Picture it: You’re fresh out of the shower and looking for a warm cotton hug in the form of a soft towel. Instead, you’re greeted with what feels like crunchy tree bark. Hard water, product buildup and improper drying techniques can all contribute to stinky, stiff towels. We asked laundry experts for their advice on achieving the soft, fluffy towels of our dreams.
Start with a good towel
Barton Brass, president of the Turkish Towel Co., recommends starting with a dense, high-quality towel for the best experience. “The better the grade of cotton, the better the towel will be,” Brass says.
Most towels are made of cotton or a cotton blend because of the natural material’s soft, absorbent fibers. If a hotel-like towel is what you’re after, Brass, whose company sells wholesale towels to hotels across the United States, suggests buying pure cotton towels that weigh about 600 grams per square meter (gsm). This measurement refers to a fabric’s density; a higher number means it’s thicker and more absorbent. A standard towel typically weighs between 300 and 600 gsm, so buying on the heavier side should provide a cushier feel. Brass cautions against going as high as 900 gsm, the maximum weight, which he says would be impractical for everyday use. Look for towels that feel hefty, have large thread loops and are made of high-quality cotton.
Wash like items together
It can be a pain to separate laundry, but following the general rule of washing like clothes with like clothes helps laundry go faster and prevents lint transfer. “When you wash like items together, they clean better because everything is even in the washing machine and even in the dryer,” says Becky Rapinchuk, author of “Clean Mama’s Guide to a Healthy Home” and founder of the Clean Mama website.
“The key is to really separate properly,” says Gwen Whiting, co-founder of upscale laundry product brand the Laundress. “We really recommend washing sheets and towels separately from each other. They need their own attention, so you don’t want them jammed in with loads of stuff. You need a good cleaning environment.”
Separating new towels from other laundry is crucial. New towels are more likely to create lint, and mixing different fabrics (especially a lint magnet such as microfiber) is an invitation for a torturous afternoon spent picking lint off all the other items in the load. “If you buy a towel that’s made of 100 percent cotton, the first couple of times you wash it you’re going to get some lint, there’s no way to avoid that,” Brass says. He advises washing new towels before you use them for the first time to get rid of any pre-treatments the manufacturer may have added. Whiting suggests washing and drying new towels alone for their first three cycles, just to be safe.
Tossing too many towels into a load can cause them to clump and tangle, which creates pockets of moisture that the dryer’s heat can’t reach, leaving you with still-wet towels that will be stiff and scratchy when they dry. Rapinchuk suggests limiting each load to avoid overcrowding so heat can circulate within the dryer and reach all parts of the towels. “A stiff towel probably means the dryer was too stuffed,” Rapinchuk says. Dryer balls or clean tennis balls can help reduce static and break up clumps. It’s also not a bad idea to open the door midway through the cycle and pull apart any tangled towels.
Rethink your products
It might sound counterintuitive, but fabric softener isn’t always the way to achieve cloudlike towels. Fabric softeners coat a towel’s exterior and often contain oils and petroleum-based ingredients that hinder its absorbency. This filmy coating may mean more frequent washing, which breaks down the towel. Rapinchuk instead pours a quarter-cup of distilled white vinegar into the fabric softener compartment of her machine with each load. “It softens the towels, gets rid of any bacteria and keeps my washing machine smelling like nothing, which is what you want,” she says.
White vinegar also helps set colors and makes whites brighter. (Note: If you need extra whitening, chlorine bleach isn’t the answer, because the harsh chemical flattens the textured loops that make up a towel’s fibers. Instead, try OxyClean or another bleach alternative.)
“Distilled white vinegar is God’s gift to laundry,” Brass says. He runs a cleaning cycle with vinegar in his machine once a month to eliminate bacteria and mildew. If you can’t live without the laundry-day scent of softener, Whiting suggests using it every other time you wash towels to prevent product buildup. For another way to achieve a fresh laundry scent, Rapinchuk recommends adding several drops of a heat-compatible essential oil to wool dryer balls, letting them dry and then tossing them in the dryer for scented towels. Rapinchuk likes lavender and eucalyptus for an at-home spa feel.
Another remedy for stiff towels comes from the kitchen: baking soda. To create a softer texture and get rid of the sour odor that comes from leaving wet towels in the laundry, Rapinchuk runs a wash cycle with a half-cup of baking soda either alone or mixed with detergent before drying (if running alone, launder as normal after). Be sure not to mix vinegar and baking soda in the machine; the chemical reaction may cause the machine to overflow.
Using too much laundry detergent can also lead to crunchy towels. Brass recommends using about half as much detergent as is recommended on the bottle and running an extra rinse cycle to make sure all the product washes away.
Turn down the heat
As tempting as it is to blast towels with the highest possible temperature (to banish germs, right?), dial back the heat if softness is what you’re after. “Heat is probably the worst thing you can do to a towel in the laundry,” Brass says. “Cotton itself is a very soft, cellulose material, and if you burn it or cook it, it’s going to flatten out and it will never get soft again.” Brass recommends washing and drying at medium heat to preserve the towel’s fibers and to eliminate bacteria. Keep in mind that heat can also set stains, so if you’re using the heat to wash a seriously stained towel, pre-treating the stain could help lift it out.
If you’re after a deeper clean and need to sanitize a particularly soiled towel, however, Whiting does suggest turning up the heat. “They’re very close to your skin, so you have all of that body oil, hair products and face products and all of those things that you use every day,” she says. “We really recommend washing them really well on a hot temperature to remove all of those elements.”
Make sure they’re dry
Damp, crumpled towels piled on the floor are an invitation for mildew, and fabric fibers can be creased or crushed if left long enough. Terry cloth is constructed from yarn that’s stitched into loops, so avoid doing anything that would crush this structure, such as unkempt storage or ironing. Whiting says towels don’t have to be dry before going into the wash, but they should be completely dry before they’re folded and put away. Avoid leaving damp towels in the dryer, too. At the end of the drying cycle, give them a shake and fold them soon after.
Wash towels regularly
Just like with clothing, frequent laundering will eventually break down a towel’s fibers, robbing it of its drying ability. Rapinchuk launders her towels after two uses and changes her hand towels daily to avoid spreading germs, and Whiting recommends washing every three to five uses. Brass suggests sidestepping this issue by having a rotation of about three towels to use so that the fibers can rest in between washes. Given that towels are used to dry off your body, it’s a good idea to prioritize washing them often. “These are the most close items to your skin and you spend a lot of time in them,” Whiting says. “Sheets and towels are the most intimate textiles you have.”