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Can You Wash Towels in Hot Water?

A collage photo of towels being washed and sanitized.

Laundry never seems to end, particularly when it comes to towels. At my house, we reuse towels a few times before washing them, but there always seems to be a load in the hamper. 

It’s important to keep your towels clean, so you should know how to wash them. This raises the question, can you wash towels in hot water? 

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Can You Wash Towels in Hot Water? 

In my opinion, you should wash your towels in hot water. However, there are some things you should consider. In short, hot water will get your towels cleaner, but cold water will extend the life of your towels. 

Getting Your Towels Clean 

On the table, a basket holds fresh towels.

Hot water is best for cleaning. When you wash your dishes, you probably use the hottest water your hands can tolerate. Why? Because it helps them get clean faster than cold water. 

The same is true for your laundry. Many laundry items shouldn’t be washed in hot water, because it can shrink the fabric and cause unnecessary wear. 

However, hot water is the best way to get your clothes clean. It removes more dirt and oil than cooler water. 

Extending the Life of Your Towels 

If you want to keep your towels fluffy and new, cold water is the best way to wash them. If keeping your towels pretty is your priority, then you shouldn’t wash them in hot water. 

Hot water will weaken the fibers within the towel, and cause shrinkage. Over time, your towel will lose its fluffiness and begin to look worn. Hot water can also fade the color of colored towels. 

How Dirty Are Towels? 

Multicolored towels in a box for washing with a pile of soiled garments on a background of dark tiles.

If hot water gets towels cleaner, this brings us to the next point. How dirty are your towels?

Towels and Bacteria 

First, it’s important to understand that towels will grow mold and bacteria. 

Have you ever smelled a dirty towel, and noticed it smelled worse than a wet dog? This was probably due to mold or mildew. 

In fact, according to the University of Arizona, 90% of towels have coliform bacteria. More concerning, 14% of towels had e.coli bacteria, which can make you very ill. 

That’s right, the bacteria you’re concerned about hiding in your hamburger might be inside your favorite dirty towel. 

When it comes to killing bacteria, hot water isn’t the way to do it. It does kill some bacteria and can get rid of the smell they give as well. We’ll take a look at how to sanitize your towels to kill all those nasty bacteria a little later. 

Soiled Towels vs. Towels Used for Bathing

On the bathroom's wooden table are white, fresh towels.

The second aspect of dirty towels is literal dirt. If you only use your towels to dry your body once you are out of the shower, they should not be heavily soiled. After all, your body is at its cleanest when you are using the towel. 

If this is the case, hot water isn’t really necessary, as long as you wash your towels after a few uses. 

However, we use towels for other things as well. Perhaps you have a towel on the bathroom floor in place of a bath mat. Maybe you use your towel to dry the dog or clean up muddy footprints. Maybe you clean up spills on your countertop with a kitchen towel. 

You get the picture. These towels are soiled. They will have a significant amount of dirt, food, or other material on them. 

Put simply, if the towel looks clean, you can wash it in cold or warm water. If the towel looks, feels, or smells dirty, you’ll need to use hot water. This will help remove the dirt from the towel fibers. 

Considering Colors 

When it comes to getting the most out of your towels, you should consider color when deciding what wash temperature to use. Dark-colored towels should ideally be washed in warm water, while whites can be washed in hot water. 

Dark and brightly colored towels will keep their color longer if you avoid hot water. Whites will be brighter when washed in hot water. 

Deciding What Wash Temperature to Use 

Top view of a female hand washing a variety of colored towels at a sink.

Now you know that towels can be washed in hot water or warm water. When deciding what temperature to wash your towels in, consider the factors mentioned above. 

If the towel is heavily soiled, you should wash it in hot water. This includes towels used to clean messes, and towels beginning to have a sour smell.

If cleanliness is your top concern, regardless of how dirty the towels are, wash your towels in hot water.

If you want to preserve the life and appearance of your towels, washing them in warm water is best. White towels will be brighter when washed in hot water, while colored towels will look best if you use warm water. 

Washing Your Towels Correctly 

There’s more to washing your towels correctly than water temperature. To get your towels clean and extend their life, you will need to know how to wash them correctly. 

Putting Towels in the Washing Machine 

Cropped image of a lady removing brand-new, clean towels from an automated washer drum.

Shake the towels to remove any surface dirt before putting them in the washing machine. Don’t overload the washer. It will prevent the towels from getting completely clean because it limits agitation. 

If you are concerned about the color and appearance of your towels, sort the light and dark colors. Wash them separately.  If you don’t mind faded towels, you can skip this step. 

Getting the Washing Machine Started 

Next, you’ll need to select a cycle. It’s best to wash towels on the standard or heavy cycle. These cycles are longer, which helps get your towels clean. They are also designed for heavier materials, like towels. 

Do not use more laundry detergent than is recommended. You may think ti will get your towels cleaner, but it actually puts unnecessary wear and tear on them. 

You should avoid fabric softeners for towels. It seems like a great idea, but the softener will build up in your towels. Eventually, it causes them to los their fluffiness. 

You may use fabric softener once every 3 to 4 washes, but no more often. 

Drying Towels 

Concept of a woman using wool dryer balls for softer clothes while tumble drying in a washer.

Once the towels are finished washing, remove them from the washing machine. Shake the towel before putting it in the dryer. This helps to open the fibers, which will help the towel dry. 

Dry the towels on high heat. Don’t allow the dryer to keep running after the towels are dry. Overdrying can break down the fibers in the towel.

Once they are dry, remove them from the dryer and fold them immediately to avoid wrinkles. Drying your towels actually helps them stay fluffy and soft.  

How to Keep Towels Soft and Sanitary

When it comes to your towels, there are two goals. You want them soft, and you want to kill any germs. It turns out, there are a few ways to accomplish these goals. 

Keeping Towels Soft 

The hotel room's housekeeping staff member changes the set of stacked and folded towels as the bed is being made.

To keep your towels soft, use only the amount of detergent needed. Detergent is necessary to get your towels clean. However, the soap can cause build-up, which makes your towels stiff. 

You now know you should avoid fabric softeners, but there is a way to soften your towels. Just add 1/2 to 1 cup white vinegar to your washing machine, just as you would add detergent. 

Vinegar works by removing the residue from soap and fabric softener. It also helps remove odors, particularly smells caused by mold or mildew. 

For extra softness, you can add 1/4 to 1/2 cup baking soda. This will further deodorize and soften your towels. 

Sanitizing Your Towels 

Over a white wall, a table with towels and detergent.

To sanitize your towels, you have a few options. You can purchase laundry sanitizer. If you want a more cost-effective option, you have one in your medicine cabinet. 

Hydrogen peroxide is perfect for sanitizing clothes. If not diluted, it can cause fading for colored clothes. You can allow the washing machine to fill with water and then pour in 1 cup of hydrogen peroxide before adding the clothes. 

You can also pour the peroxide into your bleach dispenser. The washing machine will release the peroxide at the right time after the washer is filled. Peroxide will also help brighten your clothes. 

Of course, bleach will also sanitize your white towels. However, it also breaks down the fibers of the towel. If you use bleach often, it will significantly reduce the life of your towels. 

Can You Wash Towels in Hot Water FAQs

How often should towels be washed?  

You should wash towels at least once a week, or after 2 to 3 uses. Wash clothes should be washed at least twice a week. 

What Temperature Kills Germs in the Washing Machine?

A temperature of 140 degrees Fahrenheit is best for killing germs in the washing machine. However, most washing machines have a hot water setting of 130 degrees. As long as you dry your towels in the dryer on high, this isn’t a concern.

Can you wash towels with other items? 

It’s best to wash towels by themselves. However, you can wash them with other laundry items. Choose items that are similar in color, and can be washed at the same temperature as your towels for best results.