How to get soft, fluffy towels without fabric softener

soft fluffy towels
© Nym_Pleydell

Because sometimes it's the little things...

In this edition of First World Problems, we present rough and wimpy towels. Because hey, if we are going to have the luxury of indoor plumbing and a hot shower, few things are better than following it with a heavenly cloud of a towel.

Given the popularity of fabric softeners, I know I am not alone in this preference. Unfortunately, fabric softeners are spiked with synthetic fragrance and other ingredients that have no business being in our laundry. But here's the secret; you don't need commercial fabric softeners, hurray.

Some people love the stiff feel of a line-dried towel – and that's great, since letting the sun and air dry one's laundry is the most sustainable way to go. But if you are after soft and fluffy, here is what to know – and bonus points for all of these since they should help to increase the longevity of your towels as well.

Separate

The Washington Post recommends washing towels in light laundry loads dedicated just to towels.

“The key is to really separate properly,” says Gwen Whiting, co-founder of the beloved Laundress. “We really recommend washing sheets and towels separately from each other. They need their own attention, so you don’t want them jammed in with loads of stuff. You need a good cleaning environment.”

Which makes perfect sense. If you've got a load of wash that includes a fitted sheet, towels, tee-shirts and some socks, things will get uneven attention.

Lighten the load

Likewise, stuffing too many towels in the wash also invites problems – a fact that, in my quest to be efficient, I never seem to learn. But crowded towels don't have room to move around, meaning that the heat can't reach the tangled creases; the damp pockets become stiff and scratchy when they dry outside of the dryer.

Shake each towel out before putting it in the dryer to ensure that wadded-up creases don't get "ironed" in by the dryer. Along with giving towels the room to dry properly, you can also add tennis or laundry balls. And if you can open the dryer and untangle entwined towels halfway through the cycle, all the better.

Skip the fabric softener!

Oh what tangled webs we weave – despite the promise of commercial fabric softeners, they do not always deliver in the "soft and fluffy towel" department. Read it and weep (from The Post): "Fabric softeners coat a towel’s exterior and often contain oils and petroleum-based ingredients that hinder its absorbency. This filmy coating may mean more frequent washing, which breaks down the towel." Say no more.

Use almighty vinegar instead

Vinegar is a laundry workhorse superstar! Use 1/4 cup of distilled white vinegar in the fabric softener compartment of your machine – it softens towels and helps removes bacteria, a much better option than coating said towels with synthetic chemicals. If you want fragrance, you can add a drop or two of pure essential oil to your laundry balls. I have a dedicated washcloth that I add a few drops of essential oil too and toss it in with my towels as kind of an ersatz fabric softener sheet.

Ban the bleach

I don't like having bleach in my home at all; and for towels, it's not even good anyway since it flattens the loops that make a towel fluffy and absorbent in the first place. Vinegar will help brighten, but if you need to bring out the big guns, you can use a bleach alternative like OxyClean.

Resist over-soaping

Another counter-intuitive one, but too much detergent can affect all laundry, not just towels. It can made clothing dingy; for towels, it can make them crunchy. Try using half the recommended amount. Carolyn Childers, chief home officer of Handy, tells Real Simple, “If you must use extra detergent for very soiled towels, make sure to change the washer settings, so it’ll have an extra long rinse cycle.”

Don't cook them

Towels seem like the perfect candidate for the hottest wash, rinse, and dry – but Barton Brass, president of the Turkish Towel Co., tells The Post that that is a no-no. “Heat is probably the worst thing you can do to a towel in the laundry,” Brass says. “Cotton itself is a very soft, cellulose material, and if you burn it or cook it, it’s going to flatten out and it will never get soft again.” Washing and drying at medium heat is the happy place where towels get clean without battering the fiber.

Respect the loops

Since towels made of terrycloth are woven with long loops to absorb the water, maintaining the integrity of those loops is vital for a well-functioning, good-feeling towel. Leaving a damp towel on the floor can not only attract mildew, but the loops can be crushed if left like that for too long. Towels can be damp before laundering, but they should be completely dry upon removing them from the dryer. That said, over-drying them can be hard on the loops as well, so don't err on the side of too long in the heat.

For more laundry tips, see related stories below.

How to get soft, fluffy towels without fabric softener
Because sometimes it's the little things...

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