The Complete Guide on How to Buy Bath Towels

updated Jan 19, 2021
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Inviting an effortless dose of luxury into the bathroom can be as simple as investing in a plush bath towel. But when you’re in an aisle with a sea of options in front of you, making a choice is easier said than done. Do you go for the softest one, the most expensive, or the thickest? Turns out, there is a lot more to buying bath towels than just running your fingers through them. Everything from your environment and personal preferences to specific use cases — the gym included — can inform the type of towel that best suits your needs.

Havly founder and CEO Raman Kia recommends considering the three essential S’s: speed, size, and softness.

  • Speed: “It’s better if your towel dries faster, since wet towels are magnets for germs and bacteria,” Kia says.
  • Size: The size of your bathroom (is there room to hang multiple towels?), dryer, and your height are important factors to consider.
  • Softness: Softness focuses on the preferred essence of luxury, or plush factor, and is determined by the quality of the fabrics used. 

To give you a better grasp on all the elements that make up a solid set of long-lasting bath towels, we spoke to industry experts. Here’s what you should know.

What to Consider Before Buying Bath Towels

“No matter what style of towel you’re interested in, make sure you’re buying pieces that are high-quality and well crafted,” says Katie Elks, director of design and product development at Brooklinen. “Look for products made with long-staple cotton, which creates the strongest and smoothest feel, and single-ply yarns, which minimize breakage and increase the lifespan of your towel.” Besides the towel’s fabric, you’ll also want to consider its construction, size, weight, absorbency, plus details such as loop density and double-turned edges, sustainability, and care and cleaning.

1. The Fabric of the Towel

Details such as the fabric a towel is made from and how it was woven can impact the final result. These are the most common towel materials:

  • Cotton: A natural fabric, cotton is often distinguished by the length of its fibers, which are known as staples. Traditionally, the finer and longer the staple, the plusher the towel.
    • Egyptian cotton: Egyptian cotton’s luxe allure is a product of its handpicked sourcing methods. Placing less stress on the plant fibers yields extra-fine yarn, which results in an ultra-soft and super absorbent towel.
    • Turkish cotton: Durable yet thin, Turkish cotton towels (aka foutas) have extra-long fibers in a flat weave, resulting in a lightweight finish that dries quickly. 
    • Pima cotton: Similar to Egyptian cotton, Pima is made of extra-long and fine staples that produce a plush, absorbent towel. The primary difference is that Pima is manufactured in the U.S. (from a similar plant) and is more affordable.
    • Organic cotton: Cotton harvested from plants free of pesticides and later manufactured without toxic or harmful chemicals define organic cotton towels. Look for official certifications and global standards to ensure ethically sourced and produced towels.
  • Microfiber: Comprised of super-fine synthetic fibers, often featuring polyester, microfiber bath towels are known for their durability and extremely smooth texture. Commonly used for cleaning, microfiber towels are also known for their quick-dry properties. 
  • Linen: Woven from natural fibers, linen tends to be a more durable and lightweight alternative to cotton bath towels. They absorb water more quickly, and the naturally antimicrobial and breathable fabric is less likely to mold and fall culprit to mildew.
  • Modal: Plant-based modal bath towels are manufactured from naturally derived cellulose sources such as the macerated wood pulps of birch or beech trees and tend to be slightly more absorbent than cotton.
  • Bamboo: An eco-friendly option, bamboo towels are soft and absorbent yet take a bit longer to dry compared to other materials. 
Credit: Joe Lingeman

2. The Construction of the Towel 

While each fabric has its own distinct quality and feel, the method by which it’s woven will impact the final finish. Popular towel construction techniques include:

  • Combed cotton: Combing cotton before weaving removes debris and shorter threads, leaving fine, longer threads and yielding a durable, cloud-like, pill-resistant product.
  • Ringspun cotton: This twisted combination of short and long fibers results in a fine yet durable yarn. In turn, ringspun cotton takes on a comparatively more luxurious feel.
  • Terrycloth: Super absorbent and soft, terrycloth towels are typically made from cotton and are characterized by the array of visible fabric loops that encompass a piece’s surface area.
  • Waffle weave: While not as plush as a standard cotton towel, waffle-weave towels are absorbent and fast-drying, thanks to their honeycomb pattern that makes for a greater surface area.
  • Zero-twist fibers: A zero-twist or low-twist towel is comprised of long-staple cotton that’s woven without twisting. This creates a lighter, softer product that’s still equally absorbent. 

3. The Size of the Towel: Bath Towel vs. Bath Sheet

Ever struggle with a bath towel that felt just too small for you? Maybe you need a bath sheet instead. Yes, there is a difference between the two, though it’s easy to mix them up. Bath towels are the standard (between 27″ x 52″ to 30″ x 56″) and what most people probably own, while bath sheets are larger (between 35″ x 60″ to 40″ x 70″) and offer a greater surface area for drying off.

Credit: Lauren Kolyn

4. The Weight of the Towel (GSM)

If you own different sets of towels, you’ve probably noticed a contrast in how much they weigh, even if they’re made of the same fabric. The reason is the towel’s GSM, or grams per square meter, which measures density. Think of it as the equivalent of a thread count for bed sheets. “The density of the loops and the thickness of the yarns determine the overall weight of a towel,” says Parachute founder Ariel Kaye. “The heavier the yarn and closer the loops, the greater the weight of the towel.” The standard range is between 300-900 GSM; the lower the count, the lighter the towel. A low GSM doesn’t mean lesser quality but the towel won’t have that ultra-fluffy element. Low GSM towels are perfect for the gym or if you want something quick drying and lightweight. For a thick or spa-like alternative, consider bath towels that range around 800+ GSM.

5. The Thickness and Absorbency of the Towel

There isn’t always a direct correlation between the towel’s thickness and how well it absorbs water. In fact, while the GSM indicates total absorbency, the weave dictates how quickly it can work, how it feels during and after use, and how long it takes to dry. “A waffle weave absorbs fast but can feel slightly wet after use,” says Elks. “A terry towel will absorb almost as quickly, but because of the construction, it will keep a drier feel as water is pulled to the center of the fabric, leaving the surface more dry.” A quick dry time is always desirable, and while we can’t argue with the indulgence of wrapping ourselves in a lofty sheet, the downside is that it will be more susceptible to mold and mildew if not properly dried. Contrarily, a thinner towel will dry faster but isn’t as satisfying to use. 

Pro tip: “When thinking about absorbency, the priority is 100 percent cotton,” says Danielle Dorn, creative director of Under the Canopy. Dorn notes that longer-staple and lower-twist towels are the most absorbent on the plush side, while in the lightweight corner it’s waffle weaves. 

6. The Little Details

Identifying a quality towel means taking a closer look at the intricate details that make it great. “You use your bath towels every day so it’s important to look for premium quality fabrics and construction that will hold up to regular usage,” Kaye says.

  • Loop density: For terry towels, the bigger, longer, and denser the cotton loops are, the higher the GSM will be. This means an extra soft, absorbent towel, says Elks.
  • Double-turned edges: This is when the ends of the towel are double-stitched to inhibit fraying or have a ribbed detailing (those signature straight lines that extend the width of a towel) for a clean, modern finish.
  • Sewn-in loops: A sewn-in loop makes towels easier to hang, a great feature for thinner options, which can dry quickly even when slightly bunched together.

7. Environmental Impact and Consumer Safety

We preach the importance of shopping sustainably, and while researching companies to ensure they abide by standards is important, understanding what they are certifying is just as crucial. Most towel labels boast their certifications; here’s what they mean:

  • OEKO-TEX Standard 100 Certification: Every aspect of a textile (right down to its threads), has been tested for harmful chemicals. 
  • Fair Trade Certification: The production of an item or textile complies with strict social, environmental, and economic standards and is done through sustainable means. The artisans making the goods are also working in safe conditions.
  • Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS): Towels are free of harmful chemicals and made from organic materials. Products are made using fair practices that adhere to certain sustainability and pollution standards.
  • Made in Green Certification: Another OEKO-TEX certification, this ensures products are made under sustainable practices and free of all harmful substances.
Credit: Africa Studio/Shutterstock

7. Care and Cleaning

If improperly washed or dried, towels can be a breeding ground for mold and mildew. The very elements that make a towel prime for drying ourselves off, such as absorbent loops that trap moisture, can attract bacteria just as easily. To prevent this, it’s important to wash them frequently (yes, more than just once a week) and dry them thoroughly. More importantly, always wash towels before the first use. Not only for hygienic reasons (who knows how many people have touched them) but also because some manufacturers add softener and even silicone as a pre-treatment to make them feel more appealing in store.

How often should you wash your towels?
While the exact frequency for which experts recommend washing bath towels varies, the consensus falls around every three uses. Naturally, circumstances such as getting blood or other fluids on towels will warrant an immediate wash. Avoid adding softener or bleach to the load. “They coat the natural fibers, decreasing your towels’ absorbency,” says Kaye. (For a natural alternative, add 1/4 cup of distilled white vinegar to make whites brighter and towels softer.) Also avoid washing towels with items that could pull or snag the fabric, like zippers, hooks, or Velcro. “In the event of a snagged loop, do not pull it; simply cut the loop with scissors,” says Kaye.

How to wash your towels
Wash bath towels in hot water to kill bacteria, and for a really thorough job, use the sanitize cycle. Avoid washing towels with articles of clothing (especially darker or rougher pieces) to prevent discoloration and cross-contamination. Before putting towels in the dryer, shake them out to prevent clumping, then toss in a few tennis balls to up the fluff factor. Dry for at least 45 minutes on a normal heat setting — extra high will damage fibers — and if they’re still damp, keep them in a little bit longer. If you prefer line drying, there are a few steps to take to avoid that rough finish. Use less detergent (to prevent buildup) and add a little baking soda to break down the stiffening ingredients in detergents. Then, vigorously shake the towel after it’s washed to loosen the fibers.

Whether it’s after washing or drying, Dorn says it’s important to hang and spread out wet towels on a bar so they can dry properly. Avoid hooks, which cause towels to clump and build up bacteria.

Pro tip: “When your towel starts to look dingy or smells after using it only a few times, it’s time to retire it,” says Dorn. Thank it for its service and toss it out! 

Credit: Lana Kenney

How to Choose the Right Bath Towel for You

Like most products, towels aren’t “one-size-fits-all.” Outside of our personal preferences, certain situations call for specific towels. Elks breaks things down:

  • If you want a super-absorbent towel, go for cotton terrycloth. “More cotton terry loops = more places for water to go and more absorbency,” says Elks. 
  • If you want a fluffy towel, go for combed or ringspun cotton. Products with a higher GSM are thicker and extremely supple.
  • If you want a spa-like towel, go for zero-twist. The extra-fine, long-staple cotton composition results in a luxuriously soft towel.
  • If you want a quick-drying towel, go for waffle weave. Towels with a lower GSM are lightweight, quick drying, and thin.
  • If you want a durable towel, go for linen, Turkish cotton, or anything made from high-quality materials. “No matter the weight or style, a towel made with long-staple cotton and single-ply yarns will always be more durable,” Elks says.
  • If you want a gym towel, go for microfiber. It can easily squeeze into your duffle, is fast drying and boasts anti-microbial properties.

The Best Places to Shop for Bath Towels

If You Crave That Spa-Like Feel

  • Snowe: Snowe’s classic bath sheet and towel are made from a luxe, 100 percent long-staple cotton and are crafted with a signature air-spun method. Their seriously absorbent waffle weave made our Best Bath Towels list.
  • Parachute: Parachute’s bath staples have garnered a huge following. Choose from speckled terry towels, patterned foutas, minimalist waffles, and long-staple cotton classic towels. Believe it or not, their towels get better with each wash. 
  • Brooklinen: Brooklinen’s exceptionally soft Super-Plush towels are an AT favorite, with 820 GSM. They also offer a classic towel, waffle weave, an ultralight (320 GSM yet surprisingly absorbent), and a colorful Turkish bath towel for a little flair. 
  • Weezie: Luxury brand Weezie carries standard bath towels as well as bath sheetwashclothshand towels, and makeup towels. If picking and choosing isn’t your thing, Weezie has a starter pack with a pair of hand towels and a pair of bath towels.

If You’re Looking for a Deal

  • Bed Bath & Beyond: BB&B offers bath towels in all colors, shapes, and materials, Turkish and Egyptian cotton, organic cotton, and microfiber towels included. The retailer’s Wamsutta towels are a can’t miss. 
  • Walmart: The mega retailer’s array of towels and sheets include everything from microfiber pieces to luxe Egyptian cotton finds. Shop by color, pattern, size, and even affordable sets. 
  • Target: From organic cotton bath towels and waffle weaves to linen towels and more, Target’s got it, and at affordable prices. Peruse through the basics, Opalhouse’s vibrant pieces, and even trendy terrazzo print towels.
  • Amazon: With a full assortment of just about every type of towel imaginable, Amazon is the prime spot to shop for bath linens. Browse by color, material, price, rating, and style — and don’t miss out on the affordable, well-reviewed Utopia towel set

If You’re Going Green

  • Havly: Havly set out to create a bath towel unlike anything on the scene. The result: a 100 percent sustainably sourced Aegean cotton that’s Made in Green and OEKO-TEX certified, and features a unique fast-drying technology that prevents musty odors and bacteria.
  • Coyuchi: Coyuchi’s impressive collection of organic bath towels include vibrantly patterned foutas, a “durable, dense, and exceptionally thirsty” organic cotton wrap, and a plush one made from long-staple Turkish cotton.
  • Under the Canopy: Under the Canopy’s budget-friendly bath towels and sheets are GOTS certified and made with organic materials. Available in six fresh colorways, the low-twist towels are highly absorbent and equally soft. 
  • Boll & Branch: Boll & Branch’s plush towels and bath sheets are soft, thick, luxe and beautiful. With an array of green certifications under their belt, the brand’s commitment to providing sustainably made items means you can feel good about your purchase. 

If You Need Variety

  • West Elm: West Elm’s collection consists of colorful, trendy organic cotton pieces. Choose from stonewashed linen and cotton blend towels in chic blue-gray tones, textured ribbed towels in ochre and blush, or this bright, cotton terry raised pile set with a fresh motif. 
  • Macy’s: The bath towel selection at Macy’s includes designer brands and a robust array of styles — modern, classic, floral, paisley prints included. Their Lauren Ralph Lauren Sanders bath towel is an editor favorite
  • Nordstrom: With an eclectic array of design-forward picks, Nordstrom’s bath towels include finds from brands such as Slowtide, The White Company, Marimekko, and even the high-end Matouk, whose Milagro Bath Towel was voted AT’s best in luxury in 2020. 
  • Pottery Barn: Whether you’re looking for something modern and simple or trendy and patterned, Pottery Barn has you covered. Their Aerospin Luxe towel made our Best Organic Towels list.
  • Towels by GUS: You’ll find a wide selection at Towels by GUS, such as eco-friendly towels, ringspun cotton towels, and a Made in the USA range of bath towels and sheets, organic cotton towels, monogrammed makeup towels, hand towels, and even wash cloths.