Should you use fabric softener on towels? Experts give the definitive answer

It's been debated for decades, but is it really a good idea to add softener to the cycle where towels are concerned?

Blue towels on wood table and shelf in bathroom
(Image credit: Sheridan Australia)

Keeping towels as soft as the day you bought them feels like the ultimate laundry challenge, ahead even of not shrinking a favorite sweater and remembering to empty every pocket pre-wash. But should you use fabric softener on towels?  

When it comes to knowing how to wash towels the right way, there will always be some debate. But when we reached out to towel experts, they were all in agreement about the use of fabric softener. 

Well, mostly.

Should you use fabric softener on towels?

A laundry room with white shelving and wicker baskets

(Image credit: Paul Raeside/Future)

Most towel experts would agree that it's a bad idea to use fabric softener on towels regularly, as it will decrease their absorbency over time.

'I always avoid using silicone-based fabric softeners and conditioners as these will repel water and will reduce the absorbency and fluffiness of the towels,' confirms Joanna Ross, general manager of design at Sheridan

'When overused, the silicone in softeners and conditioners will build up as a coating on your towels, leaving them feeling slick and non-absorbent,' agrees Lucy Ackroyd, head of design at Christy.  

Unfortunately, silicone is found in most fabric softeners (though it's sometimes listed as Polydimethylsiloxane, Trimethylsiloxysilicate or Siloxane). Its job is to keep fabrics soft, lubricated and static-free. By doing so, materials are less likely to rub together in the wash cycle, which means they are less likely to pile, become damaged, or lose their color. 

If you are looking for a 'natural' fabric softener that won't damage your towels (or, indeed, add more chemicals to the water supply), try using white vinegar in your laundry. It can make your towels feel softer without adding a coating, and will leave them smelling surprisingly fresh – and not of vinegar! 

Is it ever a good idea to wash towels with fabric softener?

'While I'd advise not to put fabric softener on towels regularly because it can decrease the absorbency, I wouldn't rule it out completely,' says Lucy Ackroyd. 'Once in a while – maybe every four or five washes – add a small amount of fabric softener in with the towels.' 

'Don't add the full measure given on the bottle label – I'd add possibly half or a third of what it tells you. That will be enough to help to condition the fibers in the cotton.'

What's the best detergent to use on towels?

Aside from using little to no fabric conditioner on your towels, another laundry lesson is that your choice of detergent can help you keep your towels softer for longer. 

'A simple way to keep towels super fluffy, is to wash them with a eucalyptus-based detergent,' says Christy's Lucy Ackroyd. 'Not only will this leave them smelling super fresh, the eucalyptus will also protect the fibers of the towel and ensure the colors stay bright and fresh.'

You could also add a few drops of eucalyptus essential oil to your wash to condition your towels. You can buy Handcraft Eucalyptus Essential Oil on Amazon.

Why you should always wash towels when you first use them

Pink and lavender towel on towel rail leaning against shed

(Image credit: Piglet in Bed)

Fabric softeners should be handled with caution once you get your towels home. Yet rather ironically, they can be a big part of towel production. 

'Nearly all new towels are coated with softeners that are often used during the finishing process, which provides that extra-fluffy look that you see at the store,' Jessica Hanley, founder of Piglet in Bed. 'This coating can restrict the absorbency of your towels, so it’s best practice to wash them before your first use.' 

Washing your towels as soon as you bring them home from the store also helps with lint build up. 

What else can I do to keep my towels soft?

Open cabinet containing folded towels

(Image credit: Christy Towels)

Our guide to how to soften towels features plenty of tricks to try. But here are three quick tips from our experts: 

  1. Wash at 86 to 04℉ only. According to laundry brand Downy, 'Cotton is a very soft, cellulose fabric, which reacts to high heat by flattening out and becoming hard'. It recommends 'choosing a medium heat setting to preserve your towels fibres and softness. Occasionally, you can run your towels through a 140℉ wash to get rid of bacteria and potential mould, but generally, stick to lower temperatures.'
  2. Never put towels directly on a radiator to dry. 'Always use a clothes horse when drying indoors,' says Lucy Ackroyd. 'Drying towels on a direct heat source clumps the fibers, causing your towels to go hard.'
  3. Fluff up your towels before hanging them out to dry. 'If you are line drying, a quick shake before and part way through helps to increase the softness and fluffiness of the towel,' says Lucy.
Amy Cutmore
Editor-in-Chief, Homes Audience

Amy Cutmore is Editor-in-Chief, Audience, across Future's Homes portfolio. A homes and interiors journalist of 20 years standing, she has spent much of that time writing about technology, appliances and kitchens. While other people count how many countries they've visited, Amy tots up how many countries' washing machine factories she's toured (it's eight by the way, from South Korea to Slovenia). She can't leave the house without a decent pair of noise-cancelling headphones, and is always ready to explain an acronym – be it QLED, DAB or HDMI.