Now that we are all paying more attention to things like germs and hand washing, you might have thought whether it is hygienic to use that same towel day after day. It’s understandable if you assume your towel is perfectly clean when you use it to dry your washed hands or your body when you get out of the shower. After all, you are using a fabric that, in theory, has only really affected your body that has just been cleansed. But our skin is never free from microorganisms – and these can end up on your towels. Having said that, is it really important for your cleanliness and health? If you can’t remember the last time you changed your hand towel, we asked a microbiologist and dermatologist for their advice. Read on to find out how often you need to change your towels.
Let’s first see what might be on your towels.
Everyone has bacteria, viruses, and fungi living on the surface of their skin, which might sound a little alarming, but it’s usually not serious and it’s completely normal. In fact, these microorganisms make up your skin’s microbiome, which helps protect you from pathogens, so you can actually feel pretty good about having them.
Every time you dry yourself off with a towel, you transfer these microbes to the material, along with moisture from the water on your skin and dead skin cells, says Scott Meschke, Ph.D., a microbiologist and professor of environmental and occupational health and associate president at the University of Washington. Your skin cells and your moisture are essentially food for germs and allow them to multiply. While your skin produces acids that keep germs from growing more than they should, your towels aren’t so lucky. So if your towels stay damp and contain skin cells, these microbes can colonize, according to Dr. Meschke.
If you share your bath towel with a partner, your towel will contain even more moisture and skin particles, which means you will have more bacteria, fungi, and viruses. This is especially true with hand towels if you live with several people or have frequent guests and all use the same towel to dry your hands. And since most of your towels are probably hanging in your bathroom, exposure to the steam from the shower can keep your towels damp longer.
So what does all of this mean to your health?
Even if you use your towel for weeks on end and the material is teeming with bacteria, viruses and fungi, you probably won’t feel any negative health effects. That said, anyone who reuses their towels could potentially contract folliculitis, which looks like acne, says Amy Kassouf, M.D., a certified dermatologist at the Cleveland Clinic. According to the Mayo Clinic, this condition occurs when you develop a bacterial infection in a hair follicle. So, in this case, reusing your towel that contains bacteria could spread those same bacteria around your body and infect one of your hair follicles. Although anyone can get folliculitis, people with acne are more susceptible to the disease. (Wearing tight clothing, shaving, and waxing can also injure your hair follicles and cause redness.) The condition is completely treatable with medications like antibiotics, according to the Mayo Clinic. And again, folliculitis is just a possibility to reuse towels, not a guarantee.
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Dr. Kassouf says, People who have a skin condition like eczema and who frequently reuse towels are more at risk of developing an infection with something like Staphylococcus aureus, or staph, a bacteria that lives on people’s skin. As we mentioned earlier, your skin microbiome protects against pathogens. But if you have eczema, for example, a skin condition where the outer layer of your skin is prone to cracking and dryness, potentially harmful pathogens can enter your body more easily, according to the Mayo Clinic. In the case of using dirty towels when you have openings like this in your skin, you could theoretically develop something like a staph infection.
Even if you don’t have any cracks in your skin, if you have a contagious rash on any part of your body such as athlete’s foot, impetigo, molluscum contagiosum, or ringworm, you can spread this rash to another body area if the pathogens are on your towel, says Dr. Kassouf.
Of course, just because it is possible to get an infection does not mean that it will happen. But if you continuously use the same towels and have a condition like eczema that compromises protective barrier of your skin, or if you have microscopic cuts or abrasions, you could theoretically get an infection, says Dr. Meschke.
How often should you change your towels?
No large-scale research specifically answers this question, but both experts recommend changing your towels about once a week to prevent excessive growth of microorganisms. (You may want to change your hand towels more frequently as they usually stay a bit moist if you use them multiple times throughout the day.) “If you have a towel that is starting to smell, that smell is probably due to organisms that start growing,” Dr. Meschke tells SELF. He says it’s best to let your towels dry completely before you use them again, otherwise the moisture will allow microorganisms to thrive. Then you just drop these microorganisms onto your newly washed hands and body. You can do this by spreading your towel out to dry more completely or by tossing it in the dryer if you have one. (And if you want to be really diligent, even just because the thought of multiplying things on your towel more than necessary turns you off, you can dry your towels outside of your bathroom so they’re away from steam from the shower.)
So, in summary, you probably won’t feel any major ill effects from reusing your towel for days or even weeks. But if you’re new to keeping towels fresh on a regular rotation, it couldn’t hurt to invest in a few extra to increase how often you do laundry – you know, so lazy Sunday can stay, well, lazy.