Keeping Towels Clean

February 07, 2014 12

Keeping Towels Clean

The problem with germs, bacteria, microbes, etc., is that once you start thinking about them, you kind of wish you hadn’t. I was already one of those people who wiped library books with disinfecting wipes before I brought them in the house, and now I write about cleaning and, well, let’s just say, it has got me thinking; thinking about towels, underwear, bed sheets, and pretty much all of the everyday fabrics that are in constant close contact with our skin.

And all of this thinking leaves me with questions such as, how many times can I reuse my bath towel before I can’t be sure I’m cleaner after the shower than before I entered?

After giving my cell phone a quick swipe with an antibacterial wipe, I reached out to University of Arizona microbiology professor Dr.Charles Gerba. He has carried out research into where bacteria hangs out in our daily lives, so I asked him for his input on towels. “Face towels in the bathrooms get pretty bad in terms of the number of fecal bacteria,” says Gerba, “Probably getting there after you dry your hands.”

Whoa, I don’t know if I was ready to hear that.

Let’s get straight to the tips on getting–and keeping–towels clean!

Tip #1: Flush with the Lid Down

Not enough people close the lid of the toilet before flushing, says Gerba, so tiny, unidentifiable-to-the-human-eye germs spray out from the toilet bowl onto whatever is around–including towels you have hanging neatly nearby. (He also suggests keeping your toothbrush in the medicine cabinet, or using a toothbrush cover!)

Tip #2: Change Towels Often

Most people probably wash their towels once a week. Don’t. Gerba suggests switching them out every three to four days to avoid lurking bacteria multiplying. “In damp environments the bacteria grows quickly, and in a few days you have a pretty heavy load,” says Gerba. “We found Salmonella bacteria in several of the face towels we tested, which is a major cause of diarrhea in the U.S.”

Tip #3: Wash Them Right

In a study of 60 four-person homes in Tuscon, Arizona, Dr. Gerba’s team found that one-fifth of the machines contained E. coli, while a quarter were contaminated with fecal matter! Yuck! “The laundry,” Dr. Gerba says, “is becoming less clean. Fewer Americans wash clothes and towels in hot water, and only five percent use bleach. Wash cycles are only 20 minutes, while the average drying time is only 28 minutes.” He found that some salmonella and hepatitis A survive through laundry — including the dry cycle — and remain on clothes. So wash your towels in the hottest water recommended in the care instructions, and make sure they are absolutely dry when they come out of the dryer.

In fact, all this research led Gerba to change his own laundry habits, and for squeaky clean towels, you can follow his lead for a very clean washing machine. ”I always washed my underwear last, in a separate load, but I started using bleach, and now I run an empty wash, with just bleach, when I’m done. It’s mouthwash for the machine.”

If all of this is freaking you out about your bath towels, your bathroom, and now your washing machine, not to worry: Having sampled spots all over numerous households, Dr. Gerba has found that in most cases the bathroom is much cleaner than the kitchen.

Hmm, well, we’ll save that for another post!

Nicola Ruiz

Comments (12)

  1. Someone else already addressed the environmental damage from dumping all that bleach into the system.
    Running a bleach only or other washer cleaning cycle is huge waste if water. There are areas of our country that are dealing with drought and are facing being out if municipal water in the future.

    - AER
  2. I use in equal amounts peroxide, alcohol, and water in the peroxide container you can see the germs because of the peroxide. I use it everywhere.

    - anita c
  3. I find that adding Borax really keeps towels smelling clean.

    - GM
  4. Instead of just spraying the hem every few weeks with bleach or vinegar, why not just take the curtain down and throw it in the washing machine with your towels? I do this periodically with both my fabric curtain and it’s liner.

    - Gloria Amidzich
  5. Where can you get a washer with hot water anymore? The new washers are awful – no hot water, take much longer to do a load which = more electricity. They are NOT energy efficient at all. And do not get the clothes as clean.

    - m johnson
  6. what about the shower curtain containing mildew along the hem? I usually air dry the shower curtain and about every couple weeks spray it with vinegar [not diluted] or chlorex clean and spray. Any comment will be appreciated.

    - patricia
  7. A few years ago my husband suggested we flush with the lid closed.

    I think we just have to be careful and wash our hands thoroughly.

    - Sharon
  8. I’ve lived to be 84 and never done any of these things so what does that tell you?

  9. what do we do when we use a public washer and dryer? Please respond. very concerned.

    - felicita
    1. Hello Felicita!
      The best thing for public washing machines is to run a bleach load or bleach substitute first before the other loads – or use the hottest water on the first load. Hope that helps! 🙂

      - Above & Beyond
  10. The lack of environmental awareness in this article is disheartening. I’ve read several articles over the past year or so saying that cold water has been shown to clean clothing just as well as warm or hot and is far less taxiing on the environment (which, as we all know) can certainly use all the help it can get. I have avoided bleach for years because of it’s harshness and danger to human health and the environment and my family is very robust and healthy. My focus for keeping my family safe and healthy is on healthy whole foods and a healthy lifestyle to keep immune systems strong – not killing every germ in my home. I use white vinegar in my laundry as a mild disinfectant and we are all healthy and happy while doing our part to care for our home planet 🙂

    - Kristin Roy
    1. Hi Kristin – We appreciate the feedback. You’re right, there are a lot of environmental issues to consider–in fact, we will consider writing about this in a future article. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts with us.

      - Jen Dennis

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