Knowing when to throw in the towel has real benefits.

By Caitlin Miller
Updated August 10, 2015
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This article originally appeared on MIMI.

You invest in expensive creams, lotions and serums. You follow a diligent beauty regime morning and night. You even bought trendy copper pillowcases—hey, not taking any chances—all in the name of beautiful skin. The efforts we go through to keep our skin flawless know no boundaries, but is there a secret saboteur hiding in your bathroom, plotting to ruin your quest for clear skin? There just might be.

Towels are a bathroom staple, no matter who you are. From using them each morning post-shower to dabbing our faces after an at-home spa treatment, using a towel is a necessity. But towels are also a breeding ground for bacteria and germs—bacteria that can cause breakouts and worse, the icky stuff that can lead to serious health issues.

What lies beneath

As you might suspect, a lot of unsightly things can be found in hand, face and body towels. Bacteria, for example, is all around—and on—us. It thrives in damp, moist places, A.K.A. our used bathroom towels. Not to mention, the looped fibers found in towels create crevices and corners in which bacteria can easily hide and set up camp.

In fact, in a recent study which analyzed the cleanliness of reusable cloth towels in hospitals, various forms of bacteria, including E. Coli, were present. And that was in towels washed according to hospital standards. Our own reusable towels at home might not fare so well.

But it doesn't stop there. According to New York-based dermatologist and Aczone consultant Dr. Whitney Bowe, using an unclean, infected towel can cause such problems as a bacterial infection like impetigo, a fungal infection like tinea and even minor irritations like acne. Not to mention more serious cases like MRSA or staph infections can spread through unsanitary towels. Even viruses that can cause the cold, the flu, sores, pink eye or warts, can hide in towels.

Turns out there's a reason your mom washed your towels after you were sick as a kid.

The dirty truth

Particularly for those prone to breakouts, an unclean bathroom towel could be an unwelcome catalyst of acne. Whether using a towel for the face or body, or both, keeping said towel clean is crucial.

"If makeup or dirt is on the towel, then rubbing it into the skin can clog the pores and exacerbate acne," explains Dr. Bowe.

According to Adriana Martino, founder of NYC's SKINNEY Medspa, one of the number one ways of getting a breakout is through bacteria trapped in pores. Using an unclean face or body towel can spread bacteria, cause build-up on skin and leave you with nothing but blemishes and breakouts to show for it.

And as if the prospect of bacteria wasn't enough, simply rubbing your face or body with a towel can also cause acne just by the friction against the skin, says Dr. Bowe. This form of acne is called mechanica and is thankfully treatable. Dr. Bowe suggests a gentle-but-effective prescription product to clear up blemishes in this case. And to avoid acne caused by irritation, she says "Pat skin dry, don't rub!" Noted.

On more a serious note, as mentioned before, towels can also be easy breeding grounds for fungus, viruses and far more serious bacteria than the acne-causing type. And this is only enhanced when using a shared towel.

"If one person has a bacteria, fungus or virus on their skin, such as a wart, which is caused by a virus, they can transmit it to the other person [by the towel]," says Dr. Bowe. Think twice when you reach for your roommate's towel or the towel left in the locker room.

Martino agrees that transmission between shared towels is problematic and unsanitary, adding you should never share your bath or facial towels with anyone as you can increase your risk of cross-share bacteria. She points out conjunctivitis, the bacteria behind pink eye, is another type of cross-share bacteria passable through unsanitary conditions.

But according to Dr. Charles Gerba, a University of Arizona microbiologist known as "Dr. Germ" and co-author of the previously mentioned 2013 hospital study, much worse can be transmitted through unclean towels. "Hepatitis B has been shown to be transmitted by this route," he says. This virus is transmitted by contaminated blood, and because scratching the skin is a primary action when using a bath towel, transmission could be possible.

Looks like there's a reason for "his" and "her" towel sets after all.

The remedy

Thankfully, it's quite easy to avoid any and all of these issues. For one thing, you can start by frequently washing your bathroom towels.

"About every three to six days is a good rule of thumb here," says Dr. Bowe of body towels. For face towels, on the other hand, you might want to wash them a bit more frequently. Dr. Gerba, suggests washing your facial towel at least every other day, as previous data he's collection shows E. Coli can be detected within a day. (This of course is not true of every case but still a good rule to follow.)

However, ultimately it's not how frequently you wash your towel, but how you store your towel that really matters, says Dr. Bowe. Bathrooms tend to be humid environments, music to acne-causing bacteria's ears. Allowing your towel to dry out properly between washes will help defend against bacteria and germ growth and transmission. This means NEVER store your face or bath towel in the shower.

"If the room is well ventilated, the towel will dry out quickly after use, and the chance of bacteria or fungi surviving on that towel is slim," says Dr. Bowe. "However, if the towel takes hours to dry out because the room is humid and maintains moisture, then you are at higher risk of growing microbes in that towel."

(And do yourself a favor and discard your loofah or sponge altogether. Both are, in fact, worse for your skin than towels as they harbor tons of bacteria and are almost certainly never allowed proper time to dry out, says Dr. Bowe.)

Also note where your towel is stored in relation to your toilet. If your towel is stored near your toilet, beware of spray. Yes, it's a thing. In Dr. Gerba's study which dates all the way back to 1975, he concluded "there is a possibility that a person may acquire an infection from an aerosol produced by a toilet." And although researchers in a 2012 study pointed out there has yet to be any direct cases of proven infection from toilet plume, let's all just say it's probably best to avoid getting toilet spray on a towel you use for bathing, okay? Close the lid and hang your towel in a dry, ventilated area — out of range of the toilet.

Finally, when it comes to actually washing your towels, it's fairly simple. Wash in hot water, use bleach or a bleach substitute and dry for 45 minutes, says Dr. Gerba. And if you're using a detergent, opt for one that says "free and clear," meaning it is free of fragrances and perfumes, says Dr. Bowe. This will also help with eliminating acne-causing skin irritants.

And since it's clearly time to up the number of towels you keep in rotation, check out some of our favorite, so-soft-on-your-skin towels below:

Garnet Hill Greek Key Towel, $16.50-$48.00,
Pendleton Jaquard Towel, $38,
MojaFiber Microfiber Face Cloth (Set of 3), $20.99,