Those cells can feed dust mites. Dust mites leave behind their feces. There also may be insect parts, bodily secretions and excretions, fungal spores, and bacteria, he says. Tierno can keep listing things to keep you awake at night: chemicals, dust, lint, food particles from people eating in bed, pollen, soil, and someone else’s cosmetics.
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“The environment can become akin to a zoological and botanical park over the years,” Tierno says. (Still, that rumor about mattresses doubling in weight thanks to years of accumulated skin cells and dust mites is likely not true.) He says the most likely risk is allergens: particulates still hanging around in your mattress and pillows that can lead to sneezing and a stuffy nose. In extremely rare cases, an infection could spread from a not-so-clean mattress through an open cut. But Tierno says that’s very unlikely, partly because most viruses don’t live that long. “The allergens are more important than getting infected,” he says.
Once you start thinking of your mattress as a microbial menagerie, Tierno says, a mattress topper isn’t going to be enough to make you feel comfortable. He recommends going a step further by using an anti-allergen cover that zips closed, sealing in anything that might be inside the mattress. You can get one for your pillows, too. That’s a much smarter bet, he says, than trying to clean your mattress with rubbing alcohol.
It’s also worth noting that dorm mattresses are different than what you sleep on at home; they’re designed for durability and longevity. According to Paul Bailey, president of dorm mattress manufacturer University Sleep, eight years is a pretty standard life expectancy for a dorm mattress. That may not sound like a lot, until you start calculating how many people may sleep on it over that time, and the abuse it’ll take. As he puts it, “The college experience is full of experimentation.”
Bailey’s well-versed in the minutiae of university mattresses; his company’s are derived from medical mattresses. They have anti-allergen nylon covers and are designed to be fluid proof. The seams are on the side, making it that much harder for things to work their way into the core.
He’s ambivalent about mattress covers, saying, “I think the cover would be overkill on our mattress, but how can a layperson tell? It’s probably a good piece of insurance. It’s not going to hurt.” But he cautions against foam mattress toppers. Because they’re made of petroleum, he explains, they burn incredibly quickly; while dorm mattresses are fire tested, those toppers can be real danger.
It’s a useful reminder that, in the grand scheme of things, dust mites and hand-me-down skin cells are maybe the least of our worries. Emily Martin, assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, says it’s fine to wipe down a mattress with a disinfectant. (Hopefully, sheets are going to be between you and the bare mattress, anyway.)
She also notes that we’re surrounded by microbes all the time. There’s even some research showing that the microbial environment comes to represent the person inhabiting it. So even if you’re moving into a new room, those old microbes will soon be replaced with your own.
So while dorm mattresses are already engineered with cleanliness in mind, and you can always hermetically seal them, there’s something to be said for recognizing that we don’t live in sterile environments. That shouldn’t be a problem—especially for young, healthy college students. “I tend to lean more towards accepting that our environment is pretty dirty,” Martin says. “And our bodies are equipped to handle that.”