Here’s How Often You Should Really Wash Your Towels
How bad is it to use a towel over and over? Here's how often you should wash towels, where to hang wet towels, and when to replace towels.
Why you need to wash your towels
But soaping up should be refreshing, and straightforward. Yet, there’s another new question in town: how often you should wash your bath towels.
Keep in mind that dirty, damp towels could harbor dead skin cells, bodily secretions, and more, according to germ expert Philip Tierno, PhD, a microbiologist at NYU Grossman School of Medicine.
“When you wipe yourself off with your towel, you are picking up these dead cells on the surface,” Tierno says.
“You’re also picking up any secretions that come from your nose, mouth, anus, or genitalia into that towel, so you do load it, so to speak, as you dry yourself, with a group of various microorganisms and they sit there on that towel.”
Annie Gonzalez, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at Riverchase Dermatology in Miami, adds that dirty towels can incubate bacteria, fungi, and other germs.
“Pollution from environmental aggressors, dead skin cells, oil, and dirt all can be transferred from your body to your towels when you dry off,” she says.
With that in mind, here’s what the experts say about this hygiene question. Plus, when you should replace bath towels entirely.
How often should you wash your towels?
The answer depends on a few factors.
In general, Tierno recommends using bath towels two to three times max before washing them.
And Dr. Gonzalez recommends washing your bath towel after every three to four uses, or at minimum once a week.
The American Cleaning Institute meets in the middle of Dr. Gonzalez and Tierno to recommend washing bath towels after three uses.
Here’s what may determine if you should wash your towels more often.
How the towel dries
How a towel dries between uses is equally as important as how often you actually wash your towels, according to Tierno. That’s because, in general, a dry towel helps kill organisms or suppress their growth better than a wet towel, Tierno explains.
“All organisms need water to grow, and therefore you will supply that with an ambient high humidity,” Tierno says.
So hanging a wet, used towel in the bathroom exposes it to that ambient humidity. Therefore it takes longer to dry and organisms live longer or grow. Plus, the same is true if you fold a wet, dirty towel.
So in fact, your bath towel is one of the things you shouldn’t store in the bathroom. Opt instead to dry your towels outside of the bathroom by leaving it hanging or unfolded so that any moisture evaporates.
If the towel is wet to the touch long after your shower, wash it and swap in another one.
How well you wipe
Tierno also highlights the importance of knowing how to wipe your butt properly, as well as the genital area.
If you wipe correctly after going to the bathroom and shower, there’s less debris that could end up on the towel after bathing, making it less likely to harbor pathogens and germs.
In short, if you have good wiping and hygiene habits, your towel may be less dirty after you bathe. That may mean getting away with using it more often.
“Dirty towels can also flare up eczema or dermatitis because they can drag bacteria to other parts of the body and irritate the skin, thus causing eczema flare-ups,” Dr. Gonzalez says. “People suffering from acne may see an increase in lesions when drying their face with dirty towels.”
So if you’re dealing with any of these related skin conditions, washing your towels more often isn’t a bad idea.
What’s the worst-case scenario?
What’s the big deal if you use a damp, dirty towel? Well, Tierno explains that the towel is a repository or storage for potential pathogens like E. coli and others germs.
If you introduce these to a lesion, abrasion, or slight cut that you may have on your body surface, you might get a boil or a zit.
An infection in a cut is possible, although it’s a low probability unless you have a significant opening in the skin, Tierno says.
Not washing towels can cause germs associated with different colds to transmit from one person to another, too, Dr. Gonzalez adds.
In more extreme cases, dirty towels may spread bacteria like MRSA, or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, a dangerous staph infection that’s difficult to treat with antibiotics, according to Dr. Gonzalez.
And how often should you replace towels entirely?
As long as you wash them often, bath towels could last up to two years, according to Dr. Gonzalez.
“A basic rule of thumb is to replace your towels when you feel they are no longer soft or absorbing water,” she says.
Tierno agrees that you only need to replace towels when they stop functioning or doing their primary job.
“If it is torn, ripped, or unable to absorb, then you buy a new one,” he says. “It has nothing to do with the germs.”
(Here are 15 other things you should replace more often.)
Tips on how to wash towels
Tierno recommends washing towels in bleach and water. He suggests using a disinfecting non-bleach in with soap and water for people who prefer colorful towels.
He also recommends cleaning your washing machine.
“Periodically, you want to throw bleach in the machine on an empty cycle to get rid of any repositories that may occur over time in the reservoir,” he says.
Can you wash towels with your clothes?
For regular clothes, you can wash them together with bath towels if you use bleach or a disinfectant, according to Tierno.
But Tierno specifically advises against washing towels with underwear.
“Used underwear contain genital and fecal bacteria, and unless you use bleach, you will have residual microbes in the reservoir water,” he says.
Is washing towels with vinegar a good idea?
In short, Tierno says vinegar isn’t the best choice for disinfecting towels as it is a “weak disinfectant.”
“It’s not a good use of vinegar,” he says. “Keep it for salads.”
Still, there is plenty of worthwhile healthy vinegar uses to know.
- Philip Tierno, PhD, a microbiologist at NYU Grossman School of Medicine
- Annie Gonzalez, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at Riverchase Dermatology in Miami
- The American Cleaning Institute: "Do I need to wash this?"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA)"