Health

How Often Should You Wash Your Towels?

Now that we have all been paying more attention to things like germs and handwashing, you may have wondered how often should you change your towels—and whether it’s sanitary to use that same piece of cloth day after day after day. It’s understandable if you assume that your towel is perfectly clean when you use it to dry your freshly washed hands or your body when you’re just out of the shower. After all, you’re using fabric that’s theoretically only really touched your just-cleaned body. But our skin is never exactly void of microorganisms—and these can end up on your towels. That said, does that actually matter when it comes to your cleanliness and health? If you can’t remember the last time you changed your hand or bath towel (and are wondering whether that’s actually a problem), we asked a microbiologist and dermatologist for their input. Read on for their takes on how often should you change your towels.

First, let’s look at what could be on your towels.

Everyone has bacteria, viruses, and fungi living on the surface of their skin, which may sound a little alarming, but is generally not a big deal and is entirely normal. In fact, these microorganisms make up your skin’s microbiome, which helps protect you against pathogens, so you can actually feel pretty good about having them. 

Each time you dry off with a towel, you transfer these microbes onto the material, along with moisture from the water on your skin and your dead skin cells, says Scott Meschke, Ph.D., an environmental and occupational health microbiologist and professor and associate chair at the University of Washington. Your skin cells and moisture are basically food for microbes and allow them to multiply. Whereas your skin produces acids that prevent microbes from growing more than they should, your towels aren’t as lucky. So if your towels stay damp and contain your skin cells, then these microbes can colonize, according to Dr. Meschke.

If you share your bath towel with a partner, then your towel will contain even more moisture and skin particles, meaning you’ll potentially have more bacteria, virus, and fungi growth. This is especially true with hand towels if you live with multiple people or frequently have guests over and you all use the same towel to dry your hands. And since most of your towels probably hang in your bathroom, exposure to shower steam can keep your towels damp for longer.

So, what does all of this mean for your health?

Even if you use your towel for weeks and the material is crawling with bacteria, viruses, and fungi, you probably won’t experience any negative effects health-wise. That said, anyone who reuses their towels could possibly get folliculitis, which looks similar to acne, says Amy Kassouf, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist at Cleveland Clinic. This condition occurs when you develop a bacterial infection in a hair follicle, according to the Mayo Clinic. So, in this case, reusing your towel that has bacteria on it could potentially spread that same bacteria around your body and infect one of your hair follicles. Although anyone can get folliculitis, people with acne are more susceptible to the condition. (Wearing tight clothing, shaving, and waxing can also injure your hair follicles and cause folliculitis.) The condition is completely treatable with medications like antibiotics, according to the Mayo Clinic. And again, folliculitis is just a possibility from reusing towels, not a guarantee.

People who have a skin condition like eczema and frequently reuse towels are potentially more at risk of developing an infection from something like Staphylococcus aureus, or staph, a bacteria that often lives on people’s skin, says Dr. Kassouf. As we previously mentioned, your skin’s microbiome protects against pathogens. But if you have eczema, for example, a skin condition where the outer layer of your skin is prone to dryness and cracks, then harmful pathogens can potentially enter your body more easily, according to the Mayo Clinic. In the case of using dirty towels when you have any openings like this in your skin, you could theoretically develop something like a staph infection.

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