How to Wash and Revive Towels

Follow these steps to keep your towels feeling fluffy and smelling fresh or revive your old towels so they feel new again.

Three neatly folded towels on a wood counter

These Steps Revive Old Towels

Sometimes, even if you’re good about hanging your towels after each use and washing them often, you might notice they still smell sour or like mildew. Or maybe you feel like your towels are flatter and rougher than they used to be, or they’re stained even though you just washed them.

You’re not imagining things: detergents and body oils can build up in towels, and regular laundry cycles don’t get all that mess out. To deep-clean your towels and get them fluffy again, try double-washing or even strip-washing. It’s amazing how much gunk comes out of bath towels using these methods.

How to Double-Wash Towels

Double-washing towels is an easy way to make them look and feel new. This method gets rid of excess laundry products that keep towels from feeling fluffy. 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.

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.)

What Are Borax and Washing Soda?

Borax is also known as sodium borate. It’s a combination of boron, sodium, and oxygen in powdered form. Washing soda is also known as soda ash and shouldn’t be confused with baking soda. It’s a combination of sodium, hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen. Both are fantastic, natural household cleaners and laundry aids. You can find them in the laundry section of many supermarkets. I get mine at Walmart.

To strip wash towels in the bathtub: Fill the tub halfway with hot water, then stir in a 1/2 cup borax, 1/2 cup washing soda, and 1 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 be sure to squeeze out as much water as you can when you’re 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.

The Right Way to Wash Towels

If you saw a lot of gunk come out of your towels when you double-washed or strip-washed them, don’t get down on yourself. Most times, it’s your laundry detergent or your washer that’s at fault. But seeing that buildup come out of your towels is a sign you might need to do things a bit 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 clothing. Don’t put too many in the washer, either: they need room to swirl around. Most front-loading machines can handle a 12-pound load, which is around seven towels. Top-loading machines can fit 15-18 pounds or nine to 11 bath towels.

What to Wash Towels With?

The right amount of detergent: When you’re washing a full load of stinky towels, it’s tempting to use extra detergent. But, really, 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 you’re 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.

The right type of bleach: You don’t have to use bleach to disinfect your towels, but you may want to use it to remove stains. For white towels, use chlorine bleach but for colorful or dark ones, use an oxygenated or color-safe bleach. (Clorox 2 and Oxiclean are two brands to try.)

Skip the fabric softener. 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.

The right temperature and cycle. If you skip bleach, you need to wash your towels using hot water and the longest cycle, so the heat has enough time to kill bacteria and mildew. If you use bleach, you can use a cold water wash but run an extra rinse to ensure all the bleach is rinsed away.

How Should You Dry Towels?

If you’re going to use a dryer, lift the towels out of your washer one at a time and give each a little shake. Shoving wadded-up towels into the dryer keeps it from tumbling freely, so they take longer to dry and come out wrinkled. Stop adding towels when your dryer is half-full.

If your machine has the option, use the automatic setting: it relies on a moisture sensor to tell you when the load is dry, so you don’t have to guess. If you’d rather line-dry towels, hang them in a sunny spot outdoors — drying towels inside can add too much moisture to your home’s air, leading to mold and mildew problems indoors.

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 by grabbing part of the cloth in each hand and rubbing them together. Repeat on the backside of the stain. 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, though, skip the bleach and rub the stain with liquid dish detergent, then soak the spot in warm vinegar for a half-hour before laundering.

Frequently Asked Questions About Washing Towels

Here are some quick tips on solving specific problems with your towels.

Why do my towels smell sour? Mildew is usually to blame for smelly towels. To prevent it, hang towels after bathing instead of leaving them on the floor, don’t let them sit in the washing machine before drying, and use a long dryer cycle. (Related: How to Get Rid of Mildew Smells.)

Why aren’t my brand-new towels absorbent? Towel manufacturers add silicone or finishing spray to new towels, so they look fluffy and stay clean in the store despite lots of shoppers touching them. But that finish also keeps them from absorbing moisture. So, you should always launder new towels before use to get rid of that coating.

Why are my new towels shedding so much lint? Your new towels are made of unbroken, whole fibers. Laundering them starts to break down those fibers, so pieces break off and turn into lint. To keep it from shedding all over you, you’ll need to wash them with the highest water level setting your machine can handle. Dry them in smaller loads for the first couple of times, too, so your machine’s lint catcher can keep up. And be sure to clean your dryer’s lint filter afterward.

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 forgot to sort 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 crunchy? 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. You might want to add a second rinse cycle, too.

Why do my towels wear out so fast? Cheaper towels wear out fast because they use lower-quality cotton, but even high-quality towels will wear out quickly if you overload the washer or launder them with other clothing. Wash no more than seven full-size towels in a front-loader or nine towels in a top-loader at a time, and never add additional items.

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2 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!

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