Sometimes the idea of getting new sheets is different from the reality. In a perfect world, they’re exactly as you imagined them, but what if you open the package only to discover they’re scratchy or feel rough? This could also be the case for your favorite older sheet set that’s lost its softness over time from washing or other reasons.
You should be relieved to learn this doesn’t mean you need to invest in a new set or return the ones you just got. There are easy ways to soften up your sheets, many of which you probably have access to in your home already.
What Makes the Sheets Soft?
Usually, when you come across bed sheets that feel super soft, it’s because of the material, how new (or old) they are, and the thread count. For example, sheets made out of Egyptian or Supima cotton or bamboo tend to feel soft right out of the package. Other types, like linen sheets, tend to feel stiff and starchy when you first bring them home but should soften once you break them in.
Sheets with a higher thread count tend to be the softest, but the appropriate thread count for your sheets will depend on the type of fabric you choose. Generally, you’ll want a thread count of around 400 for cotton sheets, 300 for bamboo, and 130 for linen.
Also, sheets that are more worn in, or at least not straight out of the package, will be softer than brand-new ones.
Why Are My Sheets Scratchy?
If your sheets feel scratchy it could be because of a few things. First of all, are your sheets brand new? If so, they may still have some chemical residue on them from the manufacturing process. There’s nothing dangerous about this, but you should wash your new sheets to soften them up before putting them on the bed.
If your sheets aren’t new and they are still scratchy, you have to look at the quality of the sheets. Lower-quality sheets are typically made from short-staple cotton fibers, which makes for rougher-feeling sheets.
You might also need to look at how you’re washing and drying your sheets, especially if they used to be soft but are now feeling coarse. This could be an accumulation of fabric softener residue from dryer sheets or hard water buildup caused by a high concentration of minerals in the water you’re washing your sheets with.
Luckily, there are several ways to soften your sheets, no matter what the reason is behind their scratchiness.
How to Soften Bed Sheets
Baking Soda or Vinegar
This one might sound counterintuitive at first: You want me to put baking soda or vinegar on my nice, clean sheets? Well, yes, if your sheets are rough, this might be just what you need to do. As a base, baking soda1 dissolves organic compounds like dirt or caked-on laundry detergent. Vinegar is an acid, and it also safely breaks down these compounds. Just be sure not to get it on natural stone, waxed wood, cast iron, or aluminum.
You can either do this separately – baking soda first and then vinegar – or you can combine these two steps into one process.
For an initial wash with baking soda only, put your sheets into the wash as usual, but instead of using detergent, use one cup of baking soda. Wash on a gentle cycle with cold to warm water. Then dry as usual, or if possible, on a line.
Here, baking soda acts as a natural alternative to fabric softener, and if you like this alternative, you can continue adding baking soda to your wash in place of fabric softener, in addition to detergent. You’d just add a quarter cup of baking soda during each wash thereafter.
Alternatively, you can use white vinegar to soften up your sheets by adding a cup of vinegar to the machine during the rinse cycle. Be sure you set your washing machine to cold and specifically use white vinegar. If you’re worried about any lingering vinegar smells, you can add a few drops of essential oils, though the vinegar smell shouldn’t linger.
Vinegar is a great solution for sheets that are stiff from detergent or fabric softener residue. Detergents are alkaline and vinegar is acidic, so it should break down and neutralize these residues.
You can also combine the baking soda and vinegar processes into one, but be sure not to add these ingredients to the wash at the same time. Vinegar and baking soda will react together, and essentially cause a middle school volcano science experiment in your washer.
Instead, add the cup of baking soda at the beginning and run a full cycle using warm water. Then, during the rinse cycle, switch your washing machine to cold water and add a half cup or one cup of white vinegar to the machine. This will give you the benefits of both baking soda and vinegar, without allowing the two to combine and react with each other.
Fabric softener is a great way to soften your sheets quickly, but it comes with a small caveat. Fabric softener works by coating the fibers of your sheets to make them feel smooth. Over time, fabric softener can build up and make your sheets less breathable, and in fact, more stiff or scratchy. The residue also means your sheets will wear out more quickly. However, fabric softener is safe for occasional use to get your sheets feeling softer quickly.
We recommend fabric softener (that you add in during the wash itself) over dryer sheets (that you put in the dryer) to soften sheets because they are less harmful to the environment2. Do note, though, that both fabric softeners and dryer sheets can irritate sensitive skin and cause acne or rashes in certain people.
You’re probably already using laundry detergent on your clothes, towels, and sheets. If you are, and your sheets feel stiff or scratchy, you might just change how you’re using your detergent. Try using less detergent (about half the recommended amount), or try running the rinse cycle twice so the detergent won’t build up on your sheets. Remember, laundry detergent build-up is a major cause of stiff, coarse sheets.
We’d also recommend using a high-quality and natural detergent to avoid any skin issues and to keep your sheets feeling soft.
Putting your sheets in the dryer over and over may cause them to shrink over time, and this can cause your sheets to feel scratchy. If you have a sunny spot outside to hang a line, this simple drying solution might save your sheets from roughness – and save you money on your electric bill.
We recommend line drying3 because it conserves energy, can enhance freshness and remove strong odors, provides a gentler alternative to the dryer, uses the sun as a disinfectant, and could reduce wrinkles.
If you don’t have a way to dry your clothes in the sun, you can alternately put your dryer on the lowest setting to help reduce shrinkage and preserve your sheets
Turpentine is a volatile oil obtained from pine resin. This substance is often used as a solvent or a flavoring ingredient in certain foods, and the laundry room might be the last place you’d think to use it. However, if done correctly, it could be a great way to soften your sheets.
Just add a half-cup of turpentine to the washing machine, and then wash your sheets on a regular cycle.
If you do choose to soften your sheets with turpentine, be sure to line-dry them. This solvent is combustible, and if there is any trace of it left on the sheets after the wash, putting them in the dryer could start a fire.
For this, all you’ll need is a bathtub and some regular table salt or Epsom salt. Fill your tub with cold water and about 50 grams of Epsom salt or about one cup of regular salt. Add your sheets and stir them around for a few minutes so they absorb the salt well. Then, leave them overnight, or even for a couple of days, if you can.
Once you remove the sheets from your tub, you can rinse them in the washing machine using cold water (or you can rinse by hand), and then, for the softest results, hang them up to dry.
Borax is a naturally occurring mineral and can be purchased in powder form. It’s commonly used as a laundry booster, household cleaner, and water softening agent. This is why it’s great for softening sheets, especially those that might have hard water buildup.
To use it, add a half-cup of borax to a tub full of cold water and soak your sheets in the solution overnight. The next day you can remove them and put them in the washing machine on a cold cycle with no detergent. You can either then dry them in the dryer, or for the softest results, hang them up to dry.
Dryer balls are an excellent alternative to dryer sheets. They don’t soften your sheets by coating them with chemicals but rather tumble around with your sheets in the dryer, helping to soften them up.
You can buy reusable wool dryer balls, or you can use tennis balls as a more economical alternative. You’ll wash your sheets as usual, but when you place them in the dryer, you’ll add two dryer or tennis balls and put the dryer on a low setting.
The wool balls, in particular, should cut down on your drying time by absorbing additional moisture, which is a plus for sheets.
Try Washing the Sheets Multiple Times
If your sheets are coarse solely because they are brand new, washing them multiple times might be all it takes to soften them up. That’s because when you first break your new sheets out of their packaging, they probably still have some chemical residue from the manufacturing process. Though not dangerous, this residue can make your sheets feel stiff.
In this case, you’ll complete a full wash and dry cycle two or three times before putting the sheets on your bed. While not the most environmentally-friendly or economical option, as washing and drying takes up a lot of energy each time, it will quickly help break in your new sheets.
Read More: How Often Should You Wash Your Sheets?
Where Can You Buy Super Soft Sheets?
Of course, the easiest way to sleep on soft sheets might be to just buy super soft sheets in the first place. Remember, to make sure your sheets are super soft, you’ll want to be mindful of the thread count, the material used, and the quality of the sheets overall.
You can buy super soft sheets in person so that you can touch the fabric before taking them home, though your options may be more limited than if you shop online.
If you shop online, we’ve put together a guide for buying sheets to help you pick out the set that’s right for you.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do sheets soften over time?
Yes, in general, sheets do soften over time. You’ll want to make sure you’re taking good care of your sheets, by washing and changing them the right amount of times, and if you are, your sheets should naturally soften with use and time. Additionally, following the manufacturer’s cleaning instructions should help keep your bed sheets in good condition.
Can soft bed sheets lead to good sleep?
Yes. Soft bed sheets could help you achieve a good night’s sleep, especially if softer sheets are your preference. Feeling more comfortable, whether it’s from smooth sheets or any other bedding considerations, will allow you to easily relax and as a result, should foster better sleep.
Make sure you are picking sheets that work for you. If you run hot at night, there are sheets that are cooling, or if you have skin sensitivities, fabrics like breathable cotton might be better for you.
Which bed sheets are naturally softest?
Egyptian cotton is largely considered to be the most naturally soft sheet. Linen is also naturally soft, though it will take some time to wear in.
Are higher thread count sheets softer?
A higher thread count does not necessarily mean softer sheets. Sheets’ thread count tells you how many yarns are in a square inch of fabric, but a larger number of vertical threads doesn’t always mean softness. Some sheets can have a high thread count and feel scratchy, whereas other sheets can have a lower thread count and feel smooth because of their material.
When searching for soft sheets, even more important than the thread count, will be the fabric and the weave.
We hope we’ve given you a few options that can help you easily soften your sheets. If you end up wanting to purchase new sheets, explore our picks for the best sheets of 2023.
Natalie is a content writer for Sleep Advisor with a deep passion for all things health and a fascination with the mysterious activity that is sleep. Outside of writing about sleep, she is a bestselling author, improviser, and creative writing teacher based out of Austin.
Sources and References:
- Kish, Stacy. “Why are vinegar and baking soda so good for cleaning?”. Live Science https://www.livescience.com/why-baking-soda-vinegar-clean.html. 2021.
- “Greener Laundry by the Load: Fabric Softener versus Dryer Sheets”. Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/greener-laundry/#. 2008.
- “Benefits of Sun Drying Your Clothes”. International Journal of Research. https://internationaljournalofresearch.com/2020/06/23/benefits-of-sun-drying-your-clothes/. 2020.