We’ve heard about how we should wash our bedding once a week and put our pants on a 60°C cycle (so we’re not left with a “pooey, bacteria-filled mess”). And now, dear reader, it’s time for the lowdown on towels.
Most people stick their bath towels in the wash once a week. But for some, they remain on the rail for much longer, accruing a musty stench.
Before you panic, Professor Val Curtis, of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, tells HuffPost UK there are “very few diseases” that are likely to be caused by reusing your own towel too many times. But what’s a good ballpark figure for how often we should wash them?
How Often Should We Wash Our Towels?
Charles Gerba, a microbiologist at the University of Arizona, previously told Time that a study he conducted revealed nearly 90% of bathroom towels were contaminated with coliform bacteria – organisms that can indicate the presence of disease-causing bacteria in water – and about 14% carried E. coli. Sounds gross, doesn’t it?
Dr Lisa Ackerley, aka The Hygiene Doctor, says the frequency of washing depends on the person using the bath towel. “I’m afraid there isn’t a hard and fast rule,” she says. “If someone is very good at cleaning themselves and leaves the towel looking clean, they could probably get away with several uses. But if they are not very good and the towel looks dirty afterwards, they might want to wash it after every use.”
People should never share bath towels, Dr Ackerley warns, especially if they have a gastrointestinal infection as this can spread the illness. Likewise, people who are sick should wash their towels more frequently – possibly even daily.
To keep your towel free of bacteria and mould growth – and keep it smelling nice – make sure you dry it by airing it after every use, advises Prof Curtis. She recommends washing bath towels “once a week, mostly for aesthetic reasons”.
When it comes to tea towels, Dr Ackerley recommends washing after two or three uses. A 2014 study looking at bacteria in tea towels found 89% were home to coliform bacteria and one quarter had E. coli. The presence of E. coli was related to the frequency of washing.
If you have a busy household or lots of visitors, Dr Ackerley recommends changing the hand towel in your bathroom daily. If not, you can probably get away with washing less regularly.
And as for your gym hand towel, you should be washing that after every single use, she says: “Think of all the bacteria and dirt it will collect on the gym machines.”
What Temperature Should We Wash Towels On?
The NHS advises washing all towels at 60°C, or 40°C if you’re using a bleach-based laundry product, to prevent germs from spreading.
Dr Ackerley believes the hotter the wash, the better. “Towels should be washed at above 60°C to ensure that bacteria and fungi are killed,” she says. “I actually go for 90°C as some machines are not always accurate about their temperature achievement.” If you wash at 30°C, you won’t kill the bacteria and fungi, she warns.
But here’s a curveball we’ve mentioned before: if the environment is your top priority, Julian Kirby, plastics campaigner at Friends of the Earth, urges you to keep washing at a low temperature – it’ll reduce plastic pollution, save energy consumption and lower your bills. Guess this one’s up to you.
One last point, from an aesthetic point of view (because we all want fluffy towels, not crisp bath sheets you can snap in half), The White Company recommends washing towels with your usual detergent, but not adding fabric conditioner, “as this can clog the loops and cause your towel to lose its softness over time”. Tumble-drying on a low setting is the best way to keep it super soft.