Having a fresh, fluffy stack of bath towels at your fingertips seems like a smart idea—but is it just a breeding ground for germs?

By Melanie Mannarino
February 11, 2019

You’ve seen the Pinterest boards: spacious, light-filled bathrooms well-stocked with handwoven baskets piled high with fluffy towels rolled into pretty little swirls. Maybe that’s what your own bathroom looks like at this very instant. But given the warnings we’ve gotten over the years about keeping our toothbrushes six feet from the toilet to avoid germ contamination, is the bathroom really the best place to store washed, unused bath towels, washcloths, and hand towels after you’ve spent all this time finally figuring out how to wash towels correctly? 

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In a word, no, says Kelly Reynolds, PhD, MSPH, professor, environmental microbiologist, and chair of the Department of Community, Environment and Policy at the University of Arizona. “The bathroom is definitely a site for contamination,” Dr. Reynolds says. “When you flush the toilet, we know the plume of aerosol can travel up to 6 feet in every direction, and at least one-and-a-half to two feet with low-flush toilets.”

That plume of aerosol, which may sound as harmless as a burst from your grandmother’s can of hairspray, is actually filled with fecal and/or vomit contaminants, depending on what’s getting flushed. “These bacteria and viruses can settle on towels and stay alive for days to weeks,” Dr. Reynolds says.
 
Dr. Reynolds suggests storing bath towels outside the bathroom. “That’s best practice,” she says. “Otherwise, keep them in a cabinet or covered container—you need a barrier so the plume can stick to something else and not your towel.”

While she acknowledges that each person’s answer to “how much of a germaphobe do I want to be?” is different, she does point out that the typical route of infection is when germs travel to the mouth, eyes, or nose. “If you’re drying your hands or wiping your face with a contaminated towel, you could get sick.”

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To be clear, it’s not just scientific speculation at work here. “We’ve seen outbreak data from hotels and cruises with people in their room being ill, and then the next person that came into contact with the contaminated towels also got sick.” 

Bottom line, try to avoid storing clean, unused bath towels in the bathroom—but really step it up when someone in the home is sick. And maybe start a new Pinterest trend of super-organized, color-coordinated, well-lit linen closets. Make it a thing.