Bath towels may harbor different microorganisms that can cause infections. People need to wash their bath towels regularly to prevent the spread of these microorganisms.

Many everyday household items, including towels, can harbor bacteria or other pathogens that may cause a person to feel unwell. Keeping towels clean may help decrease the risk of illness.

This article discusses how often people need to wash their bath towels, the benefits of washing them, tips for washing them, and when to replace them.

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The ideal washing frequency of bath towels may vary depending on a few factors. However, according to the Cleaning Institute, most people should wash their bath towels after three to five typical uses. Individuals also need to allow their towels to dry fully between each use by hanging them up.

However, there are certain instances when more frequent washing becomes necessary. Someone may need to wash their towels more often in the following instances:

  • If there are any body fluids on the towel: A person needs to wash a towel as soon as possible if body fluids, such as blood or urine, get onto it.
  • If a person has sensitive skin: Someone with sensitive skin may need to wash their bath towels more often to reduce the risk of additional skin irritation. Less frequent washing may leave trace amounts of soap, shampoo, or body wash on the towel, potentially leading to irritation when a person uses it again.
  • If an individual is immunocompromised: An individual with a compromised immune system needs to wash their towels more often. Someone with immune system issues may be more susceptible to illness after contracting any pathogens that may remain on a bath towel.
  • If the skin barrier is not intact: If a person has any open sores or cuts or skin infections, they need to wash their towels more often. Using a fresh towel each time may help reduce the risk of infection while wounds are healing.
  • If someone leaves a damp towel in a gym bag: A damp towel in a gym bag may grow fungus or mold easily. Therefore, a person may need to wash it after one use.

While dead skin cells come off the skin as a person showers or bathes, other cells may also transfer onto a bath towel. As a person towels off, they may also transfer microorganisms from the towel onto their skin. This may lead to illness or infection.

The risk of adverse health effects depends on how long the specific microorganism can live on the towel. For example, improper washing may lead to a range of skin infections.

Washing towels has certain benefits and may help prevent some health risks, such as the following:

  • Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA): In most cases, this condition causes skin infections in the community. MRSA bacteria spreads through direct contact, either with a person with it or an object they have used. Sharing personal items, such as a bath towel, may increase someone’s risk of contracting MRSA. Washing bath towels frequently and not sharing them with others may reduce the risk of transmission.
  • Escherichia coli (E. coli): Washing a towel every few uses may decrease the risk of getting sick with E. coli. In a small 2021 study, researchers sampled 50 towels that belonged to university students and completed a microbial analysis. They found that E. coli was present in all of the towels they sampled.
  • Mold allergy: A towel may retain mold if a person does not allow it to dry fully between uses or if they do not wash it often enough. This may trigger mold allergy symptoms in some people.

The following tips may help someone wash their towels more effectively:

  • Avoid throwing towels into a laundry hamper when wet: The humidity from wet towels in a hamper may increase mold growth.
  • Periodically clean the washing machine: Residual water in a washing machine may contain bacteria, such as E. coli.
  • Empty the washing machine as soon as possible: Using a tumble dryer or not allowing towels to remain damp and hanging them up to dry after a wash may help prevent mold growth.
  • Wash at temperatures of at least 140°F (60°C): An older 2013 study suggests that washing towels in water temperature of 140°F (60°C) or above helps kill fungal pathogens. However, the study also noted that some fungal pathogens did not survive temperatures of 104°F (40°C).

There is no exact rule about when to replace bath towels. The amount of time a towel lasts may depend on its quality, the frequency of use, and how someone cares for it. For instance, some towels may unravel quicker than others. Additionally, frequent use and washing with excessively hot water may cause the fibers to break down faster.

Signs a person may need to replace their towels include:

  • the material becoming thinner
  • the fabric fraying
  • stains do not come out with washing

Bath towels may harbor pathogens that can lead to infection and illness. Effectively washing towels may help reduce the risk of getting sick.

The ideal frequency of washing may vary depending on whether the towel has come into contact with body fluids or if a person has sensitive skin, for example. However, the Cleaning Institute recommends washing bath towels after about three to five typical uses.