Stiff towels? Then avoid this common detergent error

Fabric softener may not be good for your towels

Old habits die hard, as the saying goes, and this can certainly be applied to our laundry routine. Time is precious and, if you’re looking after a busy household, it’s all too easy to wash towels as you do clothes – or even wash them together to save time. But this won’t do you any favours when it comes to keeping your bath sets soft and fluffy. So, if you have realised that your towels are feeling more stiff and scratchy than up to scratch, your routine might need a refresh.

Many of us default to using fabric softener in every load of washing. Although it can minimise piling and soften many garments, fabric conditioner doesn’t work well with towels and can make even the best white towels stiff and uncomfortable to use. We checked in with three experts to get their thoughts and advice on how to make towels fluffy again.

Green marble effect roll-top bath with towels from The White CompanyCredit: The White Company
You may think you’re doing your towels a big favour by dosing your wash with fabric conditioner, but you’d be wrong.

Are you supposed to use fabric conditioner with towels?

Fabric softener and towels shouldn’t really mix

In a nutshell, you shouldn’t really use fabric conditioner on towels. And, if you do, you should only use a little and occasionally. That’s because it actually does the opposite you’d expect. Emily Attwood, founder of Scooms, says: “Fabric softener can reduce absorbency in towels as it can clog up the towel fibres, so it is best not to use it. But, if you do, use it sparingly.”

Chrissie Rucker OBE, owner and founder of The White Company, notes that using a fabric conditioner, especially when washing brand-new towels for the first time, could damage them. “For super-soft towels, don’t use fabric conditioner on the first wash as it coats the fibres and reduces absorbency,” says Rucker. “Use just a little conditioner every other wash to keep towels feeling their best.”

Stephanie Mackenzie, brand manager of Soak&Sleep, recommends not using fabric conditioner at all and to use detergent only for the softest results. Mackenzie again highlights that it is the build-up of fabric conditioner over time that leads to less absorbent towels that feel hard and scratchy.

Grey-brown White Company towelsCredit: The White Company
It is possible to make your towels fluffy again with store cupboard essentials.

How can you restore towel softness?

The best ingredients to soften towels are probably in your cupboard

Stiff towels aren’t nice for anyone at home, let alone guests. If you’ve been noticing that your towels are less absorbent and cosy, there are some simple household ingredients that may restore them to their former, fluffier selves.

Ahead of tweaking your towel-washing routine, you need to remove the build-up of both detergent and fabric conditioner to make them fluffy again.

Attwood recommends using natural vinegar and baking soda to do this. “Wash once using vinegar instead of detergent and a second time using baking soda instead of detergent,” she says.

For softer towels in the longer term, always check the care label but our experts generally recommend washing them at 30°C to 40°C once a week, using a non-biological detergent. You don’t need to go hotter.

Soak & Sleep towels on roll-top bathCredit: Soak & Sleep

For maximum effect, dry towels the right way too. Most experts recommend using a tumble dryer or air drying, with some saying that tumble drying can help keep towels fluffy. Attwood notes that you should use a low heat setting and not leave towels sitting in the drum once the cycle is over, as high heat can damage cotton fibres. To fluff them up, take them out and shake them off once dried.

If you’ve never used wool dryer balls before, now could also be a good time to introduce them into your tumble dryer as they may  help with stiff towels.o . “Wool dryer balls create air gaps between your towels as they dry which reduces the drying time,” says Attwood. “The natural lanolin in wool also helps soften your towels.”


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Mackenzie recommends leaving freshly washed towels a little damp and finishing off the drying process on the line if possible, before storing them. If you want to be more eco-friendly, forgo the tumble dryer altogether.

Is using fabric conditioner on towels ever acceptable?

Occasional use may be OK

You can still use fabric conditioner when washing towels, but only on occasion. Rucker says that brand-new towels need multiple washes to start the ‘breaking in process’ before they reach maximum absorbency. A small amount of fabric conditioner added to the final wash (but definitely not the first) can enhance softness. Don’t overdo it, though, as too much will reduce absorbency.

If removing fabric conditioner residue and drying towels a little differently doesn’t seem to be having any positive effects on your towels, it could be that they are old and need replacing.

Camille Dubuis-Welch

Written by Camille Dubuis-Welch she/her


Camille is a freelance writer based in north London with her cat and two friends. She has been writing on lots of interesting subjects over the past few years, starting out with a travel blog and online fashion column when she was studying English Language and Italian at the University of Manchester. Cam has been in love with everything interior design and garden-related since before she can remember. She previously worked for Yankee Candle, as well as Groupon, and is the former deputy editor of where she got to collaborate with some very inspiring DIYers and focus on small-space improvements.