How to Wash and Revive Towels

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Here’s how to wash towels, so they stay fresh, fluffy, and like new. Plus, steps to revive old towels with a strip wash.

Are your towels starting to look dingy or feel rough? Have your family’s bath towels started smelling stale even though you’ve just washed them? Or maybe you’re thinking about upgrading to better bath linens but want to keep them feeling fresh and new.

Then it’s time to start washing towels the right way, whether you’re looking to revive your old ones or protect ones you’ve just bought.

What to Know About Washing Towels

Neatly folded stack of towels on a wood table in front of a window

How to Get Stains Out of Towels

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: Many times, you can 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.) Lestoil or PineSol 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 just takes a little chlorine bleach and a long wash cycle to get rid of 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.

How to Revive Your Old Towels

Whether your favorite towels have lost their fluffy, soft texture, or they’re starting to look dingy and dull, the cause is usually a buildup of body oils or laundry products.

Double-Wash Your 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 but nothing else. This second run-thru neutralizes the vinegar and eliminates odors.

Strip Wash Your Towels

Strip washing is a grossly satisfying task. Even if you think your towels are clean, a strip wash will almost surely prove you wrong. 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, the results are worth doing it once a season.

For top-loading washers: Add your towels plus 1/4 cup borax, 1/4 cup washing soda (sodium carbonate), 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). Take a peek at how dirty that water is before running a high-temp rinse then switch your super clean towels to the dryer. (Related: How to Clean a Washing Machine)

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 towels and wait four to five hours for the water to cool. (It’ll turn brown and yucky from all the gunk coming out.) Drain the tub then rinse your towels thoroughly before drying.

How to Wash Towels the Right Way

Washing towels sounds like a simple task: you put them in the washer, add your favorite laundry products, and let the machine do its thing. And that’s fine if all you’re concerned about is getting them (mostly) clean.

But, if you want towels to last longer, stay bright or brilliantly white, feel fluffy and smell fresh, there’s a bit more to washing them than dump and go. Here’s how to launder your towels the right way.

  1. Wash towels in their own load. Don’t combine them with clothing or other linens, which may wear down the fibers and bleed dyes that make your towels look dull.
  2. Separate white or light towels from colorful ones. Lighter-colored towels absorb dyes easily and will quickly look dingy. They also need different washing temperatures.
  3. Don’t stuff the washer. For proper cleaning, towels need room to swirl in a full tub of water. 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.
  4. Go easy on detergent. It’s counter-intuitive, but using too much laundry detergent keeps things from getting clean because the rinse cycle can’t wash it all away. For towels, which are highly absorbent, add half your usual amount of detergent.
  5. Use the right bleach as needed. You don’t need to rely on bleach to disinfect your towels (more on that below) but may want to use it to remove stains. Use chlorine bleach (like Clorox) only for white towels; for colorful ones stick with non-chlorine (Clorox 2) or oxygenated bleach (OxiClean).
  6. 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.
  7. Select the right cycle and temperature. Longer cycles give towels a chance to shed all of their dirt and odor-causing bacteria. Using the correct temperature helps, too. Select hot to brighten whites or light-colored towels, but stick with warm for darker ones to keep their dyes from fading.
  8. Transfer towels to the dryer individually. Shoving a whole load of wet towels into the dryer keeps them from tumbling freely, so they take longer to dry and come out wrinkled. Take wet towels out of the washer one at a time, shaking each a bit before adding them to the dryer.
  9. Make sure they dry completely. Use your machine’s automatic setting which relies on a moisture sensor that ensures complete drying. Otherwise, remember that towels take longer to dry than clothing, so check each one when you take it out. Or line-dry them for added freshness. (Related: How to Line Dry Clothing.)

Towel Problem Troubleshooting

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

Sour or stale smelling towels: 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.)

New towels aren’t absorbent. Always wash new towels before use to remove the coating that towel makers add to make their products more attractive to shoppers. This coating is usually silicone or something similar, and it keeps the fibers from absorbing moisture.

New towels shed lint. To get rid of excess lint from new towels, wash a half-load in the longest wash cycle with the highest water level your machine offers. Dry them in smaller loads, too, and follow the drying cycle with a 30-minute fluff/no heat tumble. Be sure to clean your dryer’s lint filter and vent afterward to avoid fires.

Towels look gray or dingy. Dullness is the result of product or oil buildup, or transferred dyes. Wash white/light towels and dark towels in separate loads. Double-wash or strip wash them to remove the buildup then follow the steps to wash towels the right way in the future.

Towels feel stiff or 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, use half as much detergent.

Towels wear out quickly. 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.

The Takeaway

  • Removing stains from towels depends on the type of stain, and should be done before laundering.
  • Wash towels by themselves using the proper wash temperature and steps above.
  • To revive old towels, double-wash or strip wash them following the above methods and then launder them correctly in the future.

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