How Often Should You Wash Your Bath Towel?
The ick factor in a used one may be higher than you think
You rinse off the suds, step out of the shower and grab a towel that's been hanging there since your last shower. Besides thick and thirsty cotton, what are you rubbing all over your squeaky-clean body?
Plenty, experts say. That towel likely contains not only bacteria but possibly also fungi and mold.
That’s not so surprising if you think about what happens when you use a towel. First, as you dry your body, dead skin cells, which harbor many kinds of bacteria, transfer to the towel, says Philip Tierno, PhD, professor of microbiology and pathology at the New York University School of Medicine.
Also, you’re probably using the towel to dry your feet, genitals and rear end, which can add fungi, bodily secretions and fecal bacteria to the mix, he says.
The moisture on the towel, and a little time, give those microbes everything they need to grow, says Kelly Reynolds, PhD, a microbiologist and professor at The University of Arizona, who has studied germs on towels. In fact, some bacteria populations can double in size in just 20 minutes, she says.
Aside from the ick factor, though, can a dirty towel actually cause health problems? It's possible, says Reynolds. For example, a moldy towel can set off an allergic reaction, while a towel teeming with bacteria can start a skin infection, especially if you have a cut or even a nick from shaving, she says.
To dry off and stay germ- and ick-free, follow these five bath towel tips.
Related: Quiz: Which Has More Germs?
1. Wash your towel after every use. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends this, Reynolds says. If you still want to use your towel more than once, make sure to throw it in the wash after every two or three uses, she advises. Washcloths should definitely be washed every time they’re used, Reynolds says.
2. Give it some air. If you don’t wash your towel after every use, dry it out thoroughly between showers to slow the growth of microbes. The worst thing you can do: throw your towel in a heap on the bathroom floor or keep it scrunched on a towel rack next to other damp towels. If you can, hang your damp towel outside to dry so fresh air and UV light from the sun can keep germs at bay, Reynolds says. If that’s not possible, lay your towel out on a drying rack to allow air to circulate around it, she says.
3. Wash it right. When you launder your bath towel, use the sanitize cycle if your washer has one. Otherwise, set the dial to hot, Reynolds says. The heat from the water helps to kill germs, she says. If you use white towels that won’t be ruined by bleach (a good idea, Reynolds says), add ¾ cup bleach to your wash load for maximum sanitizing power. And after washing, throw the towels in the dryer on the hot setting, which also kills germs, she says.
4. Keep your towel to yourself. Sharing is caring, but not when it comes to bath towels. Swapping towels can spread diseases such as pink eye and molluscum contagiosum, an infection caused by a virus that can cause clusters of bumps to develop on the body. Towels also can spread MRSA, a potentially dangerous type of antibiotic-resistant staph bacteria. To avoid towel mix-ups, each family member or roommate should hang his or her towel in a designated spot, such as the back of a closet door, Reynolds says.
5. Throw funky towels in the trash. Have you ever had a towel that, even after you wash it, still smells sort of funky? In that case, the towel is loaded with mold, so it’s time to buy new ones, Reynolds says.