Some people appreciate the top sheet as a layer of bedding that keeps their duvet cover clean, while others see it as an unnecessary expense that just ends up tangled at the end of the bed. The choice of top sheet or no top sheet may seem an inconsequential decision. Still, when it was brought up in an editors’ meeting the other day, we quickly learned that people have strong opinions on this relatively trivial matter. To find out if there really is a “right way” to make the bed, we dug into the little-known history of bed linens and asked some bedding experts for their stance on the issue.
According to traditional European-style bedding, a duvet and a fitted bottom sheet are all a well-made bed needs, while American-style bedding adds a flat sheet (the “top sheet”) in between. While many regard the top sheet as excessive, others can’t sleep without it. At one time, all sheets were flat sheets, created without pockets or elastic, which were wrapped around the mattress. That is, until 1959 when Bertha Berman patented a design for a fitted sheet with elastic pockets that tucked around the edges of the mattress. Berman’s design took off and can now be found on beds around the world.
There are two types of people in the world: Those who hate top sheets and those who shudder at the thought of doing without. Across Europe, beds are gloriously free of the leg-tangling mayhem of top sheets (yes, I’m the first kind of person), but here in the states, most sheets are sold in sets, which always includes the dreaded top one. Is the top sheet a waste of money and resources? Or does it serve a purpose?
To be fair, I can (kind of) understand why people would choose the extra layer. (You know, the one that ends up wadded up at the bottom of the bed.) And believe it or not, I have actually spent a lot of time thinking about the pros and cons of both approaches. (Some people ponder deep questions and the mysteries of life, I think about sheets.)
Top sheets are about as much a scam as dentistry. They impose a level of order, comfort, and sustainability that augments sleep like cutlery does a meal. That said, all those years ago, my friends did get me to admit that my top sheets abetted my own form of chaos: those tacos from the truck. I ate them in bed every night before I went to sleep. That’s something most top-sheet apologists won’t cop to: There’s no better trap for escaped chorizo.
Sure, top sheets seem like a lot more work, and they add an extra layer of fabric that literally smothers you in your sleep. For some millennials, this probably feels more oppressive than our mounting student loan debt.
If you like the concept of a fitted sheet but aren’t a fan of its tendency to gather at the end of the bed, you might have appreciated William Edwin Root’s 1977 invention: the fitted top sheet and blanket combo. Similar to a fitted sheet, Root’s design had elastic at the bottom corners to hold it in place (presto, no more twisted sheets!) and a fold near the bottom that could be unsnapped to provide more foot room. It may sound brilliant, but for whatever reason, the fitted sheet-top sheet hybrid never gained popularity.
Why Use A Top Sheet?
Firstly: because of cleanliness. Humans are disgusting, stinky, excreting creatures. We’re basically Jabba the Hutt. And that does not stop at bedtime. With respect to gravity, a top sheet serves to protect your duvet or blanket as a fitted sheet does your mattress. Sweat; it stains. And then there’s cum, menstrual blood, and, god forbid, poo (which, of those as mentioned above, is actually the easiest to wash out.*) People don’t see the shame and more of your top sheet; they see your duvet. You can only flip that thing so many times.
Freedom Of The Legs
For anyone who likes their feet to have breathing room and who might toss and turn, a tightly tucked top sheets feel like sleeping in restraints. But if said top sheet is not tightly tucked in, for the tosser-turner it quickly twists into giant snakes that wrap around one’s legs, leading to nightmares of being attacked by sea serpents.
Ease Of Bed Making
This is how I make my bed: Straighten pillows, fluff the duvet in the air and let it fall back on the bed with the corners more or less lined up. It literally takes less than 15 seconds and looks great.
The Benefits Of A Duvet
Part of the no-top-sheet glory relies on using a duvet and its cover. I love my duvet because it’s like a cloud that sits lightly atop the body, keeping just the right amount of heat in without suffocating me. In the warmer months, I slip the duvet out and just use the cover. I like to make reversible duvet covers by sewing two tops sheets together (since one is always included in a sheet set). It all leads to a lot of versatility to look and temperature control.
The Sanitation Factor
When using a top sheet and a quilt, there is an opportunity for the sheet to slide away and let the body dirty the quilt, meaning that both require washing. That can’t happen with a covered duvet. I also find that since duvets sit on the body more lightly, the cover needs slightly less frequent laundering than a sheet weighted down with a quilt. Also, this: There are many benefits of a nighttime shower – one of them being less laundering of bedding.
Pros Of Sleeping With A Top Sheet
I never really gave my top sheet much thought until now—it’s always just been there—but it turns out sleeping with one does have a few benefits.
- It keeps you from having to wash your comforter frequently. While reporting on how often you should change your sheets, I learned about the icky germs living in all of our beds. We shed millions of bacteria every hour, making it necessary to change our sheets approximately every two weeks. The only thing more annoying than washing dirty sheets? Washing a big comforter. Let’s be real: Who’s going to lug their comforter to the laundromat on a weekly basis? If you don’t use a top sheet, and your comforter doesn’t have a protective cover, well, you’re going to want to pencil in some extra time for weekly laundry sessions. (According to the pros at Martha Stewart, you only need to wash a duvet cover monthly if you use a top sheet, while comforters themselves only need to be washed a couple of times a year, reports Good Housekeeping.) In a piece for GQ.com, writer John Ortved has this to say: “People don’t see the shame and mire of your top sheet; they see your duvet. You can only flip that thing so many times.”
- It’s a great alternative to a heavy blanket during warmer weather. In the spring and summer, I ditch my comforter altogether and just use my top sheet when it’s hot outside. I like having something covering me—but a heavy comforter is too hot, raising my body temperature too much. When your body gets too hot, this makes it harder to get a restful night’s sleep. Bonus points if your top sheet is made from breathable cotton, which naturally helps you sleep cooler. (Here’s more advice on how to sleep cool.)
- It’s comfortable. Simply put: Sleeping with a top sheet is cozy. “Have you ever slipped into a bed under a firmly tucked sheet (like they have at every hotel across the globe)?” asks Ortved in his top sheet opinion piece. “It’s structured bliss.” (Learn how to sleep every night like you’re in a luxury hotel.)
Pros Of Sleeping Without A Top Sheet
Now for the flip side of things: Here’s what opponents of the top sheet have to say about why you shouldn’t sleep with one.
- It’s easier to make your bed. According to the National Sleep Foundation, making your bed in the morning will help you get a good night’s sleep. Having one less layer to worry about smoothing out makes this process a little easier. “In the morning, instead of walking away from your crumpled warren of sheets because the thought of straightening and smoothing and tucking them is so involved as to be unbearable, you just give the duvet a little shake, and there you go!” exclaims Rachel Sanders in a Buzzfeed piece titled “Throw Your Top Sheet in the Trash.”
- You have more freedom to move around. Some people don’t like being tucked under too many layers. Ditching your top sheet gives you more mobility. “Without a top sheet, your feet and legs can roam freely as you slumber,” writes Sanders. “They will not get sweaty and trapped; the sheet will not end up in a gross wad under the blanket at the foot of your bed because your feet spent all night trying to free themselves of its feeble, clinging embrace.”
- It’s unnecessary. One of the biggest arguments against top sheets is that they don’t add any value to your bed. What’s the point of having an extra sheet on the bed when you can snuggle under a comforter? The top sheet is an unnecessary layer that can make you sleep hot. “A top sheet is the gift wrap of bedding: It looks nice, but you need to throw it away,” says Maggie Lange in a post published on GQ.com.
To Use The Top Sheet Or Not?
The bottom line is, whether or not you sleep with a top sheet comes down to personal preference. I do have to admit: People on both sides of the aisle make a lot of convincing points—but those who are anti-top sheets haven’t been persuasive enough to convince me to ditch mine. For the record, I’m still firmly on #TeamTopSheet.
To put it simply: Not using a top sheet is the lazy man’s fast track to bacterial infection. It’s worth noting that in Europe, the bedding standard is a duvet cover without a top sheet, which is basically like putting your comforter in a giant pillowcase, one that ought to get regularly washed with the rest of your bedding.
Amidst vociferous feelings on both sides of the debate, many millennials are famously abandoning top sheets. But along with traditionalists and Xennials like me (I’d never do it), the bedding industry mostly hasn’t caught up with this probably-here-to-stay trend, because top sheets do serve an important purpose as part of a sheet set. (There are some outliers, of course—Parachute’s sheet sets give you an option of “no top sheet” or “with a top sheet” when you buy.)
If you opted to toss aside the top sheet when you first made your bed, there are some things you need to know about keeping your bedding clean, in good shape, and easier to launder.
1. You Should Use Washable Blankets Or Duvet Covers
Top sheets can buy you more time between washing bulkier top bedding. For instance, top sheet-users might wash all their sheets once a week or every two weeks but wash their duvet cover once a month or less. Decorative coverlets or blankets may rarely be used, might live at the foot of the bed during the night, and might be washed even less frequently.
If you’re not using a top sheet, your body is (obviously) in contact with whatever you use as covers: blanket, duvet, comforter. Make sure it’s washable in the first place and that it will stand up to multiple washing since you’ll need to wash it more often than was (probably) intended. Also, check to see if you’ll be able to use hot water.
2. Consider Showering Before Bed
While waking up with a refreshing shower is appealing, showering before bed can drastically improve the cleanliness of your inner bed. Going to bed post-shower can help stretch the time between when you have to wash your bedding, a plus when you have to wash covers that are bulkier than a top sheet.
If you’re washing your sheets as recommended, and washing your duvet cover or comforter each time, too, you’re fine. But, and I ask this with love, are you? Duvet covers are notoriously difficult to finagle on and off, despite there being little more than an oversized pillowcase. I know I groan every time it’s time to wash mine. If you’re washing yours once a week, good for you. But I have an inkling many of us — myself included — are not. And if you’re using a top sheet, you don’t have to.
Europeans are known to eschew the top sheet, sure, but here’s the thing: Europeans also tend to flip their duvets. This means they let their beds “breathe” by hanging their comforters, and letting them air out a bit before re-making the bed at night. This is not a common practice in the U.S., but if you’ve got the outdoor space to take it up, bless — sunshine is a great natural disinfectant.
Jeff Chapin, co-founder and chief of product at Casper (yes, they make sheets, and they come in a set, thank you very much) has a great point beyond the no-top-sheet hygiene problem. “Not only does it allow your duvet cover to stay cleaner, but it also provides layering which helps you better regulate temperature,” he says. Clean and cozy: now that sounds like the way to sleep.
If you still want to ditch the top sheet, fine. Just know there is more washing in your future. (If you thought half as many sheets meant half as much laundry, I sincerely hope you’re rethinking your entire life right about now.) “If you choose not to use the top sheet, you can consider your duvet cover the equivalent of a top sheet, and it should similarly be cleaned every one to two weeks to maintain cleanliness,” says Chapin. “The duvet itself can be washed one to two times per year.” In other words: You can do you, and not be gross about it. There, now isn’t that better?
3. Keep Your Bedding Simple
One of the reasons some millennials abhor the top sheet is that they love duvets and they love them directly against their bodies. I can only assume that these duvets are being used with duvet covers. While I personally think removing a duvet from its cover and then replacing it every one to two weeks is way more trouble than it’s worth, keep your other bedding simple, so you’re not inclined to stretch the time between washings.
Reasons Why You 100% Need A Top Sheet On Your Bed
Studies have shown that on average, humans sweat around 87 litres of moisture per year, and at least a third of that is going straight into your sheets. The same study found that feather and synthetic pillows between one and a half and 20 years old contain four to 17 different types of fungus. And you certainly wouldn’t sleep on your pillow without a case, would you?
In an interview with Tech Insider, microbiologist and pathologist Ingrid Johnson said that your bed is an actual breeding ground for spores of fungi, bacteria, animal dander, pollen, soil, lint, finishing agents of whatever the sheets are made from, colouring material, and all sorts of excrement from the human body such as sweat, sputum, vaginal and anal excretions, urine milieu, skin cells – honestly, the list goes on. And without a top sheet, that excrement is soaking straight through your duvet cover, and into the body of the duvet.
Furthermore, most duvet covers are not made to be laundered every week, and even if you are washing your duvet cover every week – when was the last time you cleaned your duvet?
The ever-present duvet is a hotbed for dust mites and bacteria, not to mention the skin cells and sweat it collects from the human body every night. Helen Johnson, the spokesperson for The Fine Bedding Company, told the Huffington Post that a duvet that hasn’t been washed for a year is likely to be home to more than 20,000 dust mites, in addition to the copious amounts of organic body matter. With that in mind, the humble top sheet is the last line of defence between you and all your germs, and the germs soaking into the core of your duvet. And even if you sleep with a top sheet, all bedding should be washed once a week – meaning if you don’t sleep with a top sheet – that duvet cover needs to be laundered more than once a week. Not such a low-maintenance option now, is it?
So, how do you feel about those top sheets now, huh?