This Is How Many Towels You Really Need to Own

Hint: It’s probably fewer than you think.

February 11, 2020
Photo by Rocky Luten

A towel isn’t exactly something that invokes deep contemplation. A linen closet or drawer is usually a necessity and not a luxury, and the towels stacked inside them are out of mind unless they’re needed for a few seconds each day. The only time towels really grab your attention is when they’re stained, stiff, or smelly. But they could probably use more thought.

At a time when self-care can be defined by long and involved routines, simply having a good quality towel is one easy way to treat yourself—after all, you do need to bathe. But how many do you actually need? An informal poll among friends yielded a wide range of numbers. If you’re anything like me, you probably have too many, leading to overstuffing, stress, and dwindling storage. On the other hand, if you're constantly rushing out to launder your towels, you probably have too few.

Three people who have given plenty of thought to the subject are here to put our minds at ease. We asked Katie Elks of Brooklinen, Liz Eichholz of Weezie, and Emilie Jajonie of Slowtide to share their tips on how many towels are truly necessary, how to care for them, and how to replace them responsibly.

The Number of Towels You Need

Cover the basics
"These days, towels come in a wide variety of weights and sizes. But if we’re talking absolute essentials, then every linen closet must have standard bath towels (30” x 58”) for after-shower use, hand towels (16” x 30”) for washing up, and washcloths (13” x 13”) for when you’re washing your face,” Elks, product development manager at Brooklinen, says.

Two's company
“A good rule of thumb is two full sets of towels per person in your household,” Elks adds. “We recommend washing your towels every week, or after three or four uses, and refreshing your towels every two years.” If you tend to have guests staying over often, though, you might want to keep an extra two sets aside for them.

How to Ensure That a Towel Lasts

Keep your indoor towels separate from outdoor fun
“You don’t want to take your bath towels outside,” Jajonie, marketing and PR coordinator at Slowtide, says. “A home needs ‘outside towels,’ or those you can use at the pool, the beach, or the lake.”

Make sure that your towel is free of certain dyes and toxins
“Many towels use fabric dyes that quickly fade,” Jajonie continues. “If you are using a colorful or patterned towel that has significant fading, it will easily look more like a rag over time. Find products that use reactive dyes instead. Certain dyes also contain harmful chemicals, so it's always good to look for towels that meet the Oeko-Tex certification, which guarantees products are made free of damaging toxins.”

Wash them on the right setting
“It’s always smart to wash towels in cold water and tumble dry low, but different towel uses require different washing timelines,” Jajonie continues. “For instance, if you are going to the beach several days in a row, you can reuse the same towel. Otherwise, wash beach towels after each use. Bath towels should go no more than a week between washes. Fitness towels and yoga towels should be washed after each use. Fold towels to fit wherever they are stored. I recommend holding the towel by the edges so that you can match the corners. Then fold it in half, horizontally, and then in half, horizontally, again. Finally, fold it once more, in thirds.”

When and How to Replace Old Towels

When it’s no longer soft or absorbent
“A towel has hit the end of its lifespan when it no longer possesses qualities that led you to buy it in the first place,” Eichholz, co-founder and creative director of Weezie, says. “The true life cycle of a towel is one-to-two years. We always use this analogy: You wouldn’t wash a cotton t-shirt every day for a year and expect it to hold up. Towels have a life cycle for optimum performance as well.”

When it smells mildewy
“Some people will find that their towels will eventually start to smell a bit musty, even after the towel is freshly laundered," Eichholz continues. "Often, this smell results from towels not fully drying between uses, likely due to a lack of airflow. It’s best to hang towels on a hook between uses so they can dry quickly and have room to breathe. If you suspect mildew and the towel is on the newer side, I always suggest washing it with one cup of white vinegar and a half-cup of baking soda. The vinegar breaks down buildup while the baking soda neutralizes the odor. But if your towel smells mildewy and it’s been a couple of years since its purchase, it’s probably time to replace it.”

How to replace towels responsibly
“We never recommend throwing away towels, but instead donating or recycling them,” Eichholz continues. “Depending on the quality of your towels, you can donate to a local charity or animal shelter—they don’t mind stains and are always in need! Slowly but surely, more companies are popping up around the country that allow you to drop off textiles to be recycled, so your old towels can be turned into new fibers. For recycling textiles, we recommend Green Tree Textiles in New York City and TerraCycle nationally.”

How many sets of towels do you own? Tell us in the comments below!


See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Danny Corrielus
    Danny Corrielus
  • J
  • sharon
  • Misfitwife
  • Hannah
Kelly Dawson

Written by: Kelly Dawson

Writer and Editor


Danny C. September 19, 2020
nothing is forever - Evidently towels will fall apart one day , That also depends on how you are washing them and taking care of them. buying wholesale towels and saving on them, it's the way to go, imo, mostly all my purchases are done thru - Towel Depot
Danny C. September 19, 2020
nothing is forever - Evidently towels will fall apart one day , That also depends on how you are washing them and taking care of them. buying wholesale towels and saving on them, it's the way to go, imo, mostly all my purchases are done thru - Towel Depot

wholesale towels
Danny C. September 19, 2020
nothing is forever - Evidently towels will fall apart one day , That also depends on how you are washing them and taking care of them. buying wholesale towels and saving on them, it's the way to go, imo, mostly all my purchases are done thru - Towel Depot
J July 22, 2020
The best part of this piece was the last paragraph: when towels have come to the end of their useful life, donate them responsibly. However, a towel’s useful life may be decades! I have threadbare towels from probably 20-40 years ago, plus one set of plush towels to which I treated myself a couple of years ago (tip for buying towels: wait until your favorite retailer has a “50% off one item” sale, and then buy a SET of towels, because it’s one item). But I digress: the ancient washcloths (the ones whose hems have become a mere fringe) do just as good a job at washing me as do the plush. The threadbare bath towels just as good a job drying me off as the plush. I do like having the plush for guests because they’re...well, plush, and attractive, as opposed to threadbare. I use old towels in so many ways: keeping upholstery and chair seat pillows clean (can you tell that I have pets?). And, in this pandemic era, so happy I have so many ancient washcloths to dip into bleach solution to disinfect groceries and this and that; washcloths are also excellent coaster tops in hot weather for icy drinks; and of course, myriad pet uses. Finally, does anyone have teenage boys? Mine were forever losing their towels during sports/at the gym, and I’m pretty sure any parent with teenagers who do sports would appreciate donations of towels for their kids!
sharon March 11, 2020
We are obviously a strong group of readers- who read the article- said no- towels last much longer than two years- have many uses--Yeah to us all!! Always proud to be part of thisgroup- thank you!!
Misfitwife March 11, 2020
I use warm or hot water and detergent with a touch of bleach or vinegar to disinfect. They last way longer than 1-2 years and replacing before they're worn out seems so wasteful! Old towels that are too worn for use in the bathroom move on to become dog towels or rags. Or, if I don't need them, go to the local animal shelter.
Hannah March 11, 2020
I have always had two sets of towels for myself, but have held onto a bunch of old, worn towels I use on my long-haired dog. Or a floor spill. Or any mess that happens. It’s good to hold onto the old ones, especially if a dog is involved. I would say keep three old towels per dog you own! The longer the fur, the more you should own!
sharon March 10, 2020
great to see others with economy/waste not in mind- i have towels, washcloths that are about 15-20 years old- get too old- then they go to floor when it is muddy- dry the large, hairy dog we have., thin older washcloths get used in the barn- wipe by my horses face-always useful till the very end.
paula G. March 10, 2020
Why don’t you ask someone who isn’t in the business of selling towels how long they last. 1-2 years?? Seriously? I have great towels that are a decade old from restoration hardware. Get climate smart
Deborah B. April 5, 2020
I was just going to say the same thing. I have RH towels that are at least a decade old. I hang them to dry and they don’t fade at all. I finally recycle them to another use when I really want to change colors!
Kendall February 15, 2020
Changing towels every 2 years seems like a waste of money, I have 2 sets of Milagro towels from Matouk that I purchase in 2016, I wash my towels weekly in warm water and use Tide Free and Gentle ( and will use them until they're no longer usable
GigiR February 15, 2020
I have found that I have a need for one more towel-type. Its the shampoo towel that you can wrap around your wet hair like a turban. The hand towel is often too short and the bath towel, of course too long.
Let’s call it the Goldilocks towel. Anyway, as it happens, I’ve found that old almost ratty towels seem to be the most absorbent. These are not the new lush velour textured towels in the linen closet. They are the ones that would probably make a good ‘under-the-sink’ rag, too. They’re wearing thin but for some reason accommodate the size of your head dripping wet and hold together up there.
Another specialized use washcloth is the post-make-up removal one, where the ingrained residue of mascara and lipstick won’t matter if you can’t get the colours out completely. You could buy a different coloured washcloth for this one purpose.
oconn45 February 15, 2020
Totally agree, that's the perfect towel for the wet hair wrap, the newer thicker towels won't stay on. Same reason we vow to get rid of certain old comfy items, but can't bear to and keep pulling them back out...they are old friends that just work, feel comfortable and ease life along better.
bellw67 February 16, 2020
I buy bath towels from the dollar store for my hair. They are smaller and thinner (I guess cheap) would be the word. And navy or black wash cloths for makeup stains.
Molly W. February 16, 2020
GigiR, look for the Turbie Towel in your drugstore (eg Walgreens, Target, CVS). They're they PERFECT towel for your hair. They're lightweight and made to go around your head and wrap your hair. You can use them while you shower to keep your hair dry, or right after to wrap your wet hair. Really--try them. They're the solution your looking for. (Not shilling for Turbie Towel, honestly! Just a huge fan.)
sweetfood February 13, 2020
I never sent away my used towel to charity. I prefer to use it as mopping floors because it has a good absorbent that other types of fabrics. Or for cleaning for the mirror or windows
Don J. February 12, 2020
Um, wash towels in cold water ? Do you folks realize how gorss most men are in regards to how they use towels ??? Towels require Hot water bleach and/or vinegar to be sanitary . I am not using ANY towel that hasn’t been washed in Hot water and bleach . You people do NOT know how to keep a clean sanitary house - gross ! I cant believe you would advise people to be nasty and not properly clean their towels !!!
Denise D. February 12, 2020
If I wouldn't use the towels myself I wouldn't donate them to a charity where they might be used by other people. Animals, car washes for charity, sure, but not for people.
oconn45 February 12, 2020
Agree, when downsizing, the animal shelters are my go to place, they do such good things with so little funding
oconn45 February 12, 2020
Was delighted with myself😁, as single senior now, have 3 sets as described, fold them as described, wash them as described. This was all taught to me by my grandmother 70 yrs ago. And you never threw away any, they were kept to put in front of the doors for those rainy muddy days, to dry the pets after baths or when they came in wet or muddy etc, then eventually they were cut to wash rag size to become cleaning cloths, never any waste. She went through the depression, 2 world wars, raised 10 kids, nothing wasted, ever. Raised my brothers, my children same, passed on all the no waste principles. Now teaching them to my caregivers.
Arati M. February 12, 2020
Thank you for your great comment! My mum also NEVER throws towels away: She cuts them up, sterilizes them and uses them as cleaning rags around the home—or for muddy pets, yes (we always had enough of those around)!
M February 11, 2020
1-2 years.. really? Aside from the fact that it's promoting waste and consumption, the life span of any towel will depend on its quality, use, and cleaning. I have super-absorbent, still-thick towels that are a decade old. I also have a few now-thinner towels that are 30, but still handy. And yes, I have shirts I've washed more than 365 times and are still in one piece.
Susanna February 15, 2020
Well, naturally, those in the business of marketing towels are going to say that we need to replace them every year or two. Totally wasteful.
Eddhee February 21, 2020
Nice. This answers my question.
I was asking because I have towels I have used for more than 5 years and the quality have not reduced at all. I was wondering if I should discard them just because I have been using them for long.
Barbara C. March 10, 2020
I am a mother of 4. Grandmother of 6. I'm 80 old and I still keep my towels. I wash them hot or warm water once a week. When they're not usable for towels I cut them up and do exactly what your mother does.
Eddhee February 11, 2020
Interesting. So how long should a towel be used before it's disposed of?