How to Soften Towels in 8 Simple Steps

By Sharon Brandwein

It never fails; you head off to the store and purchase the softest, fluffiest towels you can find, only to be left with hard, crusty towels a short while later. You might take heart to discover that you're not alone; we've all been there. The truth is, sometimes hard towels happen to good people.

If you're fighting the good fight against hard towels, we've got good news and bad news. The bad news is you've probably been washing and drying your towels incorrectly. The good news is that there are a few ways to revive and soften hard and crusty towels.

Ahead, this guide takes a look at how to soften towels and bring them back to life. We also offer a few tips to help you prevent the problem in the first place and things to look out for when you think it's time for replacements.

stack of folded gray towels

Photo via  Sarah | Birch Landing Home

Why Do Towels Get Hard?

Hard towels are the result of laundry detergent residue that lingers on towel fibers each time they’re washed. Not only does detergent residue lead to hard towels with an unpleasant texture, but over time that build-up affects the towels' ability to absorb moisture.

How to Soften Hard Towels

Hard towels don’t have to be destined for the trash bin. You can soften hard towels with the help of a few pantry staples and a few clever hacks. Ahead you’ll find eight ways to soften hard cotton towels. 

Reduce the Amount of Detergent You Use

Laundry detergent residue is one of the biggest reasons towels become hard. With repeated washing, the soap gets into the cotton strands of the towel, making them rough and crusty. The best way to keep towels soft and wash already-hardened towels is to reduce the amount of detergent you use when washing them; use slightly less than the recommended amount of laundry detergent for your towel loads.

Wash Towels with Vinegar

If you find that your towels are already hardened by detergent build-up, there is a relatively easy and inexpensive way to bring them back to life—just swap out your laundry detergent for a cup of white vinegar and run your wash as usual for one load. Do this once every few weeks to tackle any lingering detergent buildup on towels.

Avoid Fabric Softener

Although it has its perks for certain garments, fabric softener isn’t the best thing for towels. With repeated washings, fabric softener can cling to towel fibers and affect their absorbency and performance.

Wash Towels with Baking Soda 

Baking soda is another pantry staple that can be used to soften old, scratchy towels. To soften your towels using this method, mix about one cup of baking soda with your detergent and run your wash as usual. It’s also worth noting that baking soda will essentially pull double-duty and refresh musty-smelling towels. 

Brush Towels  

This may seem like the oddest suggestion on our list, but it works! Even better, the process is no more difficult than it sounds. To soften hard cotton towels, grab a clean hairbrush, lay your towel on a flat surface, and brush it. Use long strokes to work in one direction across the towel, and when you're done with one side, flip it over and repeat the process with the rest of the hardened towels. Brushing your towels essentially breaks down dried detergent residue, and—much like tangled hair—it separates the threads on your towel, making it softer to the touch. Follow up with a run through the washing machine.

Dry Towels with Wool Dryer Balls

Wool dryer balls are great tools for softening towels. They bounce around inside your dryer, rolling and beating out lumps in towel strands, softening the towels as they go. If you don't have dryer balls lying around, you can substitute a couple of clean tennis balls or roll up a few pairs of socks and add them to the dryer.

Run Smaller Loads 

If you tend to wait for a big load of towels before tossing them in, that might be a hindrance to maintaining their softness. Running large loads (of anything) only crowds the machine, and it doesn't leave enough room for the water to effectively rinse the detergents (and even the dirt) from your wash. So to keep your towels soft, run your wash loads with only three to four towels each time. The same goes for drying them: Too many towels in the dryer stifle the airflow, so there won't be enough air to fluff the fabric properly.

Lower the Heat in the Dryer

Drying your towels in high heat can cause the fibers to overdry and feel hard to the touch. So to keep your towels soft, opt for medium heat or a permanent press setting. 

three towels hanging on wood rack

Photo via Ashleigh Sommer

How Often Should You Wash Towels

Towels should be washed frequently to keep bacteria from blooming and musty smells at bay. Washing your towels after every three to four uses is a good rule of thumb, and make sure you do so using hot water. Washing them in hot water will not only keep them soft but will also help stop bacteria in their tracks. 

When to Replace Towels

Experts advise replacing your towels every two years, but there are no hard-and-fast rules for doing so. Your towels probably need to be replaced if:

  • They remain hard and scratchy despite your efforts to soften them.
  • They don’t absorb water as well as they used to.
  • They smell after only one use, or smells linger on them even after they’re washed.
  • They have frayed edges, loose threads, or holes.

Do you have any clever hacks for softening hard towels? Tell us in the comments!

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 1 comment
  • 17335038 17335038 on May 02, 2022

    I have found that removing towels from the washer immediately after the wash cycle ends and putting them directly into the dryer contributes greatly to having softer towels.

    I find that if the towels sit in the washer and become partly dry, or sit in the dryer without being totally dry, the result is towels with a flatter and harder feel.