Woman carrying a load of deep cleaned towels

Deep Cleaning Towels: How to Eliminate Buildup and Get Them Soft again

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Ever noticed your towels feeling stiff or getting smelly? That happens because of buildup from body oils, laundry products, even bacteria. To make them soft again, you’ll need to deep clean your towels then tweak your laundry routine a bit so they stay that way.

I use both of these ways to deep clean and refresh our towels. Once a month, I do the first method to keep them fluffy. Then, once or twice a year I use the second method to deep clean our towels and get rid of any mineral buildup.

• Double-washing: Best for newer or lightly soiled towels. Double-washing deep cleans towels by removing detergent buildup, stubborn odors, and body oils. 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 deep cleans towels by removing detergent and mineral buildup, body oils, and bacteria but it takes longer and is harder on fabric. Always spot test before strip-washing.

Deep Clean Towels with a Double-Wash

Double-washing towels is my favorite way to revive and refresh them, so they feel soft and new again. Since there’s always some gross residue that comes out when you deep clean towels, I do once a month just before I clean my washing machine.

To double-wash your towels, put them in the washer and add 2 cups of white vinegar directly into the tub or the detergent dispenser—no detergent or fabric softener. Run a long, hot cycle. Once that’s done, put in 1 cup of baking soda and wash them again, this time with your regular detergent. Then, dry them as you usually would.

Strip-Washing Towels for Serious Revival

Even with monthly double-washing, our gym and swim towels tend to get smelly and feel flat due to buildup which means it’s time to strip-wash them. This method requires an overnight soak, which our old front-load washer couldn’t handle, so I’d start them in the bathtub and finish in the dryer. I go over how to strip-wash towels in the bathtub a little further down the page.

In the Washing Machine

  • Add 1/4 cup of borax, 1/4 cup of washing soda, and 1/2 cup of liquid laundry detergent to your washer
  • Select the longest, hottest cycle and let it run for 2 minutes to dissolve the powders.
  • Add your towels.
  • Let your machine agitate the towels a few minutes to and get them really wet
  • Pause the cycle for at least 4 hours and up to overnight.
  • When time’s up, finish the cycle and dry them as you usually would.

In the Bathtub

To strip-wash towels in the bathtub, fill it halfway with hot water then stir in 1/2 cup each of borax, washing soda, and liquid laundry detergent until they dissolved. Add up to six towels and let them soak for at least four hours, stirring them now and then.

When time’s up, drain the tub and squeeze out the excess water and rinse until the water runs clear. At that point, I move them to a laundry hamper lined with a garbage bag to catch drips and slide them to the dryer.

Pro Tip

Make sure to strip wash towels of different colors in separate batches so the dyes don’t bleed on each other.

Tips for Cleaner Towels

Wash Separately

Wash towels in their own load, separating white and light towels from bright or dark ones, just as you would separate other laundry. (You do that, right?) Washing towels with other clothes damages the absorbent loops on them, so they’ll feel rough. Plus, it leaves clothes covered in lint and looking blah.

Don’t Overload

Most front-loading washers can handle a 12-pound load, which is about seven standard towels. Top-loading washers can fit 15-18 pounds or nine to 11 bath standard towels. But that doesn’t mean you should try cramming your washer full!

If your towel are plush or large, you won’t be able to fit as many in the machine. So don’t — even high-quality towels will wear out quickly if you overload the washer or launder them with other clothing.

Be Careful with Bleach

I’m not a fan of chlorine bleach. It’s bad for the environment and harsh on lungs. It’s harsh on fabrics, too! If you want to disinfect your towels, an extra long cycle using hot water and line drying or high-heat tumble drying work. If it’s brightening you’re after, try a color-safe bleach alternative like Clorox 2 or Oxiclean, or make your own oxygen bleach. Bonus: they’re safe on all colors of towels, including white.

Swap for Fabric Softener

Fabric softener and dryer sheets add a coating that prevents static cling but makes towel fibers clump together, so they lose their fluff. Instead, I add 1/2 cup baking soda to the wash cycle to soften our hard water and prevent mineral buildup. Then I use 1 cup of plain white vinegar in the rinse cycle to break down detergent, body oil, and mineral buildup. The combination leaves our towels fluffy, soft and smelling fresh.

Shake Before Drying

Shoving wadded-up towels into the dryer keeps them from tumbling freely, so they’ll take longer to dry and will wrinkle. Instead, take them out of the washer one at a time and give each a good shake before putting it in the dryer. Then stop adding towels when your dryer is half-full. Then I toss in a few clean tennis balls or some wool dryer balls to fluff towels and speed up drying-time, too.

Treat Musty Smells Promptly

Musty towels are a sign of mildew forming after leaving wet towels in the washer too long or putting away towels that aren’t completely dry. Wash them in hot water with vinegar then dry them immediately. Clean your washing machine afterward to finish eliminating mildew spores.

Revive Colors by Deep-Cleaning Towels

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.

Soften Scratchiness by Removing Buildup

Stiffness can happen from mineral buildup or too much detergent. After deep cleaning, use baking soda when washing them to soften the water, or use vinegar in the rinse cycle to eliminate excess detergent residue. And if you have an HE washer, make sure you’re using a detergent designed for lower-water machines.

Always Wash New Towels Before First Use

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.

So, which method will you be using to deep clean your towels? I’d love to hear about your results in the comments!

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6 Comments

  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:

      Fantastic!

  3. Elisabeth Galloway says:

    I never never use hot water. I find it steams the odours in.

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Hi Elisabeth,
      I appreciate your perspective, but washing linens in hot water is still the best way to kill viruses and bacteria, including those which cause odors. Perhaps it’s time to flush sediment from your water heater if it’s causing your laundry to smell?

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