How to Wash and Revive Towels

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Try the double-wash or strip-wash method to revive old towels and remove buildup. Keep it from returning by washing your towels the right way.

How to Wash Towels the Right Way

If it seems like your towels aren’t as soft and absorbent as they used to be, you’re not imagining things. Regular laundry cycles don’t always remove all of the detergent and body oil in towels. To get them fluffy again, try the double-washing or strip-washing methods below. It’s amazing how much gunk you’ll discover. Then make sure you’re washing towels the right way to keep the buildup from coming back.

How to Double-Wash Towels

Double-washing towels is an easy way to make them look and feel new. This method removes excess laundry products that keep towels from feeling fluffy, and it also eliminates stale, sour smells that stuck around despite laundering.

The first wash: Add clean towels to the machine but don’t use any detergent or fabric softener. Instead, pour 2 cups of plain white vinegar directly into the tub or the detergent dispenser to dissolve residues, soften the fabric, and kill allergens. Select the longest, hottest cycle, and let it run.

The second wash: Leaving the towels in the machine, select the longest, hottest cycle again and use 1 cup of baking soda plus your regular detergent. This second run-thru neutralizes the vinegar and eliminates odors while getting your towels clean.

How to Strip-Wash Towels

Strip washing is a grossly satisfying task. Even if you think your towels are clean, a strip wash will probably convince you otherwise. But note, this method involves several hours of waiting for the water to cool. So, while it’s not something you should bother doing weekly or even monthly, it’s worth doing once or twice a year.

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You will need:

For top-loading washers: Add your towels plus 1/4 cup borax, 1/4 cup washing soda, and 1/2 cup laundry detergent. Fill the machine with hot water, pause, and let the water cool off on its own, usually four to five hours. Let the cycle continue to a hot-water rinse, then dry your towels as usual. (Don’t forget to take a peek before rinsing to see how much gunk you just got out of your towels.)

To strip wash towels in the bathtub: Fill the tub halfway with hot water, stir in 1/2 cup borax, 1/2 cup washing soda, and 1/2 cup laundry detergent. Add up to six towels and let them sit in the water until it’s cool, which can take several hours. Your towels will release a lot of brown, oily grime as they soak, so squeeze out as much water as you can when draining the tub, then rinse them well. Now, you can run them through a washing machine to rinse or go straight to drying them, whichever you prefer.

How to Get Stains Out of Towels

You need to pre-treat stains on towels just as you’d pre-treat stains on clothing. After they’ve been through the dryer, it’s often too late. So, make a habit of inspecting towels before adding them to the washing machine and pre-treat stains as needed.

Dirt stains: Pour a liquid laundry detergent directly on the stain. Rub it in with an old toothbrush or grab part of the cloth in each hand and rub them together. Repeat on the back. Over the next 15 minutes, scrub it a few more times, then immediately launder it.

Mud stains: Most stains are easiest to remove when they’re fresh, but that’s not the case with mud. If you’ve found a muddy towel, let it completely dry before tackling the mess. Then scrape or shake away as much dried mud as possible. What’s left is a dirt stain that you can get rid of using the steps above.

Makeup stains: You can often get mascara, lipstick, or foundation out of towels by scrubbing the spot with a makeup remover wipe. If you don’t have one handy, see these steps to get makeup stains out of towels.

Car grease: If a home auto repair project left black, oily marks on your towels, rub a grease-cutting liquid dish detergent into both sides and let it sit overnight. (I find Dawn works best.) Either Lestoil or PineSol can also work but are not safe to use if you have cats because they contain pine oil.

Food stains: Chefs prefer plain white cotton towels because it only takes a little chlorine bleach and a long wash cycle to eliminate most food stains. If you’re a fan of pretty dishtowels, skip the bleach, rub the stain with liquid dish detergent, and soak the spot in warm vinegar for a half-hour before laundering.

The Right Way to Wash Towels

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.

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. Laundering clothing with towels causes friction, damaging the absorbent loops on your towels and leaving 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 water temperature should I use to wash towels?

Hot water helps kill mold and mildew spores and many types of bacteria, so if you choose not to use chlorine bleach, you should wash your towels with the hottest water setting on the longest cycle. If you do use chlorine bleach, you’re safe with a cold water wash but should run an extra rinse cycle to ensure all the bleach gets rinsed away.

How much detergent should I use for towels?

It’s tempting to use extra detergent when you’re washing a full load of stinky towels. But adding more laundry detergent keeps things from getting clean because your machine’s rinse cycle isn’t long enough to wash it all away. That’s especially true when washing towels since they’re highly absorbent and will soak up soapy water. Stick with laundry pods or check your detergent’s label for the exact amount you should be using.

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 non-chlorine or oxygenated bleach. (Clorox 2 and Oxiclean are two brands to try, or you can make your own oxygenated bleach. For white towels, you can use oxygen bleach or chlorine bleach.

Should I use fabric softener when I wash towels?

You should not use fabric softener when laundering towels. Fabric softener adds a light coating to fabrics to make them feel soft and prevent static cling. This coating makes towel strands clump together, though, so they lose their fluff. Skip it, or try reusable wool dryer balls to eliminate static.

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 find their towels unpleasant. If you’re going to use a dryer, lift towels out of your washer one at a time and give each a little 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. Double-wash them using the directions above, or strip wash them to remove the excess. In the future, check the directions on your laundry detergent to ensure you’re not adding more than you need. If you have an HE washer, make sure you’re using a detergent designed for use in lower-water machines. You may want to run a second rinse cycle, too.

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.

As with all laundry, you can help your towels last longer by washing them the right way, without crowding the washer or dryer. If they begin to feel flat or smell sour despite proper laundering, revive your towels with a strip-wash or double-wash and you’ll restore their fluff.

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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!