How to Wash and Revive Towels

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How to Wash Towels the Right Way

With regular use, towels can become stiff, smelly, and lose their absorbency. This is usually because of buildup from body oils, laundry products, and bacteria. To get your towels fluffy and soft again, you need to deep clean them using either the double-wash or strip-washing method. Then, learn the proper way to wash towels and keep them in top condition.

Before You Begin

To make towels fluffy and soft, you need to get rid of the buildup that makes them feel flat. Double-washing or strip-washing is how to deep-clean them.

  • Double-washing: best for newer or lightly soiled towels. Double-washing removes excess laundry products and eliminates stale smells. It is a gentler, less time-consuming method than strip-washing.
  • Strip-washing: best for older or heavily soiled towels, or those which have a strong odor because of bacterial buildup. Strip-washing removes excess laundry products and body oils, but the process is more time-consuming and harder on the fabric.

Overall, it’s best to double-wash towels monthly to prevent buildup and strip-wash them once or twice a year as needed.

How to Double-Wash Towels

Double-washing towels is an easy way to make towels look and feel new. Here are the steps:

  1. Add clean towels to the washing machine, but do not use any detergent or fabric softener.
  2. Pour 2 cups of plain white vinegar directly into the tub or the detergent dispenser to dissolve residues, soften the fabric, and kill allergens. 
  3. Select the longest, hottest cycle and let it run.
  4. Leave the towels in the washer after the cycle ends.
  5. Run a second wash with the longest, hottest cycle. This time, add 1 cup of baking soda to eliminate odors, plus your regular laundry detergent to get the towels clean.
  6. Once the second cycle ends, dry your towels as usual.

By double-washing towels, you’ll remove buildup from laundry products and eliminate stale smells, leaving your towels fluffy and smelling fresh. Do this process monthly to keep your towels in peak condition.

Infographic about how to get rid of buildup on towels through deep cleaning them

How to Strip-Wash Towels

To strip-wash towels, use a top-loading washing machine or a bathtub, because most front-loading machines do not allow for a 4-5 hour or overnight soak. If your machine does not, you can use a bathtub or a large, watertight container such as a clean garbage can or storage bin. 

In the washing machine

You will need borax, washing soda, and liquid laundry detergent to strip-wash towels in a top-loading machine:

  1. Add 1/4 cup of borax, 1/4 cup of washing soda, and 1/2 cup of liquid laundry detergent directly to the machine.
  2. Select the longest, hottest wash and rinse cycle on your machine.
  3. Fill the machine with hot water and let it agitate for a minute so the powders dissolve.
  4. Pause the machine and add your towels until the tub is half full. Do not overcrowd the machine.
  5. Let the machine agitate again for two to three minutes to saturate the towels.
  6. Pause the cycle and let the towels soak for four to five hours. This gives the mixture time to break up and dissolve buildup.
  7. Once the soaking time is up, let the cycle continue with a hot water rinse.
  8. Dry your towels as you normally would.

In the bathtub

You will need borax, washing soda, and liquid laundry detergent. You will also need a broomstick or a heavy large spoon to stir the towels as they soak. If you prefer to use your hand, wear gloves to protect your skin.

  1. Fill the bathtub halfway with hot water.
  2. Add 1/2 cup each of borax, washing soda, and liquid laundry detergent.
  3. Add up to six towels to the water, submerging them.
  4. Stir the towels to fully saturate them, then let them soak in the mixture. As they soak, they’ll release grime. Repeat stirring every 30 minutes for at least four hours.
  5. After the soaking time ends, drain the tub and squeeze out as much water as you can from the towels.
  6. Rinse the towels well in the bathtub, or transfer them to your washing machine to rinse them.
  7. Dry your towels as you normally would.

Note: It is important to spot test dark or colorful towels before strip-washing them, since borax and washing soda can lighten certain dyes.

How to Wash Towels in Your Washer

Don’t get down on yourself if you saw a lot of gunk come out of your towels when you double-washed or strip-washed them. Most times, your laundry detergent or your washer is at fault. But seeing that buildup come out of your towels is a sign you might need to do things differently. Make sure you’re washing your towels the right way.

  1. Sort towels by color and material. Wash white towels separately from dark ones, and separate towels made from natural fibers (like cotton) from synthetics (microfiber).
  2. Pre-treat stains. Use a stain remover or dab the stain with a small amount of enzymatic laundry detergent.
  3. Add towels to the machine. Avoid overloading and leave enough space for the towels to move around freely during the wash cycle.
  4. Use the recommended amount of detergent. Adjust the amount you use based on the size of your load. Using too much detergent leaves a residue that makes towels stiff, but too little can leave your towels dirty. 
  5. Use the hottest, longest wash and rinse cycle. Hot water helps kill germs, bacteria, and allergens. It also dissolves body oils and other residue that collects on towels. The longer the cycle, the better the hot water and your detergent will work. 
  6. Avoid fabric softener. The ingredients in fabric softener leave a residue that flattens towels and makes them less absorbent.
  7. Dry immediately. Tumble dry towels on the highest heat or line-dry them in bright, direct sunlight. 
  8. Fold promptly. Remove towels from the dryer or line as soon as they’re dry and fold them to prevent wrinkles and musty odors from developing.

How to Soften Towels

Fabric softener and dryer sheets aren’t good for towels. They add a light coating to fabrics to make them feel soft and prevent static cling, but this coating makes towel fibers clump together, so they lose their fluff. Here are some other ways to soften your towels:

  • Vinegar: Add plain white vinegar to the rinse cycle to break down detergent, body oil, and mineral buildup on towels. This will leave them softer and more absorbent.
  • Baking soda: Add 1/2 cup baking soda to the wash cycle along with your regular detergent. This will help soften hard water and prevent mineral buildup, so your towels feel softer.
  • Wool dryer balls: Adding eco-friendly, reusable dryer balls to the dryer with your towels helps eliminate static while fluffing the fibers so your towels feel softer.
  • Tennis balls: Similar to using dryer balls, these bounce around to fluff towels as they dry. 

See my favorite laundry care products.

FAQs about Washing Towels

Below are some of the most commonly asked questions about washing towels. If your question isn’t covered, please leave it in the comments. The answer may help other readers, too.

What goes in the washer with towels?

Wash towels in their own load, separating white and light towels from bright or dark ones, just as you would separate other laundry. Washing towels with clothing can damage the absorbent loops on towels and make them feel rough. It will also leave your clothing covered in lint.

How many towels can I wash at the same time?

Most front-loading washers can handle a 12-pound load, which is about seven towels, and top-loading washers can fit 15-18 pounds or nine to 11 bath towels. Do not add other items. Even high-quality towels will wear out quickly if you overload the washer or launder them with other clothing.

What kind of bleach should I use on towels?

If you want to use bleach to disinfect your towels, choose the right formula so you don’t damage them. For colorful or dark towels, use color-safe bleach or non-chlorine bleach. Clorox 2 and Oxiclean are two brands to try, or you can make your own oxygen bleach. For white towels, you can use oxygen bleach or chlorine bleach.

What’s the best way to dry towels?

Both line-drying and tumble-drying have advantages. Line-drying in direct sunlight provides added disinfection and saves money, but many people feel it leaves towels scratchy. If you’re going to use a dryer, lift towels out of your washer one at a time and give each a good shake. Shoving wadded-up towels into the dryer keeps them from tumbling freely, so they’ll take longer to dry and will wrinkle. Stop adding towels when your dryer is half-full.

What should I do about musty-smelling towels?

Musty smells in your towels are a sign of mildew. It can happen after leaving wet towels in the washer too long or folding and putting away towels that aren’t completely dry. You may need to take extra steps to get rid of the mildew smell, or it will return every time you use the towel until the spores are out of the fabric.

Why do my towels look gray or dingy?

Dull towel colors are usually the result of product or oil buildup. Sometimes, it’s transferred dyes if you aren’t sorting laundry properly. Double-wash or strip wash them to remove the buildup, then make sure you’re washing towels the right way, following the steps above.

Why do my towels feel stiff?

Stiffness is a sign that you’re using too much detergent. To make your towels soft again, deep clean them to remove the excess product. Then check the directions on every detergent you buy, since manufacturers frequently change their formulas for “new and improved” versions. Also, if you have an HE washer, make sure you’re using a detergent designed for lower-water machines. 

Why aren’t my brand new towels absorbent?

Manufacturers add a finishing spray to new towels to keep them fluffy and clean in the store despite many shoppers touching them. But that finish also prevents them from absorbing moisture. To remove the protective fabric finish on new towels that keep them from absorbing moisture, always wash them before use in warm water with half the usual detergent and no fabric softener.

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  1. Thank you very much. I always do a vinegar soak rinse, shocked blue towels lost color. Your tips were a big help.

    1. Katie Berry says:

      I’m glad you’ve got them back to blue again!

  2. I did the strip wash on 2 of my towels and it worked great.
    Thank you

    1. Katie Berry says: