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How to clean towels

Melanie Whitehouse / 14 August 2018

We all like a soft, fluffy towel when we step out of the shower, but how do you keep that fresh-off-the-shelf feeling, and stop towels becoming smelly?

Clean towels

A new towel is always a delight. Soft and fluffy, you hope it will always stay that way, but after repeated washing it almost always ends up rough and scratchy. With the right treatment, though, you can keep it in tip-top condition.

Washing towels

Don't use too much detergent – this, along with any residue from bath products, can make towels stiff, particularly if washed on a low temperature. It is usually recommended that towels are washed on a 60-degree hot wash, to break down leftover soap, oils and remove germs. However, some experts say a cold wash helps stop shrinkage, retains colour and even works better on some stains. If you opt for this method, kill germs by adding Dettol Antibacterial Laundry Cleanser to your wash.

Wash white towels separately from coloured, to prevent the colour running, for the first few washes at least. Half a cup of white vinegar added to the drum will help 'set' the colour.

Wash new towels before use, as they're often coated with a special softener to make them look extra fluffy but which doesn't absorb water well.

Always wash towels on their own or with heftier items like trousers - the heavy fibres could damage delicate fabrics.

Use a fabric conditioner – 'Comfort' is the classic, although there are many imitators. Conditioners smooth the fibres, which makes the towel softer to touch and protects towels from wear and tear so they stay fluffy longer. But softeners also reduce absorbency, so only use every other wash. A cheap alternative is to add a (plain-coloured) tennis ball to the tumble dryer, which agitates the fibres and fluffs them up.

Always remove towels from the washing machine immediately the cycle has finished to prevent mildew.

Drying towels

Towels are best dried in a cool dryer, because a hot one 'bakes' them and makes them hard, or dried outside in the sun (although a very hot sun can also bake them hard).

Once completely dry, fold up and put away.

How to prevent germs and smells

What makes towels smell? 

Every time you dry yourself after a bath or shower you leave behind dead skin cells on your towel. In addition, sweaty spots that aren't washed properly leave bacteria that transfer to the towel, collect in the fibres and become a breeding ground for germs. This is when towels start to smell.

Preventing smelly towels

To prevent towels getting smelly, wash towels at least once a week, or after every three to five uses.

Never leave damp towels on the floor, in the dirty clothes basket or screwed up in an unventilated bathroom. Spread out to dry after every use, and make sure they dry out completely or they will start to smell musty from a build-up of bacteria.

Cleaning smelly towels

If your towels develop a nasty odour, wash them on the hot cycle and add a cup of white vinegar (no detergent) or half a cup of bicarbonate of soda. You can also put clean, dry towels in the freezer for an hour or two to kill off germs.

Never leave towels in the washing machine after they've been washed, as this is another chance for bacteria to breed.

If you suspect the washing machine itself is the cause of the musty smell, run a hot cycle on empty with a quarter cup of bleach to disinfect it or buy a proprietary product like Dr. Beckmann Service-it Deep Clean Washing Machine Cleaner.


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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.