How to break in new towels

What are the golden rules when washing new towels for the first time? We asked the experts.

Hopping into a soft and fluffy towel, after a long soak, is one of life’s small pleasures. Conjuring up images of lazy spa days or tapping into childhood memories, a soft towel can make you forget the morning rush that awaits or help put a busy day to bed.

If you’ve treated yourself to gorgeous new towels, you’ll want to keep them as sumptuous as when you first unpack them. But how many times have you washed brand new towels, only to find them feeling less lovely than you’d hoped?

It’s easy to be ignorant when it comes to laundry, but there is in fact a true art to washing new towels and getting them to peak levels of softness. It’s known as “breaking in”.

Fluffy towels on top of a stoolCredit: Panda

Why is it important to wash new towels before using them?

It boosts their absorbency

Breaking in towels is a process that helps them reach maximum absorbency levels. It is essentially washing them, but the important part is how you go about it.

“Breaking in towels involves washing them before using them for the first time,” says Henry Paterson, cleaning expert at Housekeep.

“It can help to remove residual chemicals and oils that may be left over from manufacturing.”

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Why should you wash new towels?

It’s important to get them looking and feeling their best

Some may be tempted not to wash new towels, purely because they feel so soft. However, as Paterson highlights, towels that are straight out of the factory are often coated with a finish that you will definitely want to remove. Some brands don’t add this. Scooms, for example, doesn’t use finishing chemicals, noting that although some manufacturers might use them to add a sheen to their towels, it can impact absorbency.  

Furthermore, the experts at Scooms recommend washing new towels to help fluff them up (if they’ve come straight out of the box) and get rid of any stray threads. After all, a towel that sheds all over you is never pleasant after a nice long soak. Plus, if you’ve gone for something brighter than white, that first wash can help lock the colour in place. Last but not least, washing new towels starts the breaking-in process.

How many washes will it take to break in towels fully?

Definitely more than once

Expect a minimum of two washes to really kick-start the process, but there’s a chance you will need to be a little patient for super-soft results.

“As I have seen in my years of experience, it is best to break in towels by washing them multiple times with hot water and a gentle detergent,” says Nathaly Vieira, Founder of InspireClean, a top-rated house cleaning service. “This way, the fibres will open up and become softer.”  

What is the right way to break in towels?

Follow this step-by-step guide

To keep any linens in good nick, you need to give them the right treatment. Towels need multiple washes, but getting the first one right is essential. Here are the golden rules of breaking in towels, according to experts.

1. Avoid fabric conditioner

There is debate around whether or not you should use fabric softener on towels, but when it comes to breaking them in, consider keeping it well and truly out of the drum. Instead, just use a mild detergent on the first wash and then if you must, gradually introduce fabric conditioner. You just need to make sure that you get the balance right, as too much fabric conditioner, or detergent, when washing towels can damage the fibres.  

“Brand-new towels need multiple washes to start the breaking-in process before they can reach maximum absorbency,” says Chrissie Rucker OBE, owner and founder of The White Company, who says you should steer clear of fabric softener on the first wash as it can coat the fibres, reducing their absorbency. 

“It is better to gradually introduce a little fabric conditioner every other wash to keep towels feeling soft and perfect,” she adds.  

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2. Wash towels separate from other items

Our experts also recommend washing towels separately. This will be especially important if you’ve bought coloured towels, as they are likely to run on the first wash. “You’ll want to wash towels separately to other items while you’re breaking them in as the process is slightly different,” says Paterson.

Vieira also suggests a separate wash for squeaky-clean results: “To clean them properly, I recommend washing them in a separate batch from other items, as towels tend to absorb quite a bit of dirt.”  

3. Dry them gently

To keep your towels soft, air-dry them or use a gentle tumble-dry setting: “A soft tumble-dry on a low heat will ensure a soft handle for your towels,” says Rucker.

And if you’re worried about shrinking your towels, stick to air-drying.

“Always air-dry your towels to avoid shrinkage and discolouration. Doing this will help keep your towels looking their best for longer,” advises Vieira. 

Should you ever skip detergent? 

No, but use a mild version

Our experts recommend mild detergent for the most part, as it may be less damaging. “It’s always important to carefully preserve and prolong the life of any of your linens, including your towels – so when laundering, always use a mild detergent with no added bleach as this can weaken, or even yellow, fabrics, especially cotton,” shares Rucker. But we were curious to know whether you could start the break-in process using all-natural ingredients, like vinegar and baking soda, as these feature often in household chores.

It turns out that washing towels au natural for the first time could give you the best results, according to Paterson: “Generally it’s advised that you don’t break in towels using laundry detergent or fabric softener. The point of breaking in towels is to remove residual chemicals (including fabric softeners) – using detergent and fabric softener can do the opposite.” Paterson recommends a simple method:

How to break in towels with vinegar and baking soda

This popular hack is chemical free

  1. Add roughly 200ml (7fl oz) of white vinegar into the drum of your washing machine on the first wash, on a regular cycle. 
  2. Follow this with a second wash using 100g (3.5oz) of baking soda. 
  3. Leave the towels to dry fully. 

How do you know when you’ve done a good job?

You’ll feel the result

When your towels have been looked after and laundered properly from the get-go, expect super-soft results that absorb water as you’d expect – it’s as simple as that. “Towels that have been broken in will be fluffier and more absorbent. They’ll feel more luxurious and be more effective, too,” notes Paterson.

Do all towels need breaking in?

It always helps

In theory, yes. However, the quality of the towels you have bought will determine how quickly you feel the results. Some fabrics may be easier to break in than others, too.

“If you choose high-quality fabrics, like bamboo and cotton, your towels should feel luxuriously comfortable from the very first use,” says Ashley Brown of Panda London, a unique company whose catalogue is filled with luxurious towels, linen and more, made predominantly from bamboo. “If you want to use them right away, opt for those that are only made from the highest-quality fibres.” 

We would always recommend washing new towels at least once before using them. But if you want to reduce laundry time, bamboo could be a good choice.

“High-quality antibacterial fabrics like bamboo do not have to be washed so regularly,” says Brown.  

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Camille Dubuis-Welch

Written by Camille Dubuis-Welch she/her

Updated:

Camille is a freelance writer based in north London with her cat and two friends. Cam has been in love with everything interior design and garden-related since before she can remember and is the former deputy editor of realhomes.com, where she got to collaborate with some very inspiring DIYers and focus on small-space improvements.