How — and how often — to wash towels, according to experts

For a seemingly straightforward subject — how to wash a towel — there are actually a number of mistakes one can make when washing towels. From not washing them often enough, to washing them with cleaning rags, there are some clear dos and don’ts when it comes to laundering towels — and one surprising product you should never, ever use when washing towels.

As with sheets, the “rules” of washing towels have changed because of advances in detergent formulas and washing machine technology. According to Brian Sansoni, the senior vice president of communications for the American Cleaning Institute, “Most laundry can now be done in cold water. That should be the default.” And yes, he includes towels in that statement.

This is good news for your wallet! Switching to cold water washing in most scenarios will cut down on your energy bill; Jessica Zinna, a senior scientist at Procter & Gamble, estimates that “up to 90% of the energy used during the laundry process goes towards heating the wash water for warm or hot cycles.” She puts the savings from switching to cold water washing at about $150 a year. It’s not just your energy bill that will benefit from the switch: “It’s more sustainable and by reducing wear and tear or fading, your towels will last longer,” the ACI’s Sansoni says.

Tide Pods Coldwater Clean ($21.49, originally $24.99;

Tide Pods Coldwater Clean

There are some times when using hot or warm water to wash towels will be the better choice. The ACI’s Levels of Laundry infographic offers guidance on when hot or warm water should be used for laundry.

Switching to cold water is a shift in the way we do laundry, but there are two other “rules” that, while not new, are often forgotten when it comes to washing towels — and they are important ones.

The first is to use the correct dosage of detergent. Often, people add more detergent than is needed, thinking that more detergent equals more clean. Not so! In fact, using too much detergent will leave towels full of suds when they come out of the washer, which can cause skin irritation, leave the towels feeling stiff, lead to lingering musty or moldy smells and, over time, lend a dingy appearance to towels. “To keep your towels fluffy and absorbent, only use the needed amount of detergent,” Sansoni says.

Towels that are no longer as absorbent as they ought to be, or that have developed a waxy feel to them, have almost definitely been washed with fabric softener — and that is the other oft-forgotten rule of laundering towels: Do not use fabric softener.

That means no liquid fabric softener, that means no dryer sheets. None. Fabric softener leaves a coating behind on towels that makes them less absorbent, and over time will contribute to a layer of product buildup in towels that will leave them looking dingy and smelling less than fresh.

Fabric softener can be a hard habit to break, and for people who find themselves missing the scent that fabric softener lends to towels, in-wash scent beads — which do nothing more than lend fragrance to laundry — are a good choice.

Gain Scent Blast Booster Beads ($9.99;

Gain Scent Blast Booster Beads

Microfiber towels need to be handled differently from cotton and terry cloth towels, especially when it comes to microfiber towels used for cleaning. This is true of microfiber cloths that are used for cleaning the home, as well as those used for cleaning delicate surfaces like eyeglasses and electronics.

Microfiber Cleaning Cloths, 8-Pack ($16.98;

Microfiber Cleaning Cloths

All cleaning rags, regardless of material, should be washed separately from other laundry to avoid contamination and damage from cleaning agent residue. When washing microfiber, specifically, avoid the use of fabric softeners and bleach, which will ruin the microfibers, rendering the cloth ineffective. Also avoid washing microfiber with cotton and other linty fabrics, which will catch in the microfibers.

While kitchen towels can be washed like bath towels, in cold water with a regular detergent, it is a good idea to avoid washing them in the same load as cleaning cloths and other heavily soiled items.

There are times, however, when using warm or hot water is a good idea when washing kitchen towels. “If kitchen towels were used to clean messes, hotter water can help remove germs,” Sansoni says, “There are also some stains, like oil or grease, that come out more easily in warmer water.”

If kitchen towels have gotten stained, use a stain treatment product prior to laundering. Shout is especially good on food stains like chocolate and tomato sauce, while Pine Sol is excellent at eliminating grease and oil stains.

How — and how often — to wash towels, according to experts

Shout Laundry Stain Remover ($17.23 for a pack of 2;

Shout Laundry Stain Remover

Pine Sol Multi Purpose Cleaner ($2.36;

Pine Sol Multi Purpose Cleaner

Bath towels should be washed every three to five uses, and washcloths should be washed every one to three uses. Both should be hung to dry between uses.

Hand towels should be changed every couple of days. Typically, this means using two to three fresh hand towels a week, and laundering them along with bath towels and washcloths.

Kitchen towels that are used for drying clean dishes or hands should be changed every couple of days, and those that are used to wipe up spills or clean messes should be washed after every use.

Microfiber towels that are used for cleaning should be washed after every use. Microfiber cloths used for cleaning electronics and eyeglasses should be washed every three to five uses.

Like sheets, towels can be line dried in the sun; because they are heavy and take longer to dry than most other laundry, indoor line drying isn’t the best choice.

Honey-Can-Do T-Post Outdoor Line ($42.99;

Honey-Can-Do T-Post Outdoor Line

When machine-drying towels, opt for the regular or automatic cycle, and use the machine’s moisture sensor, if that feature is available. Overdrying towels will cause the material to deteriorate and fade. Dryer balls will help to speed up drying time and will add fluffiness to the towels.

Whitmor Dryer Balls ($7.73;

Whitmor Dryer Balls

Microfiber towels, unlike cotton or terry cloth towels, should be air-dried or tumble-dried on low or no heat.

While overdrying towels should be avoided, Sansoni also notes that “towels can take longer to dry and hold on to moisture, so make sure they are fully dry before folding and putting away.” Putting towels away while still damp can lead to the development of mold, mildew and bacteria.

Ideally, wash kitchen and bathroom towels separately — and never commingle cleaning rags with any other kind of laundry, to avoid contamination.

If you do not use a fresh washcloth or bath towel every day, hang them to dry between uses to keep them from developing a musty, mildewy smell.

Portwood Towel Bar ($29.98;

Portwood Towel Bar

Lyndall Single Towel Hook ($22.57;

Lyndall Single Towel Hook

Hasko Suction Cup Hook Holder ($14.88, originally $18.99;

Hasko Suction Cup Hook Holder

Hand towels should be hung near the sink for easy access when drying hands, and to allow the towel to dry between uses.