How Often Should You Wash Your Towels?
Now that we have all been paying more attention to things like germs and handwashing, you may have wondered how often should you change your towels—and whether it’s sanitary to use that same piece of cloth day after day after day. It’s understandable if you assume that your towel is perfectly clean when you use it to dry your freshly washed hands or your body when you’re just out of the shower. After all, you’re using fabric that’s theoretically only really touched your just-cleaned body. But our skin is never exactly void of microorganisms—and these can end up on your towels. That said, does that actually matter when it comes to your cleanliness and health? If you can’t remember the last time you changed your hand or bath towel (and are wondering whether that’s actually a problem), we asked a microbiologist and dermatologist for their input. Read on for their takes on how often should you change your towels.
First, let’s look at what could be on your towels.
Everyone has bacteria, viruses, and fungi living on the surface of their skin, which may sound a little alarming, but is generally not a big deal and is entirely normal. In fact, these microorganisms make up your skin’s microbiome, which helps protect you against pathogens, so you can actually feel pretty good about having them.
Each time you dry off with a towel, you transfer these microbes onto the material, along with moisture from the water on your skin and your dead skin cells, says Scott Meschke, Ph.D., an environmental and occupational health microbiologist and professor and associate chair at the University of Washington. Your skin cells and moisture are basically food for microbes and allow them to multiply. Whereas your skin produces acids that prevent microbes from growing more than they should, your towels aren’t as lucky. So if your towels stay damp and contain your skin cells, then these microbes can colonize, according to Dr. Meschke.
If you share your bath towel with a partner, then your towel will contain even more moisture and skin particles, meaning you’ll potentially have more bacteria, virus, and fungi growth. This is especially true with hand towels if you live with multiple people or frequently have guests over and you all use the same towel to dry your hands. And since most of your towels probably hang in your bathroom, exposure to shower steam can keep your towels damp for longer.
So, what does all of this mean for your health?
Even if you use your towel for weeks and the material is crawling with bacteria, viruses, and fungi, you probably won’t experience any negative effects health-wise. That said, anyone who reuses their towels could possibly get folliculitis, which looks similar to acne, says Amy Kassouf, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist at Cleveland Clinic. This condition occurs when you develop a bacterial infection in a hair follicle, according to the Mayo Clinic. So, in this case, reusing your towel that has bacteria on it could potentially spread that same bacteria around your body and infect one of your hair follicles. Although anyone can get folliculitis, people with acne are more susceptible to the condition. (Wearing tight clothing, shaving, and waxing can also injure your hair follicles and cause folliculitis.) The condition is completely treatable with medications like antibiotics, according to the Mayo Clinic. And again, folliculitis is just a possibility from reusing towels, not a guarantee.
People who have a skin condition like eczema and frequently reuse towels are potentially more at risk of developing an infection from something like Staphylococcus aureus, or staph, a bacteria that often lives on people’s skin, says Dr. Kassouf. As we previously mentioned, your skin’s microbiome protects against pathogens. But if you have eczema, for example, a skin condition where the outer layer of your skin is prone to dryness and cracks, then harmful pathogens can potentially enter your body more easily, according to the Mayo Clinic. In the case of using dirty towels when you have any openings like this in your skin, you could theoretically develop something like a staph infection.
Even if you don’t have any cracks in your skin, if you have a contagious rash on one part of your body such as ringworm, athlete’s foot, impetigo, or molluscum contagiosum, then you can spread that rash to another area of your body if the pathogens are on your towel, says Dr. Kassouf.
Of course, just because it’s possible to get an infection doesn’t mean it will happen. But if you continuously use the same towels and you have a condition like eczema that compromises your skin’s protective barrier, or if you have any microscopic cuts or abrasions, you could theoretically contract an infection, says Dr. Meschke.
How often should you change your towels?
There’s no large-scale research specifically answering this question, but both experts recommend changing out your towels about once a week to avoid excessive microorganism growth. (You may want to change your hand towels more frequently since they commonly stay a bit damp if you use them multiple times throughout the day.) “If you have a towel that’s starting to smell, that smell is probably due to the organisms starting to grow out,” Dr. Meschke tells SELF. He says that it’s best to let your towels dry completely before reusing them, otherwise, the moisture will allow microorganisms to grow. Then you’re just depositing those microorganisms back onto your newly washed hands and body. You can do this by spreading your towel out so it dries more fully or throwing your towel into the dryer if you have one. (And if you want to be really diligent, even just because the idea of stuff multiplying on your towel any more than necessary grosses you out, you could dry your towels outside of your bathroom so they’re away from shower steam.)
So, in summary, you probably won’t experience any major ill effects from reusing your towel for multiple days or even weeks on end. But if you’re newly dedicated to keeping fresh towels on regular rotation, it couldn’t hurt to invest in a few extra ones to extend how often you do laundry—you know, so lazy Sunday can remain, well, lazy. (If you’re looking to add to your collection, this very highly rated set includes two bath towels, two hand towels, and four washcloths for $31, Amazon, and comes in plenty of color options.)
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