If you find shopping for towels as miserable as most folks do, you’re in luck. After researching more than 30 towels and testing 10, I can tell you with certainty to buy 1888 Mills Luxury Cotton Made in Africa bath towels. Of all of the towels I tested, they are the best intersection of soft, absorbent, durable, and affordable, unlike much of the competition.
When this guide first came out, these towels were perpetually out of stock, so we wanted to see if we could find something to top them. In addition to the four towels we tested the first time around, we tested an additional six this year. Our top pick still can’t be beat. Fortunately, they are back in stock and have been steadily available at Amazon ($20).
But in the event that our main pick disappears from the shelves again, our runner-up is the Pottery Barn Hydrocotton. At $25 apiece, they’re more expensive than our main pick, but they are incredibly soft and fluffy and can hold many times their weight in water saturation while drying fairly quickly.
For those on a budget, we like the $6 Lasting Color by WestPoint Home, which are a great deal for what you get but are not as durable as our other choices.
How we picked
There are thousands of towels out there. A short trip to the bath linens section of any home store can prove overwhelming, not to mention online shopping, which multiplies your options exponentially. Luckily, our strict set of criteria narrows the playing field enough, with the help of user reviews, to select a handful of towels for testing. Most simply distilled, we’re looking for undecorated, 100-percent cotton towels under $40 with a GSM of 500-850, twisted ringspun yarns, selvedge edges, and a dense, even pile. This rules out all “bamboo,” microfiber, zero-twist, jacquard, piped, and embroidered towels, but still leaves hundreds of options.
Diving into online user reviews and existing articles on towel performance shows 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, is still the most comprehensive set of towel testing I found online. 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 recreated faithfully in a matter of weeks (which is what I had to work with).
For this update, we polled Sweethome readers to find out what they considered the most important qualities in a good towel:
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):
Target’s Threshold (24 colors, 30 by 54 inches, $7) Great value, well known, easy availability
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
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, $24.50) Brand is popular and claims that this towel is ten times more absorbent than other terry cloth towels (spoiler: not true)
L.L.Bean’s Premium Cotton (eight colors, 30 by 58 inches, $27.50) Great online reviews, brand has solid track record with textiles, backed by L.L.Bean’s excellent customer satisfaction guarantee
Turkish Towel Co.’s peshtemal (four colors, 40 by 70 inches, $36 each or two for $49 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 percent of us, 99 percent of the time.
Not far into the research process, it became clear that I would have to test the top picks myself in order to really separate the wheat from the chaff. I coordinated with Richard Baguley, our testing guru who set up Reviewed.com’s testing labs and procedures, to set up a methodology for testing maximum water absorption as well as release, 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 and durability.
I never use fabric softener on anything for this reason. The existing softeners 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 ¼-½ a cup of plain white vinegar to the softener compartment of any washing machine, front-loading or top-loading.) I washed and dried the samples twice 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.
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, but 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-percent cotton towel should.
With water pickup accounted for through the first two tests, I tested 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. While no one towel dried completely in six hours, with the exception of the peshtemal, clear data definitely emerged with regard to each sample’s drying speed. Thinner towels definitely do dry more quickly, even when saturation is measured as a percentage of their own dry weight.
With a GSM of 666, it feels plush without being too dense and dries well enough for everyday use without mildewing. In testing it performed in line with other luxury towels, but its moderate GSM and superior construction are really what set it apart in my book. It’s not as soft or dense as Macy’s or Pinzon’s towels, which actually works to its advantage. It’s dense enough to dry your body quickly without feeling heavy and light enough to dry out by the next use. Many reviews cite its excellent durability and that the towel softens over time, which makes sense from a textile science perspective. Most people I’ve spoken to actually prefer a less fluffy towel and, beyond getting dry, are looking for durability and value. This towel is a great intersection of performance and value, not to mention its simple design and minimal shrinkage, which can leave the edges of many other towels with “rollercoaster” hems—the puckering and unevenness that results from one part of the towel (the hem) shrinking more rapidly than the rest of the towel (the terry cloth).
So, 1888 Mills Luxury towel is a solid investment and a good performer, but how do you measure the feel?
It’s definitely not as soft as the Macy’s or Pottery Barn towels, which didn’t feel as absorbent—almost like trying to dry myself with a sheet of cotton balls. It also wasn’t as dense as the Pinzon or L.L.Bean Premium towels, which, at 820 and 700 GSM respectively, felt like drying myself with a plush cotton rug. The 1888 Mills Luxury bath towel felt like a towel should feel: It felt like most nice hotel towels I’ve used. It’s neither too fluffy nor too dense, but still soft. And it dries well enough that everyday use isn’t a problem. Even better, it didn’t lint up my dryer or my skin, which is a sign that the yarns are well-plied and spun and not likely to fall apart anytime soon.
Another testament to durability is the number of reviews reporting how well they’ve held up after up to three years and in clinic use (presumably in some sort of massage or bodywork office). One reviewer even mentioned using them to wipe down the insides of her shower every morning, which, uh… I personally wouldn’t do, but assuming she goes through a towel a day that way, they’re holding up through a ton of washes (literally, that’s a little less than five and a half years of daily washing, although I’d wager most of us average folk only go through a load or two a week).
A surprising number of gripes I read about towels online had to do with how towels these days just don’t seem to stand up to regular use as well as they used to, you know, back in the day. At first I chalked this up to the eternal posturing of “they used to be better,” which I’ve seen applied to everything from bath linens to bands, but it seems to be a good point in this case: The way most towels are woven changed when production left domestic mills as a result of global outsourcing. The towel that research showed to be the sturdiest is also the only one made in the United States.
Flaws, but not dealbreakers
If you’re dead set on matching your towels to the accents in your bathroom or some existing set of linens, our pick unfortunately doesn’t come in a wide range of colors. That being said, it is available in four neutral colors—white, ivory, clay, and moss—and you can get matching sets of bath towels, hand towels, and washcloths in each of those colors. Furthermore, I suggest buying white towels as a rule of thumb unless you have particularly messy children. 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.
Also, while this towel will get softer over time, it isn’t as soft as Macy’s Hotel Collection or Pottery Barn’s Hydrocotton towels. This is a boon, though, since the 1888 Mills’ ringspun two-ply long staple cotton threads aren’t prone to fraying or pulling the way our ultra-soft samples were. Plus, according to our poll, most people prefer a towel with a little more texture anyway.
The downside to such a soft fluffy towel is that it’s not as sturdy as either of our other picks. No matter how diligently you care for these towels, expect them to fray over time. (We saw evidence of loose loops at the end of the five test washes.) You can cut stray threads and treat them ever so nicely, but they’ll probably still need to be replaced every couple of years. If super fluffy soft towels are your priority, though, these are definitely your best bet.
The main downside is that this towel is a little thin and on the rougher side. This is to be expected of less expensive shorter-staple cottons, though.
A quick-drying towel alternative
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 dried 99 percent within four hours while no other towel I tested was able to dry to even 90 percent over six hours. The fact that it retained its final 1 percent moisture throughout the test is due to the humidity of my apartment more than anything else—if I were, say, lounging in Italy, peshtemal draped romantically across the balcony of my villa (as I like to imagine), my educated guess is that this textile would be bone dry in about an hour. After testing the peshtemal’s drying power from 40 percent saturation, like our other towels, I also tested it by saturating it with 40 percent of the weight of the 1888 Mills towel (94 percent of the peshtemal’s weight in water). Starting from nearly double its weight, this peshtemal dried out completely before the six hours was up. Our main pick, the 1888 Mills, was still holding 18 percent of its weight in water by the end of the same test. With a GSM of just more than a quarter of our main pick and a third of our budget 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. In testing, it absorbed nearly double its weight in water.
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. They’re also available at Costco, so we think they will be reliably available for the foreseeable future. Made in Turkey of extra long staple Turkish cotton with hand-knotted fringe, this peshtemal is made to last, and despite being flat woven, it is surprisingly soft.
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.) They even look nice folded at the foot of a bed, as a picnic blanket, or as a casual tablecloth.
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. Likewise, it shouldn’t lose mass or thin out and become threadbare as easily because it’s made of extra long staple cotton tightly woven into a flat fabric. 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.
If you’re curious about this alternative to traditional towels and the price doesn’t turn you off, I suggest buying one and giving it a try. Even if you don’t want to replace your thicker terry towels with a peshtemal, it will come in handy when you travel. Overall, it’s a soft, durable, lightweight alternative and it dries like lightning. If you want more, they’re available at Costco in pairs for 30 percent off of MSRP. Or, if you want to try just one, there’s a colorful selection on Amazon for $23. I’ll be taking mine on all future travels to see how it holds up in the long run, but if its solid construction is any indication, it should hold up for years and years.
Our tests showed that most of the towels performed comparably, with a few notable exceptions.
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 percent of their weight, which sets a benchmark for any good towel.
The super plush 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.
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 percent 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 percent more of its weight in water than the quickest-drying terry towel.
Following 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), followed admirably by the fluffy-but-not-dense Pottery Barn Hydrocotton towel, then 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.
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 is solidly in the middle of each of these three graphs, it is also the most durable, best made, and mostly likely to hold up to years of use at a decent price, which is what we’re all looking for at the end of the day.
Long-term test notes
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. 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.
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, 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 super soft 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 competition 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 Okeo-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 is only available 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 only available 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.
Great 100-percent 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 super plush 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’ve got a considerably lower budget in mind, there are still good cheap towels on the market (see our runner-up), 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 1000 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-percent 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 $25 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:
“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-percent cotton is definitely still the way to go.
Pure cotton towels are most often hyped up for their exotic fiber origins and luxury properties, but that’s just marketing. Cotton’s real selling point is its incredible absorption capabilities. It’s capable of holding 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 re-branded the Patagonian Toothfish as Chilean Sea Bass, and at its root, any 100-percent cotton yarn is suitable for great towels.
Okay, we’ve got the material, but how about the mechanical? There are many camps of thought here, and they can be just as confusing as fiber choice. A fluffier, denser towel means more absorbency, right? Right! But it also means that your towel will stay wet longer and mildew fast, 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, that 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) results in a soft, shaggy towel, but is 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.
Care and maintenance
As we stated above, don’t use dryer sheets or fabric softener with your towels. They make your towels repel water instead of absorbing it. To get rid of the softeners that new towels often come laden with, add ¼-½ a cup of plain white vinegar to the softener compartment of your washing machine. This will soften the fibers without adding odor. Dry them on the lowest heat setting.
There are certainly softer, fancier towels out there, but the 1888 Mills Luxury bath towel is the best intersection of performance, quality, and cost. I’m still pretty impressed with their construction, and they’ve held up beautifully in the wash. It’s been nearly a year since I first recommended them, and I happily stand by that recommendation after using them in my own home.
Terrific Bath Towels, Good Housekeeping, 2012
Lasting Color Towels, Good Housekeeping
Why is Cotton Absorbent? , Ehow,
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Towel Buying Guide, Good Housekeeping
FTC Warns 78 Retailers, Including Wal-Mart, Target, and Kmart, to Stop Labeling and Advertising Rayon Textile Products as "Bamboo", Federal Trade Commission , February 3rd, 2010
Academy of Art University Textiles professor, Interview,
Embarrassing Stains? This Housekeeping Guide Gets That Life Is Messy, NPR: Fresh Air, April 3rd, 2014,