How to keep towels smelling fresh - 6 expert tips to avoid musty odors and achieve a spa-like feel

Apply these tips to your laundry routine for hotel-worthy towels

A bathroom with a white fireplace and a stack of sage green towels on a wooden stool
(Image credit: Piglet in Bed)

Life is full of small pleasures, and wrapping yourself in a soft clean towel is one of them. Nothing beats the fresh feeling of stepping out of the shower or bath and swaddling yourself in the fluffy fabric - unless, of course, your towel has that musky damp smell that we all dread.

With all the responsibilities of busy family life, keeping fresh-smelling towels is far more challenging than your mom ever let on. Even with the near-constant stream of laundry you just about manage to stay on top of, towels are a never-ending battle, especially as we head into the colder winter months. As soon as you wash and dry one load, another is there ready to greet you. 

It might sound unattainable, but we all deserve to have the best bath towels that are so good they're hotel-worthy. To keep yours smelling fresh, there are a few simple insider tricks you can add to your laundry routine which promise to make it easier to stay on top of your towels and banish bad odors for good. From general maintenance to preventative measures (with some sweet-smelling solutions thrown in for good measure), here's everything you need to know. 

1. Adopt a regular laundry routine

A bathroom with a white sink, brass faucet, and a blue towel hung on the wall

(Image credit: Sheridan)

It goes without saying, but one of the easiest ways to prevent your towels from harboring that musky smell is by keeping on top of your laundry routine. 'Regular laundering is essential to keep towels smelling fresh,' says cleaning expert Muffetta Krueger. 'Wash towels after every three to four uses to prevent odors from setting in and always use an appropriate amount of mild detergent.'

If you have the space, it's definitely worth keeping an extra laundry basket for your towels in your utility room, too. That way they won't take up the bulk of your regular load, and you'll be more inclined to wash them together in a designated towel load (which ensures they're on the right setting to keep them fluffy and fresh). 

2. Always dry your towels properly

With proper washing comes proper drying, and that goes for the first dry after a wash and the times between showering. 

'During warm weather, it's always better to hang towels to dry outside,' says Marc Coleman, founder of towel brand Kohda Living. 'Sun drying towels make them smell and feel fresher than harsh machine drying, plus the UV light from the sun also kills bacteria and germs that can cause odors. There really is nothing better than drying your towels on a warm summer's day as they feel so fresh and nice afterward.' 

To banish lingering damp smells, you also need to ensure towels are completely dry before storing them. 'It might sound obvious, but don't allow towels to dry on the floor,' says Janet Wischnia of American Blossom Linens. 'Always hang your towels to dry as dampness is what causes the musty smell.'

If you're limited with a small bathroom and struggle to find space to hang all your towels, consider adding a compact heated towel rail to your space. We like this free-standing one by Amba, available at Amazon.

3. Add vinegar or baking soda to your wash cycle

Yellow utility room with black and white wallpaper

(Image credit: Ryan McDonald)

General maintenance out of the way, there are a few changes you can make to your laundry routine to help keep your towels extra fresh and clean. One old-school trick that's really cheap adding vinegar to your wash cycle. 

'Wash towels with vinegar to clean musty towels and strip away old fabric softener,' says Janet. 'Wash at the temperature recommended on the towel label and simply add ½ to 1 cup of white vinegar to your rinse cycle.' This helps to soften towels that often feel stiff after a wash and it works as a natural deodorizer too (it won't make your clothes smell like vinegar, don't worry!) 

Baking soda also works in a similar way. 'You can incorporate baking soda into your wash to neutralize odors and soften towels naturally,' says Muffetta. 'You should also avoid fabric softeners on towels as they can leave residues that trap odors. Instead, opt for dryer balls or dryer sheets with no added fragrances.' 

4. Don't overload your washing machine

There are some laundry tips that apply across the board but are especially pertinent when it comes to proper towel etiquette. For towels that are cleaner, dry quicker, and thus smell better, always wash and dry towels in small loads. To avoid the temptation to shove them all in at once, don't be tempted to size up on that laundry basket we talked about earlier.

'If you overload, your detergent won't distribute evenly since there's not enough room for your towels to move around during the wash cycle,' says Janet. 'To get truly cleaned, your towels need to be agitated enough to get that deep clean you need.' 

It's also important that you wash at the right temperature. 'Wash towels over 140 F degrees as this will kill the odor causing germs and bacteria on the towels,' suggests Marc. 'It's important to note that if the water temperature far exceeds 140 this will damage the fibers of the towel and exhibit a less fluffy feel, so setting your temp to just over 140F is the sweet spot.' 

5. Use a natural fragrance enhancement

A wooden bathroom vanity with a vessel sink and a stack of towels on a wooden stool

(Image credit: Sheridan)

As mentioned, it's best to steer clear of fabric softeners when it comes to keeping your towels fresher for longer, but if you do want to give them a sweet-smelling aroma why not try a few drops of essential oil for that spa-bathroom feel?  

'Add a few drops of essential oils like tea tree, or eucalyptus to a damp washcloth and toss it in with your towels during the dryer cycle for a natural, pleasant fragrance,' suggests Muffetta. 'You could also toss a few lemon or citrus zest peels into the dryer to infuse towels with a refreshing scent.' 

Marc is also a fan of adding a gentle scent into the mix, and he has one particular favorite. 'Adding a few drops of lavender oil is a great way to not only naturally kill odor-causing bacteria (it has antibacterial properties) but also adds a nice smell through the towels,' he says.

6. Store them properly

Finally, you should always store your towels properly to prevent musky smells from arising. Even if your towels are clean, they'll soon smell fusty if they're kept in cramped, airtight laundry storage

'Bacteria thrives in damp areas with poor airflow,' notes Marc. 'Any towels in use should always be hanged, preferably in a space that has adequate airflow to avoid
the towels developing any mildew that can cause that musty smell. When storing them in a cupboard or drawer be sure to give them enough space and separate from other less used items as they may have developed a musty smell that's transferred onto your towels.'

Maffestta also suggests adding an extra scent boost to your linen cupboard or storage to keep your spare towels smelling fresh. 'Create small sachets with dried herbs like lavender, rosemary, or mint and place them in towel storage areas for a subtle, natural fragrance,' she says.

Color & Trends Editor

Lilith Hudson is the Color & Trends Editor at Livingetc. Writing news, features, and explainers for our digital platform, she's the go-to person for all the latest micro-trends, interior hacks, and color inspiration you need in your home. Lilith discovered a love for lifestyle journalism during her BA in English and Philosophy at the University of Nottingham where she spent more time writing for her student magazine than she did studying. After graduating, she decided to take things a step further and now holds an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London, with previous experience at the Saturday Times Magazine, Evening Standard, DJ Mag, and The Simple Things Magazine. At weekends you'll find her renovating a tiny one-up, one-down annex next to her Dad's holiday cottage in the Derbyshire dales where she applies all the latest design ideas she's picked up through the week.