The Best Bath Towel
After repeatedly weighing, soaking, spritzing, drying, and washing the best towels I could find, I recommend Pottery Barn’s Hydrocotton Bath Towels. Of the dozen models I put to the test, these plush, quick-drying towels offered up a superior balance of softness, absorbency, durability, and affordability, and they should last you upwards of five years with regular use.
At $25 apiece, they’re not cheap, but they are incredibly soft and fluffy and can hold many times their weight in water saturation while still drying fairly quickly. In fact, the longer I use mine, the more inclined I am to deliberately give my husband a different towel in the morning so I can use the Hydrocotton myself.
This update started with an investigation into reader complaints that our previous pick, the Cotton Made in Africa towel from 1888 Mills, wasn’t holding up in the wash. After a battery of tests comparing our original samples from 2013 with some newly purchased towels in April 2014, we found that the 1888 Mills towels have gone downhill—they are now lighter and sloppily finished. We can no longer recommend them. (Read more about why below.)
For this update, we also tested our excellent new runner-up at the suggestion of another reader: the new $13 Target Fieldcrest towel. The affordable Fieldcrest is substantially softer and more dense than our $6 budget towel, but not quite as fluffy or substantial as our main pick. We’ll keep an eye on how well they hold up over time.
For those on a budget, we like the $6 Lasting Color by WestPoint Home, which is a great deal for what you get but is not as durable or as soft as our other choices.
If you’re looking for a towel that will save space in the linen closet, get the Turkish Towel Company peshtemal. The flat, woven sheet dries lightning fast, but is expensive and doesn’t provide the plush, traditional feel of terry cloth.
Table of contents
- How we picked and tested
- Our pick
- Flaws, but not dealbreakers
- Best budget alternative
- A quick-drying towel alternative
- Test results
- Long-term test results
- What about the old pick?
- What makes a great towel
- Textile science 101
- Care and maintenance
- Wrapping it up
How we picked and tested
With thousands of towels available, we decided to narrow the field by applying a strict set of criteria: We wanted undecorated 100% cotton towels for less than $30, with a GSM (grams per square meter, a measure of how much cotton is used) of 500-850, and a dense, even pile. This ruled out all bamboo, microfiber, zero-twist, jacquard, piped, and embroidered towels, but still left hundreds of options.
Online user reviews and existing articles on towel performance show a few consistent leaders in the game. The Good Housekeeping Research Institute has tested a number of leading department store brands, and, years after publication, still has the most comprehensive presentation of towel testing I could find. User reviews and ratings on Amazon point toward popular picks by online shoppers and provide the kind of feedback on long-term use that simply can’t be re-created faithfully in a matter of weeks.
During the last update, we also polled Sweethome readers to find out what they consider the most important qualities of a good towel. Here’s what they said:
Price: Most of us aren’t willing to spend more than $20 on a towel.
Absorbency: We want a towel that gets us dry more than anything else.
Drying time: By a landslide, the biggest collective pet peeve that people have is musty towels.
Durability: We’d like a towel that lasts at least a year, although most of us would prefer to replace them only about every five years.
In the end, the towels I tested spanned all the most important points between value, density, softness, and construction:
Budget (under $10):
- WestPoint Home’s Lasting Color (eight colors, 30 by 54 inches, $6) Good Housekeeping recommended and available at pretty much every Bed Bath & Beyond
- Target’s Threshold (24 colors, 30 by 54 inches, $7) Great value, well known, easily available
Mid-range price ($10-$25):
- 1888 Mills Luxury Cotton Made in Africa (four colors, 30 by 58 inches, $20 each or four for $60 at Costco) Great Amazon rating, reviews, and construction
- Amazon’s Pinzon Luxury (six colors, 30 by 56 inches, $21) High grams per square meter (GSM) and decent price point
- JCPenney’s Royal Velvet (19 colors, 30 by 56 inches, $18) Good reviews, made with Egyptian cotton
- L.L.Bean’s Textured Cotton (seven colors, 30 by 58 inches, $20) Good reviews, backed by L.L.Bean’s excellent customer satisfaction guarantee
- New for 2014: Target’s Fieldcrest (14 colors, 30 by 56 inches, $13) Good reviews, good value, easily available in store and online
- Macy’s Hotel Collection (12 colors, 30 by 56 inches, $30) Soft hand and GHRI “Best Towel” rating
- Pottery Barn’s Hydrocotton (five colors, 28 by 55 inches, $25) Brand is popular and claims that this towel is 10 times more absorbent than other terry cloth towels (spoiler: not strictly true, but it’s a great towel)
- L.L.Bean’s Premium Cotton (eight colors, 30 by 58 inches, $30) Great online reviews, brand has solid track record with textiles, backed by L.L.Bean’s excellent customer satisfaction guarantee
- Turkish Towel Company’s peshtemal (four colors, 40 by 70 inches, $40 each or two for $50 at Costco) A flat-woven variety from the most reliable source we could find online.
In the end, what we tested for was not the cheapest, softest, or densest, but the best bath towel for 99% of us, 99% of the time.
We set up a methodology for testing maximum water absorption and drying time, which I monitored over a six-hour period. Each towel was also subjected to five wash cycles to obtain a more accurate idea of its hand (the feel of the fabric) and durability.
Before any testing could begin, the samples had to be washed. This is actually where a lot of bad reviews of good towels originate. The soft hand we feel on a towel in the store is intentionally created with the help of chemical finishers that actually reduce absorbency. To get rid of them, I added some white vinegar to the softener compartment of the machine for the first wash. I washed and dried the samples five times with no synthetic softeners on the lowest heat settings. This is the best way to care for your towels in general. Once completely dried and cooled, I weighed each sample to confirm its GSM.
After washing and drying each towel, I saturated them in water to determine their holding capacity as a percentage of dry weight. I placed each towel in the same container and saturated it with water to see how much each towel could hold without dripping when the container was tilted at a 45-degree angle for 15 seconds. A good terry towel (everything we tested except for the peshtemal) will hold at least four times its weight in water (though the amount of water your towel absorbs when you dry off after a shower is less than a tenth of that). After saturation, the towels were all washed and dried again.
I also tested for water pickup off of the body by submerging my forearm in the bathtub and drying it by both patting and passing the towel over my arm. Synthetic fibers or towels treated with chemical finishers often fail to absorb water from skin, instead rubbing it around in a big linty mess. However, all of the towels I tested passed with flying colors. Every single towel succeeded in drying my arm completely in one pass, as any good 100% cotton towel should.
With water pickup accounted for through the first two tests, I tested water release by dampening each towel and timing the drying process. On a digital scale in a plastic container, I sprayed water onto each towel until it had absorbed 40 percent of its dry weight. The towels were hung evenly in dry bathrooms and weighed every two hours over a six-hour period. Only one towel dried completely in six hours (the peshtemal); in general, thinner towels dry more quickly, while densely woven towels stay damp longer.
The luxurious, hotel-quality Pottery Barn Hydrocotton towel sopped up the competition with its fluffy, kitten-soft hand and a unique weave that traps and releases moisture especially well. In our tests, the Hydrocotton absorbed five times its weight in water while becoming 87% dry after six hours—as quickly as the thinnest, cheapest towels we tested. Though it has a mid-range GSM of 564, the lightweight towel manages to still feel plush. Its surprising durability sets it apart from the pack—after more than six months of regular use and countless washes, this towel still looks as good as the day I got it.
The namesake “hydrocotton” isn’t a variety of cotton but rather a name for zero-twist cotton threads (as opposed to tightly twisted yarns). This method of towel construction is what gives these towels their lightweight loft, supersoft texture (otherwise known as the fabric’s “hand”) and impressive drying abilities.
The Hydrocotton towels are also made from 100% Oeko-Tex certified cotton, which means they’ve been independently tested and certified by the International Association for Research and Testing in the Field of Textile Ecology to be ethically manufactured and free of harmful chemicals. Oeko-Tex certification is a great way to know that your home linens are ecologically sound, and is also a helpful tool for people with skin allergies who may react to fibers treated with caustic chemicals.
At 560 grams and with a GSM of 564, the Hydrocotton towel feels remarkably light compared with most luxury towels, which tend to prioritize density over functionality. This towel will dry you off and dry itself off before your next shower without a problem, and it’s plenty fluffy so that you won’t miss that extra weight, even if you prefer heavier towels.
This towel may not be 10 times more absorbent than traditional terry cloth, as Pottery Barn claims, but it did hold five times its weight in water at full saturation (compared with our budget pick, which can hold three and a half times its weight in water) and dried surprisingly well—as quickly as our $6 budget pick.
While Pottery Barn doesn’t always hit a home run (their offerings in the bed linens department are subpar, in my opinion), this towel is excellent and, as a classic Pottery Barn offering, should reliably stay in stock. And with its simple design and optional monogramming, this towel is not only supremely functional, it’s also fancy enough to impress even high-rolling house guests.
Flaws, but not dealbreakers
According to our reader poll, about half of respondents were looking to spend $20 or less per towel. Unfortunately, we just haven’t found anything top quality for under $20. These Pottery Barn Hydrocotton towels will run you $25 each, which is a little on the expensive side.
This is a 20% stretch over our ideal price point, but we think the extra $5 per towel is worth the superior absorbency, moisture release, softness, and durability that this towel brings. Think of your towels as an investment that will ultimately save you both time and money. A set of four of Hydrocotton towels that will last you at least a few years is definitely worth the $100 investment. That being said, if you have a strict budget, there’s always our runner-up pick from Target.
Another downside is that the Hydrocotton comes in only five colors. They’re neutral colors, and they’re available in matching sets, but they probably won’t work for people insistent on finding the perfect shade to match their bathroom tiles. That said, Pottery Barn frequently releases their staple home linens in seasonal hues, so there’s always a chance you’ll score something a little more colorful during the holidays. Plus, seasonal colors are more likely to go on sale.
(Not sure what color to get? When in doubt, just go with white—white can be cleaned easily with oxidizing stain remover and won’t suffer discoloration from contact with beauty products containing benzoyl peroxide, as many colored fabrics will.)
The reason this towel absorbs and releases water so well is that—despite being fluffy—it’s not all that dense. This towel feels plush and boasts long thread loops, but it’s actually only 9% denser than our WestPoint Home budget pick.
The downside to such a soft towel is that it’s not quite as sturdy as our previous pick, the towels from 1888 Mills. No matter how diligently you care for these towels, expect them to fray over time.
You can cut stray threads and treat them ever so nicely, but they’ll probably still need to be replaced before five years are up. After using mine for more than six months, I expect I’ll get two to three more years out of it before it starts to look a little worse for the wear. The towel itself will certainly hold up for five or more years, but it may not look so hot by the end.
If $25 for our main pick is too steep for your towel budget, but you want something more substantial than our bare-bones budget pick, Target’s new $13 Fieldcrest towels are a perfect compromise.
These Target towels are nothing like their $7 counterparts from the Threshold line. They’re 20% more dense than the Thresholds, with a GSM of 596, which is substantial, but light enough to dry out between uses. While they are lighter than most luxury towels, they’re really the perfect weight for everyday use and a great value compared with other towels at this price point. The Fieldcrest towels dry just a little bit more slowly than our main pick, hitting 15% saturation after six hours, compared with the Hydrocotton’s 13%. However, at half the cost with 14 color options, they’re a steal.
While I haven’t had this towel long enough to collect any long-term household use data, it’s held up nicely throughout testing without shedding too much lint, shrinking too much, or suffering any pulls, runs, or loose threads. We’ll update this after a few more months of usage.
Best budget alternative
I was very impressed with the dollar-to-performance ratio of the $6 WestPoint Home’s Lasting Color towel. For the cost of a sandwich, you get a 100% cotton towel that boasts colorfastness through up to 50 washings in non-chlorine bleach. How is that even possible? It’s no five-star hotel spa Egyptian cotton wonder, but it’s a decent performer and a great deal. It held nearly 350% of its weight in water, stacking up formidably against the fluffier luxury towels I tested, and was one of the fastest-drying towels I tested.
The Good Housekeeping Research Institute dubbed it the Best Value in their extensive testing, which I totally agree with. Though, I do think that taking a step up in cost and buying something softer and sturdier is worth the money in the long run. Frankly, I don’t really understand how WestPoint Home can even turn a profit on such an inexpensive product.
It is, however, a great choice for those on a supertight budget, families with kids who destroy everything in their path, or folks who just like a thinner, lighter towel. The WestPoint Home’s Lasting Color towel would be an excellent option for your gym bag.
A quick-drying towel alternative
If you’re a space-saving minimalist with functionality in mind, a good peshtemal, a flat-woven, Turkish-style towel, may be just the thing for you. Because they’re thin and dry out so quickly, you shouldn’t need to wash them as often as traditional towels or own as many of them.
As indicated in the graphs in our test results section, this peshtemal outperforms the competition by a wide margin when it comes to drying time. It was 99% dry within four hours; no other towel I tested was able to dry to even 90% over six hours.
For a second test, we went even further, soaking it with the same amount we wet the thicker towels with, which turned out to be 94% of the peshtemal’s weight in water. Even then, the towel dried out completely before the six hours was up. With a GSM of about a third of our main pick, the peshtemal doesn’t hold as much water as a standard towel, but it absorbs more than enough for drying off after a shower or a dip in the ocean.
Peshtemals are available all over the web, from ritzy home stores to Etsy. The one we chose is produced by the Turkish Towel Company, which has years of experience in the market. Made of extra-long staple Turkish cotton with hand-knotted fringe, this towel is surprisingly soft. They’re also available at Costco, so we think they will be reliably available for the foreseeable future.
While most of us probably aren’t willing to toss our traditional towels in favor of these lightweight wraps, they’re perfect for packing. Folded flat, one takes up about as much space as a dress shirt, and it’s way more versatile. It’s great for swanky travelers who want a towel that doubles as an attractive wrap or swimsuit cover-up. (Backpackers staying at hostels or campers on the move might be happier with a tiny towel made specifically for travel.)
There is no such thing as a budget peshtemal, and this one is admittedly a little pricy at $36, but a good peshtemal should last a long time. It isn’t prone to snags since there are no loops in the fabric. Over the past six months of testing, a handful of my peshtemal’s twisted fringe ends have come untwisted, but not unraveled, and it hasn’t impacted performance at all—I still pack this peshtemal every time I go camping, boating, or weekending, or somewhere with a pool, and it’s holding up wonderfully. Unlike regular towels, which you can expect to replace after five years or so, a high-quality woven like this should last upwards of a decade based on the same logic that applies to buying a good percale sheet.
Our tests showed that most of the towels performed comparably, with a few notable exceptions.
*New for 2014. Both new 1888 Mills samples performed about the same as the original sample for absorption. The Target Fieldcrest absorbed very well.
The bar graph above illustrates how much water each towel was able to hold as a percentage of its dry weight. Fully soaked, all of the terry cloth towels we tested held at least 350% of their weight, which sets a benchmark for any good towel.
The superplush L.L.Bean Premium Cotton towel absorbed an astonishing six times its dry weight, though you probably won’t need it to do that very often.
Also, while it may look like the peshtemal failed where absorption is concerned, it did hold nearly twice its weight in water, which is more than enough to get you dry.
*New for 2014. The Target Fieldcrest admirably quickly, while the new 1888 Mills towel from Amazon dried more slowly than our original sample.
While absorption matters, it’s also important to consider how long a more absorbent towel will take to dry. The above line graph shows the rate at which each towel dried, starting at a saturation of 40% of the towel’s weight in water. This puts the first graph’s findings into context—absorbency is important, but our most absorbent towel also retained 10% more of its weight in water than the quickest-drying terry towel.
Behind the rapid-drying peshtemal, our budget picks dried most quickly, presumably because they are less dense (more on that in the third and final graph), and then came our main pick, the Pottery Barn Hydrocotton towel, followed by our mid-priced towels, and finally our luxury towels. It doesn’t really matter how much you spend: Denser cotton towels will always dry more slowly.
*New for 2014. As you can see, the actual GSM on the 1888 Mills towel we bought from Amazon is 8% lower than the GSM from our initial sample.
This last graph shows two things: the GSM (grams per square meter) of each towel and, if applicable, what the manufacturer claimed the GSM would be (when available). With the exception of the L.L.Bean Premium, all the towels were less dense than claimed. This is because manufacturers list the GSM of their towels brand new, but that information isn’t nearly as pertinent as the GSM of the towels in use after at least a few washings.
What we’re concerned with is the density of the towels in use, not at the store. Here you can see that our budget picks are considerably lighter than our luxury picks, which correlates directly to how quickly they dried.
This says nothing about the hand, durability, or quality of the cotton in each towel, though. While our main pick isn’t the densest or most luxurious, it does boast great absorption and an even better drying time, which will reduce the need to wash it after every couple of uses and ultimately prolong the life of your towel.
Long-term test notes
I’ve added our top picks to my regular household towel rotation. After nine months, the Pottery Barn Hydrocotton is the reigning champ. Despite its lightweight and fluffy pile, it doesn’t shed lint in the dryer, it hasn’t shrunk since the first wash cycle, and it has yet to develop any loose yarns.
Several of our staffers have also been using the Pottery Barn towels for over a year (one for more than two years), and they also say their towels remain very absorbent and fluffy.
And as a woman who wears makeup at least a few days a week, I do take care to use a makeup remover before drying my face on my towels. But mascara happens, and this towel has come through every wash unstained without any pretreating or bleach, which is pretty fantastic. Plus, this towel feels wonderful on my face. It’s so wonderful that I’m planning on buying a set of Hydrocotton washcloths for each of my bathrooms.
Our budget pick, the Lasting Color towel by WestPoint Home, isn’t nearly as soft or substantial, but it has also held up well through regular use. It shows no stains, snags, or unraveling as of yet, and reviewers claim to have used these towels for years on end. I have even used this durable towel as a bathmat in a pinch, and it’s no worse for the wear. It’s really quite impressive for a mere $6.
What about the old pick?
After hearing numerous complaints from readers, we decided to reinvestigate our previous pick, the 1888 Mills towel. Our original testers from summer 2013 had held up beautifully, and many readers overwhelmingly enjoyed the 1888 Mills.
However, other readers reported that the towel was thin and scratchy, with threads that easily came loose. One of our editors bought these towels in April 2014 and experienced the same thing. In order to figure out what was going on, I re-tested three 1888 Mills Cotton Made in Africa towels, and the results speak volumes about why people aren’t loving these towels like they used to and why they are no longer our main pick.
For the purposes of re-testing, I acquired two new 1888 Mills towels—one from the supplier (which they sent in a different color, moss green) and a white one ordered off of Amazon, which is presumably the towel everyone else was receiving. I compared these two new towels with the ivory sample I first ordered from Amazon when we started this guide over a year ago.
As with every towel test, the two new towels were first washed and dried five times on low heat with a quarter cup of vinegar as a rinsing agent to break down any factory finishes on the fibers. The old towel, which has also been in my regular household towel rotation since the first edition of this guide, was washed and dried with the two new ones on the final round.
From the very beginning of this re-test I could tell that something had changed over at 1888 Mills. The new towel we bought from Amazon felt lighter and less soft than our original sample after washing. Of course, softness is often a result of variables like factory finishes, detergents, and wash temperature.
Most notable about this new towel is its weight. The replacement towel that 1888 Mills sent to me directly (the moss green one) weighed 17 grams less than its well-worn ivory counterpart at 738 grams—less than a 2% weight difference. The 17-gram difference between the ivory and moss towels isn’t really anything to write home about, since small variations like that are likely to occur in any commercial textile mill.
The white replacement we ordered through Amazon, however, weighed 680 grams—a much more significant 58 grams lighter than the first 1888 Mills towel I tested. The new towel is nearly 8% lighter—that’s a lot less cotton. It also shrunk nearly half an inch more in length.
After measuring the differences in weight, I performed two more drying tests to compare each 1888 Mills towel. I started off each towel at 40% saturation and monitored their drying rate over six hours. Thanks to San Francisco’s unpredictable weather, the first test was on a particularly cold, wet day where the air temperature in my apartment was 66°F, and the second test was during a recent heat wave where the temperature in my apartment was hovering at or above 71. For both tests I used the same bathroom as before with the same common sense setup as before: bathroom door slightly ajar and bathroom window open a couple of inches. That’s how I typically leave my bathroom throughout the day, so that’s how my towels typically dry.
The average of these two tests gave a final saturation after six hours of 18.5% for the old ivory model (which came in at 18% during our first round of testing), 16% for the moss green towel, and 19.5% for the new white towel. These two additional dry tests are certainly a small data sample, but I can say that the towels 1888 Mills is sending out now aren’t performing any better than their older models simply for being lighter. In fact, based on my experience, the new towels underperform by a small margin.
Finally, on top of weight changes and dry testing, the white towel that came from Amazon just wasn’t made as well. The selvedge hems that I adore for reasons of structural integrity are still there, but one look at the sewn ends on the short sides of the towel show messy work and crooked hems.
We reached out to 1888 Mills for comment on our findings, but have yet to receive a response.
These towels may bear the same name (and price) as the ones we tested last year at the start of this guide, but the newer towels being sold are clearly inferior. That’s why we no longer recommend them.
Target’s Threshold towel ($7) dried a hair faster than our budget pick, but it also costs $1 more. In the end, given user reviews, our original budget pick is better.
Amazon’s Pinzon Luxury towel ($21) is just too dense and too heavy, and takes too long to dry out. This is a surefire recipe for a musty towel.
JCPenney’s Royal Velvet ($18) is a decent towel, but has lower GSM than our pick and just doesn’t compare when it comes to performance for the price.
The Macy’s Hotel Collection towel ($30) has supersoft and fluffy pile, but it began to pull and fray after only two washes.
Even within our towel criteria, there are tons of models to choose from. If you’re wondering why we didn’t test models from a certain brand or popular store, here’s a list of the those that didn’t make it to testing.
Bed Bath & Beyond: Other than our budget pick, we didn’t test any other towels from this home linens giant. Most of their top-rated towels feature abysmal seasonal embroidery (who is rating these!?) and their higher-quality offerings just can’t compete with the prices of our picks.
Crate & Barrel: This home store has a small selection of towels with mid-range GSM, but their luxury prices aren’t worth it for the small selection of average items they offer.
IKEA: IKEA’s pricing just can’t beat our budget pick. I’m a former owner of IKEA towels, and I can tell you that they’re awful next to our picks.
Nordstrom: The only real contender here is Nordstrom’s Hydrocotton towel, which lists very little information available online. We passed on this one in favor of Pottery Barn’s Hydrocotton towel, which is slightly less expensive and made of 550 GSM Oeko-Tex certified Turkish cotton.
Overstock.com: For some reason, O.com only seems interested in selling their bath towels in sets. Three, four, six, you name it. Unfortunately, what works for a family of four may not work for a single person, and none of their towels stood out as must-test options.
Restoration Hardware: Their towels, while certainly beautiful and available in a crazy array of colors, tend toward the ultra-dense side. Coupled with their higher price point, the fact that many models have embellished hems makes them impractical for the majority of shoppers.
Walmart: Regardless of how you feel about this budget behemoth, there are plenty of reasons we didn’t test any of their towels. Their website is useless for sourcing information. Few of their towels discuss what kind of cotton they use, and none of them discuss weight in terms of GSM, which is the industry standard. One potential contender from the Made Here Towel Collection seemed promising, but it is available only in sets of two, and there is no information about towel weight or construction. If Walmart’s website is to be believed, this set of two towels weighs in at a quarter pound, which is almost certainly wrong. Plus, these towels are available only online, so there’s no way to feel them before you buy them.
What makes a great towel
A number of factors contribute to towel greatness, and they all fall into two testing categories: performance and experience. Performance is the science-y stuff, and experience has more to do with how the towel feels.
There is a stupid number of towels available out there, so in order to establish criteria to choose test subjects, some basic questions had to be answered. What do we want most out of our towels? Absorbency, but also a decent drying rate so they stay fresher. Softness, but also durability, and a reasonable price. What fibers and fabric constructions will give us the best chance of meeting those goals? Ultimately, the best towels are 100% cotton with a GSM (grams per square meter) weight of 500 to 800.
Great 100% cotton towels of this weight shouldn’t run you more than $30 each. You can definitely find similar pieces out there for more (or less), but $30 is a reasonable spending cap. A single person probably wants at least three towels at home in regular rotation, and $100 should be more than enough to accomplish this. Even superplush Egyptian and Turkish cotton luxury towels with a GSM of more than 600 are readily available online for $30 or less, so there’s no need to go breaking the bank. The only towels consistently more expensive are luxury brand names of the variety sold at Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue. For the extra bucks, you do get a bit of bang—monogramming, jacquard designs, decorative embroidery, and brand-name pride, if that’s your thing—but know that you won’t get twice the quality for spending twice as much. If you have a considerably lower budget in mind, there are still good cheap towels on the market (see our runner-up and budget picks), but know that you will be sacrificing construction quality and softness. Consider the amortized cost of buying new cheap towels every year versus investing in more durable ones when worrying about cost.
GSM (grams per square meter) is to towels what thread count is to sheets. A higher GSM indicates a fluffier, more luxurious towel, but just as 1,000 thread count sheets are so dense they feel stiff, towels with a GSM above 800 are overkill in the fluff department. In testing, heavier towels did not absorb a considerably higher percentage of their weight in water, although they definitely took longer to reach the same level of dryness.
After talking to experts and doing research about cotton molecules, bamboo fabrics, and what to look for when towel shopping (here and here), we settled on the parameters of 100% cotton towels with a GSM between 500 and 800.
Even so, there is an overwhelming number of options—enough options that you shouldn’t be spending more than $30 per towel unless your credit card is really burning a hole in your pocket. There are some things that money can buy cutting-edge performance from, but towels are definitely not one of them. While there is a true and quantifiable difference between, say, Egyptian cotton and plain, old short staple cottons, they are functionally quite similar for the purpose of absorbing and releasing water from your wet, naked body.
Textile science 101 (why cotton over bamboo)
Here’s why you want cotton towels:
The quality of a towel can be measured in many ways, but measurements fall into two basic categories: material and mechanical. Material qualities have to do with what the towel is made of: cotton, microfiber, rayon (often bamboo rayon), or a blend of fibers. Microfiber towels are a technological advancement of the late 20th century and great for thin, absorbent, lightweight towels like those sold at camping and sporting goods stores, but they don’t possess the qualities of a great bath towel, which is why they’re not up for consideration here. Towels touted as being made of bamboo are almost always made of bamboo rayon, a fiber that releases a dangerous amount of pollution during the manufacturing process. Bamboo rayon towels are far less ecofriendly than marketing would have us believe and worse for the environment than cotton. The process of turning bamboo fibers into rayon utilizes the same chemical pulping processes as all rayons, leading the FTC to prohibit many retailers from even labeling these products as bamboo. “Rayon is rayon, even if bamboo has been used somewhere along the line in the manufacturing process,” explained David C. Vladeck, director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.
“Bamboo and other cellulosic type fibers are becoming popular,” Academy of Art University textiles professor Matthew Gerring told me, “but generally underperform in durability and absorbency.” When it comes to towels, 100% cotton is definitely still the way to go.
Pure cotton towels most often are hyped for their exotic fiber origins and luxury properties, but that’s just marketing. Cotton’s real selling point is its incredible absorption capabilities. It can hold up to 25 times its weight in water. This is because it’s structured to the task of toweling at a molecular level. The polymer molecules that make up cotton form a chained structure known as pure cellulose. Not only is cellulose structurally sound for drawing in water, it’s also dipolar, just like water molecules, which results in a natural attraction between the two negatively charged molecules. Water and cotton just can’t keep themselves apart. Cotton’s hydrophilic properties, long staple fibers, and all-around durability make it the sensible choice for terry cloth, the fabric used in towels.
If you’ve done any shopping before for towels or sheets, chances are you’ve gotten an earful about all the different types of luxury cottons on the market. In essence, though, Egyptian, Turkish, Pima, Supima, and Sea Island cottons are all the same thing. That is, they’re all grown from the same plant species, Gossypium barbadense. There are four commercially grown species of cotton and more classifications of cotton based on the locations where they are grown. Turkish cotton is known for its softness and long, durable staple fibers, while Egyptian cotton also possesses long staple fibers but is hand picked instead of machine picked. Pima cotton is its regulated trade name when grown in the United States and is often highlighted for its use in high-end clothing, although it also appears in towels. Basically, luxury cotton advertising is yet another facet of the marketing machine that rebranded the Patagonian Toothfish as Chilean Sea Bass, and at its root, any 100% cotton yarn is suitable for great towels.
Okay, we’ve got the material, but how about the mechanical? There are many schools of thought here, and they can be just as confusing as fiber choice. A fluffier, more dense towel means more absorbency, right? Right! But it also means that your towel will stay wet longer and mildew more quickly, which means more washing, more drying, more shrinking, and more wear on your towels. The ideal towel is one with high absorbency and a decently high GSM—enough to be fluffy, but not so dense that it won’t dry out between uses. Finding this ideal requires us to look deeper into terry cloth construction.
Terry cloth is woven on special looms, called dobby looms, which are programmed to weave uniform loops into both sides of the fabric. These loops can be longer or shorter, made of tightly or more loosely twisted yarns, all of which affect the fabric’s weight, hand, and durability. Higher pile (longer loops) result in a soft, shaggy towel, but are more prone to snagging and raveling. Low, even pile with a ring-spun two-ply yarn is what we’re looking for in optimal terry cloth construction because it will provide the best intersection of absorption and durability.
Durability is key to separating a good value from a great one. It’s especially disappointing to spend extra for a luxury towel, only to have it fall apart months later. Great towels, like great sheets, can last for years with proper care. What makes a towel more durable is mostly a matter of construction. “Hotels often use towels with a blend of 86% cotton and 14% polyester for durability,” said Lexi Schladenhauffen, a 12-year veteran of the towel business. Since we’re concerning ourselves with 100% cotton towels for home use, construction details are especially important to creating a durable towel. Fast edge or very well-hemmed selvedges are key. A towel with poorly finished sides will self destruct within a matter of months of regular use and washing. No matter how nice the terry cloth is, it’s no good if it starts unraveling from the outside in. The other Achilles’ heel of towel construction is fraying loops. Because the loops of terry cloth are essentially a series of even snags, it is important that the fabric under the loops be especially strong. A great towel will have a dense, evenly woven fabric base, which should not be transparent when held up to the light. This base is the only thing holding the loops of the towel in place. Once a towel sustains a run, like a hole in a sweater, it will continue to unravel no matter how you might try to save it. For these reasons, we’re looking for a densely woven towel with a low, even pile and a securely stitched selvedge. No decorative borders or embroidery. Just solid terry cloth.
Care and maintenance
In order to keep your towels in the best shape for as long as possible, it’s important to wash them in cold or warm water and dry them on the lowest setting. Chlorine bleach is also incredibly hard on fibers, so opt for an oxygen bleach, which is actually a solid form of hydrogen peroxide called sodium percarbonate that works well on organic stains.
Why is your soft, fluffy towel repelling water like wax paper? It could be your fabric softener. Contrary to pretty much every ad for fabric softener and dryer sheets ever, you should never use either on your towels. I mean, if you want them to work and all, instead of just smelling good on the shelf. If you want to reduce static cling, try dryer balls instead of traditional waxy-softener-laden dryer sheets.
I never use fabric softener on anything for this reason. Existing softeners in new towels need to be broken down and washed away, though, for which white vinegar works wonders. (White vinegar can also be used as an alternative fabric softener after the initial wash, as it is a safe, natural antibacterial that kills mildew in towels and washing machines. It also softens fibers without degradation and leaves behind no smell. Add a quarter to half a cup of plain white vinegar to the softener compartment of any washing machine, front-loading or top-loading. Replace vinegar with hydrogen peroxide occasionally for a more thorough disinfecting wash.)
That musty smell that used towels can get is often caused by too much detergent. Most of us are guilty of adding too much to our laundry, and it’s another culprit behind poor towel performance and mildew. “Everyone does this,” cleaning columnist Jolie Kerr told Fresh Air. Not only can that residual detergent affect the hand of your towels, but it also actually contributes to mildew. “Mildew loves two things,” Kerr said. “It needs a drink, and that’s the water, the water that you’ve given it by drying yourself off with the towel, and it needs food. And the food that it loves the most is soap.” So no matter how much it seems like extra detergent equals extra clean, resist the urge and only use as much as directed. And if you find yourself with smelly towels anyway? Kerr seconds the vinegar trick. It’s a tried and true method that’s harmless to your towels and hard on bacteria.
Pottery Barn Hydrocotton towels are not only the most luxurious towels available at the $25 price point, but also fantastically absorbent, quick drying, soft, and sturdy. They’re perfect for humid bathrooms and have held up to nine months of regular machine washing.
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Originally published: November 11, 2014