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How Can I Make My Old Towels Soft and Fluffy Again?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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There are several ways to revive old towels with common household ingredients. Adding ammonia or vinegar to the wash can reduce detergent buildup, while drying them on low and using dryer balls can make them fluffier. Over time, towels do have a tendency to get hard and to lose absorbency often because factors like hard water or drying them on too high a heat. Addressing these underlying causes can help eliminate some of the hardness and lack of absorbency. Some very old or very stiff towels may be too far gone; in that case it's better to recycle them and get new ones.

Add Ammonia or Vinegar to the Wash

It's often possible to soften old towels just by adding 1 cup (0.23 liters) of ammonia or vinegar to your wash. Ammonia can strip off buildup from laundry detergent and fabric softeners, while distilled white vinegar can cut through mineral buildup from hard water. Vinegar also softens the fibers of the towel when added during the final rinse. If the towels are smelly, try adding 0.5 cup (110.5 grams) of baking soda in a separate wash. You shouldn't add the baking soda in with the vinegar or ammonia; it won't work as well.

Wash with Water Softening Tablets or Borax

You can also try washing a load of old towels with water softening tablets designed to clean limescale out of laundry machines. This is particularly effective for towels made stiff by hard water. Another option is to mix 0.5 cup (about 110 grams) of borax with 1 cup (about 280 grams) of sodium carbonate — called soda ash or washing powder — in a little very hot water until they dissolve. Once the powder is dissolved and the mixture has cooled down, pour it into a 2 liter bottle, and fill the rest of the bottle with water. Then add 1 or 2 cups (about 236 to 473 ml) of this solution to a load of old towels.

Other Washing Tips

Many laundry experts recommend washing towels separately from other clothing because buttons, hooks, and other clothing closures can catch on the towels and cause them to wear out more quickly. When you wash them, don't overfill the washer — it's important for the towels to be able to move around freely to get clean, and the friction of items rubbing together can cause them to wear out more quickly. Use the hottest water temperature recommended, and always rinse with cold water.

Using Dryer Balls

A non-chemical way to soften old towels is to always dry the towels on low heat with a dryer ball or tennis ball in the dryer. These keep laundry from clumping together while drying and help the air circulate among pieces, which makes them dry more quickly. Generally speaking, it's best to use dryer balls in place of fabric softeners when drying any towels, whether they're old or new because the chemicals in the fabric softener can coat the towel fibers and make them less absorbent.

Causes of Hard or Non-Absorbent Towels

Towels naturally become rough and non-absorbent because the fibers break down over time. They can also get stiff because of environmental factors, like hard water that causes a buildup of minerals on them. After washing towels that have a very heavy buildup of minerals with water softening tablets or a solution of borax and washing soda, you may see small crystals in the bottom of the washing machine; those are the minerals that were washed out of the towels.

Caring for towels incorrectly can also age them and make them scratchy or non-absorbent. One of the most common reasons towels become less absorbent is because of the ingredients in fabric softeners; the silicon or other lubricants that make the clothes soft can also leave a coating on towels and prevent them from absorbing water as well. Bleaching towels repeatedly can also cause their fibers to break down, making them scratchy. Though it's OK to bleach towels periodically, you shouldn't do it too often.

Too much heat can also damage towels, so it's important to make sure to only dry your towels on low or medium heat settings. It's also best not to iron towels, but if you really want to, then do it on a low heat setting. Towels can get stiff if they're dried on a clothesline instead of in a drier; you can help reduce this by shaking them out before and after you hang them up, or you can dry them only part way, then put them in the dryer with a dryer ball for a few minutes.

How To Wash Towels To Keep Them Soft and Fluffy

Taking care with your washing practices can help preserve the fluffiness. Try these tips next laundry day.

Wash After Two or Three Uses

Much of the wear and tear on towels comes from washing. Fortunately, you don't need to wash them after every use. To reuse towels between washes, hang them up immediately so they can dry quickly. As long as they dry between uses, you can reuse towels two or three times before they need to be washed.

Wash Small Loads

Towels need room to move around in the wash, so avoid overloading your machine. If the load is too large, the fibers can become compressed, resulting in a flattened, rough fabric. Smaller loads will not only give you fluffier towels but will also rinse cleaner and dry faster.

Cut Detergent in Half

Detergent buildup can make your towels stiff, so try using half your usual amount. The same goes for fabric softener; liquid softener can leave a waxy residue that, ironically, reduces softness as well as absorbency. Use it every few washes instead of every wash, or skip it altogether.

Rinse in Cold Water

Because towels can harbor bacteria, it's best to wash them in hot water. However, heat will break down the fibers more quickly and shorten the life of your towels. Washing in hot water and rinsing in cold water reduces heat damage.

Use Bleach Sparingly

Bleach may seem like a great way to keep your white towels looking brand new, but too much will wear them out faster. This chemical is harsh on cloth fibers, reducing softness and absorbency. To extend the life of your towels, only use bleach occasionally.

How To Get Fluffy Towels Without a Tumble Dryer

Drying towels with dryer balls or tennis balls is a popular method to keep them soft and fluffy, but if you don't have a tumble dryer, you will need to rely on other methods.

Soften in the Wash

There are simple ways to soften towels in the wash, such as adding vinegar or ammonia. These are beneficial even with a tumble dryer, but taking extra care during washing is particularly important if you want to achieve maximum fluff without a dryer.

Avoid Direct Heat

You may be tempted to hang your towels directly in front of a radiator or other heat source to dry. While this will dry them quickly, it will leave you with stiff towels. Drying away from direct heat takes longer but yields better results.

Fluff by Hand

Before hanging towels to dry, give them a good shake to fluff the fibers and wring out excess moisture. This can reduce drying time and help them stay soft and absorbent after drying.

Wait for a Windy Day

Getting fluffy towels on a clothesline can be difficult, but it's not impossible. For softer towels, wait for a slightly windy day to hang them out to dry. The gentle agitation will fluff as they dry and keep them from becoming stiff.

Brush Your Towels

You may be able to revive scratchy towels by brushing them with a hairbrush. Lay the towel flat and brush in one direction to soften and separate the fibers. This trick can be useful for dealing with stiffness from line drying.

Does Vinegar Make Towels Fluffy?

Adding vinegar to a load of towels is easy, natural and cheap, but does it help? Vinegar works by breaking down residue that makes cloth fibers rough and less absorbent. The acidity dissolves hard water buildup, detergent residue and fabric softener residue, leaving towels softer and fluffier. When using vinegar, don't use baking soda in the same load; the two chemicals will neutralize each other and you won't get the benefit of either.

How To Know When It's Time To Replace Towels

No matter how diligently you care for your towels, you will eventually need to replace them. Here are some signs that it's time to treat yourself to a new set:

  • Fraying, holes or threadbare spots
  • Odor that persists after repeated washes
  • Decreased absorbency
  • Persistent roughness or stiffness

Bath towels generally need to be replaced every two years or so. With proper care, you can get as much use as possible out of your towels.

HomeQuestionsAnswered is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a HomeQuestionsAnswered researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon358847 — On Dec 13, 2013

The problem with stiff, hard, scratchy towels is lack of water. Towels are the one item that do not benefit from front load washing. Choose a cycle that uses a lot of water. Use hot water with as many rinses as you can and a low spin speed. Use 1 Tablespoon of good quality liquid detergent. If you can find liquid detergent with phosphates (now banned with the exception of commercial products) this will help too. No extra water cycle? Add three or four liters/quarts of water once the cycle has started.

By anon241223 — On Jan 18, 2012

I would also love to know how to keep my cushions well plumped and fluffy.

By anon184517 — On Jun 08, 2011

I would like to know how to keep towels soft and fluffy, without using a dryer. I have a washing machine, and if I don't take them to dry in a dryer, they will not be soft.

By anon174965 — On May 11, 2011

newspapers to clean your windows? I tried that once and got black ink all over my windows.

By anon156265 — On Feb 26, 2011

I read all these articles about using vinegar and baking soda to do the wash but I want to know how much (formula). J Rude

By anon130992 — On Nov 30, 2010

I have read all the comments and couldn't see any mention of the quantities of baking soda and vinegar for softening towels. Please tell?

By anon127289 — On Nov 15, 2010

You can put vinegar and baking soda together in your laundry instead of detergent. It will not cause an explosion. This makes a very good cleaning solution for your clothes. Borax (washing soda) will work, too. --bctoots

By anon80899 — On Apr 29, 2010

i have got a front load washing machine, which doesn't have a rinse cycle. when do you suggest i add the vinegar, if i put the baking soda with my washing powder? thanks

By dejavu — On Apr 04, 2010

To comment 5: When you bring your towels (laundry) in from the clothes line, put them in the dryer with a damp/wet towel. the damp towel will soften the towels (laundry) throw in a dryer sheet or better yet dilute your fabric softener (1 to 1 ratio) half and half, put in a spray bottle, and spray your damp towel (i spray both sides) and throw it in with your loss add a couple of [new] tennis balls in for extra fluff and softness.

Run the dryer for 5 to 15 minutes (check every 5 minutes to conserve power) or run on wrinkle release. hope this helps. star

By dejavu — On Apr 03, 2010

of the short answer comments 2 and 3: It is like cleaning your coffee or teapot -- you run the vinegar though, rinse, and you're ready for a new day and better coffee.

When you feel your towels {laundry} look and feel tired, run the vinegar through and rinse. You can do a second rinse and use your favorite fabric softener, shake your towels (laundry) before you put then in dryer.

For extra fluffy, add a couple of new tennis balls (yellow)in the dryer with your load, as an added bonus your laundry will dry faster

You can also put in a clean, dry towel (white) and they will dry faster.

By dejavu — On Apr 03, 2010

Just a thought: i know my previous comments are long, but i really think that we are all complicating our lives with convenience. i am not saying to abandon your favorite cleaners, because there are things i love and would not give up. i love my dawn, cascade, tide, and downy and i wouldn't give them up.

But what if you could simplify, save money, and time, reduce the amount of spray bottles and cleaner, and not have to compromise?

Let me ask you this: what do you clean your microwave with? what do your wash your fresh veggies with? what do clean your frig with?

My answer used to be bleach, then i got sick and was diagnosed with lupus and had to rethink things.

What did my granny and my great-grandmother use? Then it came to me: vinegar and baking soda. You can literally clean everything in your house with vinegar. (except granite and marble).

i remember cleaning windows with vinegar and news paper, and guess what? It still works, but would it work on anything else?

I thought long and hard about what it would take to make me a believer (a convert if you will. i used to clean everything with bleach). then it came to me: the oven.

I took the racks out and put them in the bathtub and sprayed them down with full strength vinegar and let them sit. I turned on the warming drawer to heat up the oven just a little bit and sprayed the oven, door and the glass and let it sit.

I waited until about an hour passed and then sprayed the racks with hot water and wiped a few spots with a scrubby. They looked new!

i resprayed the oven and used the scrubby on the glass and wiped it down with hot water and it worked.

I was stunned, hooked. Glass to grease, no steaks and no residue.

i kind of feel like the Lorax in Dr. Seuss,

shaking my fist, "glub, glub" at you know who.

Try some, try some you will love it too!

I'm a geek. I tried to resist but it was no use.

Sorry i got carried away. star

By dejavu — On Apr 03, 2010

To comments 2 and 3: To start, they are two separate processes.

Think about this: you know that sticky residue around the cap of your fabric softener or the build up in the auto dispenser? That is what builds up on your towels and everything you "wash". The residue also prevents the cotton fibers from absorbing liquid as quickly as should.

The vinegar acts as a solvent and removes that build up from the fibers of the cotton. It also breaks down the calcium and hard water deposits that can dull your color and make your whites dingy.

If this is not enough, it also kills fungi (molds and "tinea", which includes yeasts like athletes foot and jock itch) and it deodorizes, too.

The baking soda is not to be underestimated or overlooked. You can use baking soda in every load and save money.

Baking soda softens your water, therefore reducing the amount of laundry soap you need.(= saving money).

I have a front loader and only need half the recommended amount {96 load jug = over 190 loads}.

Baking soda also deodorizes, helps break down dirt and mineral deposits, which in turn reduces the build up we used the vinegar for on your laundry *and* that helps protect the fiber in the fabric (laundry) from wear, leaving everything looking newer longer. Colors are brighter and whites are whiter.

Oh -- let's not forget that both vinegar and baking soda will make your washer happier with fewer hard water deposits, calcium and minerals. It helps prolong the washer's life. Hope this helps. star

By anon74737 — On Apr 03, 2010

to comment 1 anon16724: You are absolutely correct. However, if you have a clogged drain, or just a slow drain, you can clean it with 1/2 cup baking soda and 1/2 cup of vinegar. i also use that same recipe to clean my toilets --it cleans all the way to the rim.

It deodorizes, kills bacteria, mold, and hard water build up and i don't have to deal with the fumes caused by bleach. It works great -- give it a try, you will love it.

By anon70997 — On Mar 16, 2010

My towels stay soft if I dry them in the dryer, but are stiff if I line dry them. I wish someone could tell me how to avoid this. They are good quality Egyptian cotton, and I don't use fabric softener on them.

By anon56850 — On Dec 17, 2009

i don't understand why we cannot put a fabric softener with towels. Surprisingly, I just noticed that a lot of people don't use it on purpose, to avoid the absorbency problem, but I've always used fabric softener whenever i do the laundry including towels!

Firstly, i'm korean and most koreans put fabric softener like i do in order to make them soft, but it doesn't cause the lack of absorbency. I have never experienced that! My towels are still soft and absorb water so well!

By anon52438 — On Nov 14, 2009

Yes, but how do you make towels soft again?

By anon16724 — On Aug 13, 2008

Don't ever put the vinegar and baking soda together. If you combine them you will have an explosion.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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