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Are Your Bathroom Towels Providing a Breeding Ground for Bacteria?



I wonder how often you wash your towels?  There is a big debate going on about this subject especially as you may well think that as towels are only used to dry clean bodies (straight after a shower or a bath) or clean hands (after they have been washed, do they need to be washed that often?

But it is not as simple as that..

Hand towels

If these are hanging next to the wash basin for anyone in the family to use when washing their hands, then they really need to be replaced and washed every day.

Dr. Christine Peters (a consultant clinical microbiologist) points out that hand towels that are used in toilets can get heavy usage and are likely to get contaminated with fecal  bacteria - not everyone washes their hands perfectly.  This is especially the case with children.  She goes on to say that the more people share the towels, the higher the likelihood of sharing around bacteria which will be multiplying over time.  She recommends changing these towels at least daily in a family setting but making sure to always give fresh towels to any visitors.

Individual bath/shower towels

According to Dr. Peters, even these towels can be the perfect breeding ground for bacteria and fungi, providing the essential water and nutrients from skin cells and body fluids in a comfortable warm home environment.

We might think we are clean when we use our own towel after a bath or shower but we are not sterile and there is still plenty of bacteria rubbed off with skin cells on to the towel material.

Bath and shower towels should be washed if possible every two to three days or at least once a week.

Gym towels

Any towel used at the gym or one used to wipe sweat after exercise should always be washed after every use.  Not only are gym towels covered in sweat, they can also come into contact with a lot of airborne bacterial.  In addition, as you sweat, you shed skin cells and bacteria onto the towel. 

If left unwashed for too long, towels can become harder to decontaminate when washed in a machine cycle.  When towels are really dirty and damp, the detergent used might not always be enough to kill bacteria.  They will need a very hot wash of above 60 degrees C.

Getting those towels really dry

When towels stay warm and damp between being used, they provide ideal breeding grounds for bacteria, yeasts and fungi - even leading to unpleasant smells.  And are not helpful for those with allergies.

It is better to air dry towels before putting them in the laundry basket if they are not going to be washed immediately as they could continue to grow bacteria and even transfer it to other clothes in the washing basket and the washing machine.

Avoid leaving towels in a damp heap on the ground!

Sharing towels

When we use our own towels to dry ourselves, we transfer some of skin microbes onto the towel.  While this is not a problem for us, if we share towels with someone else (who will have their own microbiome signature) we risk spreading unwanted bacterial and fungal infections.

Dr. Abha Gulati (a consultant dermatologist) points out that this is especially important if you have skin conditions such as eczema, acne or rosacea where the skin is broken or has impaired barrier function.


Sharing towels can also be a problem for individuals with impaired immune systems who are more susceptible to infections.

Laundering those towels

 A few simple adjustments can keep towels looking and feeling like new.

  1. Wash new towels before using: This removes any chemical additives that can make towels look fluffy but limit absorbency.
  2. Clean regularly: Washing towels every three to four days will keep them clean and soft.
  3. Keep clothing separate: Washing towels separately from clothes will prevent germs from transferring to other items and enable towels to dry faster.
  4. Shake before drying: Shaking loosens towel fibers, making them fluffier and shortening drying times.
  5. Use the right water temperature:  Keep white towels bright by washing in hot water. The best wash cycle for towels that are colored uses warm water.
  6. Skip the fabric softener: Use ¼ cup of white vinegar instead of fabric softener to prevent a buildup of residue.
  7. Dry properly: To keep towels fluffy, shake them out before placing them in the dryer. Add wool dryer balls before starting a drying cycle to further increase fluffiness. Always make sure towels are completely dry before folding and storing to prevent musty odors and mildew. 


Investigating particulate production in the operating suite following the use of waterless alcohol based dry scrub versus traditional hand washing and drying with commonly used surgical towels: An experimental study - PubMed (nih.gov)

A quantitative assessment of risks of heavy metal residues in laundered shop towels and their use by workers - PubMed (nih.gov)