Your Towels Are Dirtier Than You Think, New Study Says

Your Towels Are Dirtier Than You Think, New Study Says

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Melissa Massello
Sep 23, 2017
(Image credit: Shutterstock/Mia Mama)

Just how fresh and how clean are your towels? Unless you're washing them every few days in hot water with bleach — and making sure to hang them in dry, sunlit areas of your home in between uses — one soon-to-be-published study says they're most likely covered in harmful bacteria.

Charles Gerba, a microbiologist at the University of Arizona recently interviewed by Southern Living, says he found that nearly 90% of bathroom towels are contaminated with coliform bacteria and about 14% carry E. coli. His previously published research also found these bacteria on kitchen hand towels, with the numbers of E. coli directly in proportion to how frequently towels were washed — mainly because most people don't wash their hands thoroughly enough, so when they dry their hands on a towel they're just rubbing bacteria into a place it's likely to grow.

"After about two days, if you dry your face on a hand towel, you're probably getting more E. coli on your face than if you stuck your head in a toilet and flushed it," Gerba said.

Towels — or biodegradable, compostable cellulose sponges — are still the preferred method for eco-friendly and sanitary cleaning, but the main takeaway from this news is to make sure that you're hanging your towels (including bath towels) to dry outside the bathroom, somewhere without much humidity and with lots of sunlight, and/or making sure to launder your towels every two to three days in a hot water cycle — and don't forget the activated oxygen bleach!

An additional takeaway from this (and our earlier story about why you should stop trying to disinfect your sponges) is that we, as humans, do have the natural ability to fight off germs and should be careful about how many antibacterial cleaning products we use — lest we do more harm than good, as Scientific American explains, by contributing to the increase in ever-more-resistant bacteria and viruses, or "superbugs". But we can control our level of exposure to harmful bacteria by keeping them from around our faces/mouths.

Again, when it comes to your towels, as the story in Southern Living suggests, just use different towels for different uses, to be safer about cross-contamination — bacteria from the bathroom in your kitchen, bacteria from raw meat anywhere else in your home — and wash your towels in hot water with bleach more regularly.

Many AT readers have commented in the past that they keep a stack of small, clean towels by the sink basin (kitchen or bath) as an alternative to paper towels or sponges, and keep a nearby bin to drop them in for washing after each use — and are already washing their household towels once to twice per week. That seems like a pretty smart, simple, and eco-friendly alternative to us, as well.

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