- Cleaning How-Tos
Maintain fresh, soft towels with these tips for washing and drying your bathroom linen.
Hana Hong is the beauty & fashion editor at RealSimple.com. She has been a writer and editor in the beauty and fashion industry for more than six years, sharing her expansive knowledge on skincare, hair care, makeup, fashion, and more. In addition to her broad network of beauty experts, she uses her family's background and training in skin science and cosmetic chemistry to differentiate between effective skincare formulations and marketing jargon.
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Updated on July 13, 2023
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Knowing how to wash towels and bathroom linens can help them last for many years and save you money. While having spa-like matching hand and bath towels may be a status symbol—or at least a sign that you're finally an adult—the reality is that towels get dirty and worn.
But here's a secret: You don't have to spend money constantly replacing your towels—just treat them right the first time, and they'll last a long time. Here's the best way to wash towels, according to laundry expert and former Tide & Downy principal scientist Mary Johnson.
Tips Before Washing Towels
Before washing your towels, consider the following advice:
- Separate towels by color. Always separate your towels into whites and colors. Then, wash them separately. Washing them together will lead to subtle discoloration over time.
- Avoid using too much fabric softener. Only add fabric softener to every third or fourth wash to prevent buildup inside your washing machine and on the fabric.
- Pre-treat to remove musty odors. If towels have an unpleasant scent, wash them with ½ cup of baking soda (minus detergent) first, then rewash the towels with detergent.
- Wash new towels before using them for the first time. As soon as you bring new towels home, toss them into the wash to remove any chemicals manufacturers may have used to make them look fluffy and feel soft in the store. This can also help reduce lint.
- Use bleach selectively. While bleach is excellent for removing stains from white towels, frequent use will break down fibers and shorten their lifespan. Consider using bleach every few washes.
How Often to Wash Towels
Towels should be washed frequently. According to Johnson (and Consumer Reports), a standard bath towel can be used three or four times—under normal circumstances—before it needs to be tossed into the washer.
Hand towels should be replaced every two days, while beach towels should be washed after every use. If someone in your family is or has been sick, it's best to replace their towel after every use to prevent the spread of bacteria.
This washing frequency applies to normal circumstances, meaning the towel has been left to dry properly (spread out on a towel rack to reduce moisture), not bunched up and crumpled up on the floor.
If you can't remember how many times you've used your towel, Johnson says a good indicator is the musty towel smell.
"Stink and odor are caused by mildew invisible to the naked eye but not to our noses," Johnson explains. "If your towels look clean but still smell bad, it means they're not truly clean."
Why Wash So Frequently?
We know how often towels should be washed can divide the closest families. While some believe they should be switched out after every use, others claim they can survive for weeks without a soak. (You only use your towel once clean, so it can't get too dirty, right?)
But, even if you can't see it, a standard towel can have a party of yeast, mold, and E. coli growing on it. Even though the water washes some of it off, others will stick around and transfer onto your towel during your post-shower rubdown.
"Our body constantly produces sweat, salt, sebum, and skin cells, and much of this can be transferred to towels," says Johnson. That's not to mention other potential body soils and dirt that can collect over time, including mucus, dandruff, makeup, and beauty product remnants. These things will thrive in a dark, steamy bathroom, making your towels particularly vulnerable to bacteria buildup.
If you're convinced that towels can be washed less frequently, consider this: Rubbing yourself down with a dirty towel does not do your skin any favors. It can put you at risk for acne (and even infection); your towels could be causing your recent breakouts without you even knowing it.
Equipment / Tools
- Washing machine
- Non-chlorine bleach or sodium percarbonate
- Fabric softener or white vinegar
- Wool laundry balls
- Essential oils (optional)
How to Wash Towels in a Machine
Wash Towels With Detergent
Wash white towels using hot water, detergent, and a non-chlorine bleach or natural fabric brightener (like sodium percarbonate) according to package directions. White towels stay brighter when washed in hot water.
Wash colorful towels in warm water, using detergent with color-safe bleach. Color towels can fade over time if washed in hot water.
Add no more than two tablespoons of detergent for a full load of towels in a high-efficiency machine. Any more might cause a buildup that limits absorbency.
Soften Towels With Vinegar
For softer towels, use fabric softener during the wash cycle. (Remember to use it sparingly, and skip washes between fabric softener use to prevent buildup.) If you prefer a more natural alternative, use ¼ cup of white vinegar instead.
Shake Then Dry Towels
Once they're laundered, shake the towels out before drying. If you throw them into the dryer all bunched up, they may take longer to dry and could retain stubborn creases.
Next, place the towels in the dryer with wool laundry balls. To prevent overheating—which can tighten the fibers, making them stiffer and less absorbent—dry towels together on a low setting.
If you want to impart a light scent, add a few drops of essential oil to the wool balls. Wool laundry balls are a natural alternative to dryer sheets and can be used to fluff the towels and help them dry faster. Clean tennis balls (instead of wool balls) work, too, but skip the essential oils.
Make sure towels are completely dry before removing them from the dryer. And don't let wet towels sit in the washing machine for an extended period, as it can cause a mildewy odor. Towels take longer to dry than clothes, and even a hint of lingering moisture can cause odor.
How to Keep Your Towels Clean Longer
To help your towels stay clean, smell fresh between washes, and last longer, follow this advice.
- Hang towels after each use and let them dry before tossing them into a hamper or laundry basket. After your shower or bath, hang your towel across a bar or shower rod so it can dry thoroughly. This will help prevent bacterial growth (and a musty, mildewy odor) and extend the time between washes. Avoid using hooks, which can cause moisture to get trapped within the fabric's folds.
- Wash towels frequently. Now that you know why towels should be washed every three to four uses, stick to a regular bathroom linen washing schedule. If your towels start to feel stiff or less absorbent, add borax to your machine (or vinegar) every few washes to refresh them and remove detergent residue.
- Avoid overloading the washing machine with towels. Towels are heavy and will take a toll on your machine, plus they might not wash and rinse correctly if everything is packed in.
- Keep two towels per person. Have at least two bath towels for each person in your household. When one is in the wash, the other can be in the bathroom. Keep four hand towels per person since they're used (and therefore washed) more frequently.
- Be mindful of your body care routine. If you use benzoyl peroxide creams or whitening toothpaste, know that these could cause discoloration on your towels. Set aside special washcloths to use exclusively with these ingredients. (Some towels are marketed as stain-resistant, but they are not always effective.)
Frequently Asked Questions
Can you wash towels with clothes?
It's best to wash towels separately from clothes. If washed together, towels will spread lint and other fibers onto clothes and fabric.
Additionally, towels are typically washed on a heavier cycle, using hot water and no fabric softener. They also take longer to dry; leaving clothes in the dryer for a long time could lead to shrinkage.
What setting do you wash towels on?
Aside from using warm or hot water to wash towels (warm for color, hot for white), you should wash towels on a normal (regular) cycle or a towel cycle if available. You can also wash towels on a sanitizing cycle, but this setting is probably best for every few washes rather than every wash.
Why are my towels not fluffy after washing?
Detergent residue and buildup of body oils can cause towels to lose their fluffy texture. Over time, this buildup in the towel fabric can cause them to feel stiff and rough.
To help bring back the softness, try adding baking soda to your wash cycle or brushing the towel. Brushing the fabric can help separate the threads and remove dried-on detergent.
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