Bath towels may seem like a mundane entry on the checklist for your ideal bathroom, but there’s a science to choosing the right ones. A good bath towel should do several things at once — dry you off quickly, feel good (if not fantastic) on your skin, fit with your décor, and be durable enough to last for years. Different people find different towels comfortable, so the best way to find ones you like is to touch them (and even wash your favorites to find whether the feeling lasts).
Of course, not everyone wants to go around touching every towel at the store right now, so if you’re unsure about materials or you’re shopping online, there are some basic guidelines you can follow. As a senior writer at Wirecutter, the product recommendation site owned by The New York Times Company, I’ve been reviewing bath towels for four years. Here’s how to choose the best for you and your family, with some recommendations based on Wirecutter’s testing.
Figure Out the Material You Like Best
The best way to find your preferred material is to touch a bunch of towels. If you’re uncomfortable visiting a few stores and feeling as many as possible, you can order several towels from different companies to compare at home — but it’s trickier. Make sure they have good return policies, to send back what you don’t like. And avoid washing any towels you plan to return, as it will invalidate most policies. Manufacturers add softeners to make new towels fluffier (more on this later), so it’s hard to know how a towel truly feels until after you’ve washed it a few times. Still, an initial test at home or in-store can still tell what you like and don’t like.
Terry cloth, a thick material with tightly woven loops, is the most common material you’ll find, and it’s a Wirecutter favorite. It’s the classic, hotel-style toweling that’s luxurious and warm. Wirecutter recommends the Frontgate Resort Cotton Bath Towel (about $30) for people who prefer this style. It’s a dense, plush terry that’s popular with testers because it’s thirsty, soaking water right off your skin. It also maintains its vibrant color (there are two dozen to choose from) and soft feel for dozens of washes, long after the manufacturer finishes have washed away, and it’s generously sized for a variety of body types.
Some Wirecutter testers prefer a waffle towel, also called lattice or honeycomb, because it’s thinner and has a coarser texture than thick, spongy terry. Waffle towels are airier than terry versions, so they dry faster if you have a damp bathroom or live in a humid climate. They also fold up flatter on shelves if you’re cramped for space. Wirecutter recommends the Onsen Bath Towel ($86 for two), which is effective at drying your skin quickly, and is softer than others we tested. It’s also more reasonably priced than many waffle towels, which are often more expensive than terry.
The dimensions of bath towels are not standardized, and some are just too small. For average-height people, a 28-by-55-inch towel should be sufficient. If you prefer something larger, the Frontgate is 30-by-58 inches.
When you find a towel you like, check if it comes in a bath sheet, too. Bath sheets are the same material as bath towels, but longer and wider (and also not by any standard amount). For instance, Frontgate’s coordinating bath sheet is 40-by-72 inches. You can mix and match sizes for everyone in your household.
Match Your Décor
Towels come in a wide range of colors, and they can be stylish and functional. White towels are the easiest to maintain because you can wash them in hot water to disinfect without worrying about color fading. You can also bleach them (although be careful — chlorine bleach can yellow protein stains, like sweat, if it’s not diluted properly). But depending on your bathroom style, how roughly the towels are used, and how bright you can keep them, all-white towels can look very chic or very boring.
If you go for saturated colors, avoid bleach and any skin products with benzoyl peroxide, like acne creams, which can also discolor them. And stick to cold water in the wash to maintain the color as long as possible.
Buy a Single Towel First, Then Stock Up
Once you’ve picked your towels, get a single one first and wash it (if they’re sold in sets only, buy the smallest set available). You likely won’t be able to return it, but it’s better than wasting money on a stack of bad towels. Because any new towel will have some temporary finishes, you’ll need to wash it once or twice to see how it truly looks and feels. Wirecutter washes their finalist towels five times to see how the colors last and the softness fades.
When washing your test towel, skip fabric softeners, which can leave buildup that changes the feel, and chlorine bleach, which can alter the color. Wash in cold water and dry on low to medium heat.
Once you’re ready to buy more, a good rule of thumb is to have at least three bath towels for every person in your household. You should change your towel every two to three days, so if you do your laundry once a week, that should give you enough to see you through between laundry days.
Choose Your Brands Carefully
Wirecutter recommends buying your towels from a reputable brand with a good return policy. Skim user reviews online to see if people complain about the customer service experience.
If you’re looking to restock, keep in mind that big stores like Macy’s, Target and Kohl’s discontinue towels frequently. In Wirecutter’s six years of testing, towels from big chain stores were more likely to disappear after a few seasons than those at catalog companies like Frontgate, or direct-to-consumer brands like Onsen. This makes it hard to add on to your supply later if you don’t have enough or need to replace any. Check the dates on user reviews to see if the towel you like has been around for more than a couple of years; the older the reviews, the less likely it is that the towels you have your eye on will be discontinued soon. If you find towels you love, buy more than you think you need, plus all the hand towels or washcloths you might want, if there’s a chance you won’t be able to buy more of them later.