Why are hotel towels so good at drying? Why are other towels not?
October 3, 2013 2:49 PM   Subscribe

Hotel towels look like the ones I have at home and that are in everyone's bathrooms - terrycloth, etc. - but most of the time they are much more effective at drying. They practically suck the wetness off my skin! Typical bathroom towels, even plush/fancy ones, suck at drying by comparison. So this is really strange: the technology exists for towels to do their job very well, and presumably at relatively low cost (there's no way these hotels are shelling out big bucks for their towels); but as far as I can tell ALL of the commercially-available towels are mediocre at best at doing their job. What is that all about? Why are hotel towels so good at drying? Why are other towels not? Are there commercially-available towels that dry as well as hotel towels? If so, where can I find them?
posted by Mechitar to Home & Garden (47 answers total) 128 users marked this as a favorite
One big reason is that they wash their towels in hot water with commercial detergent and no fabric softener. Fabric softener can really reduce the absorbency of your towels, for example. Also, cotton gets more absorbent with use, and hotel towels are well-used.
posted by cabingirl at 2:51 PM on October 3, 2013 [59 favorites]

Also, I've been pretty happy with the towels I get at TJ Maxx. The last ones were DKNY, pretty and soft but also really absorbent.
posted by cabingirl at 2:52 PM on October 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

One of the reasons those towels are so good is that they are washed harshly - bleach and hot water - and no fabric softeners are used, which leave a waxy residue on towels. They also aren't manufactured to be super-soft like home-use towels.

There are all kinds of places that allege to sell hotel-grade towels, but my personal suspicion is that they're still too soft. I think it's hard to get real hotel towels without buying a large lot. Hopefully someone else here can vouch for some good ones.
posted by Lyn Never at 2:52 PM on October 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Towels become less and less absorbent when they're washed with fabric softener. The fibers get coated and lose their ability to soak up liquid. You can remove the residue by washing in hot water with no-frills detergent and vinegar.
posted by quince at 2:53 PM on October 3, 2013

Make sure your towels are 100% natural fiber; polyester doesn't absorb water. You may also need to wash them a few times to remove any sizing or other treatments applied by the manufacturer.
posted by magicbus at 2:53 PM on October 3, 2013 [3 favorites]

I think cabingirl has it, but I have also noticed that the air in the hotel rooms is usually much drier than the air in my bathroom at home post-shower, and the hotel bathrooms are usually not really large enough to hang out in like at home. So that could be a contributing factor as well.
posted by Schielisque at 2:53 PM on October 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Is it possible that hotels generally have a lower humidity level than your home? Either due to location or the presence of humidifiers/dehumidifiers?
(And on preview I see I'm not alone in suspecting this.)
posted by lookoutbelow at 2:54 PM on October 3, 2013

I also find that the hardness/softness of the water has something to do with this. My inlaws have a water softener and it seems like its harder to get dry. I assume hotels have no such thing. (and what everyone said about fabric softener)
posted by dpx.mfx at 2:56 PM on October 3, 2013

If you are particular about towels, you may consider the following: all fluffy towels will be worse at drying than non-fluffy. The fluff, instead of wicking away moisture, simply traps it between the fluffy fibers and then moves that water around on your skin without further absorption (or less absorption).

What you want, is a turkish towel (pestemal) - it's a flat woven cloth, and it absorbs like crazy, and dries super fast.

Just think about it this way: a paper towel is about the most absorbent towel around, and it's definitely not fluffy like terrycloth. The problem is that paper disintegrates. A turkish towel is absorbent like a paper towel, but doesn't disintegrate.

Of course there is the issue of personal taste. I personally hate, hate, hate the fluffy fibers moving all that water around my skin without much absorption. I like the tougher feel of a pestemal that just wicks up the moisture leaving my skin instantly dry. But for others, the softer fluffier feel of ordinary towels feels much more luxurious. So tastes differ. Try a turkish towel and see if you become a convert.
posted by VikingSword at 3:06 PM on October 3, 2013 [39 favorites]

Yes, fabric softener sucks. At best, use a sheet every three or four washes.

I'm housesitting for a gal that has wonderful expensive fluffy towels that she uses Downy liquid on every. damn. time. They won't dry. My cheapo towels at home dry much better.
posted by BlueHorse at 3:06 PM on October 3, 2013

I don't know but my thoughts have always been

1. you always start with a totally dried-in-the-dryer towel, not one that you used two days ago and hung back up and is mostly dry
2. fabric softener makes things less absorbent
3. the same things that make towels soft (cotton/ploy blends, weird sizing) also makes them suck at drying you

I find the same thing is true with gym/pool towels, they just work awesome. I have some at home now that work pretty well but you almost have to go out of your way to buy athletic towels (and not cheapie ones, for whatever reason the cheapie ones are worse than the mid range ones) and ignore that they don't feel so soft.
posted by jessamyn at 3:06 PM on October 3, 2013

I needed new towels and ended up buying a bulk white towel pack at Costco which are definitely hotel-grade towels. As everyone else has mentioned, I use the hot/cold cycle (or occasionally the sanitary cycle my washer has if they're particularly dirty or mildewy, which has a longer hot cycle and lasts longer), use no fabric softener, and even use a little bleach. I end up with towels that are ultra-clean and absorbent.
posted by mikeh at 3:10 PM on October 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

Turkish cotton - in a regular towel. Don't use softener.

But I've since given them up for the flat woven peshtemal the VikingSword mentioned. They do absorb amazingly well for their size but take some getting used to. They also take up a fraction of the space a regular towel does so they are perfect for small spaces.

Protip - keep one or two "real" towels for when something heinous and bloody happens. We recently had first hand experience in this and were happy to have a couple of regular towels.
posted by FlamingBore at 3:26 PM on October 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

I also came in to say peshtemals; there is no reason to keep suffering under terrycloth tyranny. This eBay seller has great prices and quick shipping.
posted by kmennie at 3:40 PM on October 3, 2013 [33 favorites]

Try bamboo towels! We bought a stack of them a few years ago and I can't go back to regular towels now - these days regular towels never make me feel DRY, but bamboo towels are lovely and fluffy (I don't think i could use those peshtemals - a matter of taste there) and dry me FAST.
posted by tabubilgirl at 3:45 PM on October 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

This isn't a direct answer to your question, but might solve your problem (of not getting totally dry when you towel off after a shower) without you having to go out and buy new towels.

What I do is keep two towels in the bathroom, and use each in sequence when I'm drying off. The first one takes off most of the water but gets damp in the process, so that it becomes unable to totally dry your skin. That's where the second one comes in -- you're now only slightly damp, and you still have a fully dry towel to work with. After toweling off with the second towel, you end up pretty much totally dry!
posted by Scientist at 3:46 PM on October 3, 2013 [3 favorites]

I like my towels extremely absorbent, and on the advice of a previous AskMe thread, I bought Turkish towels from Restoration Hardware, and they are incredible. They're not hotel-towel fluffy, but they're totally hotel-towel absorbent.
posted by willbaude at 3:55 PM on October 3, 2013

I alternate Turkish towels and bamboo towels at home. And I never use fabric softener -- we use those dryer balls instead. No hotel towels are more absorbent than the home edition now.
posted by bearwife at 4:04 PM on October 3, 2013

I approximate the hotel towel experience by buying decent white towels from Target or Walmart (about 8 or 9 bucks apiece). Wash them in hot water with way too much bleach and dry them on the hottest setting every time. They end up pleasantly rough and super absorbent. My first set lasted 4 or 5 years before disintegrating.
posted by Banish Misfortune at 5:17 PM on October 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

Wash them in hot water with way too much bleach and dry them on the hottest setting every time. They end up pleasantly rough and super absorbent.

A while ago, we were fortunate enough to acquire a lot of bath towels of various brands that my husband's employer (a large retailer) had put through wash-testing. There are $90 towels in the batch, and $10 towels. They all got washed (I think together) a couple hundred times so the testers could evaluate them for durability, softness, etc. The combination of the hard-core washing and bulk detergent (I happen to know they use Tide liquid) has made them the best towels ever. Ever. So, yeah, it doesn't matter quite as much what you buy, but buy 100% cotton, and wash them in super hot water, use a basic, good quality detergent, and tumble dry them on high.

If you want to know the towels from the group that ended up getting the highest marks from the folks who did this testing, it was the Martha Stewart Towels from KMart.
posted by anastasiav at 5:23 PM on October 3, 2013 [25 favorites]

Hotel rooms are less humid. Air conditioning is sometimes referred to a "wringing out the air" since it lowers the humidity. (The things you learn when you marry an engineer!)

I think it's also that hotel towel rotate through the wash/dry/use cycle frequently. Towels might sit in my linen closet for a week or two picking up moisture. Hotel towels get dried to a crisp and then put in a dry room within 24 hours.

Plus, there's a crapload of them. If one's a bit wet, then you toss it under the sink and grab a fresh dry towel. At home you keep using the same one.
posted by 26.2 at 5:25 PM on October 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

See earlier washing instructions - that's the main difference.

For technique changes:
If you have hair, on your head,
then Scientist's plan is pretty easy, because you dry your body off first, then wrap that towel around your head.
You now have a dry towel to complete body drying, and once that's done, replace the damp towel on your head to complete hair drying.
(This is really obvious, but it's still the sort of thing that doesn't occur to many people, so what the hell).
posted by Elysum at 5:43 PM on October 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Many answers have correctly said hot water wash, no softener. Quince's comment was the only mention of vinegar, and it's white vinegar that will strip skin oils or fabric coating agents out of a towel so that it's absorbent. If you add vinegar to the wash, drying on the highest heat won't matter. Chemistry-wise, of course you skip bleach of you use vinegar. And if you use vinegar, you can line dry in the sun which will give you the roughest but best towels ever known.

Towels are at their best if they're partly worn in, and bamboo blend towels are the bomb followed closely by Egyptian cottons.
posted by vers at 6:03 PM on October 3, 2013 [5 favorites]

It's not just fabric softener, it's also using too much detergent -- I cut my detergent down to about a 1/4 of a cap per washer and my towels (and all clothes) are so much better now (they dry in the dryer in about 30 mins whereas before it took 60 mins and they were still not quite dry). Bonus: saving money!
posted by melissasaurus at 7:38 PM on October 3, 2013 [4 favorites]

I buy 100% Egyptian cotton towels, wash with no fabric softener and ColdPower detergent in cold water, and line dry. Occasionally, I throw some white vinegar in the fabric softener drawer of the washer. My towels are slightly, pleasantly rough and super absorbent.

(I refuse to use hot water, bleach or clothes dryers, for environmental and cost reasons. YMMV.)
posted by Salamander at 7:48 PM on October 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Plush towels aren't meant to dry better, they are just meant to feel soft and fluffy, because some people think soft and fluffy towels are better.

Same thing with fabric softener -- yes, if you touch the dry towel with dry hands, it feels very soft, but that's not what towels are for. You should only use fabric softener on towels if it is more important to you that the towels present a soft and fluffy appearance than have the ability to dry things.

You don't need to use dryer balls or something to replace the fabric softener, it's completely unnecessary. Cotton towels won't have static cling.
posted by yohko at 8:15 PM on October 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Hotels use gigantic, very hot washing machines that dispense four or five different cleaning products (bleach, detergent, can't remember what else, and nth-ing no fabric softener) into each cycle. Then the towels go into a gigantic, very hot dryer (which generates epic amounts of lint). This process will transform the most mildewed/blood-spattered/otherwise-grotesque towel into a crisp and absorbent thing of joy. The adjective "crunchy" is often used to describe the hand-feel of a finished load of towels.

So long as the towels are cotton, I don't believe there's anything special about hotel towels themselves - my, uh, *friend* used to save coins by taking their laundry to work and washing it late at night after the towels were done. (If you try this, disconnect the bleach dispenser first.) Here's the thing: even crappy, threadbare towels turn out amazingly well after the Hotel Laundry Experience. So, it's not so much a question of whether the towels are commercially available - it's whether you have access to the equipment used to wash them. Is taking a job as a night porter feasible?

(If not - and it pains my greenie little heart to say this - at least use a hot tumble dryer. I have never had a line-dried towel feel "right".)
posted by jaynewould at 10:26 PM on October 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Getting rid of all fabric softener for my towels made them work twice as well as before, definitely try this.
posted by markblasco at 11:12 PM on October 3, 2013

I have found that using washing soda in my laundry makes my clothes a LOT softer and absorbent without needing fabric softener.

If your clothes and towels don't come out of the laundry feeling nice without using fabric softener, then something is wrong with your process which fabric softener won't fix. Maybe they aren't getting rinsed as well as they should, or there is a hardness issue (that washing soda will fix). I also put a little washing soda in the rinse water.

Good rinsing is very important. If your towels smell bleachy when they are dry, your machine isn't rinsing well enough. Bleached towels should just smell fresh when they are done.

If you get your washing chemistry right, a little fabric softener won't harm the performance of your towels.

Also: use Tide liquid. You can use less of it than the cheaper brands, and if you do it right, it doesn't end up costing any more. Or if it does, it is a small price to pay for pleasant clothes and towels.
posted by gjc at 4:57 AM on October 4, 2013

Hotel towels have shorter loops in the terry towelling and are woven stronger so they can be boil-washed in a factory-sized machine with bleach every day for several years. You can buy them at John Lewis in London and online, and presumably at other places. Domestic ones are much softer.

Interesting useful tip: i worked in a hotel long enough to know, that it doesn't matter what the laundry does, there will always come back hairs stuck to the sheets and duvet cases. It doesn't mean your linen is dirty if you find a hair. Rest in peace! It's like the stains on cutlery in restaurants: the worst ones are white calcium deposit from the dishwasher. Hoping this makes some fellow neurotics happier in life.
posted by maiamaia at 7:19 AM on October 4, 2013 [4 favorites]

On the topic of soft towels: they smell best dried outdoors (in the countryside, that is) but either hanging or in a tumble-drier, for some reason they go stiff. The very softest are if you tumble dry to almost dry, just a bit damp or damp (i forget which, i grew up with ones like wire wool and am used to it) then dry them over the airer indoors. God only knows why, but experience proves it.
posted by maiamaia at 7:21 AM on October 4, 2013

have a bamboo towel, from a sale on a whim, and while it's shrunk so it's frilly where the woven band is, can't fault it for softeness and absorbency, had it years now so definitely true
posted by maiamaia at 7:24 AM on October 4, 2013

I read once to wash your towels in the hottest water possible 2 times: 1st time with a cup of vinegar and 2nd time with a cup of baking soda. After than pop them in the dryer at the hottest setting possible.

I tried it once and it really seemed to work well. Would it be advisable to combine the baking soda and vinegar into one wash? Or would you risk getting the science project volcano effect?
posted by smcniven at 11:27 AM on October 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

I just never put mine in a dryer and never coat them with the stench-carrying demon wax so beloved of my fellow countrymen.
posted by sonascope at 12:37 PM on October 4, 2013 [6 favorites]

Would it be advisable to combine the baking soda and vinegar into one wash? Or would you risk getting the science project volcano effect?

No and yes. Instead of reacting with the dirt and residue in the towels, they will react with eachother and leave the towels mostly just wet.
posted by gjc at 1:05 PM on October 4, 2013

Wait, how has nobody linked to The Sweet Home's unbelievable towel review?

Maybe the best 4,000+ word essay on towels I've ever read.
posted by cybertaur1 at 2:20 PM on October 4, 2013 [10 favorites]

A few weeks ago I got fed up with my no longer absorbent, always sort of funky smelling towels, so I did the vinegar and baking soda wash thing. My towels, basic Target jobs that were adequate before, are now amazing. They're still soft, but as absorbent and efficient at drying me as hotel towels, and as an added bonus, they no longer have that weird mildewesque funk that towels get when they've been washed too often with too much detergent. You know the funk I mean.

Do this. Whatever actual towel you get, do the vinegar and baking soda thing. And never, ever use fabric softener on your towels.
posted by palomar at 7:03 PM on October 4, 2013 [12 favorites]

Bath towels are useful for a head wrap or as a skirt but not useful, to me, for drying.
In the shower I wash with a washcloth. After, I wring that washcloth out and use it to get less wet. This puts more water down the drain and less water slowly evaporating from a towel increasing the humidity of the room. I use a fresh washcloth to dry off. The washing washcloth sees hot water and soap frequently. The drying washcloth dries quickly compared to a folded or scrunched bath towel. So neither is much of a habitat for bacterial growth and odor. Washcloths cost less to buy and less to wash than bath towels.
posted by llc at 11:03 PM on October 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

Coming into this late, but the best cheap towels I've found are the Fräjen line at Ikea. Super absorbent if you follow the handling directions mentioned upthread. They're reasonably durable as long as the edging stays intact but, again, they're so cheap you can just demote them to cleaning rag status and buy a new one. I started out with a set of eight bath towels 5 years ago. I lost one to an edging failure but the rest look pretty much like the day I bought them.

100% cotton surgical towels are almost as good as pestemal but the larger towels can be a bit difficult to find. Recycled ones are dirt cheap -- you can buy the smaller ones in bulk, priced per pound instead of per towel.
posted by nathan_teske at 9:13 AM on October 5, 2013 [3 favorites]

We recently bought some of these towels for cheap at Ikea, and they're pretty close to the hotel towel experience. Not fluffy, but not too thin or flimsy, and they dry really well. I'm wishing we'd grabbed more of them.
posted by sarcasticah at 11:15 AM on October 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

I as well came here to recommend The Sweethome's piece on towels that cybertaur1 mentioned above. Even if you don't go with their recommendation (can't speak for their pick myself, but I certainly would trust them), there's some great info there.

At home, we use Restoration Hardware's Turkish Towels. Arguably pricey, yes, but I must say, they're kind of life changing, as I suspect any good towel would be.
posted by mrhaydel at 1:32 PM on October 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Make sure your towels aren't a poly blend. Many towels advertised as "cotton" aren't actually 100% cotton. The other factor is that there is a range of quality when it comes to cotton fibers. Hotels invest in towels that will stand up to daily washing. This is one of those 'you get what you pay for' situations. The length of individual fibres from different species and crops and the industrial methods used to process it (mercerization) affect the properties of the finished cotton, like absorbency and softness. Cheap towels and textiles will often use poor quality cotton with short fibers that hat have to be bound together with latex and resins, making the end product less absorbent.
posted by amusebuche at 3:41 PM on October 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

I grew up with cotton/linen blend towels, and I've always been disappointed with the absorbency of regular cotton towels. Cotton/linen blend towels are a bit scratchy (which I actually like), so they're not for everyone. They're also hard to find and kind of expensive, but they last a long time (I have some that are maybe 30 years old, and they're still in great shape). Worth a try if you're looking for a really absorbent towel and like a bit of friction rather than the usual ultra-plush feel. These are nice and are sometimes offered for less by Amazon Marketplace sellers.
posted by klausness at 5:13 PM on October 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

A quick search of Amazon brings up a 4-pack of Turkish towels for $42 which is a bit cheaper than The Sweethome's pick (but more expensive than their alternate budget pick.)
posted by IndigoRain at 5:36 PM on October 5, 2013

There's nothing wrong with terrycloth, so long as it's not being treated with softener and isn't adulterated with non-cotton.
posted by barrkel at 4:26 AM on October 6, 2013

wring that washcloth out and use it to get less wet

If you don't want to reuse the washcloth, use two: One for washing, one as a sort of chamois as described here. But, this is key, to use an already damp but wrung-out cloth, because the fibers are already primed to soak up water lickity-split. Plus, it's small, so you can get most of the water off while still in the tub or shower, without either a) dragging your huge old bath towel around inside, getting it wet to no good purpose or b) without having to step out and dripping water all over, water that your peeved spouse is just going to step in getting their socks wet when they go for some floss or a cotton swab or to brush teeth or whatever.

My only regret is that I lived decades not knowing this A number one premium life hack.

Hell, a hand towel is more than enough after this, if you have short hair.

This is the one weird trick of legend.
posted by one weird trick at 5:41 PM on October 16, 2013

I love using a little Japanese wring-out onsen towel (followed often by a regular towel that doesn't get very wet)

I've been thinking of writing an ask about where to buy onsen towels in the US.
posted by spbmp at 8:52 PM on October 28, 2013

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