5 Signs You Need New Towels

A stack of neatly folded towels

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We all have things in our home that we allow to stick around a little too long past their prime (maybe it's dishwashing sponges for some or a set of sheets for others). Towels are one of those items that are easy to be in denial about. If the absorbent little rectangles aren't threadbare, why should you replace them? For a few reasons actually. Towels don't work as well when they're too old, making you work doubly hard to dry off after a bath or wipe off the counters, and they can harbor a lot of bacteria.

Extending their life is possible, but it begins with good maintenance and care. Janet Wischnia, one of the owners of Thomaston Mills, founder of American Blossom Linens, and 40-year textile industry veteran knows a thing or two about this. She points out that there are several ways of lengthening the life of your towels. The set used in the bathroom needs washing every three to four days whereas kitchen towels need more frequent cleaning. When they do get washed, "make sure after each use that you hang them to dry and do not leave them bunched up or in a pile as they can get musty," says Wischnia.

Even after treating those towels with love, there always comes a time when replacement is the next best step. Here's exactly how to tell when it's time to toss the old ones.

Meet the Expert

  • Janet Wischnia is one of the owners of Thomaston Mills, a textile manufacturer. She is also the co-owner of American Blossom Linens and has been in the textile industry for 40 years.
  • Erin Banta, is a cofounder of Pepper, specializing in custom textiles.
  • Kelly Zies is the marketing and public relations manager at Slowtide, a bed and bath company.

They're Too Scratchy

Scratchiness isn't just an uncomfortable fact of life for towels. A lack of softness is actually a clear indicator that they're too old. "In the bath, it's time for new towels if yours aren't fluffy," says Erin Banta, cofounder of Pepper. "Over time, towels can become scratchy when washed with too much detergent. Unfortunately, there's nothing to be done. Those towels are a goner! It's time to replace them with towels that feel soft and luxurious on your skin." She adds that it's best to invest in quality options and maybe watch how much detergent gets poured in.

They're No Longer Absorbent

Dripping wet dishes and an unsatisfactory dry-off after a shower means towels are rendered useless. When they're no longer able to serve their main purpose, there's really no point in keeping them around. "When towels get too old, they become ineffective," says Kelly Zies of Slowtide. "You'll find yourself running it over your body several times, it'll start to smell, [and] there are visual signs (tears, holds, fraying ends, etc)." She also adds that in terms of care, towels hung on a bar or hook tend to fare better than those folded up.

They're Ripping and Fraying

In the case of towels, a "distressed" look is a no-go. This is a more obvious sign, but any kind of damage to the material means it's time to buy a new one. "When you see the hems begin the come apart, the selvages (on the side of towels) fray, the threads begin to pull, they are no longer absorbent, or they have a lingering odor it is time to replace them," says Wischnia.

They're Starting to Smell—All the Time

It's one thing if towels need to be washed or if they've been sitting in the washing machine for a little too long. But when towels begin to smell regardless of how many times they're rinsed with detergent, it's time to toss them. They've either been damaged or are beginning to sop up more germs than moisture.

Be sure that they're left to properly dry in between showers or hand washing. Otherwise this can lead to a constant odor and their quick demise.

They've Been Around for a Few Years

General wear and tear over the years is enough to warrant a new set of towels. Review where the textiles have been used and base their replacement on their respective timelines. "Depending on how many towels you have and how often you rotate them and their quality, the replacement time may change," explains Wischnia. "A general rule would be to replace bathroom towels every two to five years and kitchen towels and washcloths every one to two years.”

So those slightly scraggly towels chilling in the back of your linen closet? It might be time to toss. Or at the very least, let them reincarnate. They may not be a fit for the bathroom or sink, but it might be a great replacement for the car wash rag or cleaning kit.