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The Quest For Fresh, Clean Towels

It all starts out so refreshingly, doesn’t it?! You buy a stack of brand new towels. They’re fluffy. They’re sparkling clean. In my case, they’re that pure shade of white that makes you believe they will always be the epitome of spa-quality fresh. Then as time goes on, you realize that everything eventually changes. The towels become less comforting and more like something you’d exfoliate your face with. You notice a gray tinge when the light hits the towels a certain way. And then the worst happens–the mildewy smell! Today I’ll show you how to rekindle the spark you once had when you first brought those towels home from the store. Yes, you can get fresh, clean towels with a little help from baking soda and vinegar! Read on for all the details… [photo from Pottery Barn]

Fresh towels from Pottery Barn

Deep-Cleaning Your Towels

As you can imagine, once my towel troubles became unbearable, my first instinct was to bleach my white towels and take care of that mildew once and for all. Yet the more I researched how to get my towels really clean, the more I discovered article after article sharing the benefits of baking soda and vinegar. It’s a natural way to get the job done. It’s super affordable. And I have to admit, I was intrigued… [photo by Matthew Bold Graphic Design via Amy Trowman Design]

White towels in a marble bathroom

So I decided to give it a try! After browsing the bevy of articles on maintaining clean, fresh towels, one general formula emerged. Below I’ll share the steps that I followed, and then later in the post, I’ll reveal whether or not this formula is as effective as it claims to be! [photo from Restoration Hardware]

Turkish towels from Restoration Hardware

To freshen and remove mildew from your towels, follow the steps below:

  1. If towels are dirty, run them through the wash as usual. Do not dry them.
  2. While still wet, pour one cup of white vinegar directly on top of the towels, and then run them through a regular wash cycle using hot water.
  3. If the towels are clean and you’re not washing them beforehand, set your washer to a regular wash cycle using hot water. Allow the cycle to start so the towels get a bit wet. After a minute or two, stop the cycle, open the washer and pour one cup of vinegar directly on top of the towels. Let the cycle finish.
  4. You’ll now run the towels through one more cycle (so there’s no need to dry them at this point). This time, instead of adding vinegar, pour 1/2 cup of baking soda over the towels and start the cycle.
  5. Dry your towels as usual, remove them from the dryer and marvel at the clean smell!

[photo below from Pottery Barn]

Crisp towels from Pottery Barn

Let’s talk a few details, shall we? Why do towels get mildewy in the first place? There are many reasons. Before you assume your towels are the problem, you might want to check out your washing machine. Yes, your washing machine! [photo by Rob Karosis via Crisp Architects]

Colorful towels in a modern laundry room

Washing machines can harbor mold and mildew. For example, the rubber gasket on my front loader is difficult to keep clean. Facing a similar challenge? Check out my recent post on how to keep a clean washing machine. If your washing machine has a mildew problem, it’s going to be difficult to keep your towels smelling fresh. If your washing machine is clean and you still notice the mildewy smell, it’s the towels that are the problem. So why are your towels a magnet for mildew? [from MORE Design + Build]

White marble bathroom with fresh towels

Believe it or not, it just might be the detergent! Of course, not regularly changing out your bath towels and leaving towels wet for long periods of time in the washing machine will cause mildew to form, but as detergent accumulates on your towels through normal washing, it can also cause problems. For one thing, we often use too much detergent and fabric softener without realizing it. It builds up on towels along with dirt and grime, and towels become less absorbent. And another thing–this buildup of excess material means that your towels don’t dry properly! This combination of factors is the perfect setup for mildew growth. Yuck! [from The Residence]

Prevent mildew growth on your towels

When you follow the towel cleaning steps I’ve outlined above, make sure you run your towels through the wash twice–once with vinegar and once with baking soda. Also, it’s up to you whether or not you add the vinegar to wet or dry towels. I prefer to let the towels get wet, and to get a bit of water in my washing machine before pouring in the vinegar. Since I’m pouring it directly onto the towels, to me it makes more sense to disperse the vinegar over a series of wet towels rather than having the vinegar instantly be absorbed by the first dry towels it hits. And now the big question…

Getting the Job Done

…Does the baking soda and vinegar cleaning strategy really work? Yes! I tried it out on my own towels, and the mildew smell is gone. Not to mention, my towels are definitely much cleaner. My hubby (who is very sensitive to smell) confirms that that mildew scent is no longer on the towels. This is good news! [from Crate & Barrel] 

Crisp blue and white bedroom with Marimekko towels

However, don’t expect a miracle. My towels don’t look brand new. They still aren’t as white as they could be (I guess that’s what bleach is for). Some articles I read claimed that the vinegar would soften the towels, and mine definitely still feel coarse. Then again, I’m kind of hard on my towels, and I dry them on high heat, which I’ve heard isn’t great. In other words, this isn’t a fix-all method for bringing the brand-new towel look back. But it’s definitely a helpful start! [from Basho’s Road]

Clean white towels in a modern bathroom

I will be washing my towels in vinegar with a baking soda follow-up once a month or so from now on. And if I discover any amazing towel brightening and softening techniques, I promise to share the results right here on Decoist! Happy cleaning!!! [from Mark Williams Design Associates]

White towels on display in a luxury bathroom



Kate Simmons

Kate Simmons is a freelance writer and design blogger with a love of all things decor. She spent her childhood writing stories and working on interior design-themed DIY projects. Kate’s published writing reflects her special interest in how design has changed through the decades. Her blog Mirror80 ( http://mirror80.com/) explores the fashion and [...]

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