Q. I need a towel strategy. I don’t like using a wet towel to dry off when I step out of the shower. But, I also feel bad every time I grab for a fresh towel, since it means more laundry (and the requisite energy and water use). How many times should I be using my towels before I put them in the washing machine? Is there anything I can do to freshen them up between showers? This problem is compounded by the humid summers down here in the South. We don’t have central air conditioning, which means that the air in our house is warm and humid for 4 or 5 months per year. Any ideas?

Adrian
Durham, N.C.

A. Dearest Adrian,

Consider me your Captain of Towel Tactics. Just give me a moment to get my blueprint paper and drafting pencils …

OK, strategic planning in session: I like this question, Adrian, because at first glance it seems like a small one. But consider that today’s standard washing machines use about 25 gallons of water per load (Energy Star models do better with 15 gallons), plus the electricity required for both washers and dryers — especially if you (shudder) wash with hot water. With the average American family doing 300 laundry loads every year, there are clearly substantial savings to be had.

I also like this question because when we talk about laundry here at Ask Umbra, we tend to talk a lot about swapping dryers for clotheslines, or green detergents, or efficient washing machines, or clotheslines again. We rarely address the root cause of this laundry problem: Namely, the piles of laundry themselves, overflowing from our collective hampers. Reducing the number of loads we wash should absolutely be a part of this conversation, whether they’re made up of terry cloth or not. (Towels can make for significant savings, by the way: Hotel programs requesting that guests reuse their towels have been shown to reduce laundry loads by 17 percent.)

To your first question, Adrian: How long can we delay towel-washing day? When researching this column, I came across a frightening number of forum users and commenters who admit to tossing towels to the laundry room after a single bathing session. (Why, people? Was it a dirt bath?) The experts recommend more like once a week: Even your freshly showered birthday suit will leave skin cells behind on a towel, upon which mildew and bacteria may then feast. You’ll have to set your own hygiene standards, but I can tell you my towels usually serve quite a bit longer than that with zero ill effects.

Naturally, drying towels thoroughly between rubdowns is the best way to extend their lifespan. And I do have some ideas on that front for you too, Adrian, even during those sticky Southern summers. I’m assuming you’re already doing the basics — i.e., those persistently moist towels are hanging neatly on a rack, not balled up on the bathroom floor, yes? Then try these on for size:

  • Rotate towels. This ingenious tip comes courtesy of Mother Nature News: Simply add another towel to your routine. Hang one, then reach for the second the next time around. By the third shower, towel No. 1 should have had plenty of time to dry. Repeat.
  • Use smaller towels. They’ll dry faster. Take it from someone who was recently stranded in a rental house bathroom with only a washcloth: You’d be surprised how dry you can get with less cotton.
  • Dehumidify the bathroom. Use your ventilation fan (or open a window) for a bit after your shower, not just during, to cut down on the sauna factor. (Presumably the air inside your fogged-up bathroom is more humid than the air outside, even in the steamy South.)
  • Employ your other appliances. You don’t have AC, but what about a box fan? Draping towels near it can rapidly speed drying. Ditto for a heating vent come winter.
  • Pop them in the dryer. Right after your shower, run towels through the dryer on “air fluff” or low heat for a few minutes, just to take the edge off.
  • Fight the stink. When you finally do a towel load, wash them with a cup of vinegar. This is an age-old mildew-buster that also removes detergent buildup, leaving the towels extra-fresh and ready for their next extended tour of duty.

Strategically,
Umbra