This is the secret to fluffy, fresh-smelling towels.

By Hana Hong and Leslie Corona
Updated June 10, 2021
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Consider matching bath and hand towels that feel like they came straight from the spa a new status symbol-or at least a sign that you're finally an adult. 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 you for many years. Here's how to wash towels the right way, and just in case you run into any issues along the way, some solutions for musty odors and dingy-looking towels as well.

How Often to Wash Towels

Before we dive into the right technique for washing your towels, let's cover how often you should be washing them. Towel washing frequency is one of those things that divide even the closest of families-some believe they should be switched out after every use, while others swear they can survive for weeks without a soak. You only use your towel after getting clean, so it can't get too dirty, right? 

To put a hamper (ha) on this debate once and for all, we turned to a laundry expert. According to Tide & Downy principal scientist Mary Johnson (and Consumer Reports), a common 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 very two days.

That's because even if you can't see it, a common 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.

Note that this frequency specifically applies to normal circumstances, meaning they have been left to dry properly (spread out on a towel rack to reduce moisture), not bunched up and crumpled up on the floor. The condition of the person using the towel matters, too. If someone in your family is or has been sick, it's best to replace the towel after every use to prevent the spread of bacteria.

If you're convinced that you can go longer without washing, 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), so your towels could be causing your recent breakouts without you knowing it.

If you can't quite 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," she says. "If your towels look clean but still smell bad, it means they're not truly clean."

How to Clean Towels (the Right Way)

What You'll Need:

Follow These Steps:

  1. Start by separating your towels, then wash white towels separately from colorful towels. Washing them together will lead to subtle discoloration over time.
  2. Wash white towels using hot water, detergent, and non-chlorine bleach or a natural fabric brightener, like sodium percarbonate, according to its package directions. White towels stay brighter when washed in hot water. Wash colorful towels in warm water, using detergent with color-safe bleach.
  3. To soften towels, you can use fabric softener, but only add it to every third or fourth wash to prevent buildup. If you prefer a more natural alternative, add ¼ cup of white vinegar.
  4. Dealing with musty odors? First, wash the towels with ½ cup of baking soda sans detergent, then rewash the towels with detergent.
  5. Once they're laundered, shake and place your towels into the dryer adding the wool balls (clean tennis balls work, too, but skip the essential oils). If you want to impart a light scent, add a few drops of essential oil on the wool balls. The wool balls are a natural alternative to dryer sheets and can be used to fluff the towels and help them dry faster.
  6. Make sure the towels are completely dry before removing them from the dryer. Towels take longer to dry than clothes and even a hint of lingering moisture can cause odor.

Dos and Don'ts of Towel Care

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Do wash new towels before you use them for the first time.

As soon as you bring home new towels, 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.

Don't toss wet or damp towels into a hamper or laundry basket.

Letting them sit is how they develop that musty, mildewy odor.

Do wash your towels every two to three uses.

If your towels begin to feel stiff or less absorbent, add vinegar or borax to your machine every few washes to refresh them and remove detergent residue.

Don't overload your washer with towels.

They're heavy and will take a toll on your machine, plus they might not wash and rinse properly if everything is packed in.

Don't use too much detergent.

Launder towels after a few uses in warm water with mild soap. For a full load in a high-efficiency machine, add no more than two tablespoons of detergent. Any more might cause a buildup that limits absorbency.

Do hang up your towels after each use to help them dry properly and prevent odor.

After your shower or bath, hang your towel across a bar or shower rod so it can dry fully. This will help prevent bacterial growth and extend the time between washes. Avoid using hooks, which can cause moisture to get trapped within the fabric's folds.

Don't let wet towels sit in the washing machine, as it can cause that mildewy odor.

Make to shake them out before drying. If you throw them into the machine all bunched up, they may take longer to dry and could retain stubborn creases.

Do dry on low heat.

To prevent overheating-which can tighten the fibers, making them stiffer and less absorbent-dry towels together on the low setting.

Don't worry about adding fabric softener.

It coats the fibers with a slick residue and inhibits water absorption. Instead, use wool dryer balls to increase air circulation and help fluff fibers.

Do keep two 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.

Don't go overboard with bleach.

It's great for getting stains out of white towels, but frequent use will break down fibers and shorten their lifespan.

Do be mindful of your body care routine.

If you use benzoyl peroxide creams or a whitening toothpaste, know that these could cause discoloration. Set aside special washcloths to use exclusively with these ingredients. (Some towels are marketed as stain-resistant, but they are not always effective.)

Our Experts

  • Mary Johnson, Tide & Downy Principal Scientist
  • Ingrid Johnson, professor of textile development and marketing at the Fashion Institute of Technology
  • Frances Holmes Kozen, director of undergraduate studies in fiber science and apparel design at Cornell University
  • Kerri McBee-Black, instructor in the Department of Textile and Apparel Management at the University of Missouri
  • Colleen Mistry, product line director of Matouk, a linen company
  • Laurel Single, product development manager of towels at The Company Store