Towel care — How to keep bath towels soft, fluffy, and absorbent!

Don’t you just love a good bath towel? One that’s big, soft, and fluffy but also dries well? (Towels often start out fluffy and soft, but they seem to just move the water around on my skin rather than absorb it! And then they get absorbent — but flat and scratchy!)

Here’s what you need to know to stock your home with the best — absorbent and fluffy — bath towels. 

Wash your new towels.

Most new towels have a finish on them that helps them look their fluffiest best at the store. But this finish also keeps them from being absorbent. When you get your new towels home, remove the finish by washing them in warm water with just a smidge of detergent. (They’re not dirty, after all). Include about half a cup of vinegar in the rinse cycle to help set the dyes, if the towels aren’t white. This first wash will also help remove some new fibers that towels are likely to shed right off the bat.

Wash towels separately from other items.

Oh, I know. It’s so easy to throw one or two towels in to top off a load of clothes. But zippers, buttons, and other fasteners and accessories on clothing can pull the threads in your towels, so don’t combine them. Washing towels with other items can cause pilling, too, when the long and short fibers rub together. Washing separately also keeps the lint from the towels from getting on your clothes. 

To prevent colors from bleeding into one another, also wash white towels separately from colored towels.

Go easy on the detergent.

It’s easy to rationalize adding extra detergent to grubby towels, but they don’t need it. In fact, if towels collect detergent residue, they can become rough.

stacked folded towels of various colors

Also be careful using detergents that contain bleaches or brighteners. These can discolor and stain your towels, especially colored towels. If you need to brighten white towels, use a nonchlorine bleach and hot water. And, of course, wash them separately from other items. 

Give towels room in the washing machine.

If there’s one item I’m likely to cram into my washing machine, it’s a towel. There’s always one more towel ready for washing! But overloading towels will cause the fabric fibers to get matted down, which can keep them from getting clean and cause them to become rough. On the other hand, if there’s plenty of room for air and water circulation through the wash and spin cycles, the fibers can fluff up.

Wash towels regularly, but not daily.

There’s no need to wash a bath towel every time it’s used, if everyone in the house has a designated bath towel. Use them a few times before washing. Experts recommend washing bath towels every three to four uses.

Shake them. 

Give your towels a good shake as you take them out of the washing machine, before you put them in the dryer or hang them on the line. A good snap or shake will help fluff up those terrycloth loops or other fibers. It’ll also help the towels dry faster than if you toss them in the dryer in a ball. Shake them again when they come out of the dryer or off the line — again, to fluff up those fibers.

Don’t over-dry.

Too much heat can cause pilling and damage (and flatten) the fibers. So take your towels out of the dryer when they’re dry; don’t let them tumble in the heat unnecessarily. For the same reason, use medium rather than super-hot heat. Or hang towels outside to line dry on a sunny, breezy day. It’s the breeze that will provide maximum softness, though. So if it’s a still day, they may dry stiff. To soften after line drying, place towels in the dryer for just a couple of minutes to fluff. 

At the same time, always make sure your towels are completely dry before folding them. Otherwise, they’re likely to develop a musty smell.

Avoid fabric softeners.

Most fabric softeners work by coating the fabric fibers with waxy ingredients (such as silicon). This waxy coating repels water, making the fabric less absorbent. Not a selling feature for a towel! This waxy buildup can get worse over time, too, as it mats down the fibers, making them increasingly stiff and non-absorbent.

white towel with geometric imprinting hanging next to a shower brush

If you want softer towels, try tossing a tennis ball or two in the dryer with them. Or invest in a couple of wool dryer balls. And if your towels are stiff and/or non-absorbent because of detergent buildup, add a cup of vinegar to the rinse cycle every month or so.

Refresh your towels every so often.

For a reconditioning of sorts, wash your stiff towels without any detergent. Instead, add a couple cups of distilled white vinegar per full load to the wash water. This will help remove that detergent buildup so you can start fresh!

Hang them up.

While you needn’t wash your bath towels daily, do make sure you hang them up after each use. Spread towels out so they can dry thoroughly. Never leave a towel rolled up in a laundry hamper or in a bag. This contained dampness can develop into a musty smell that’s hard to get rid of. Ideally, spread each towel out on a rack. If you need to hang a towel on a hook, don’t hang another towel on top of it. 

Try adding a half a cup of baking soda to the wash cycle if you detect any mustiness in your towels. Like vinegar, baking soda can also help loosen up fibers to keep your towels soft.

Designate special towels for special skin care.

Some skin care products (makeup removers, acne preparations, etc.) can stain or take the color out of towels. It’s a good idea to have separate hand towels to use when they might come in contact with these products. (I like to use white ones because there’s no color to bleach out, and they can be washed in hot water, if necessary for stain removal.)

When choosing towels, keep these tips in mind:

• Towels with fancy, decorative trim won’t look as lovely once they’ve been washed. Special trims will likely wear more quickly than the rest of the towel, too. I don’t have purely decorative towels, but if you do (for the holidays, for example), this would be a good use for them. Or maybe save those tricked-out towels for special guests?

• Colored towels will fade over time. This will be especially apparent with dark colors. White towels may get dingy, but they can be brightened with non-chlorine bleach and/or sunshine. 

two folded white towels with gray-striped trim on a gray background

• Consider fabric choice carefully. Polyester towels are neither absorbent nor soft. Bamboo dries quickly and can be sustainably grown, but it’s not thick. Modal, which comes from the cellulose from beech trees, is very absorbent. (I can’t get past the feel of it, but give it a try to decide for yourself. Some people love the softness.) Cotton is absorbent and the fabric of choice, IMHO. Supima cotton (pima), is soft, durable, and absorbent. And Egyptian/Turkish cotton is top-of-the-line soft, fluffy, and absorbent.  

• Consider a towel’s grams per square meter (GSM). Towels range from 300 to 900 GSM, with 300 being thinner and 900 being thicker. Thicker towels will be more absorbent, but they’ll take longer to dry. If the towels aren’t marked with GSM, compare them. When you hold a thinner towel up to the light, you’ll be able to see through it, unlike a towel with a higher GSM.

• Read the care instructions on the towel label and follow them — even if they disagree with me! (You may find some towels can easily handle very hot water or a hot dryer, for example.)

You might also like: Pillow care and Caring for quilts.

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