Science

How Gross Is a Used Hotel Mattress?

Pretty gross.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt allegedly asked his scheduler to help him acquire a used Trump hotel mattress.
EPA administrator Scott Pruitt allegedly asked his scheduler to help him acquire a used Trump hotel mattress.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

EPA administrator Scott Pruitt’s scheduler testified to congressional investigators that her boss had instructed her to run a variety of personal errands for him, likely in a violation of federal ethics rules. In the testimony released Monday by ranking Democrats on the House Oversight Committee, Millan Hupp said one of those errands was to buy an “old mattress” from the Trump International Hotel in D.C. How gross are used hotel mattresses?

Pretty gross, but using one probably won’t be hazardous to your health. Let’s first try to estimate how many different people have slept on a given Trump Hotel bed. High-end hotels usually discard their beds after about five years of use, but the Trump Hotel only opened in fall of 2016. The average length of a hotel stay is two nights. CNN also reported that Trump’s D.C. hotel had a 50 percent average monthly occupancy rate in 2017.

Given these factors, we can estimate that a typical bed in the Trump hotel is slept in for half the year, which works out to be about 183 nights. If a new guest is checking into the room every two nights, then approximately 92 different people (or couples) are sleeping in a Trump hotel bed every year. Then we can roughly guess 160 different people (or couples) have slept on a used mattress like the one Pruitt allegedly wanted to buy. (These estimates, of course, don’t take into account a variety of pertinent factors—for example, beds in the cheaper rooms probably see more use—but they’ll do for the purpose of conceptualizing grossness.)

Now consider the ways in which people contaminate their mattresses. Mattresses can harbor dust mites, skin cells, hair, cosmetics, perfume, and bodily fluids. Pads and sheets should catch much of the material, though some particles will be able to bypass these barriers. Bodily fluids often seep through the layers, particularly sweat; the average person produces 26 gallons of sweat in bed each year. This dampness combined with a person’s body heat creates the perfect environment for fungal flora to flourish.

The hundreds of people who used a given mattress in the hotel likely had varying bed habits: Some may wear shoes in the bed, others may prefer to sleep in the nude, while still others may bring along food or pets. This means there are likely a larger variety of contaminants present in a hotel bed compared to what you might find on a mattress in someone’s home.

Hotel staff typically only change the sheets and don’t sanitize the mattresses themselves. Housekeepers in some hotels also flip mattresses every month to ensure that one side isn’t receiving all the grime, though Pruitt reportedly requested a pillow-top mattress, which cannot be flipped.

Beyond the ick factor, however, it’s unlikely that a used hotel mattress would jeopardize your health. You could technically get an infection from MRSA staph bacteria, which can flourish on soft surfaces. Yet this would require a sick occupant to deposit skin cells or mucus directly onto the mattress a week or two before you acquired it. You would also have to have a wound that somehow comes in contact with the diseased deposit. If you happen to have severe allergies, it’s also possible that the dust, dead skin, and insect parts that the mattresses accumulated over time will exacerbate the condition. And there’s always the risk of bed bugs, though hotel mattresses are not particularly susceptible to an infestation compared to those in other environments.

There are ways to decrease the risk of sickness and improve the overall sanitation of a used mattress. Fitting the mattress with an impermeable allergy cover will help to keep any of the contaminants from spreading, and Lysol spray should kill much of the bacteria.

Explainer thanks NYU Medical School professor of microbiology and pathology Philip M. Tierno, Jr., University of Arizona microbiologist and associate professor Kelly A. Reynolds, Purdue hotel management professor Howard Adler, and Cornell School of Hotel Administration lecturer Reneta McCarthy.