Your bath towel is hiding a dirty little secret—a weekly wash isn’t enough to keep it clean. Your sheets might be hiding the same secret since this is how bad it is not to wash your sheets every week.
Bacteria multiplies on towels
You only use your towel after scrubbing off in the shower, so it can’t get all that dirty, right? Not so fast. “When you say you wash off bacteria, you’re partially correct—you wash off some bacteria,” says Philip Tierno, PhD, clinical professor of pathology and microbiology at NYU School of Medicine. But others will stick around, and they get on your towel during your post-shower rubdown.
Once those bacteria are on there, they’ll start to multiply. “It keeps building up as you use the towel again day after day,” says Chuck Gerba, PhD, a microbiology professor at the University of Arizona. A study led by Dr. Gerba found that used hand towels have 1,000 times more coliform bacteria than newly bought ones. Bacteria love dark, moist environments, so they’ll thrive in a steamy bathroom with the door closed. Towels are one of the top germiest spots in your bathroom—and your toilet isn’t number one.
The worst case scenarios are infection and acne
Rubbing down with a dirty towel, and you could be at risk for infection. “When you use a towel vigorously, you scratch your skin,” says Dr. Gerba. Those tiny breaks in your skin—which are too small to notice—give bacteria an entryway to get in your body.
Still, it’s “extremely unusual” to actually pick up a disease from your bath towel, says infectious disease specialist Aaron Glatt, MD, FACP, FIDSA, FSHEA, spokesperson for the Infectious Diseases Society of America and chairman of medicine and hospital epidemiologist at South Nassau Communities Hospital. Your own germs won’t make you sick, but you increase your chance of picking up a disease when you share towels, says Dr. Gerba. It’s one of the 12 things you’re sharing that germ experts wouldn’t.
If you’re acne-prone, you might want to wash your towel every time you use it, says Dr. Tierno. As you rub your skin—especially open pustules—with a dirty towel, bacteria could get on your skin and give you zits.
Here’s how to keep your towels as clean as possible
Even if you don’t let anyone else touch your towel, Dr. Gerba and Dr. Tierno recommend washing bath towels every two or three days. Hold out longer than that, and all those microorganisms will make your towel grungy. “You may not get sick after using a towel for two weeks, but that’s not the point,” says Dr. Tierno. “Would you put on dirty underwear (unless there’s an emergency) after you’ve taken a clean bath? It’s very similar to what you’re doing after the first couple of drying episodes.” While you’re at it, don’t forget to wash these other items you don’t clean enough.
Between washes, cut down bacteria growth by letting your towel air-dry fully, says Dr. Tierno. Instead of folding it, drape open on the rod. The more surface area is open to the air, the better it will dry. If you have a heated towel rack that speeds up dry time, you might only need to wash after four uses—but that’s “pushing it,” says Dr. Tierno.
Even though you might need to do more laundry, don’t get lazy. Bacteria aren’t in a rush to leave a thick cotton towel. “It’s really hard to clean those towels,” says Dr. Gerba. “Even with hot water, you have to go through a full cycle to remove them all.” Once it’s out, leave it in the dryer for at least 45 minutes to make sure all the moisture is gone, he says. Now that you know how often to clean your towels, learn how to clean the 16 other dirtiest items in your home.