Pillow Cases vs. Pillow Shams: What’s the Difference?

Last Updated On January 25th, 2024
Pillow Cases vs. Pillow Shams: What’s the Difference?

Key Takeaways

  • Purpose of Pillowcases and Shams: Pillowcases and pillow shams serve different purposes; pillowcases protect pillows while shams are primarily decorative, but both add style to your bedding. Proper care, including washing and pillow protection, is essential to maintain the longevity and cleanliness of both pillowcases and shams.
  • What Are Pillowcases: Pillowcases are typically open at one end and come in various materials like cotton, polyester, satin, and silk, providing a soft and cozy surface for sleeping. They serve a functional purpose by protecting your pillow.
  • What Are Pillow Shams: Pillow shams have a closed back with an opening in the middle and are often used for decorative purposes. They come in various styles, including standard, quilted, and flanged shams, and are placed in front of pillows with cases to enhance the bed’s appearance. Shams may not always be as comfortable as pillowcases for sleeping but contribute to a polished bedroom aesthetic.

Pillow shams and pillowcases are placed on top of your pillows to add style to your room and protect pillows from becoming stained. The main difference between shams and cases is that shams can be used for decorative purposes only, whereas cases offer protection for the pillows underneath.

Pillows come in different shapes, sizes, and aesthetics. Depending on the pillow you have, you want to make a pillowcase or sham to be a good fit. Let’s take a deeper look at pillowcases and shams.

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What are Pillow Cases?

Most people are familiar with pillowcases as they are a bedroom essential. The main functionality of a pillowcase is to protect the pillow you use while asleep. Usually, pillowcases will be open slit at one end and closed at the other. They have a simple minimalist look, but the outer material is soft and cozy, giving you a comfortable place to rest.

Types of Pillow Cases

Most sleepers own traditional cotton pillowcases, but there are other options. Here we look at the different materials you might run into while looking for new pillowcases.

Cotton Pillowcases

As mentioned above, cotton pillowcases are commonly found in most households. In fact, most sleepers gravitate to cotton bedroom items because they usually aren’t that expensive. Cotton pillowcases cost as low as $12.99 but are still made with quality materials. Even high-quality items with Egyptian cotton shouldn’t cost you more than $20.

For the most part, cotton pillowcases will provide sleepers with a soft, warm surface to sleep on without absorbing heat.

Polyester Pillowcases

Some pillowcases may include synthetic fabrics, such as nylon and polyester. Typically, these products do not absorb moisture as well as natural fabrics. Though they are known to wick moisture, this can be a problem for some sleepers. Sometimes, polyester pillows can over-wick heat, leading to dry hair and skin.

Satin Pillowcases

Satin pillowcases are an upgrade from cotton and polyester cases. Satin pillowcases are made from a weave with a shiny appearance and can be made from several different textiles. Sleeping on a satin pillowcase is known to help smooth frizzy hair and minimize static.

The shiny texture of satin helps eliminate the friction you get when your hair rubs against a harsher fabric, which means you can leave your bead head days in the past.

Silk Pillowcases

Silk pillowcases are another luxury item made from threads produced by silkworms. Like satin pillowcases, silk also helps minimize hair fizz. Since silk absorbs less moisture and dirt, these pillowcases can help individuals who suffer from acne or have sensitive skin.

We will mention that silk pillowcases are a bit more expensive to purchase. However, silk pillowcases might provide a cooler sleeping surface than cotton or synthetic cases. Depending on your sleep needs, this might be a better choice.

What Are Pillow Shams?

One of the main differences between pillowcases and pillow shams is the location of the opening. Pillow shams do not have an opening at the end. Instead, their opening is located on the back of the casing. They might even have a zipper or button to add to their decorative aesthetic.

Pillow shams will also have different textured patterns to create a decorative look that matches your bedspread. When arranging pillows on a bed, pillows with shams are usually placed in front of your pillows with cases to give your bed a sleek look.

However, shams may not always be as cozy or soft as a pillowcase, so some sleepers may forgo using them come bedtime. They may push them to the side at night and make the bed with the shams on them as the focal point in the morning.

Types of Pillow Shams

Finding a quality pillow sham can be fun for sleepers since they come in many different styles and designs. Next, we’ll look at the types of shams you can decorate your bed with.

Standard Shams

Standard shams have a simple, plain rectangular design that perfectly fits a bed pillow size. You can find these shams in varying materials, including Maltelasse and cloud cotton.

Maltelasse is a type of combed cotton with a structured weave and is perfect for those looking to achieve a minimalistic look. Cloud cotton is another sleek choice that features a light, fluffy fabric, which is great for sleepers who may want shams they use at bedtime.

Quilted Shams

Quilted shams have decorative stitching on the front of the casing. These shams have a plush feel and are usually sold as part of a set.

Flanged Pillow Shams

Flanged pillow shams are similar to standard shams but have an extra fabric border around the entire perimeter. The flanges on these pillows are about 3 to 5 inches and are great for adding a decorative touch to your bed.


Pillowcase sizes typically span three options:

  • Standard (20″ x 26″)
  • Queen (20″ x 30″)
  • King (20″ x 36″)

Bed shams can be virtually any size, but the most common sizes are:

  • Standard sham (20″ x 26″)
  • King sham (20″ x 36″)
  • Euro sham (26″ x 26″)
  • Boudoir sham (12″ x 16″)

Pillow Care

To keep your pillows looking the best, you’ll want to care for your pillows, pillowcases, and shams properly. Below, we provide a few tips on how to keep your pillow products in good shape:

Pillow Care Tips

  • Use pillow protectors to keep your pillows from becoming lumpy, as you would use a mattress protector. This will also keep dirt and debris from damaging your cases, shams, and more.
  • Wash your pillows every six months.
  • Follow the proper washing and drying instructions to protect your pillows.
  • Be careful with pillow sprays for sleep, as you want one that’s gentle on the materials and relaxing for you.
  • To prolong the life of your shams and pillowcases, wash them separately from your other laundry.
  • Wash pillowcases, shams, and pillow protectors on a gentle cycle in cold water and tumble dry on a low-heat setting. Do not over-dry your products.
  • Buy high-quality pillows rather than cheap ones since they usually have a longer lifespan.
  • If they have a shredded fill that can clump up, fluff your pillows regularly to maintain a comfortable shape.
  • Review the pillow’s care label, along with the pillowcase, for any special instructions. Our laundry symbol guide can help clear up any further confusion and uncertainty.


What happens if I don’t change my pillow case?

It’s best to change your pillowcases every 2 to 3 years. Pillowcases don’t last very long, so you’ll want to replace them when you notice they are wearing down. Remember, pillowcases are meant to protect your pillows. If there are rips, tears, or even funky smells, it could hurt the quality of your pillow.

When should I clean my pillowcases?

Your pillowcases should be cleaned at least weekly or biweekly. Most people choose to clean their pillowcases along with their comforters or bedding. We recommend washing your pillowcases and shams separately from heavier items to keep them in their best condition.

Are pillow shams just for decoration?

Most of the time, pillow shams are just for decoration. Their design and style are not as soft or cozy as pillowcases, but some shams are a bit cozier. Since there are more comfortable styles, you can choose to sleep on them.

Should I buy a pillowcase for a body pillow?

There are pillowcases available for body pillows, but you may not need one. Some body pillows have fabric on the exterior that protects the filling so that you can sleep on them with no issues.

However, you can always purchase one to add to the overall decor of your room. A fabric cover can also be easier to clean instead of washing a body pillow.


Pillow cases and decorative shams are essential bedroom items you’ll want to invest in to protect your pillows. By finding quality items to suit the best pillows, you’ll be able to keep dirt and debris from collecting on your pillows.

However, this won’t be the ultimate fix to keep your pillows clean. It’s important to remember you need to clean your pillows frequently to keep them looking nice. Be sure to also clean your shams and pillowcase when washing your sheets and other bedding, so your bed smells fresh and clean.

About the author

Marygrace Taylor is an award-winning health writer for Amerisleep. Her commitment to sleep health is evident in her ability to consistently prioritize eight hours of sleep each night. Her in-depth interviews with industry experts, such as Ken Ceder on "Why Light is Essential for Great Sleep and Optimum Health," highlight her dedication to delivering valuable insights. Marygrace's work has been featured in reputable publications like Business Insider, Glamour, Refinery29, Metro UK, and Hunker, further solidifying her expertise in the field.

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