Woman carrying a load of deep cleaned towels

Bye-Bye Buildup: Deep Clean Towels To Make 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 double-wash method to keep them fluffy. Then, once or twice a year I strip-wash our towels to deep clean them and get rid of 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.

How to Double-Wash Towels

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.

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.

How to Strip-Wash Towels

Strip washing towels requires an overnight soak. If your washing machine doesn’t allow for that, you can still deep clean them in the bathtub or a large container. Then, if you want, move them to your washer after soaking to finish up the process.

Pro Tip

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

In Top Load washing machines

To strip wash towels in your top loader, dissolve 1/4 cup of borax, 1/4 cup of washing soda, and 1/2 cup of liquid laundry detergent in the washer by running the longest, hottest cycle for a minute or two. Then, add your towels.

Give your machine a few minutes to agitate the towels and get them really wet, then 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 Front Load Washing Machines

It’s only possible to strip wash towels in front load machines that allow for long soaking periods. Many don’t. If yours doesn’t, use the bathtub method further down to start them, then move them to your wash for a rinse and spin to finish.

To strip wash towels in a front load machine, dissolve 1/4 cup of borax and 1/4 cup of washing soda in 2 cups of warm water. Pour the mixture into your washer, add your towels, and run the longest, hottest cycle with your usual amount of detergent.

After a few minutes, switch your machine to soak or pause the cycle for at least 4 hours. When time’s up, continue the cycle as usual.

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. Now, you can rinse the towels in the tub or transfer them to your washing machine for rinsing, then dry them as usual.

Tips to Wash Your Towels Better

If you find yourself needing to deep clean your towels often, you might actually need to tweak your laundry routine a bit. Here’s the right way to wash towels to get them squeaky clean.

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).

Pre-treat stains. Use a stain remover or dab the stain with a small amount of enzymatic laundry detergent.

Add towels to the machine. Avoid overloading and leave enough space for the towels to move around freely during the wash cycle.

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.

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 kind of stuff that comes out when you deep clean them. The longer the cycle, the better the hot water and your detergent will work.

Avoid fabric softener. The ingredients in fabric softener leave a residue that flattens towels and makes them less absorbent.

Dry immediately. Tumble dry towels on the highest heat or line-dry them in bright, direct sunlight.

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.

Soften Towels Without 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. 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. This will leave your towels softer and more absorbent.
  • Baking soda: Add 1/2 cup baking soda to the wash cycle to soften hard water and prevent mineral buildup.
  • Wool dryer balls: Use eco-friendly, reusable wool dryer balls to 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.

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 to avoid damage. 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 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.

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 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.

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.

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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  1. 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?

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

    1. Katie Berry says:


  3. 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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