If the past several years of living through a pandemic have taught us one thing, it’s the importance of good health. By extension, we’ve also learned the value of good hygiene habits, which can help curb the spread of infectious germs.
Though most of the hygiene habits that keep us safe are put into action when we’re in public—think mask-wearing and frequent hand-washing, for example—it’s also important to minimize the spread of germs within your own home. In particular, some experts say that washing your towels frequently can help keep viruses and bacteria at bay.
Wondering what happens if you don’t wash your towels every day? Read on for doctors’ expert advice on when it’s time to throw in the towel—literally.
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If you don’t wash your towels after every use, experts have some good news: It’s unlikely to cause an immediate health problem. In fact, reusing your towels is an environmentally conscious choice that helps reduce your water and energy use.
However, that’s not to say your once-used towels are free of germs—in fact, being damp, warm, and absorbent, they provide an ideal environment for germs to grow and thrive. The key is to keep your towel to yourself, experts say. That’s because while it’s safe for you to come in contact with your own germs, it’s best not to share them with anyone else in your household.
Given that your towels spend most of their time in the bathroom, it may come as no surprise that they are often contaminated with disease-causing bacteria. However, you may be surprised to learn just how widespread that contamination can be. Charles Gerba, a microbiologist at the University of Arizona, told Time in 2017 that if you use your towels to dry your hands after washing them, they almost certainly harbor fecal bacteria. In fact, his research indicated that 90 percent of bathroom towels were contaminated with coliform bacteria, and that 14 percent carried E. coli.
“The longer towels stay damp, the longer the yeasts, bacteria, molds and viruses remain alive and stay active,” dermatologist Alok Vij, MD, writes for the Cleveland Clinic. “They can cause an outbreak of toenail fungus, athlete’s foot, jock itch and warts, or cause these skin conditions to spread,” he says, adding that dirty towels “can certainly cause a flare-up of eczema or atopic dermatitis.”
According to Gerba, towels that were washed more frequently had lower levels of bacterial occurrence. “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,” he told Time. That’s why you should plan on washing your hand towels every other day.
However, if you use your towels exclusively after showering, you may be able to stretch it for an extra day by washing your towels once every three days. That’s because showers tend to provide a more thorough cleaning, compared to washing your hands after using the bathroom. Many experts endorse this twice-per-week towel washing schedule, though some say washing at least once a week may be sufficient.
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A few scenarios merit more frequent towel-washing, Vij writes. For instance, if you’re sick and you live with others, you should plan on doing your laundry daily, he says.
Having kids in the house is another reason to consider washing your towels more often—after all, they’re often less thorough than adults when it comes to hand washing, meaning they’re more likely to wipe germs onto towels after using the bathroom.
Finally, gym towels—especially those stored in your gym bag all day—are known to harbor more germs than your typical towel. Be sure to wash these after every use, as you would a washcloth or hand towel, Vij recommends.