You use a towel to dry your clean hands and body, so it should stay pretty clean… right? It turns out, towels are actually the perfect breeding ground for microorganisms like germs, mold, and bacteria. Although your bathroom linens may look clean, inside their absorbent fibers they’re growing colonies that can cause musty, itchy, and even illness-spreading germs.
How often should you wash your towels to avoid all that? Read on below.
What happens to your towels between washes?
Each time you use a towel, it gathers dead skin cells and microorganisms that were on your hands and body. The damp, dark, bunched-up environment of the towel turns out to be a perfect incubator to make those trace amounts of microbes flourish.
Without frequent washing, those growing colonies of bacteria, fungi, and viruses can cause problems over time. The first thing you’ll probably notice is the smell—after a few uses, towels start to smell musty. This is from a mix of bacteria and mold. The next thing you might notice, particularly if anyone in your family has eczema or sensitive skin, is that several-day-old towels can cause skin irritation or a rash.
Finally, if anyone in the home is sick, towels are particularly bad for spreading the infection from one person to another. The bacteria strains E.coli and MRSA (which causes staph infections) have both been found to build-up between washes and to spread on shared towels. Experts say it’s because we typically don’t wash our hands perfectly and wipe infectious agents like these onto our towels, where they breed and prepare to meet their next unhappy host.
An important example: COVID-19 has been found to stay on soft surfaces, like towels, for up to two days. However, experts believe that the chances of becoming sick with COVID from touching surfaces are much lower than they originally thought. Still, if someone in your household is sick with COVID, the CDC recommends that they use paper towels for the duration of their illness to avoid spreading the virus to others who share or launder their cloth towels.
Ready to wash your towels now? See the best wash intervals for bathroom towels and cloths
The exact number of days your towels can go between washes can vary. Experts recommend that hand towels be washed every two days, particularly in households with small children, who are not the best hand-washers. Launder towels you use to dry off after a shower about every 3-5 uses, as long as they have dried completely between each use.
Recommendations for other items are different, such as for washcloths and bath mats. The experts suggest washing face or washcloths after every use to remove the buildup of soap, makeup, sunscreen, and other materials that can trap bacteria. Bath mats, for example, can last a little bit longer since they don’t typically contact your face or hands. They should be washed about once per week to remove the germs they gather from your wet feet.
What if your towels are still grubby after washing?
It’s frustrating when you’ve washed your towels, but they come out of the dryer still smelling musty or don’t feel as soft. This issue calls for some expert laundry tips.
When you can’t get the musty smell out of your towels, your washer may be to blame. A study found that the moldy, mildewy smell most commonly found in towels is often caused by the strain of bacteria that lives in washing machines.
Although all types of washers can harbor this germ, it’s most common in front-loading machines, which tend to have standing water leftover in nooks and crannies between loads. High-efficiency machines that use very little water can also cause a stink because they may not be able to rinse all the residue from the laundry products. The softening, brightening, coloring and perfume additives in many laundry detergents and fabric softeners can leave a sticky buildup that traps bacteria.
The solution for a bacteria-laden washer is to sanitize it. You can check your owner’s manual for specific instructions, but for most, running a load with hot water and a cup of vinegar in the rinse cycle will remove the problematic buildup. Once you’ve cleaned your machine, you can rewash your towels. Giving them a cycle with vinegar instead of soap can help remove any product buildup they’ve accumulated, and adding vinegar to the rinse cycle or using an oxygen bleach in them regularly can help prevent the stink-attracting residue from accumulating. You may also want to consider switching to a cleaner-rinsing detergent like Charlie’s Soap, which doesn’t contain residue-building additives.
One other cause of a stubborn, moldy stink in your towels is not letting them dry before you wash them. If they’ve come out of the washer stinky, or have sat in a damp lump in the laundry basket, make sure to hang them up or run them through the dryer before you wash. You can also shake out your towels before throwing them into the dryer. Otherwise, you’ll never interrupt the mildewy cycle.
Pro tip: If your towels just aren’t as fresh as they used to be, run a couple of cycles using Charlie’s Soap liquid or powder detergent each time. This will break up the residues and help all of them rinse clean. Then, you dry as normal and enjoy softer, fresher towels.
10 Essential Steps to Keep Towels Fresh and Clean
- Wash your towels after every 3-5 uses. Bleach isn’t necessary, but a cup of vinegar or a scoop of oxygen-based laundry booster can help remove residues that harbor germs. For hand towels, throw them in the washer every 2 or 3 days.
- Dry your towels completely between each use to prevent microbes from growing. If that’s not possible, as with gym towels or humid bathrooms, wash them after every use.
- Drape your towels flat over a towel bar to dry. This tends to be more effective than hanging them bunched on a hook.
- Wash your towels in hot water with a clean-rinsing, proven safe detergent that won’t leave a residue, trap bacteria in your washing machine, or crunch up the fibers of your fabrics.
- Avoid overloading the washing machine, as this will stop the towels from tumbling in the water and they won’t get fully clean.
- Use enough water to get a thorough clean. Experiment with your washer to find the right settings to remove all soap and residue.
- Use your nose. If towels come out of the washer smelling musty, it’s likely because of old residue or you left them in the washer for too long. Add clean-rinsing laundry detergent to the machine and wash again.
- Dry your towels promptly after washing them to prevent trace amounts of microbes from breeding.
- Shake out your towels before tossing them in the dryer, and consider adding dryer balls to help them dry faster and more thoroughly.
- Use a hot dryer setting or hang your towels in the sun to kill the last surviving microorganisms.