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4 Smarty-Pants Tips for Making Your Towels Feel New Again

We tried the internet's favorite towel-fluffing hacks. Here's what happened.

October 15, 2019
Photo by Rocky Luten

One of the best things about flying home to the Northeast for the holidays is the promise of soft, fluffy towels when I arrive. Compared to the rough, frequently damp variety I have in my Los Angeles apartment, my mom’s towels feel like I'm being wrapped in clouds. When I ask her how she keeps her towels so fluffy, she replies, only half-joking, “I buy expensive towels.”

Since the cost of the clouds isn’t in my budget just yet, I set out, instead, to find the best tricks to revive my thoroughly used, average quality towels to the level of plushness they had the day that I purchased them.

First, I read that the leading cause of stiff towels is often leftover detergent residue. However, while cutting back on detergent will prevent towels from growing scratchy, it may not revive the softness. Choosing a hot water cycle and washing loads of only towels are also recommended for maintaining fluff, but again may not be enough to bring it back from the dead.

Undeterred, I continued to scrounge around the internet, and eventually came across a few interesting tricks—using items that I already have lying around at home—that I decided to try. Not at all of them worked out, but here is what I discovered.

Add Baking Soda

What the internet says

Mix half a cup of baking soda along with a normal detergent dose for fluffier and cleaner towels. Baking soda also naturally eliminates musty and mildew smells that come from towels remaining damp for too long.

How it worked

The towel felt thicker and bouncier, but the threads were sharper and spikier—kind of like a buzz cut texture. Not entirely ideal.

Throw Tennis Balls in The Dryer

What the internet says

If you have a few clean, unused tennis balls lying around like I do, try throwing them in the dryer along with your towels. As the balls bounce around, they help remove lumps and increase softness.

How it worked

It didn’t. I noticed no difference in fluffiness from drying towels with tennis balls. My towels remained their same old scruffy selves.

Brush It Out

What the internet says

Use a hairbrush to brush your towel once it’s clean and dry, which will help break down any dried detergent residue and separate the threads from each other, making the towel softer to the touch.

How it worked

Although I felt totally ridiculous brushing my towel out like a pet, there was a noticeable fluff increase when I did. The section of the towel that I brushed was softer and thicker than the untreated section, which felt flatter and more matted down in comparison. I used a paddle brush with plastic bristles, but I imagine most types of brushes would be effective. Realistically, I don’t think I’ll spend the time brushing every towel in the future, but I’m glad to know I can.

Use White Vinegar

What the internet says

Fabric softeners actually have oils and other ingredients that make towels less absorbent. Instead, pour a cup of distilled white vinegar into the fabric softener compartment, which softens the towels and kills bacteria. Don’t use detergent for this load.

How it worked

The towel felt noticeably softer and significantly newer, like it had been washed fewer times than the other towels. It had a smooth, suede-like texture. The threads felt closer together. This was definitely the winning hack.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“I totally agree with everything Gordon says, except for throwing out your towels. Wash them, then take a big bag over to the Humane Society or animal shelter. They will be thrilled with your old, clean towels. There may even be a tax deduction in it for you.”
— FrugalCat

Some people suggest doubling up on hacks and using white vinegar and baking soda in the same load. I would warn against it, as it may cause the machine to overflow. If you are looking for extra, extra fluffiness and buoyancy, try washing with baking soda and detergent first, followed by washing with white vinegar.

Have a trick for returning towels to their former fluffy selves? Tell us in the comments below!

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

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Zoe B. July 29, 2020
I've tried using half the amount of detergent, the soda crystals and the white vinegar, nothing has worked on mine. They are still like cardboard. I don't have the time to brush my towels every time so I'm not even trying that one! I don't have a tumble drier and don't really want one, but it seems that's the only thing that works to fluff and soften them. Very disappointed. Towels feel like a big con!
Diana M. April 25, 2020
I have no opinion on tennis balls making towels fluffier, but they certainly make my laundry dry more evenly and quickly. I have a couple of heavy cotton mats - one at the kitchen sink, one in the bathroom - and they were always still quite damp at the end of an hour in the dryer, when all the rest of the clothes were dry. Started using the tennis balls, and that just stopped happening.

I also endorse GigiR's comment, "There is a terrific down garment wash in a bottle called Nikwax." I used it when I discovered that all 5 of our sleeping bags - 2 down, 3 synthetic fill - smelled of mildew. Googling the problem brought Nikwax to my attention, and it was also there that I got the advice to throw the tennis balls in the dryer with these items - to keep the fill from clumping up. Worked like a charm. PS - I did not wash and dry all 5 at the same time, haha!
Randall December 31, 2019
Vinegar likely works by slightly denaturing the cotton in the towels. In the long term, this means that the towels will wear out faster. How much is hard to say, although probably not to the degree that it's necessary to worry about.
kim December 31, 2019
I do the holy trinity. I wash with baking soda, rinse with white vinegar, and in the dryer use the tennis balls. My towels come out every load like they are brand new. Fluffy, soft, and very absorbant. No musty smells, no 'spiky fibers', (I've never had that problem), and ain't nobody got time for brushing their towels, some days I hardly have time to brush own hair! I buy Target mid-priced towels, and they're as good as new, 2 years in.
Claudia T. October 20, 2019
I'm sad to hear that the dryer balls didn't work, especially because Food52 sells their own wool dryer balls!! But I guess I'm reassured that this article was truthful and not a scam to sell me dryer balls.
A full-wool ball is going to be more absorptive (if less inherently bouncy) than a tennis ball, so maybe I'll still give them a shot.
richbusywoman November 10, 2019
I use vinegar in the fabric softener compartment of the washer AND I use the wool dryer balls, because I can put a drop of lavender oil on one or two of the wool balls to very subtly scent my linens. Plus, the dryer balls do help prevent static.
Molly F. November 11, 2019
I want to try this. To be clear do you just put one cup of vinegar in the fabric softener compartment and nothing else right? Also very smart idea adding lavender oil to the wool balls!
kim December 31, 2019
Vinegar for the fabric rinse, baking soda instead of laundry detergent. Wash in warm or hot.
Anita D. October 17, 2019
OK, you place the baking soda in the wash. Then place the vinegar as a softener in the rinse!!! There will be NO science project of the soda and vinegar mixing together!!!! You people are a hoot!
Diane October 16, 2019
Recently I purchased a nice Colombia jacket on Ebay that unfortunately reeked of fabric softener. After vinegar and baking soda failed me (repeated washings using both), I pulled out the big guns - good old fashioned ammonia. I'm so glad I "rediscovered" it, it removes all greasy residue from softeners, odors, and really makes clothes feel new again. In spite of the negative press in recent year, if handled and used correctly, and infrequently, it's perfectly safe.
GigiR March 10, 2020
Diane, I agree that ammonia is a good grease cutter. However, you might want to exercise caution in using ammonia too often because it will strip the feathers of whatever oils that protect them. There is a terrific down garment wash in a bottle called Nikwax.
I like to add ammonia to hot wash water with a bit of liquid detergent for washing walls and painted trim work. You’d be surprised.
catalinalacruz October 15, 2019
Brush towels! Good grief. I'll do that when I finish ironing my sheets.
Bob Q. November 10, 2019
You don't iron your sheets? Really? LOL your answer was a good one...thanks for the laugh!
Gordon October 15, 2019
Your mother was correct. Buy the BEST towels you can afford. And they will reward you each and every time you use them. And use them only 2 or 3 times in a row before laundering them. And do NOT purchase any towels with any synthetic fibers. No polyester, tencel, lyofill or anything other than cotton. Then use the vinegar trick every so often. I do and it works wonders. And lastly, throw out those awful scratchy non-absorbant towels and replace them with some new ones.
FrugalCat October 15, 2019
I totally agree with everything Gordon says, except for throwing out your towels. Wash them, then take a big bag over to the Humane Society or animal shelter. They will be thrilled with your old, clean towels. There may even be a tax deduction in it for you.
Arati M. October 16, 2019
Such a great idea about donating old, clean towels to the animal shelter. Thank you for that.
Lazyretirementgirl November 10, 2019
Old blankets, too.
KAM November 10, 2019
You can also take your clean old towels and blankets to human shelters. In Manhattan, look for Sylvia's Place. They welcome towels, blankets and clothing too.
ELLE December 31, 2019
What about old, flat down comforters?
Smaug December 31, 2019
Years ago I worked in a factory that sold down products imported from Taiwan- they arrived completely shriveled and compressed, but perked up magically with about 15 min at low heat in a commercial size dryer. You could probably do a single comforter in a home dryer. Of course this doesn't work as well if the comforter has lost down or the feathers have broken down.
GigiR March 10, 2020
Most dryers have an Air Fluff cycle without heat. Use that with a very clean running shoe or a lacrosse ball (because it’s heavier than a tennis ball) to redistribute the down and perk up the comforter. Cheers!