Do your bath towels smell musty?
Bad news: that sour odor you smell when drying off from your shower is caused by microbes in your towels. Every time you use a towel, you transfer bacteria, viruses and dead skin cells (which are food for microbes) from your skin onto the towel. Next time you use it, that stinky towel transfers those germs back onto your skin.
This isn’t only a problem when you re-use your towel, as fresh laundry isn’t immune to microbes. If your washing machine isn’t clean, the washing water isn’t hot enough, or there’s standing water in your washer, mold and bacteria can grow and contaminate your laundry during the wash cycle.
Even hospitals (which you’d expect to use the most sanitary laundering practices in the world) have trouble keeping their towels clean: researchers found that 93% of freshly laundered cloth towels used to clean hospital rooms contained potentially harmful bacteria.2
Towels are prone to bacterial growth for several reasons.
First, they’re used in bathrooms, which are naturally rife with moisture, and bacteria grow in wet places. Second, they’re very absorbent, and they can stay damp for quite a while after use – particularly in those humid bathrooms. Third (as mentioned above), every time we wipe our hands or bodies on a towel, we’re lodging bacteria and viruses from our skin within the folds of the towel.
Experts recommend the following tips to keep your towels clean, safe and smelling sweet:3
- Wash bath towels in hot water (between 140° and 150°) with strong detergent (and bleach for white towels), and fully dry them as soon as possible.
- Hang towels to dry immediately after each use to halt the growth of bacteria.
- Do not share towels, even with family members.
- Wash bath towels after 3-4 uses, and wash face towels (or any towel that gets soaked) every time you use it.
- If someone in the house is sick, wash towels more frequently.
- Use a cup of white vinegar in the wash instead of fabric softener. Fabric softener reduces absorbency and traps odors, while vinegar (a natural disinfectant) strips odors away.4
- Sifuentes LY, Gerba GP, Weart I, Englebrecht K, Koenig DW. Microbial contamination of hospital reusable cleaning towels. American Journal of Infection Control, 2013,41(10):912-915. PMID: 23523522