You spend roughly a third of your life wrapped up in them, either sleeping or having sex. But most of us have no idea how to differentiate good sheets from garbage ones when shopping for bedding.

“For the last decade or so, the whole world has become aware of thread counts, but in many cases they’re bogus,” says Pat Slaven, an independent textile consultant and former “lead tester” for Consumer Reports.

Slaven says that “thread count” refers to the density of weave—or the horizontal and vertical threads—in a square inch of bedding. At least in theory, the higher the thread count, the softer and more durable the sheets will be.

“But we did photo microscopy on a lot of sheets, and found that companies had started weaving together two threads as one or doing other things so they could artificially inflate thread counts,” she says. “You could have these sheets claiming they were 800 or 1,000 thread count, but they would be thick and hard-feeling.” When thread counts are legit, she adds, you won’t really find anything higher than 400.

So if thread counts are unreliable, how can you find high-quality sheets? Follow these tips.


LOOK FOR THESE FABRICS
Buy bedding that uses long-staple or extra long-staple fabrics—preferably cotton or linen, Slaven says. A fabric’s “staple” refers to the length of its fibers. And the longer-staple fibers tend to be more durable and resistant to pilling, which is “the fuzzy little balls you see form on cheap cotton,” she explains.

If you’re shopping for cotton sheets (which are your best bet if you’re looking for durability and softness at an affordable price), Slaven recommends buying something labeled 100 percent cotton. “Blends may not absorb moisture as well, and since we all perspire at night, you want that absorption,” she explains.

Also, any cotton sheets that aren’t 100 percent will likely contain synthetic ingredients—“probably rayon”—that won’t wear as well or hold up as long, Slaven says. She recommends 100 percent Egyptian cotton, Pima cotton and Supima cotton as quality options.

You could also choose linen. “It’s expensive, but it’s the ultimate if you’re looking for crisp and cool,” she adds. “Cotton staple length could be one to 1.5 inches, but with linen the staple could be a yard long, so it’s very durable.”

SKIP EXOTIC TEXTILES (LIKE SILK)
“You could spend a lot more on something foreign or exotic, but there’s no real benefit,” Slaven says. “In our testing we found silk sheets that were falling apart after 10 washes.” She says good cotton sheets may cost you something in the neighborhood of $100 to $200, which isn’t cheap. But spending a lot more won’t get you much better bedding.

SKIP THE DISCOUNT STORES-AND SAVE YOUR RECEIPT
Buy your sheets from a well-known, reputable site or store, Slaven says. She mentions the major department stores, Lands’ End, and even Bed Bath & Beyond as good places to shop. That’s not because you’re guaranteed to get high-quality sheets, but because you’ll be able to get your money back if you have an issue.

Also, save your receipt until you’ve washed your sheets a few times and are still happy with them. “Many are treated with softeners and finishes that will improve the initial touch but comes off once washed,” she says. “Those treatments may also cause skin allergies, so that’s another reason you’ll want to wash before using them.”

PERCALE OR SATEEN?
You’ll seen these terms thrown around when sheet shopping. What do they mean? “These words refer to the weave structure,” Slaven says. “If you tend to feel cold when you sleep, a sateen weave will conform more to your body, and so will sleep warmer.” Percale, on the other hand, is “a little crisper and allows for more air movement,” and so will “sleep cooler,” she says.

BE WARY OF “ORGANIC”
“Organic doesn’t mean what you might think,” says Ariel Kaye, founder of online bedding retailer Parachute. “Fibers grown organically—but processed with chemicals—may still carry the organic label.”

Kaye also cautions against sheet labeled “wrinkle free” or “permanent press.” Both terms refer to fabrics that have been chemically treated to resist wrinkling or losing their shape. If you’re intent on finding chemical-free organic sheets, look for an Oeko-Tex certification. “Oeko-Tex means no harmful chemicals or toxins are used,” Kaye says.